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Thiem, Schwartzman, Khachanov alongside Federer and Djokovic: The possible threats to Nadal on clay this season

16 Apr 2019, 13:40 IST

Will Nadal
Will Nadal's monopoly on clay courts be broken this season?

Ever since 2005 when Rafael Nadal won his first ever Grand Slam at Rolland Garros, we have been fascinated and enthralled by the invincible bond that Nadal and clay share. With each passing year, the impeccable chemistry between the two has just kept on getting stronger and stronger, leaving us mesmerized and flabbergasted.

We are in 2019 and yet the Spaniard is still the defending champion at four out of the five most prestigious tournaments on clay. With the Monte Carlo Masters already underway this week, Nadal has his eyes set on winning not only Monte Carlo but also the Barcelona Open for the 4th consecutive time.

If this is not enough, the undisputed ‘King of Clay’ has an opportunity to complete his third hat-trick at this year’s French Open if he manages to win the crown on the red dirt of Paris for a third time in a row later this season.

Roger Federer’s return on clay this year and Novak Djokovic’s phenomenal run at the Grand Slams of late have added quite a bit of spice into the mix as far as this year’s clay court swing is concerned.

However, it is one thing to challenge Rafa on clay and quite another to actually get the better of him on his beloved surface which has seen the making of Rafael Nadal, the eternal champion and has defined its favorite son in many ways than one could ever imagine.

While it is true that Rafael Nadal may not be in the best possible health and the best possible form coming into this year’s clay season, but undoubtedly he still remains to be the overwhelming favorite in any clay tournament that he is a part of.

While Federer and Djokovic, Nadal’s two of the biggest nemesis, remain to be his biggest threats who can dethrone him from his own den, who are the other possible contenders who can pull off a sensational win against the ‘king of clay’ this season?

Let’s look at three players apart from Federer and Djokovic who surely have the potential to upset this phenomenon called Rafael Nadal on clay this year.

#3 Karen Khachanov

Karen Khachanov during his clash against Nadal at Indian Wells QF
Karen Khachanov during his clash against Nadal at Indian Wells QF's 2019

Have you ever thought about watching Rafael Nadal play against Rafael Nadal? Well, watching Karen Khachanov play against the Spaniard, especially if you watched these two square off at the Indian Wells about a month ago, pretty much gave us an impression of Nadal taking on Nadal.

Khachanov has a balanced game with an extremely strong and impressive serve and can match Rafa shot for shot. The young Russian has a fabulous game from behind the baseline and is capable of hitting powerful groundstrokes at artistic angles that can bamboozle his opponents.

His great defensive skills along with his ability to make his opponent play that one extra shot which potentially can induce an error augurs well for Khachanov on the slower surface of clay, making him a lethal opponent not only for Nadal but also for everybody else.

While it is true that form seems to have deserted the 22-year old Russian in 2019, but last year’s Paris Master’s champion has done enough to establish his stature as being a giant killer in his short career so far.

Nadal and Khachanov have faced each other on six occasions so far, while Nadal maintains an unbeaten record against his young Russian opponent, Khachanov has been able to cause a few serious problems to Nadal, especially during their previous three meetings.

Nadal and Khachanov played against each other on clay just once, at last year’s Monte Carlo Masters. In spite of the Spaniard dominating his younger opponent at the Principality last year, Khachanov has come a long way as compared to where he stood last year in the Tennis circuit and remains as one of the very few opponents who can actually take down Nadal on clay.

#2 Diego Schwartzman

Diego Schwartzman has a game that is well-suited for clay courts!
Diego Schwartzman has a game that is well-suited for clay courts!

The Argentine, who was Rafael Nadal’s opponent in the quarter-final at last year’s Rolland Garros, is one of the very few complete players on clay and is certainly an intriguing prospect to look forward to at this year’s clay season.

Schwartzman, who is short in stature, has a big heart and possesses a massive appetite for success - ingredients extremely necessary if you fancy winning something substantial on clay. He is the only player who has managed to snatch a set against the 'King of Clay' at his fortress, the French Open in the last two years.

Schwartzman, who always had to play under the shadows of ‘Tower of Tandil’ Juan Martin Del Potro as far as Argentine Tennis is concerned, is finally getting a chance to hog the limelight. His tremendous performance against Kyle Edmund in their Round of 64 match at Monte Carlo on Monday where he was trailing by a set and 0-3 down in the second, staged a remarkable comeback to eclipse Edmund and is further testimony to his performances on clay.

His game is tailor-made for clay surfaces and his opponents are themselves to blame if they commit the mistake of taking this Argentine lightly.

While Nadal has come good on all the occasions, including the four times when the two have squared off on clay, Schwartzman’s performances last year at Rolland Garros against Rafa makes us believe that the Argentine is more than capable to upset the Spaniard on clay this season, at least in the best of 3 sets matches if not the best of five.

#1 Dominic Thiem

Rafael Nadal congratulates Dominic Thiem at Madrid Open 2018 as the latter brought an end to his fifty-set unbeaten streak on clay!
Rafael Nadal congratulates Dominic Thiem at Madrid Open 2018 as the latter brought an end to his fifty-set unbeaten streak on clay!

If Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had retired by now, Dominic Thiem undoubtedly would have become the second best player on clay after Rafael Nadal in the current lot. If there is anybody other than the Swiss maestro and the Serb who has the potential to match Nadal on any given day on clay and actually get better of the Spaniard, it has to be Austria’s Dominic Thiem.

Nadal’s only losses in the entire 2017 and 2018 clay season have come at the hands of Thiem at Rome and Madrid respectively. In fact, both these losses have been straight set losses for Nadal, and Thiem remains to be the only opponent who threatened Nadal throughout the previous two clay seasons. 

His strong one-handed backhand coupled with phenomenal court coverage and exemplary speed make him a dangerous opponent not only for Nadal but also for any player on the tour as far as playing on clay is concerned.

Thiem’s stature on clay has seen a meteoric rise with each passing year and Nadal needs to be wary of this young and dynamic Austrian who can make serious inroads into his fortress- the one and only red dirt.

The spring conditions and the punishing surface of clay are here which bring about a great variety to the game as we look forward with great excitement and anticipation to the upcoming battles on the red dirt.

Can Rafael Nadal reign supreme yet again and conquer the unprecedented 12th French Open crown? Or will the likes of old warhorses like Federer and Djokovic create dents to his glamorous records on clay? Or can the young guns spring some refreshing surprises that can narrate some new and fascinating stories, breathing some new life into a novel that is far too full of familiar stories?

All in all, it promises to be a mouth-watering clay season!

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