Sunday, April 17, 2016

Nadal Makes Big Statement With Monte Carlo Title

Based on Rafael Nadal's form over the last couple of years, most of the phrases used to describe him went something like "past his prime", "his best days are behind him" or "he'll never win a major tournament again."  But after his Monte Carlo title, it looks like Nadal will once again be a serious threat at Roland Garros.  Sure he didn't beat Djokovic along the way, but his wins over Thiem, Wawrinka, Murray and Monfils were extremely impressive. 

Djokovic is still likely to go into the French Open as the heavy favorite (though another early loss in the Madrid or Rome Masters may raise further questions).  But Nadal's game has always gone up and down depending on his confidence level, and a strong clay court season leading up to the French would have Nadal feeling better than he has in two years.  He may not be able to beat Djokovic head to head, but could certainly be the guy to capitalize if Djokovic somehow slips up along the way.

Perhaps more important than the fact Nadal won the tournament was the improved quality of his play.  Nadal's shots seemed to be jumping off the court more than they have in the last couple of years.  His depth of shot was also improved, as Nadal left fewer shots short in the court where opponents could take the offensive.  If Nadal can continue to keep his high bouncing shots deep in the court, it's hard not to see him having a very successful clay court season.

Tennis fans and analysts have a tendency to write off stars a bit too early, such as when a late-twenties Federer was considered almost done following a couple of losses to Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells and Miami.  No one expects Nadal to be as excellent in his thirties as Federer has been, but he may not go out as quietly as some thought he might.  For now, a confident Nadal on clay is a dangerous proposition for the rest of the tour, and the remainder of the clay-court season suddenly has a very different feel. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Djokovic Once Again On Track For All-Time Great Season

It seemed hard to imagine that Djokovic could be more dominant in 2016 than he was in his remarkable 2015 season.  Last year Djokovic had one of the best seasons we've seen in the modern era, winning three out of four slams and a record six Masters titles.  This will still be hard for Djokovic to replicate, but he's on the right track after winning the Australian Open and the Indian Wells/Miami double to start the year.  He's so far ahead of the pack that it's conceivable he wins all four grand slams and six or seven Masters titles.

Djokovic's closest challengers over the last few years in terms of the rankings have been Murray and Federer, but both seem further away from Djokovic now than they have been in a while.  Murray is once again in an early season funk, and Federer has barely played due to injury and illness.  Moreover, Nadal is no longer a serious challenger to Djokovic, and Wawrinka's days of giving Djokovic a run for his money seem to be behind him.  Other talented youngish players such as David Goffin, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic are all having very good seasons, but simply aren't in Djokovic's league.

Unless something's wrong with him or he wears down later on in the year, it's simply hard to see anyone beating Djokovic at an important tournament.  No style of play phases him, as he's dispatching the big hitters and baseline grinders with similar ease.  (Yes Simon gave him fits for one match by not giving him pace and getting a lot of balls back in play, but if that was really the strategy to beat him with Murray would surely have a better head-to-head against the Serb).  While Djokovic could potentially be vulnerable against Dominic Thiem on clay, it will probably be at least another year before Thiem's truly ready to knock him out at a big tournament.

If Djokovic is able to win the French Open for the first time it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of going for the 2016 Grand Slam.  It's possible that could make him tight as the year progresses (i.e. Serena at the US Open), or he may relax after having finally completed the career grand slam.  Regardless, at this rate he's so far ahead of the field it might not matter much either way.  Not only does Djokovic seem likely to avoid any seemingly inevitable decline after his epic 2015 season, but it looks like he might even improve upon one of the greatest seasons of all-time.