Novak Djokovic is a great tennis champion, but merely the latest in a long line of people to learn the hard way that it’s always darkest before dawn.

There Djokovic was, midway through the fifth set in the Wimbledon final, swinging the stringed stick while trying his best to suppress what creeping doubts, anger and disappointment nibbled away at his heart and will.

It was all caused by the fact that Djokovic had let Roger Federer -- the great Roger Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon champ -- off the hook late in the fourth set, when Djokovic failed to convert a match point with Federer serving for his life at 4-5 and Djokovic up two sets to one.

Up in the player box, the fleshy face of Djokovic’s co-coach Boris Becker was turning lobster red (Boris don’t need no stinkin’ SPF 40!). Across the net, Federer was cracking aces like a regular Lazarus. Rafael Nadal probably was bobbing around in his yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean, watching on his cellphone and chortling. Would this be the day when Nadal's nemesis, gifted as he is, would earn the humiliating moniker Novak Chokevic?

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Carl Court/AFP/Getty ImagesPreviously unseen fortitude and determination helped lift Novak Djokovic past Roger Federer.
Going into Wimbledon, Djokovic had a 6-7 career record in Grand Slam finals. Early in the year, he had failed to defend his Australian Open title (he didn’t even make the final, for the first time in four years). In Paris, his main goal for the year of completing a career Grand Slam with a French Open victory was blown to smithereens thanks to another beating administered by Nadal, the King of Clay.

Now here was Djokovic, on the verge of becoming the guy who held the gate open as Federer marched through to become the first man in 66 years to win a Wimbledon final after being down match point -- just another line item to add to Federer’s phone-book-sized list of accomplishment at a huge cost to Djokovic’s legacy.

However, if all of this put a certain amount of strain on Djokovic, he didn’t show it as the fifth set came to a climax. Ultimately, his composure and refusal to lose faith won him the Wimbledon title (with a little help from his service return, if you want to get all technical about it). It was the previous lack of those very intangibles that led Becker, one of the most courageous if not the most successful of champions, to his seat in the player’s box on a sunny, hot day in London.

It was easy to forget the women’s final in the wake of the spectacular show put on by Djokovic and Federer, yet in some ways the wins by Djokovic and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova -- just a lowly No. 6 seed -- had some commonality.

Djokovic had accomplished far more than Kvitova leading up to this tournament (although at a comparable age, Djokovic was also struggling), and his star power exceeds Kvitova by a few orders of magnitude. But anyone who took account of the power and precision Kvitova showed when she won the Wimbledon title in 2011 surely had to be baffled by how infrequently she’s been able to summon that game on the big stages in recent years.

Painfully shy (something Djokovic has never been accused of) and forced by her nerves to wage a constant battle against anxiety, Kvitova hadn’t even been to the semifinals of a major since the spring of 2012. Granted, she was barely 21 when she first won Wimbledon. But just how much time does a player need to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere at the top?

The reality is that people were acknowledging Kvitova as a contender only when goaded into it. She just found too many ways to lose, too often. Until last weekend.

Kvitova put on a display of aggressive tennis as formidable as anything we’ve seen pouring off the racket of Serena Williams. Kvitova took Eugenie Bouchard, a genius at competing and a young lady destined for greatness, and simply demolished her. Now, Kvitova is back in the conversation that begins with the question “What happens when Serena and Venus retire?”

For Djokovic and Kvitova, the theme of this Wimbledon was vindication. Each of them achieved it, albeit in vastly different ways.
We live in an age of speed reading, speed dialing and even speed dating. So why not speed draw analysis as well?

Let’s not waste any more time before looking at the 2014 Wimbledon draw.

Men's singles

Top quarter: The Djokovic section
Promoted to the top spot thanks to Wimbledon’s seeding formula (despite ranking behind world No. 1 Rafael Nadal), Novak Djokovic might end up saying “Thanks for nothing.”

His quarter is loaded with tricky players (Radek Stepanek, Gilles Simon, even lost boy Bernard Tomic) as well as power hitters (No. 26 seed Marin Cilic, No. 12 Ernests Gulbis, No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 18 Fernando Verdasco). Djokovic will be lucky to make it through to the quarters, where he might have to lock horns with yet another bombardier, No. 6 Tomas Berdych.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesAndy Murray's title defense at Wimbledon could run into a roadblock in the form of David Ferrer.
Second quarter: The Murray section
You could just as well call this the mercurial section because it contains a dazzling array of shot makers including No. 16 seed Fabio Fognini, No. 21 Alexandr Dolgopolov, Dominic Thiem, No. 27 Roberto Bautista Agut and flavor-of-the-month in the ATP, No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov.

Andy Murray’s versatility will come in handy. Unlike Djokovic, his promotion to the No. 3 seed despite a world ranking of no. 5 was still a net plus, even though nobody could possibly look forward to a quarterfinal date with No. 7 seed David Ferrer.

Third quarter: The Federer section
What is this, the anniversary reunion for some tennis academy? The “old guys” in this section include No. 4 Roger Federer, No. 23 Tommy Robredo, No. 19 Feliciano Lopez, Julien Benneteau, hoary old Lleyton Hewitt and even never-say-die Michael Russell.

Young ace-makers John Isner (No. 9 seed) and No. 15 Jerzy Janowicz inhabit this quarter as well. But the biggest threat to Federer’s hopes of making the semis is his countryman and No. 5 seed Stan Wawrinka.

Fourth quarter: The Nadal section
This one is real mixed bag, with mercurial players such as No. 13 Richard Gasquet and No. 25 Gael Monfils mixed freely with volatile elements such as No. 29 Ivo Karlovic, Benoit Paire, and (if all goes according to plan) Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent, No. 8 Milos Raonic.

The semis: Djokovic-Ferrer, Wawrinka-Nadal

Women's singles

Top quarter: The Serena section
This is a highly navigable section for top-seeded Serena Williams with one potential roadblock: No. 13 Eugenie Bouchard.

Other dangerous players include resurgent No. 20 seed Andrea Petkovic and perhaps No. 9 (but slumping) Angelique Kerber. There are some dangerous floaters here, too, including Camila Giorgi, Daniela Hantuchova and Christina McHale.

Second quarter: The Halep section
This seems a soft section, which will be great news for last year’s finalist, No. 19 seed Sabine Lisicki, as well as No. 3 seed Simona Halep. No. 7 Jelena Jankovic, No. 11 Ana Ivanovic and No. 21 Roberta Vinci all are vulnerable.

