Men's Clay Season Preview

Men's Clay Season Preview

Ahead of the first Masters 1000 event on clay of the 2021 season, it's time to look at where things stand on the surface. 

Both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are returning at the Monte Carlo Masters for their first tournament since the Australian Open, which is terribly bad news for the rest of the players in the men's field. Both players have dealt with injuries in the early stages of the season, which may be one glimmer of hope for the rest of the field in Monte Carlo, at least.

Hubert Hurkacz took advantage of their absences at the Miami Open, claiming the first Masters 1000 title of his career and rising to No. 16 in the world. But he, along with many other members of the top 20, will likely be taking a back seat to the likes of Nadal and Djokovic on the clay this season.

Coming into Monte Carlo, here are the power rankings for this clay-court season:

1.  Rafael Nadal

The King of Clay has won 13 French Open titles, including four in a row, and boasts a ridiculous 445-40 record on the surface. Not much more is needed to be said. Nadal has battled a back injury in the early going of the season, however, which has kept him sidelined since he blew a two-set lead in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 34-year-old Spaniard will be a favorite at every clay-court tournament he plays for the foreseeable future, especially after he demolished world No. 1 Novak Djokovic by a scoreline of 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in last season's Roland Garros final.

2. Novak Djokovic

If not for Rafael Nadal, Djokovic could have gone down as the greatest clay-court player of all-time. The No. 1-ranked Serbian has four runner-up finishes at Roland Garros in his career, with all four of those losses coming to the Spaniard, along with numerous other deep runs at the event. Djokovic holds a phenomenal record of 225-56 on clay in his career, which includes 15 of his 82 titles. Based on his usual stellar start to the season, Djokovic is a safe bet to be the second-best performer during this clay-court season.

3. Dominic Thiem

Thiem could make a case as being No. 2, but he's had an unusual 5-4 start to the season and is not playing in Monte Carlo as he recovers from a foot injury. The No. 4-ranked Austrian and two-time French Open finalist has won three of the last four matchups on clay against Djokovic, but his consistency to start 2021 hasn't been there. In his career, Thiem holds a 142-47 record on clay courts and 10 titles on the surface. The 27-year-old lost in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2020 to Diego Schwartzman after he had reached the final in each of the two previous seasons.

4. Alexander Zverev

Zverev is at his best on clay, as his winning percentage of 70 percent on the surface is better than his 65.7 percent on hard courts. The 23-year-old German, ranked No. 6, has had an up-and-down season so far with a couple early losses and a couple deep runs (including one title in Acapulco). He tested Djokovic in a tough four-set match in the Australian Open quarterfinals before the Serbian ended up cruising to the title. Zverev has also won two Masters 1000 titles on clay, a rare feat in the era of the Big 3. He's coming off a Round 4 loss at the French Open in 2020 to Jannik Sinner.

5. Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas played a five-set epic against Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open in 2020, which was the closest he's gotten to reaching a Grand Slam final. The 22-year-old from Greece also reached the semifinals of the Australian Open to begin the season before being steamrolled by Daniil Medvedev. Tsitsipas is clearly on a positive trajectory but doesn't consistently have the goods to best the top players in the world at the late stages of tournaments. He's 37-16 on clay courts so far in his career, which in terms of winning percentage, makes it his best surface. Tsitsipas is a strong 17-5 so far in 2021.

6. Diego Schwartzman

Schwartzman broke through to his first major semifinal at Roland Garros in 2020 when he prevailed in a grinding five-hour titanic against Thiem in the quarterfinals. The 28-year-old Argentine will rarely be outlasted in a battle of stamina, but he tends to get overpowered against the very best players in the world. He's won three titles on clay in his career, including one earlier this season in Buenos Aires. Schwartzman is one of the most consistent players on tour, and he'll frequently be advancing to the latter stages of tournaments during this clay-court season.

7. Matteo Berrettini

Berrettini doesn't have the sample size of many other players on this list, but the 24-year-old Italian is due for a big clay-court season. He's 28-14 on clay early in his career, with two of his three titles coming on the red stuff. Berrettini hasn't quite peaked at the French Open, having not advanced past the third round, and has instead seen better major results on hard courts. It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Berrettini go deep at the highest-level events on clay in 2021, considering his 8-2 start to the season.

8. Andrey Rublev

Rublev has been a machine on hard courts so far this season, as he holds a 20-4 record heading into Monte Carlo with one title coming in Rotterdam. The 23-year-old Russian, a winner of eight titles so far in his career, has claimed two trophies on clay and there's no reason to think that a lot of his recent success won't translate to the surface. Rublev is coming off a quarterfinal showing in Roland Garros 2020 when he fell to Tsitsipas in straight sets. He holds a 25-18 record on clay so far in the early stages of his career.

9. Pablo Carreno Busta

Carreno Busta usually slides somewhat under the radar, but he's one of the most consistent performers on tour. The 29-year-old Spaniard surprisingly only has four titles in his career, with one coming on clay, but he's twice reached the quarterfinals at the French Open (2020, 2017). Carreno Busta has had a fairly slow start to the season while he's dealt with an illness, but he's turning things around this week at a ATP 250 clay tournament in Marbella, where he's reached the final.

10. Roberto Bautista Agut

Another consistent Spaniard, Bautista Agut is at his best on hard courts, but he's no slouch on clay with a 76-52 career record and one title. The 32-year-old has already reached two finals so far in 2021, along with one recent semifinal showing at the Miami Open. Bautista Agut has never been particularly effective at Roland Garros, having not advanced past the fourth round. That said, based on his strong start to the season and his steady game, he holds down the No. 10 spot.

Others of Note

Roger Federer

Federer has indicated that he will return for the clay-court event in Madrid in May this season after just two matches in 2021 so far. It's unclear how much the 39-year-old will play on clay as he's battled knee injuries for the last year, but he certainly has a better resume than most dirtballers with a 223-70 clay-court record and 11 titles.

Daniil Medvedev

Medvedev, who's up to No. 2 in the world, holds a terrible 10-18 record in his career on clay. On top of that, he hasn't won a single match at Roland Garros in four appearances. The 25-year-old Russian should be better on clay in 2021 based on his record of 17-3 so far this season, but there's not much in his clay court past that indicates good things to come.

David Goffin

Goffin has a 71-46 career record on clay with one title. He holds a 9-7 record in 2021 with a title run in Montpellier to his name. In 2016, the 30-year-old Belgian reached the quarterfinals at the French Open.

Jannik Sinner

Sinner reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2020 and is also coming off a run to the final in Miami. The 19-year-old Italian holds a 10-7 record on clay in the extremely early stages of his career.

Cristian Garin

Garin has won five titles on clay in his career, but most of those efforts have come against relatively weak opposition. The 24-year-old Chilean has the game to win big tournaments on clay, but he's never been past Round 3 at the French Open. Garin holds a 4-3 record in 2021.

Hubert Hurkacz

Hurkacz just won the Miami Open, which was by far the biggest title of his career. He's up to No. 16 in the world but holds a lousy 8-14 on clay in his career. The 24-year-old from Poland will be expected to improve on that poor record this season.

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Zak Patterson
Zak joined RotoWire in 2016 covering NBA games. Now, he focuses on recapping and analyzing daily ATP and WTA tennis matches, and providing perspective on the state of the men's and women's game.
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