Tennis clay season: Will Novak Djokovic play, can Rafa Nadal dominate and will Emma Raducanu cope?

Clay season in tennis is never dull and rarely predictable, so what are the big questions ahead of the 2022 edition?

With the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami now behind us, the tennis Tours are about to hit the red dirt for the European clay season.

It's a highly anticipated time of the tennis calendar due to its unpredictability and the truest test of a players' mettle.

So, what do we have to look forward to over the next two months?

What makes clay season different?

Clay season is always an interesting time in the tennis calendar because it completely shakes things up.

The vast majority of tennis these days is played on hardcourts, which favours the big servers and hitters. However, on clay those players find their favourite tools are taken out of their hands, with the balls tougher to push through the courts, more susceptible to spin and bounce. That makes the points, and therefore the matches, much longer and point construction crucial.

Clay court tennis

It is a time in the year for long, punishing wars of attrition on tennis courts, and it is when tennis truly becomes the survival of the fittest and smartest, not just the strongest.

For context, Boris Becker never won a single tournament on clay, and the even greater Pete Sampras could never win Roland Garros.

Players missing from clay season

There is no doubt that men's tennis especially is going through a genuine transitional period right now. Roger Federer is all but gone, and it's looking increasingly like Wimbledon will be his only real focus now.

He certainly won't be appearing on the clay this year, although that is nothing new for him. Even when he was fit, Federer customarily skipped clay season, believing it to be so physically demanding that he could extend his career considerably by simply avoiding the clay season. Given he is 40 years old and still not retired, that was probably a good call.

Andy Murray will be missing too, with him concluding last year that clay matches aggravated his hip too much.

Andy Murray reaching on clay

World number two Daniil Medvedev will also miss at least a big chunk of it, if not all of it. The Russian has been playing with a hernia this year, and he has decided now is the time to get it fixed. That is no real surprise. Medvedev hates clay.

At last year's Rome Masters, Medvedev said to the chair umpire at one point during a match against compatriot Aslan Karatsev: "You like to be in the dirt like a dog? It's okay, I don't judge." He later asked match supervisor Gerry Armstrong to disqualify him because he was so miserable on clay.

Rafael Nadal will miss some of the clay season too, and that is certainly significant. Nadal is the undoubted king of clay. Simply put, he is the best clay court player of all time. He suffered a cracked rib at Indian Wells last month, and he will be out until Madrid at the start of May at least.

World number six Matteo Berrettini has also recently had hand surgery. His return date is not yet known, but it's unlikely he'll play a full clay season this year. Nick Kyrgios has also confirmed he won't be playing the 2022 European clay season.

On the WTA side, Serena Williams will not take a full part. There is a good chance she will play the French Open as she owns an apartment in Paris, but she appears to be all but semi-retired now.

Former French Open champion Simona Halep and Sofia Kenin are carrying injuries and may miss some or all of the clay season, and Ukrainian Elina Svitolina has stepped away from tennis for a while due to a combination of a back injury and the situation in her homeland.

Simona Halep with French Open trophy

Ash Barty will obviously not be there, after choosing to announce her shock retirement last month.

Will Novak Djokovic play the clay season?

In a word, yes. Despite his ongoing battle with vaccination requirements, the tournaments fall quite nice for Djokovic and he is likely to play most of the tournaments.

He is a resident of Monte-Carlo, so has no problems playing there. He will also play the Serbian Open. That one being ran by his brother and taking place at the tennis facility Novak Djokovic himself owns obviously helps there.

Madrid and Rome are likely to be the other tournaments Djokovic wants to play before the French Open.

Novak Djokovic with French Open trophy

The real question will be what kind of tennis he can produce. Djokovic is a supreme athlete, but he has only played three matches so far this year and that will have impacted him physically compared to others. Clay is the last surface you want to be chasing fitness on too given the longer rallies and matches it produces.

Who is hot on clay, who is not?