There are three additional players of interest in this section: former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, a wild card, and a pair of American 18-year-olds in wild card Taylor Townsend and qualifier Victoria Duval.

Third quarter: The Radwanska section
Victoria Azarenka, returning from a long injury layoff and seeded No. 8, has to be happy with this draw. She has a history of just hammering No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, which means there might be a clear passage to the semis.

The biggest obstacle could be No. 10 Dominika Cibulkova, who has upped her game significantly this year. Sure, No. 27 Garbine Muguruza is an up-and-coming talent and the section also has No. 14 Sara Errani, but both are better on clay than grass.

Fourth quarter: The Li section
Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champion, is a wildly unpredictable player who has struggled with illness and injury. She is seeded No. 6, and if she finds her game and gets hold of her emotions she could win the whole thing again. That’s an unlikely development, though, which means No. 2 seed Li Na is looking pretty good.

Li’s biggest enemy is herself, however, and she has lost to that rival many times, so who knows?

The semis: Bouchard-Halep, Azarenka-Li
You have to wonder, don’t all those nice people in Halle ever get sick of seeing Roger Federer grinning like a schoolboy as he studies the reflection of his own beautiful self in the hardware presented to the Halle singles champion?

Federer has won the Halle title seven times now, and by the time all those “seventh heaven” and “lucky number” headlines are yanked from the web, this piece of interesting information remains: Roger Federer still must be considered a prime contender when Wimbledon begins in less than a week’s time.

“In the past, when I have played well at Halle, I have usually played well at Wimbledon," Federer declared after his win Sunday. In fact, Federer has won the title at Wimbledon seven times as well, although not in the same years. "They have been two of my most successful tournaments, so I hope that this title will bring me luck again. Last year it didn’t work out, but it did many times before. So I hope it will be back to the good old days.”

You’ve got to love this guy’s enthusiasm. He’s won just three tournaments since the start of 2013, two of them this ATP 250 in Halle, where guys good enough to feature in the final weekend at Roland Garros (which ends the day before Halle begins) have zero chance to survive -- if they play at all.

Who wants to get on a plane in Paris on Sunday night after you’ve played a Grand Slam final and go right to Germany or England to compete on grass? This year, French Open finalist Novak Djokovic wisely chose to take a pass on Halle (or Queens) once again. Good scout Rafael Nadal did play Halle, partly out of guilt for having stiffed the tournament last year (he pulled out on doctor’s orders after he won the French Open; it would have been too much for the top seed in Halle to go AWOL two years running). But Nadal also deeply felt the need for grass-court practice, and the amount he was promised as an appearance fee for just showing up probably figured in his calculations as well.

Net result: Top-seeded Nadal packed them in, then lost in the second round (but his first match; he had a bye) to Germany’s Dustin Brown, 6-4, 6-1. Being that Brown is German, it seemed to work out OK for everyone. The Germans, who have little to crow about tennis-wise, got to see one of their own beat Nadal. The French Open champ honored his agreement to play Halle, and from midweek on he was able to sleep in and practice to his heart’s content on grass. And Federer got to bask in the glory of winning again -- and to take his place, with pride, among the men who will be said to have a good shot at becoming the singles champion at Wimbledon.

“I really enjoy winning titles,” Federer declared after he won. “It is what I play for, to play and to receive a standing ovation at the end. I am very pleased with my performance. I work hard and travel the tour to win these titles and not lose in the quarters or semifinals. With all the success I have had in the past, I need to aim for titles. I think I deserved the title this week.”

It’s strange, how those words sounded almost like Federer was trying to rationalize the joy he takes from winning a 250, as if he were really answering the question: “Sheeesh, Roger, why do you even bother with that Halle stuff anymore?”

Or perhaps he was just justifying his apparently undiminished appetite for going back to Halle and beating up on a bunch o’ palookas. In the final, Federer topped No. 54 Alejandro Falla -- a guy who hails from Colombia -- and showed everyone that he’s still very much around and armed with intentions.

Seven is an awful lot of titles to take away from one tournament, but then remember that this is a guy who’s also taken seven from Wimbledon. Don’t put anything past him at this time of year, but if you’re a headline writer with a few moments to spare you could try coming up with some puns using the number “eight.”

Just in case.
Rafael Nadal, who won the French Open for an unprecedented ninth time last Sunday, has now produced a far better trivia question for tennis fans of the future.

Nadal was the victim of, conceivably, the least surprising upset in tennis history Thursday in Halle, falling 6-4, 6-1 to German wild card Dustin Brown in under an hour.

Upon winning, Brown fell to his knees and kissed the turf (it’s easier on the lips than red clay). If I had to draw a thought bubble over his head, it would say: “Thank God I got him this year, not in 2015.”

The reason? If Nadal plays at Halle again next year, it won’t be four days after he won at Roland Garros. Should he add that 10th French Open title (you have a better pick?), he will have at least a week-and-a-half to rest and prepare for Halle.

Next year, Wimbledon is moving back a week on the calendar, and the ATP is juggling events as well as adding a new one and re-jiggering an existing one to create a longer grass-court segment.

So next year, the ‘s-Hertogenbosch ATP 250 will move up a week (to the week after the French Open), along with the new Stuttgart 250. They’ll be followed by the two premier grass events, Halle and Queens. They’re both 250s now, but will become 500s. The 250 tournament now in Eastbourne (next week) will move to Nottingham and conclude the day before Wimbledon begins.

You have to wonder, could a shift of one week on the calendar give you more bang for the buck than this one?

A look at the draws at Halle and Queens will tell you all you may need to know about the present situation. Nadal is out, Novak Djokovic (Nadal’s victim in the French Open final) wasn’t ever in, and even with a solid 10-day head start on the grass season the inestimable Roger Federer found himself on unsure footing in Halle, a tournament he’s won six times.

Federer lost a first-set tiebreaker then had to claw his way through a 6-4 set before he finally eliminated Portugal’s Joao Sousa, who hasn’t even be able to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon in three tries.

Andy Murray had even more incentive to do well at Queens than his rivals. He’s the defending champ at Wimbledon, and he’s playing on grass under the watchful eye of his new coach Amelie Mauresmo for the first time this week. He needs work on the grass but all he got was one win before he was ambushed yesterday by grandfatherly Radek Stepanek. Could it be partly due to the fact that Murray had his best French Open (losing in the semifinals to Nadal) in years?

