Rafael Nadal’s accomplishments on clay sets a stratospheric bar that may not be surpassed anytime soon. As the French Open kicks off this week, these are perhaps the new clay court contenders to watch out for.
Published in the Edge, May 2023
The winds of change have begun to blow at this year’s French Open at Roland Garros. But at press time, it looks like a veritable mistral. Rafael Nadal, 22-time Grand Slam champion and 14-time French Open winner, may miss the second Grand Slam of the year due to injury. If so, it would be the first time since the year 2005 that Rafa the Great would not be seen grinding out his competitors on the famous red clay courts of Paris.
In fact, Nadal has not competed in any tournament since sustaining a hip injury at the Australian Open in January. Even if he manages to compete in Paris this year, there will be some doubt as to his overall match fitness and hip condition. It will be hard for fans to come to terms with not seeing their favourite player pick up his racquet, harder still to see their hero struggling on the court.
Nadal, however, is a fighter and one of the toughest competitors ever to have stepped on a tennis court. He may just spring another surprise on the tennis world, the same way he surprised Daniil Medvedev in last year’s Australian Open, coming back from two sets down to win his 21st Grand Slam title (to an in-form opponent 10 years his junior) in over five hours.
Widely regarded as the greatest clay court player that has ever lived, hence his title of “King of Clay”, perhaps Nadal will not concede to anyone anytime soon. Should detractors wonder, hard facts will put paid to lingering doubts. In the men’s Open Era, he has won the most clay court titles (63). Along with his 14 French Open titles (four of which he won without dropping a single set!), he has 12 Barcelona Open titles, 11 Monte-Carlo Masters titles, and 10 Rome Masters titles. He also holds the highest single-surface win streak in matches (81 clay-court wins). It is of course possible for someone to surpass his amazing accomplishments, but how probable will that be? For those who like making wagers, here are a handful of exciting young players to watch out for, a trio of which could be considered “the next Big 3” of tennis after Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic).
One of the brightest rising stars in tennis, Italian player Jannik Sinner (world No. 8) is blazing a trail for his exciting brand of tennis. At 21, he has won seven ATP titles and reached the quarter-finals of all four Grand Slams. In 2019, he won the NextGen ATP finals in front of his home crowd in Milan, Italy, as an 18-year-old. Sinner has an aggressive baseline game and hits powerful and heavy groundstrokes off both his forehand and backhand. In the Miami Open this year, he and Carlos Alvaraz (more on him later) produced what is considered one of the best rallies so far in 2023. That 25-shot rally video clip (which Sinner ultimately won with a delicate backhand passing shot) has gone viral and got everyone in the tennis community talking. WTA player Bianca Andreescu shared the video clip on Twitter saying “What in the alien”.
Sinner’s backhand is considered to be his best shot, a very fluid stroke with heavy spin and power. His average backhand topspin was recorded at 1,858 rpm (revolutions per minute), one of the heaviest on the men’s tour. His tennis idol growing up was Federer, and Sinner has drawn comparisons with the former world No. 1 for his calm on-court demeanour and all-court movement. In early 2022, Sinner parted ways with Riccardo Piatti, his Italian coach of seven years, and took on Australian Darren Cahill, a former world No. 22 who had previously worked with Grand Slam champions Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, and Simona Halep. The new partnership appears to be going well, with Cahill credited for making Sinner’s lean body stronger and tailoring tactics to specific opponents. Sinner says he used to play with only his game plan in mind and not his opponent’s, whereas now he understands more of what to do on the court.
Nicknamed “the Fox”, Sinner was a champion skier in his younger days before choosing to focus on tennis at 13. In terms of endorsements, he is sponsored by tennis racquet manufacturer Head and is a Brand Ambassador for Gucci, Rolex, Lavazza, Italian luxury car manufacturer Alfa Romeo and Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, an Italian cheese company with over 90 years of history. He also reportedly signed a $150 million (RM674.85 million) deal with Nike for ten years.
Spanish player Carlos Alcaraz (nicknamed “Carlitos”), only 20, is ranked No. 2 in the world. He is likely the most talked-about “newcomer” predicted to be the next No. 1 and a dominant force in tennis. In fact, Alcaraz did reach the pinnacle of men’s tennis, being the youngest man to be ranked world’s No.1 on September 12, 2022, at 19. He is the first teenager in the Open Era to top the men’s rankings. Alcaraz has won 10 ATP titles and a Grand Slam title – the 2022 US Open. His win at the Madrid Open in the same year was special as he became the first player to have beaten Djokovic and Nadal in the same clay-court tournament, a feat that speaks volumes of the potential of his game.
