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.