All of these ifs, ands or buts will be mitigated, if not entirely eliminated, next year. Players who go deep at the French Open will have the luxury of resting for a week after that tournament before the important Halle and Queens 500s begin.

Should an elite player want to get the extra work, or need to rebound from an early loss at the French Open, he can play the grass events in Stuttgart or ‘s-Hertogenbosch as well as the two 500s.

"I lost today because my rival was playing better than me," Nadal said after losing to Brown. "And at the same time, as I said yesterday, the transition from clay to grass is difficult, especially when you arrive a little bit tired and not at 100 percent. But I tried my best."

If you remember, Nadal pulled out of Halle last year after he won the French Open, under doctor’s orders to rest his knees. This year, he made a noble effort to honor his committment, and he made Dustin Brown’s day.

Grand Slam events never go as expected; we all know that. Your odds of predicting all the brackets might be slightly better than those you faced filling in your NCAA basketball tournament bracket with a trembling hand (it was visions of Warren Buffett’s billion bucks dancing in your brain). But they still ain’t good, pal. Those of you who are already whining about the tough draw doled out to your favorite -- or about the free ticket to the final issued to said favorite’s bitter rival -- need to keep just two words in mind: Virginie Razzano.

Every draw is great -- or horrible -- until it isn’t. That’s the reality.

Remember how Serena Williams’ projected stroll to the French Open title in 2012 started -- and ended -- with the daughter of a French magician, No. 111-ranked wild card Virginie Razzano?

Well, guess what? They could, but probably won’t, meet again this year -- this time in the quarterfinals. But note that, once again, Williams is paired with a French wild card in her first match. This time, it’s 23-year-old Alize Lim. I doubt her father also is a magician, which is just one of the reasons I’m not going out on a Lim to predict the upset.

In fact, let me tell you some of the other things that just aren't going to happen at Roland Garros, according to what I see in my crystal ball.

• No. 17 seed Tommy Robredo will not equal the feat he turned last year, when he won three consecutive matches from two sets to love down. The last time that happened was 1927; the next it happens will be the year 3000.

• We will not see another Serena vs. Venus Williams Grand Slam final. We won’t even see them clash in the third round, as the draw suggests. Venus, who will be 34 just days after the end of the tournament, has a potentially tough second round against China’s Jie Zheng.

• Former US Open champ Samantha Stosur, seeded No. 19, will not allow No. 17 Roberta Vinci to get away with “softest seed” honors. Stosur will be upset in the first round by Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig.

• Lenny and Myla Rose Federer will not be upset by Leo and Charlene Federer in the 4-and-under invitational mixed doubles. Mirka will sit in the guest box of Lenny and Myla, Roger will be in the one assigned to Leo and Charlene. Tony Godsick will dash madly between the two, and the winners’ trophy will be presented by twins Bob and Mike Bryan.

• No. 10 seed John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will meet in the third round. But they will not establish a new record by playing a 71-69 in-the-fifth set.

• Maria Sharapova, the No. 7 seed, will not beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, but she will launch a new line of candy to commemorate their non-rivalry, Bitterpova.

• Andy Murray, seeded No. 7, will not win Roland Garros. Ernests Gulbis, who knows? Tomas Berdych, could happen! Teymuraz Gabashvili? You never, ever write anyone off. Except, in this case, poor Andy, who hasn’t won three consecutive matches since Miami.

• Ana Ivanovic, seeded No. 11, will not make it past French youngster Caroline Garcia, but Ivanovic will get the opportunity to clench and pump her fist enough times to establish a new personal record.

• Rafael Nadal will not have to play all three men who beat him on clay this year, as the draw suggests (Nicolas Almagro, fourth round; David Ferrer, semis; Novak Djokovic, final). Well, the joke’s on them. Nadal will be upset in the second round by hard-charging Austrian youngster Dominic Thiem.

• Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand will not get far enough into the tournament to have WTA officials scrambling to double-check their spelling of her name.

• Ferrer, seeded No. 5, will not win the French Open this year, even though the top four men, Nadal, No. 2 seed Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer will all be upset victims. When 32-year-old Ferrer walks out on the Chatrier court and sees that the only thing standing between him and that long-sought Grand Slam singles title is Germany’s Tobias Kamke, his head will explode.

You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. After a few weeks, you had to wonder whether either of them was even capable of making the French Open final, never mind meeting his counterpart. But they resurrected the narrative, and once again, set tennis fans to salivating over the prospect of Rafa vs. Nole at Roland Garros.

They did it by playing a magnificent Italian Open final Sunday in Rome, with ATP No. 2 Djokovic pulling off the upset of world No. 1 Nadal, 4-6, 6-3. 6-3. An awful lot can happen to either of these fellas over the next three weeks, not all of it good. But they’ve certainly set the stage for a potential clash that might ultimately inspire comparisons with Nadal vs. Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open or Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe at Roland Garros.

Here are some of the takeaways from the Rome final:

1. Djokovic has now won four in a row vs. Nadal, all of them finals. Remember how Nadal fans used to gloat about Rafa being in Federer’s head? Well, here’s a good example of karma at work. Djokovic is the only player whom Nadal really seems to fear (all other things being equal), and there are some really good reasons for that. Which brings us to the next point.

2. Djokovic is the only player on the tour who can keep Nadal from putting him into a defensive posture from which there is no escape. Nadal specializes in getting his opponents on a string and jerking them all over the court, usually wider and wider and deeper and deeper. But Djokovic’s superior athleticism and his penchant for the hard, flat ball can translate to instant offense. He can hurt Nadal from a different zip code if need be, and that forces Nadal out of the patterns he likes to impose.

3. Nadal is vulnerable to Djokovic’s outstanding serve return. As a returner, Djokovic is more inclined than Nadal to give the ball a ride. When he sees a second serve coming, his instinct is to use the return to take control of the rally. Nadal had an outstanding day in the service game, at least in terms of putting his first serve into play (75 percent). But Djokovic won 13 points off the 23 second serves hit by Nadal. In the end, Nadal won just 52 percent of the points he served, while Djokovic won 65 percent of his own.

4. Djokovic is especially dangerous when he’s inspired. Before Djokovic experienced his 2011 makeover, he was developing a reputation as a spectacularly talented underachiever. He seemed happy to noodle around, a third wheel to the ruling duo of Nadal and Federer. Then in 2011, Djokovic showed what he’s capable of when he puts his mind -- and heart -- into it.