Alcaraz can be described as an all-court player with an aggressive baseline game, hitting explosive and powerful baseline shots off both sides, particularly off his forehand. He is extremely fast and athletic, with amazing court coverage. He has a lethal combination of heavy groundstrokes that push a player back into defensive positions, along with a delicate touch in the form of a disguised drop shot that often goes unanswered by his opponents. His kick-serve (which bounces high off the court) also tends to push his opponents further back the court to return it, paving the way for an easy (or drop shot) winner.
Alcaraz’s coach since 2018 has been former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who interestingly won the French Open title in the year Alcaraz was born (2003). During his professional days, Ferrero was known to be very humble and respectful of all players. He was nicknamed “the Mosquito” for his amazing speed around the court. Perhaps it is not surprising how all these qualities have rubbed off on Alcaraz and how often he is compared to fellow Spaniard Nadal due to his nationality and tennis skills. Ferrero accepts there are similarities but does not find these comparisons helpful to his student. According to Ferrero, “Carlos had to hear in the past that he was the new Nadal, etc. It (the pressure) was super heavy on his back.” However, on this, Ferrero mentioned “The only thing I can tell you is that he thinks super big.”
Despite the obvious comparisons with Nadal, Ferrero feels that Alcaraz plays more like Federer and Djokovic as he feels Alcaraz likes to play aggressive all the time, especially from the baseline, and can go to the net to finish the point.
Alcaraz’s head-to-head record with Sinner stands at 3-3, and both players now have high expectations of each match they play against each other. With his success on the court, Alcaraz has inked endorsements with Nike, Babolat, Rolex and BMW. He is also the new face of Calvin Klein underwear. He was photographed in black and white images for a successful “Calvins or Nothing” campaign that likely raised some eyebrows.
Danish player Holger Rune, 20 years-old and world No. 7, stated his ambition clearly and is aiming for the very top. “My goal is to be No.1 in the world and win Grand Slams,” he said. A former junior world No.1 and winner of the 2019 French Open Boys singles title, Rune has bagged four ATP titles and reached the quarter-finals of the 2022 French Open. His biggest and most memorable win so far is the 2022 Rolex Paris, where he beat five top-ten players, including Djokovic in the final, to clinch his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title. Winning this tournament also propelled him into the top 10 of the world rankings.
With regards to his playing style, Rune has an all-court game, is very athletic, hits the ball hard off both sides and moves extremely well around the court. He is patient and likes to vary the pace of the game with his variety of strokes, deep topspins, surprising dropshots, and charges towards the net. From the age of seven, he has been coached by fellow Dane Lars Christensen, a professional tennis instructor since 2003.
Christensen is not surprised by Rune’s recent success and how fast he is developing as a tennis professional, and shared that Rune had been passionate about tennis from the very beginning. “Every time I introduce something on Monday, he would perfect it by Wednesday”, he mentioned in an interview about what he noticed when he started working with the then seven-year-old.
This passion is evident in Rune’s game today; his dedication and hard work are seen through social media. There were some headlines that reported on his tantrums on the court and outbursts with fellow players Stan Wawrinka and Casper Ruud, inevitably portraying him in a rather negative light. At the end of the day, tensions can run high on and off the court.
Rune responded in an interview that he is not cocky, that he is just very competitive and plays with a lot of passion. Patrick Mouratoglou, ex-coach of Serena Williams, became a part of his coaching team for six months. They ended their association recently; however, Rune will continue to train at Mouratoglou’s academy. Parting on the best of terms, each expressed admiration for the other. Rune’s sponsorships include Nike, Babolat, Shamballa Jewels (a high-end Danish jewellery brand) and STATE Drinks, a Danish energy drink company.
In the Mix
To be fair, one cannot forget to include other in-form tennis players who have been playing well with good results since the beginning of the year. Those to watch: Danill Medvedev (No. 3), Andrey Rublev (No. 6), Stephanos Tsitsipas (No. 5), Karen Khachanov (No. 11), Taylor Fritz (No. 9) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (No.10). And of course, there is Djokovic, currently world No. 1, the oldest player in the top 10 at 35 years old (the other top 9 ranking players are between the ages of 20 and 27). Djokovic is still playing high-level tennis and coupled with his experience in Grand Slams (and best-of-five-set matches), he is still considered the one to beat in any tournament he competes in. It is interesting to note that the age gap between Djokovic and No. 2 Alcaraz is 15 years.
Just as the Big 3 pushed each other to improve their games and reach greater heights, this may well be the case for Sinner, Alcaraz and Rune, along with the other aforementioned players. Alcaraz, in particular, has shown the skills to win many titles on clay, but it will take time for him or anyone else, to achieve the level of success Nadal has had on clay. Change may be in the air with the rise of the new “twenty somethings” in the world of tennis but, for the moment, the crown of clay’s kingdom remains firmly on the head of its undisputed king.
The French Open takes place from May 22 to June 11 at Roland Garros, Paris.