Men’s Clay Court Season 2024

by GP
tennis top 4 players

The Road to Roland Garros 2024 has begun, with the main draw of first ATP Masters 1000 of the clay season kicking off on April 07, 2024. The other prime clay court tournaments to follow are Barcelona Open (ATP 500), Madrid Masters 1000 and Rome Masters 1000, before we head to Paris at end of May for the second grand slam of the year.

Rafael Nadal, who has cumulatively won above mentioned 5 tournaments a whopping 52 times, is still not fit and has recently also withdrawn from Monte Carlo. This comes after successive withdrawals during the whole of the hard-court season gone by till now. This is disappointing for all tennis fans, as somewhere we did believe that we will be seeing the king of clay wield his thunderous forehands on a surface he has dominated the field like none other in the history of the game.

It does raise serious doubts on his return to Roland Garros, a tournament where he feels the most at home and has won a staggering 14 times. Based on his track record and his resilience, even if Roland Garros 2024 is his first professional tournament since the AO 2023 (barring the 3 matches at the Brisbane International 2024), we still believe he will be one of the top contenders for lifting that trophy for the 15th time.

A New Big 4

In the last one year, we have witnessed a new big 4 (though still in nascent stages) emerging in Men’s tennis, with Novak Djokovic being the only common one from the big 4 quartet of 2010-2016. Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev along with Novak Djokovic won every Masters 1000 and Grand Slam in 2023 barring Monte Carlo and Shanghai. They also won many other ATP 500s and contested several finals amongst themselves. However, only 3 out of the new big 4 are likely to be the top contenders for dominating this year’s clay court season.

Sinner the One to Beat

The 2024 tennis season has witnessed a sizzling start with Jannik Sinner realizing his potential and emerging as a new force in men’s tennis. He has gone 22-1 (win/loss) by winning the Australian Open, Rotterdam Open and Miami Open along the way, with his only loss coming to Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals of Indian Wells. He is the new world number 2 now and without a doubt remains the man to beat currently. 

Though he a very good clay court player, clay is probably his 3rd best surface. Only 1 of his 13 titles have come on the red dirt, which was in Umag 2022 (ATP 250). His previous year results on clay have been average at best relative to his level, reaching only the semi-final, 4th round and 2nd round in Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris, respectively, in 2023. Though the semi-final loss to world number 7 Holger Rune in Monte Carlo was a closely contested 3-set match ending 7-5 in the final set to Rune, the losses to Francisco Cerundolo in 3 sets in Rome and to Daniel Altmaier in 5 sets at Roland Garros were underwhelming.

It must be mentioned that Sinner’s first grand slam quarter final came at Roland Garros itself in 2021, eventually losing to the king of clay – Rafa Nadal. While in 2022, he had to retire from the match against Rublev in the 4th round at 1 set-all due to a left knee injury. With only 585 points to defend during this clay season, this is also a good opportunity for Sinner to get closer to the world number 1 ranking.

All said and done, this is definitely a Sinner version 2.0 and for me, he remains one of the top contenders to have a successful clay court season.

Djokovic Still a Force?

The other two main contenders of this year’s clay season are are world number 1 – Novak Djokovic and world number 3 – Carlos Alcaraz, who are also in the same half of the draw in Monte Carlo. While Novak has had a tumultuous start to his 2024 season by his standards, he still remains a force to reckon with on clay. He is the defending champion at Roland Garros with his only 2 losses there in the last 4 years coming to Rafa Nadal (2020 and 2022). Though he has suffered some early round losses in the past few years at Monte Carlo, he usually finds his groove as the clay season progresses.

He has a lot of points to defend during this clay season – 2315. The recent split with his coach Goran Ivanisevic came as a surprise after winning about half of his slams together. Djokovic has invited fellow Serbian and retired doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic to his camp at Monte Carlo and rumours are growing that he may also be announced as his new coach in the coming days. 

Clay is the only surface where Carlos Alcaraz is yet to win a slam, but it still might just be his favourite surface. Many of his best performances have come on the red dirt, reflected by the 7 out of 13 titles he has won on this surface. Winning Barcelona and Madrid multiple times already at age 20 years is a feat in itself, though he will look to build on his recent performance in Indian Wells. His exceptional athleticism along with his power really come to the fore on slower courts where is he is able hit through opponents. However, his form has been patchy since his 3-set loss to Djokovic in the Cincinnati final in 2023 which had lasted for almost 4 hrs. While he is able to dominate matches on his good days, his ability to problem-solve during matches when he’s not playing his best tennis will be key.

Despite this, he remains the top contender for me at Roland Garros this year. He was amongst the top contenders at last year’s French Open as well along with Djokovic, where unfortunately his performance was compromised in the mouth-watering semi-final against Djokovic due to cramps after levelling the match at 1-set all. While h

While Daniil Medvedev has been consistent at almost all of the recent tournaments, it is well-known that clay is not his preferred surface. While he did win Rome last year, he has been very inconsistent and is not a great mover on the surface. Also, the big 3 have been causing him major problems. He has lost his last 5/6 matches against Djokovic, the last 4/5 against Alcaraz and the last 5 against Sinner. Hence, he’s not in our top 5 contenders for this clay court season.

Other Contenders

Alexander Zverev

The other notable contenders in order at this year’s Roland Garros are Alexander Zverev and Holger Rune

Alexander Zverev has been looking good since the start of 2024, especially with his serve. He has the highest first serve % on tour in the top 20 in the last 52 weeks at 71.4% (source: ATP website). Apart from that, his forehand and 2nd serve have also improved with more consistency in his strokes. He has done reasonably well on clay in the past, with 7 of his 21 titles coming on the surface, including 2 titles in Madrid and 1 in Rome. He also played at a very high level at Roland Garros 2022 where he beat Carlos Alcaraz in the quarters and pushed Rafa Nadal to the limits in the semi-finals before suffering a horrific ankle injury in the 2nd set tiebreak. In his current form and his comfort on the red dirt, he is one of the top 5 contenders.

Holger Rune though still considered to be one of the 3 big prospects of the next generation, is still has a long way to catch up to his peers – Alcaraz and Sinner. He has had a torrid start to the 2024 season, suffering early losses in Australia and Miami. He has also kept juggling with his coaching team, sacking 3 different coaches and re-appointing Patrick Mouratoglou, all in the span of 12 months.

While mental resilience and better match tactics might be something he needs to work upon, he does play well on clay courts due to his speed and defensive skills and it is his preferred surface. In 2023, he reached the finals of 2 Masters 1000s – Monte Carlo and Rome, losing out to Rublev and Medvedev, respectively, in the finals. During this run, he had wins over Medvedev, Sinner, Ruud and Djokovic. If he finds his form again, he is a surely to be a threat at Roland Garros this year.

holger rune
Holger Rune

Also, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 2021 Roland Garros finalist, is going through a major slump, falling out of the top 10 in February 2024 driven by his early round losses in multiple tournaments in the past few months. We believe clay is his best surface as he gets more time on the ball and is not rushed on the backhand side, hence being able dictate play more with his forehand. His results have been good on clay in the past and he is a 2-time Monte Carlo champion (2021 and 2022), However, based on his current form and with the big 3 getting even better, it will be difficult for him to win the major clay court tournaments. 

Other players to look out for who did not make it to the above list: Grigor Dimitrov, Fabian Marozsan, Casper Ruud (last 2-year Roland Garros finalist)

Written by Abhinav Hans

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