Last week, Djokovic dedicated his wins to the victims of the terrible floods that swept through the Balkans, including his home town of Belgrade. The tragic events provided Djokovic with emotional fuel that helped him win -- hence the heart in the clay after he defeated Nadal. He was declaring his solidarity. The downside, of course, is that when he’s uninspired, Djokovic is less dangerous. Nadal, who is -- by far -- the most diligent and motivated of players, has an advantage in this regard. Neither his highs nor his lows are as conspicuous as those of Djokovic.

And here’s an important caveat to this theme: The stade Roland Garros isn’t merely Nadal’s favorite facility, it’s his castle. A lot has been made of the fact that he uncharacteristically won only one of the Euroclay events this spring, but really, how many times does Nadal have to win Monte Carlo, anyway? Those losses won’t amount to a hill of beans for Nadal -- if he retains his French Open crown. Djokovic may be more theatrical when it comes to the emotional game, but don’t for a moment imagine that Nadal isn’t also subject to bouts of inspiration.

5. Djokovic closed out Nadal in that third set with a flurry of tennis as near perfect as anyone can expect. But if that were the final of Roland Garros, the end of that set probably would have marked just a little better than the midway point of the match (on the theory that even at the worst of times, these guys are good for a long five-setter).
The way things are shaping up in Rome, a lot of quality pros will spend less time during this next, quiet week kicking back and enjoying Paris than obsessing about whether to make those reservations for the Tour d’Argent on the early or late side.

In recent years, the major question heading into the French Open was, “Which poor ATP schmo is destined to get crushed in the final by Rafael Nadal this year?” But now, whether Nadal will survive to reach the final is as legitimate a query as wondering whether any French man or woman will last more than two rounds.

Nobody, but nobody, among the ATP or WTA elites seems destined to embark upon the second Grand Slam of the year with a full head of steam. Significant question marks hover like storm clouds over every one of them. Here’s the short version:

ATP No. 1 and French Open top seed Nadal: Even if Nadal wins in Rome, completing yet another set of back-to-back wins in Masters 1000 events (he won in Madrid last week), his form since the very start of the clay season has been, at best, ragged -- at least by the standard he himself set and maintained for years until this spring. Make no mistake: Those early Euroclay losses to David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) have shaken him, and although Nadal is winning, he’s been struggling -- and providing infusions of hope to all his rivals.

WTA No. 1 Serena Williams is 32 years old and had to pull out of Madrid last week with a nagging thigh injury. Clay has never been her preferred surface, especially when it comes to the two-week grind of Roland Garros -- where she’s collected just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles. It’s never easy for Williams in Paris; it’s as simple as that.

ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic made no secret of his main ambition for 2014, which is to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam. He got off to a rocky start this year but seemed to build momentum by winning the two U.S. hard-court Masters events.

Since then, though, he’s stalled -- partly because of a sore right wrist. He took a loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and pulled out of Madrid to rest and rehab that right wrist. Just how that joint holds up to the stress of two weeks of five-set matches looms as a major question.

WTA No. 2 Li Na won this tournament a few years ago, and as the winner of the Australian Open, she’s the only woman who could complete a calendar-year Grand Slam. Whoa! Li has also been puzzlingly inconsistent. You just can’t count on her one way or the other.

ATP No. 3 Stan Wawrinka stepped up in Monte Carlo and launched his spring campaign with a big win in the final over Federer. Since then, though, he’s been upset in the first round of Madrid by emerging Austrian talent -- but still just No. 70 -- Dominic Thiem. He also lost in the third round at Rome to 36-year-old Tommy Haas. Well, nobody can say he won’t be well-rested for Paris anyway.

WTA No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has had a lot of trouble finding her A-game in semis and finals lately. And No. 7 Maria Sharapova has become something of a nemesis, with straight-set wins over Radwanska in their two recent meetings on clay.

ATP No. 4 Federer is a new dad again, and his plan to get a few matches in before Paris went afoul in Rome, where he was upset in the second round (but his first match, thanks to a bye) by Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. But Federer did reach the final in Monte Carlo, and he has all the experience in the world. And everything at this stage in his career is gravy -- which basically means, “Who knows?”

WTA No. 4 Victoria Azarenka is entered in Roland Garros, but she hasn’t played because of a foot injury since the Indian Wells combined Premier event.

WTA No. 7 Maria Sharapova was generating a lot of buzz until this week thanks to that outstanding record on clay. Only Serena Williams had beaten her on the red stuff since 2011. However, Sharapova has been winning but struggling and relying on her grit and determination rather than her superior shot-making or strategy. It all caught up to her in Rome the other day, where she was beaten convincingly by another former French Open champ, Ana Ivanovic.

That loss will leave a bad taste in Sharapova’s mouth in the coming week, and her up-and-down nature lately suggests that she may have trouble playing consistent winning tennis over two weeks in Paris. But she’ll have this consolation in the coming days: Many of her fellow stars will be in a similar quagmire.
Rafael Nadal is the singles champ of Madrid for a record fourth time, and he deserves all the praise that will be heaped upon him for the accomplishment. But the man he subdued to take the final deserves a tremendous amount of credit as well. Not to be outdone, he established a record of his own.

Runner-up Kei Nishikori has become the first Japanese man to crack the elite top 10 in the ATP rankings. If his shy 24-year-old game isn’t exactly comparable to Nadal’s, his spirit is. Nishikori, who developed his ultimate grinder’s game at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, is as willing as Nadal to roll up his proverbial sleeves and do whatever it takes, or to wait however long it takes, to win a match.

Also like Nadal, Nishikori has had to endure and overcome significant pain and injury at key moments in his career in order to keep and/or improve upon his place in the game. "I'm very sorry for Nishikori," Nadal told the press after Nishikori had to quit the final because of a back injury with Nadal leading 3-0 in the third set.

“"He's an unbelievable player that will fight to be in London [at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals]. I am sure of that.”

Note that the things Nadal chose to emphasize in the seemingly routine comment are the fact that Nishikori will “fight” and that he will do his utmost to show up for London. That’s code for “This guy isn’t going away anytime soon.”

It would seem that if Nadal’s analysis is proved overly optimistic, it will only be because Nishikori’s spirit is sometimes more willing than his body.

