As we head into the clay court season, the focus now turns to game style as we look towards the French Open. Given the quality of the tennis that we have seen from Roger and Rafa this year, you’ve got to say that they are favourites for the next two Majors: Rafa at Roland Garros and Roger at Wimbledon.
There are going to be heaps of players who have something to say about that – in particular Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – but we haven’t seen Roger and Rafa play this standard of tennis for five years; maybe even longer.
When you look at Rafa in isolation, he has been in a building phase.
If we go back 12 months he had issues with injuries and withdrawals. Now he’s getting consistency with his body. He’s found power, pace and aggression in his game, whereas before he was tentative and was struggling with confidence. Those aspects of the game are now approaching the quality that we all saw when he dominated tennis; when he won his Majors on clay (and let’s not forget on grass or hard court).
When his level started to drop, it did so on grass first, and then on hard court. Later, because of injuries, it started to impact the clay court too.
But if you look at the last six months, it has been a consistent, steady build. He’ll be disappointed to have lost to Roger, but that will also be a fuel and a motivation for him.
And when I look at the coming clay court season, who is going to beat Rafa on that surface? Nishikori might give him a tough match; Ferrer won’t beat him; and there’s Novak and Andy. When you put Rafa on the grass at Wimbledon, there’s an Isner, a Querrey or even a Dustin Brown, plus all of these variables that make it a scary proposition. That isn’t the case on clay. It’s going to have to be someone of extraordinary ability to push him out of the tournament – perhaps more so than ever before.
In this form, I can see him having some tough battles, but I can’t see him being beaten. The only one who might possibly be able to really challenge him is Stan. He is the dark horse amongst that group who has the ability to overpower them all – to really scare them. Overall, though, Rafa has to be the favourite on that surface.
I just want to say a quick word on Novak and Andy.
If Novak is in the right headspace then he can definitely do damage. But he’s not. Look at the tweet that Boris sent last week:
I hope my man @DjokerNole is watching this …it's time for you to clean your shoes and fix your racket and get back to business…
— Boris Becker (@TheBorisBecker) April 1, 2017
That is a real indication of what the other former greats are watching. What Boris is saying here is: ‘you’ve fallen off the pace – this is your opportunity to start chasing again’.
And we’ve got to find out whether Murray can get himself back into the picture. He had a bad week at Indian Wells, he pulled out of Miami and he needed a rest. He needed to recharge because the end of last season was so massive. I think it’s going to be intriguing to watch him in the coming tournaments to see where his form is at – will he be passive or will he step in and take more controlled risks? That will all depend on how mentally fresh he is feeling.
Even though Murray is No.1 in the world, I think that he’s going to struggle to hold onto that given the charge of Roger and Rafa. On clay there has been no better player than Rafa, on any other surface Roger owns that title. The top two in the world are now being chased down by two of the sports’ greatest.
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