On the ATP Tour, Rafael Nadal has dominated for so long on clay that others haven't really had a lot of opportunity to win much.

Expect Stefanos Tsitsipas to shine on clay, though, and Carlos Alcaraz should be a force on the red dirt too. Dominic Thiem has usually been the man to challenge Nadal on clay, but he is just back from a long injury and not expected to be anywhere near his best for some time.

Novak Djokovic, if fit, is of course exceptional on clay, as he is on all surfaces. You could put Djokovic on a sheet of ice and he'd make tennis look easy.

Other players you'd not necessarily expect to see compete for the biggest titles, such as Diego Schwartzman, will be much more prominent on clay too.

Diego Schwartzman on clay

Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev tends to do well on clay in Madrid, but that is a unique tournament. It is played at altitude that makes it behave more like a hardcourt. Generally, Zverev lacks the patience and discipline to do well on clay.

Naomi Osaka is another who really struggles to replicate her hardcourt tennis on clay, but generally the women players rely less on power than their male counterparts and are good enough at point construction to be all-court players.

This year will be the first clay season that Emma Raducanu has faced. That will make it a complete unknown in terms of predicting how she will do.

Emma Raducanu

Traditionally, British players have not shone on clay because they are brought up learning to serve and volley. That kind of tennis doesn't work on clay.

That may not affect Raducanu though, as she is yet to really develop a net game. Still, it will be fascinating to see what she is able to deliver on the toughest surface in tennis.

What makes Rafael Nadal SO good on clay?

Nadal was made for clay court tennis. he has several advantages that all seem to stack upon each other to make something genuinely special.

For context, 62 of Nadal's 91 career titles have been won on clay. he is a 13-time French Open winner, which is astonishing in itself.

Nadal failed last season at Roland Garros, losing to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. He was carrying a foot injury, though, specifically the one that ended his season early.

Rafael Nadal on clay

The greatest advantage Nadal seems to have on clay is the supreme top spin he can generate with his forehand. That makes the ball bounce up above the shoulder of opponents making it very tough to control.

He is also left-handed, which means he can get into cross-court exchanges, pinging that high-bouncing forehand to his rivals backhand side. Often, Nadal will pepper that side, pinning a right-handed opponent in their backhand corner to open up the whole court for winners.

Nadal will miss some of the clay season, but he will be the overwhelming favourite to dominate the moment he is back on court.

What are the highlights of the clay season?

Obviously the French Open at Roland Garros is the big prize, but there is a lot to look forward to before we get there.

There are three ATP Masters events in Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome, with the latter two WTA Premier events too.

Monte-Carlo Masters tennis

The end-of-season finals aside, that is the highest tier of tournament behind the four Grand Slams.

Barcelona and Stuttgart are prestigious stops on the tours as well, and Novak Djokovic's presence elevates the Serbia Open above ATP 250 level too.

Clay calendar

ATP Clay season

Monte-Carlo Masters (ATP 1000) April 10-17

Barcelona (ATP 500) April 18-24

Serbia Open (ATP 250) April 18-24

Munich (ATP 250) April 25-May 1

Estoril (ATP 250) April 25-May 1

Madrid Open (ATP 1000) May 1-8

Internazionali BNL d'Italia (ATP 1000) May 8-15

Geneva (ATP 250) May 15-21

Lyon (ATP 250) May 15-21

Roland Garros (Grand Slam) May 22-June 5

WTA Clay season (WTA 250 and above)

Stuttgart (WTA 500) April 18-24

Istanbul (WTA 250) April 18-24

Madrid Open (WTA 1000) April 28-May 7

Internazionali BNL d'Italia (WTA 1000) May 9-15

Strasbourg (WTA 250) May 15-21

Rabat (WTA 250) May 15-21

Roland Garros (Grand Slam) May 22-June 5

READ MORE: Top ten youngest ATP Masters winners: Where does Carlos Alcaraz feature?

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