Nishikori won his first ATP title in 2008, and he moved up some 200 places on the computer to finish the year as the youngest player in the year-end top 100. (He was barely 19 and ranked No. 81.) Just three months into the following year, Nishikori was sidelined by a right elbow injury. He’d been struggling, and he fell to No. 106 before he called it quits and left the tour for the year. Nishikori tried to avoid surgery, but he finally went under the knife in August.

Because he waited so long to have surgery, Nishikori didn’t return until April of 2010 -- by which time was off the ranking tables. Down in the minor leagues of the Challenger tour, he earned four titles and went 27-4, good enough to get back up to No. 244. He also knocked out Santiago Girlado at the French Open and, as a qualifier at the US Open, Nishikori beat Evgeny Korolev and Marin Cilic, the latter in a marathon that fell just one minute shy of the five-hour mark. But a groin injury forced him to pull out of that major before he played his third-round match.

Nishikori had his best year in 2011, climbing all the way to a year-end ranking of No. 25. When he reached No. 20 in October, he displaced one of his mentors and an idol, Shuzo Matsuoka, as the highest-ranked Japanese player of the Open era. The most striking thing about his record was Nishikori’s impressive 3-5 record against top-10 opponents.

Last year, Nishikori climbed even higher. He cracked the top 20 (year-end ranking: 19) and he became the first Japanese very to win his own nation’s most prestigious Japan Open tournament. He kept his place through 2013 and seemed poised to jump to the next plateau (the top 10).

He played solid tennis early this year to win Memphis. In Miami, he outdueled No. 16 seed Grigor Dimitrov, No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 5 Roger Federer to book a place in the semifinals, but he had to issue a walkover to No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic with a groin injury.

The latest injury caused him to miss Japan’s home Davis Cup tie against the defending champs, the Czech Republic (the Czechs ultimately shut out Japan. 5-0). But when Nishikori returned to the tour, he won the tournament that is unofficially considered the Spanish national championships, the ATP 500 of Barcelona.

That he was able to recover from his Miami injury to win Barcelona so quickly is a good sign, given that he had to quit again in the Madrid final. Unless this latest injury is worse than it appears, Nishikori is going to pose a serious threat at the French Open. I think even odds-on favorite Rafael Nadal would acknowledge that.
For a while there, it looked as if the Madrid combined event was destined to produce the WTA final most fans want to see: top-ranked Serena Williams clashing with No. 8 Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova has been thigh-deep in blood (her own, as well as that of her rivals) as she has inexorably slashed her way toward a date with Williams. You have to hand it to Sharapova: Her wins have not come easily, or without a heavy physical toll, but she’s managed to beat down her opponents even as they’ve come close to laying her out for good. Half of the women in the WTA top 20 probably wake up some nights in a cold sweat with Sharapova’s blood-curdling shrieks resounding in their ears.

After a comfortable tuneup in the second round in Madrid, Sharapova struggled in two of her next three matches -- most recently Friday, when she had to recover from being down a set and a break to No. 2 seed Li Na before she recovered to win the tiebreaker, and a 6-3 third set, to advance to a meeting with Agnieszka Radwanska.

Given that Sharapova is 9-2 against Radwanska, you can expect her to be in the final Sunday. But it won’t be opposite Williams. That coveted chance to notch a W against Williams was killed when the top seed pulled out of Madrid (in which she’s had some struggles of her own) to rest a thigh that has been troubling her since last month.

You could call this latest episode “Rivalry Interrupted,” although this is a rivalry in a very narrow sense. Unlike the rivalry between, say, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, this one isn’t driven by results -- after all, Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost a full decade (that’s right, a decade) and trails in head-to-head meetings 16-2.

So why all the fuss?

Well, there are a few reasons. For starters, there’s the contrast between the two women -- one that is obvious and juicy in a dozen ways. For another, Sharapova seems to be the only WTA player who has the grit and determination to stand up to Williams, and that’s a start toward making things interesting.

Sharapova takes her beatings, some of them savage, without flinching and with her lips pursed. And she keeps coming back for more.

And don’t forget that, in sports, everyone, including Serena Williams, needs someone to hate -- and to be hated by. Just think Yankees-Red Sox or Packers-Bears. That also holds true for fans. Fans of either woman have a license to hate, thanks to her opposite number. You should all write each other thank-you notes.

For fans of the game, not just the personalities in play, the blossoming of Sharapova in recent years into a terrific clay-court player is perceived as a much-needed playing-field leveler. On any other surface against Williams, Sharapova has to struggle on a steep, upward grade while Williams barrels downhill. The two have met on clay only four times (Williams won every match), but Sharapova’s chances of getting at least a little payback on dirt are improving with each passing clay-court season.

Sharapova’s game on clay has improved dramatically. Since 2012, she is 45-3 on clay -- those three streak-busting losses inflicted by Williams, who’s done a terrific job holding Sharapova at bay. But can Serena continue to do so as her age creeps upward (now 32) and niggling and serious injuries become more common?

To be sure, Williams' record on clay looks less than prohibitive, only because she’s so good on all the other surfaces. She is 134-31 for her career on clay (compared to 400-65 on hard courts and 79-11 on grass), and she won just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles on the red clay of Roland Garros.

True, Williams defeated Sharapova in the French Open final last year, and while that was a straight-sets win, it was a very tense and close 6-4, 6-4.

Right now, Williams is still scheduled to play in Rome next week, but I’m not sure the wise money is booking air and hotel reservations in anticipation of a meeting of the two women there. That’s all right. The prospect of a Williams-Sharapova clash in Paris gets more tantalizing if they avoid meeting until then.
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The state of Novak Djokovic's right wrist is rapidly becoming the outstanding tennis mystery of 2014, destined for a place alongside Rafael Nadal's aching knees and Roger Federer's recently sore back in the lore and legend of the game.

Djokovic pulled out of the Madrid Masters 1000 the other day, citing the lingering pain in what he would describe only as his "right arm." If you remember, Djokovic had his right wrist strapped during his semifinal loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago. He alarmed fans the day after that tournament ended when he declared that his wrist was in worse shape than he thought.

He rather cryptically said, "I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know. It's really not in my hands anymore."

A few days later, the prognosis changed. Djokovic declared that the rest he had on his schedule in any event before the start of Madrid probably would be sufficient to heal his wrist. Thus he was entered in Madrid. But he withdrew shortly after the draw had him going up against another big, physical, hard-hitting player in his first match, Marin Cilic.

Djokovic told the Associated Press: "I did everything possible in order to play in Madrid ... but unfortunately my right arm injury has flared up again."

There seem to be a few weird things going on here. For one, this time around Djokovic specifically spoke about an injury to his "arm," not to his wrist. You have to wonder what that change of emphasis means. For another, these attempts to downplay the severity of the injury seem to be backfiring.

Djokovic's comments serve only to obfuscate the issue, and they're bound to start wild rumors. They raise the question, "Just how badly hurt is he?" And there's the possibility that the injury is worse than he has been saying (but as bad as he first suggested) and that Djokovic is engaging in some wishful thinking -- or is it outright denial?

Djokovic was happy to learn that none of the doctors with whom he consulted while his wrist was sore in Monte Carlo thought he needed surgery. But they also couldn’t tell him just what was wrong. As he said of his deliberations with various experts before and during the Monte Carlo tournament: "I heard so many things in last 10 days. … Trust me, it's complicated."

Complicated isn't usually good.

Of course, there's no solid reason to jump to conclusions one way or another. Djokovic's main target this year was the French Open, which he needs to win in order to complete what has become a line item on any superior player's resume these days, a career Grand Slam.

Djokovic, who left the U.S. hard-court swing with two Masters titles just a month ago, is an extremely fit player. When it comes to fitness and match-toughness, he has socked away a lot of capital.

Unlike, say, Andy Murray, Djokovic is comfortable on clay. He doesn’t really need to play Madrid if he wants to be cautious; in his situation, playing in Rome the week after next would be more than enough prep time for Roland Garros.

The best-case scenario here is that Djokovic is playing it safe. The injury all but invites him to keep his powder dry for Rome and/or Paris.

But it’s also possible that this wrist/arm problem is a threat to Djokovic’s short-term goals -- or worse. It does seem that a lot of players are being stricken by serious wrist injuries these days (case in point: Juan Martin del Potro). So I wouldn’t assume anything, one way or the other, about the problems Djokovic is facing.

One thing is for sure: You can’t win it unless you’re in it. And right now Djokovic is no more in the running in Paris than he was the moment after he mangled that overhead that cost him the French Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal last year.
If Rafael Nadal wanted to put a little pressure on himself, he couldn’t have picked a better time than last week, when he lost to a fellow Spaniard on a red clay court for the second time in as many weeks.

A few weeks ago it was David Ferrer bouncing Nadal out of Monte Carlo. Last week in Barcelona, it was Nicolas Almagro, against whom Nadal had a 10-0 record, sticking the knife in a little deeper in the tournament that offers a Spanish winner the Iberian bragging rights for an entire year.

Could it be that Nadal will run that streak to three losses in a tournament that begins Sunday, the combined Madrid Masters?

It may seem preposterous; after all, before Nadal had won 66 of his last 67 matches against Spaniards on clay going into Monte Carlo. He hadn’t lost even a set in Barcelona since 2008. After the loss to Almagro, Nadal said, “I felt I did a lot of things well to win, but at the end [there] remained a little bit [missing].”

That reference to “a little bit missing” has to trouble Nadal’s camp and his partisans, for the one thing you could always expect from Nadal is maximum interest. Total desire. Unqualified determination. After the loss in Barcelona, Nadal sounded world-weary. How often can the King of Clay rush out to the gates of his castle to lope the heads off the barbarians?

To make his situation even tougher, Madrid is not a particularly great place for Nadal to regroup. He’s won Monte Carlo (as well as Barcelona) eight times. Before the Almagro match, Nadal had a 41-match winning streak going in Barcelona. He’s the defending champ in Madrid, but in 2012 he was a peevish third-round loser on that ill-fated “smurf” (blue) clay, and the previous year (2011) he was spanked in the Caja Magica by Novak Djokovic. If you’re inclined to write off that one-two punch of Djokovic playing out of his gourd and the unfortunate experiment with blue clay, be warned: Nadal did win Madrid in 2010, but the last time he won before that was way back in 2005. At the time, Madrid was an event played on indoor hard courts.

Madrid has always been the weak link in Nadal’s otherwise spectacular record during the Euroclay season. He was 48-2 going into Monte Carlo this year and 42-2 at the start of Barcelona. He’s 41-2 in Rome (which follows Madrid), but a more earthbound 30-8 in Madrid.

No event on the spring circuit in Europe challenges Nadal like Madrid. You can put some of it down to the altitude (which makes the balls fly with extra zip), but don’t discount the influence of personal history. Players feel more comfortable and confident at some events than others.

To add to the pressure Nadal will face in Madrid, Djokovic has dramatically closed the gap in the rankings race. The top spot is on the line, although Nadal would have to lose before the quarterfinals and Djokovic would have to win the trophy in order for their positions to flip. It’s an unlikely outcome, but far from an impossible one.

Having Djokovic for a shadow may be just what Nadal needs, but no matter how things work out in Madrid, keep in mind that for Nadal it’s all about Paris and the French Open. And it’s unlikely that “a little bit” will go missing there.
Tennis pros don’t like working under distracting conditions any more than the rest of us do, which suggests that the upcoming clay-court Masters events and the French Grand Slam will be an interesting test of the top players’ ability to focus.

As we approach the heart of the European clay tour, No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka is the only ATP player who has won major events and who ought to be free of care or complication. He won the Australian Open and most recently the first Masters title of his career at Monte Carlo.

True, at age 29, Wawrinka is no up-and-coming talent. But before this year, he often seemed a down-and-going mystery, destined never to fulfill his obvious talent. For Wawrinka these days, it’s all good.

Not so for his all of his peers in the elite class. Let’s start with No. 8 Andy Murray. If you’re wondering what kind of new -- or fuzzy -- math makes Murray part of some Big Four with that ranking, you’re on to something. The reality is that Murray still hasn’t won a tournament since he won Wimbledon last year, then skipped the entire fall to undergo back surgery and rehab.

Murray more or less declared himself fit and back in tiptop shape at Acapulco in late February. But he played a terrible match against Milos Raonic in the fourth round at Indian Wells, and Novak Djokovic crushed him in the quarterfinals in Miami, where Murray was the defending champ.

Clay is Murray’s poorest surface. Last year, he won a grand total of three matches in the three Euro clay Masters and missed Paris with back problems. Murray may or may not be thinking about his back in the coming weeks, but he just has to be thinking about how challenging it would be for him to defend that historic Wimbledon title if he doesn’t get some traction in his comeback, and soon.

No. 4 Roger Federer seems to be loving life -- and for good reason. He’s got everyone but Rafael Nadal bamboozled. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when Nadal traditionally punishes all comers, Federer included. But Federer and his wife, Mirka, are also expecting their third child (they have 4-year-old twins) sometime soon, and Federer has said he won’t miss the great event.

“It’s a priority for me trying to be there, trying to support my wife,” he recently told reporters. “I’ve played enough tennis matches. Missing a tournament or missing a match wouldn’t change anything for me.”

Even if that means breaking his streak of consecutive Grand Slam appearances (which stands at 57), you may wonder? “Yeah,” Federer said. “But let’s talk about it when it would happen. At the moment we hope it’s not going to be that way.”

ATP No. 2 Djokovic has made it clear since the end of last year that his priority for 2014 is winning the French Open. That would not only strike a vicious blow at his rival Nadal, it would also complete Djokovic’s career Grand Slam. Djokovic looked better than he has since 2011 when he won the two U.S. hard-court Masters in succession a few weeks ago. Then came the distractions.

The first was a happy one. Djokovic learned that his fiancée is pregnant. Jelena Ristic isn’t expecting to deliver for months, but this is a real life-changer for Djokovic. It might be purely inspirational, but for the unhappy distraction that came along with it -- the wrist injury that Djokovic carried through the Monte Carlo Masters. He lost to Federer in straight sets in the semifinals, then declared that he might have to take off an indefinite period of time.

Djokovic is facing a tough assignment, and the last thing he needs to be worrying about is his wrist -- or what he’ll name his kid.

Nadal is heading for Madrid as a loser in back-to-back clay-court events (Monte Carlo and Barcelona) for the first time since he was 18 years old (2004, Stuttgart and Bastad). Given that Madrid hasn’t been entirely friendly to his game (it’s all relative, but in his past five appearances he’s won the event “only” twice), is a third consecutive loss in a clay event possible?

One thing Nadal has going for him is that this sudden loss of dominance is his only distraction, although having something else to occupy his mind might not be such a bad thing.

What’s wrong with Rafa?

April, 25, 2014
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Rafael NadalAP Photo/Manu FernandezUntil Friday, Rafael Nadal has not lost at the Barcelona Open since he was 16 years old.
Rafael Nadal tried to wipe the bad taste of Monte Carlo’s red clay out of his mouth in Barcelona, where he was gunning this week to win the title a surreal-sounding ninth time. But the top seed got red dirt kicked in his face again Friday as he lost a tight and dramatic three-setter to Nicolas Almagro.

This was Nadal’s first loss in Barcelona since he was 16 years old, way back in 2003. On that occasion, he lost to a fellow countryman ranked No. 17, Alex Corretja. On Friday, he failed against a Spaniard ranked No. 20. The loss ended Nadal’s consecutive-match winning streak at Barcelona at 41.

Heck, until Friday, Nadal hadn’t even lost a set in Barcelona since David Ferrer took one off him in a doomed effort in the final of 2008. That’s five tournaments worth of straight-sets beatdowns culminating in five titles.

Nadal has now lost to a fellow Spanish player in back-to-back clay-court tournaments. (Ferrer also took him out last week in Monte Carlo). This detail will only add impetus to an already percolating story: “What’s wrong with Rafa?”

Granted, that once absolutely trustworthy forehand has let Nadal down a surprising number of times, and often in key moments, in his past few matches. He also has made some uncharacteristically sloppy errors in situations where he once fired a remarkable shot to turn around an entire match.

In the final game Friday, Nadal had two break points, and Almagro could take credit for wiping away only one of them; Nadal took care of the other, drilling a woeful forehand into the net.

Later, Nadal escaped a match point when Almagro made an unforced backhand error to send the score back to deuce. That rattled Almagro; you could see it. But Nadal failed to capitalize on the situation. He hit a backhand return long and Almagro then converted his second match point with a forehand winner. Is it time for panic in the Nadal camp?

I’m not so sure, because though Barcelona isn’t even a Masters event (it’s an ATP 500), it’s of enormous importance to Spanish fans -- and Spanish players. There’s a reason Nadal’s fellow ATP elites avoid Barcelona like it’s in the throes of an outbreak of bubonic plague. Do you think a Roger Federer or Andy Murray is interested in showing up in Barcelona, only to have to play some guy who’s so fired up he thinks he’s Nadal -- or, like Almagro, thinks he’s capable of beating Nadal?

Thanks to the success of the Spanish players, this tournament over the years has become the unofficial Spanish national championships, which helps explain why Nadal has been so loyal to it, despite the fact that it’s an ATP 500, added to a schedule as thick with Masters events and the French Open as a stack of pancakes. Nadal is just as interested in bragging rights in his homeland as any of his rivals.

After Nadal and No. 2 seed Ferrer (significantly, he also lost -- and in the first round, no less), the highest-ranked player in the Barcelona draw was No. 13 Fabio Fognini. There were 12 Spanish men in the draw (all of whom qualified via direct acceptances, as well as a few wild cards and qualifiers), and now there’s just one left -- and his name isn’t Nadal, it’s Almagro.

The Spanish players who don’t overachieve at this tournament can easily succumb to the pressure, which is partly what happened this year. No. 5 seed Tommy Robredo’s reaction when he lost his match the other day to Marin Cilic was vivid proof. Robredo looked simply devastated.

The stature of the event is well-earned. The tournament goes back to 1953 -- long before Spanish players were making much of an impact on the game. The first winner at Barcelona was an American, Vic Seixas.

Until today, it seemed that Nadal might go on winning this thing until the next American champ comes along, but that’s not going to happen. Friday’s result may have been more about what’s right with Spanish tennis than what’s wrong with Rafa.

Big Four crumbling as we know it?

April, 21, 2014
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In case you hadn’t noticed, the tight little group of ATP players who once were called the Big Four have been fruitful, and they’ve multiplied: It’s now more like a Big Six or Eight … and counting. It raises the question: Are we in the midst of a major ATP transition?

Last week, we finally kicked off the European clay-court swing with the closest thing tennis has to news, a real “man bites dog” story. Top-seeded Rafael Nadal lost in Monte Carlo, where he was 50-2 for his career (with eight titles) -- until No. 6 seed David Ferrer bushwhacked him in the quarterfinals, thereby improving a dismal head-to-head record with Nadal to 6-21. What’s this world coming to, when Ferrer beats Nadal in Monte Carlo?

Novak Djokovic, the No. 2 seed and defending champ, relapsed after winning the two big U.S. hard-court Masters. He got his Belgrade rung in the semifinals by No. 4 seed Roger Federer, who's still as dangerous as a cobra, with Nadal the only reliable mongoose on the tour.

Andy Murray -- remember him? -- is down to No. 8 in the rankings. He decided to keep his powder dry for the upcoming Masters events and Roland Garros by taking a pass on Monte Carlo.

Stanislas Wawrinka, who’s moved ahead of Federer on the Swiss national team’s depth chart, won Monte Carlo. He thereby built on his No. 3 ranking and added to his street cred as a guy who’s fully prepared to take his place alongside the only three men who have won Grand Slam singles titles since Juan Martin del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009 -- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray.

With Wawrinka now joining the elite, will Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, respectively Nos. 5 and 12 in the rankings, be shamed into making their long-anticipated breakthroughs as Grand Slam winners this year? When pigs fly, you might think. You might have had the same reaction, though, if I’d asked whether Ferrer can beat Nadal at Monte Carlo.

It’s too early to theorize that the fortress of the Big Four is crumbling, but there appear to be cracks in the wall. Federer may be demonstrating that there are all kinds of “senior moments,” not all of them bad. But though he’s climbed back and hangs in there at No. 4, Federer is, after all, 32 years old. Djokovic can’t seem to hang on to that 2011 feeling, and Murray seems in no hurry to win titles again -- heck, he seems in no particular hurry to play matches, as demonstrated by his withdrawal from Monte Carlo despite all the ranking points on offer.

This week won’t advance this theme significantly, because Nadal and Ferrer are the only members of the top 10 who will be playing in the Barcelona ATP 500. It’s easy to overlook this tournament, wedged as it is between Masters 1000 events, but it means a lot to the Spanish players and public. It’s the closest thing you can have to an invitational for the cream of the Spanish crop, and all the top men from that nation are entered. If you were wondering why Nadal bothers to play this event, there’s your answer, or at least part of it -- pride.

On the heels of that loss to Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Nadal now is officially more successful at Barcelona. He’s won it eight times in nine tries, just to make sure all those other Spanish dudes remember who the boss is. Nadal is the least shaky of the Big Four, but the fact remains that he hasn’t won a tournament since Rio in mid-February. He’s been a bust in his last three events -- all Masters 1000s, including one on clay. If Nadal doesn’t get the win this week in Barcelona, we’ll embark on the heart of the clay-court season in more exciting disarray than we’ve experienced in a long while.

The walls of the fortress may still be pretty solid, but cracks are always more likely to expand than to close up.
The clay-court swing is officially underway, the first blow struck by Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who won on the green clay of Charleston last Sunday.

There are WTA events underway this week in Katowice, Poland, and Bogota, Colombia, where top seeds Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic (respectively) are rolling along.

On the ATP side, the clay season is off to a bizarre start.

The top seeds in the two ATP 250 events now underway (Casablanca, Morocco and Houston, Texas) didn’t get a win between them: ATP No. 9 John Isner was dusted in Houston in the second round (he had a first-round bye) by Dustin Brown. Ditto for No. 19 Kevin Anderson, who was busted in Morocco by 32-year-old No. 89 player Victor Hanescu. He’s exactly the kind of clay-bred warrior who presents often unsolvable problems for players such as Isner and Anderson, whose power isn’t complemented by the kind of patience -- or consistency -- that wins matches on clay.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Ella Ling/BPI/Icon SMIDoes early 2014 success have Ana Ivanovic primed for wins on clay?
The results thus far seem emblematic of what lies in store on both tours in the coming weeks. The women are loaded with players who enjoy the clay and know how to play it, like the those mentioned above.

And let’s not forget that the winner in Monterey, Calif., (a last lingering hard-court event) last week was former French Open champ Ana Ivanovic. The women’s tour is chockablock with contenders on clay. Jankovic has been No. 1 in the world and, like current No. 3 Radwanska, she’s been a Grand Slam finalist.

Should Serena Williams surrender the stranglehold she has on the WTA tour in the coming weeks, it’s really impossible to say who, if anyone, might take her place. No. 2 Li Na has been more consistent than ever in recent months, but she’s wandered off-script before. Victoria Azarenka has been out with a foot injury, and she’s not due back until Madrid in early May; who knows how long it will be until she’s match tough again? Maria Sharapova, down to No. 8, hasn’t made a final this year.

The ATP side of the game offers a clearer picture. Rafael Nadal has shown no signs of being anything less than the ruthless, implacable, inexorable punisher of the Euroclay segment. Over the last nine years, he’s won Monte Carlo (the first of the red clay Masters 1000 events) eight times, and the Madrid and Rome Masters titles a combined nine times. He’s feasted on red clay, and he’s coming back for more like he always does.

Nadal, current ATP No. 1, lost exactly one match during the two-month clay-court season last year, and that was to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. It strains credulity to envision Nadal losing more often this year, unless Djokovic can hit the level he found when he hammered Nadal in the recent Miami Masters final. That match reminded pundits of 2011, when Djokovic won six straight against Nadal (two of those wins in the two major Euroclay Masters, Madrid and Rome).

Djokovic has to prove that he can resurrect -- and sustain -- that level on clay. Nadal is 13-3 against Djokovic on the surface, and while many of those wins were early in the rivalry (Djokovic is 3-4 in their last seven meetings on dirt), clay remains the surface on which Nadal is most effective against his nemesis.

Roger Federer, back up to No. 4, was feeling so exuberant after clinching the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan that he took a wild card into Monte Carlo. It was a bold and confident move, but let’s remember that Nadal is even more dominant over Federer on clay than he is over Djokovic. Nadal is 13-2 against the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. He hasn't lost to Federer on clay since May 2009.

As for the rest of the ATP cast, Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has slowed down in recent weeks, faltering in the fourth round at Indian Wells and Miami. Top 10 staples such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (now down to No. 12) and Richard Gasquet have failed to deliver when it most counts. Andy Murray, No. 8 and the defending Wimbledon champ, always seems to struggle on clay.

If we’re going to witness a shake-up in the pecking order, it’s more likely to occur on the women’s side. Nadal is a Superman on red clay; only Djokovic has the kryptonite, and Nadal is usually immune even to that.

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