Rafael Nadal leads players to watch during clay court campaign
Nadal, Thiem, Schwartzman, Isner or Alexander Zverev?
By Mathieu Wood
Last Updated: 08/04/18 3:48pm
From Rafael Nadal to maiden Masters champion John Isner, we profile five men targeting success during the clay court campaign.
As attention switches from the American hard courts, who will make the quickest transition onto the slower clay courts in Europe?
Here, we look at five contenders who could feature prominently on the red dirt in the lead up to the French Open…
Nadal is set to return to the ATP tour for the first time since his Australian Open quarter-final defeat in January, but has already made a successful return for Spain in the Davis Cup against Germany by winning both his singles' rubbers. The expectation is now for the 16-time Grand Slam champion to play at the prestigious Monte-Carlo Masters later this month and win an historic 11th title.
Nadal reclaims ATP top spot
Rafael Nadal has reclaimed top spot in the men's ATP rankings from Swiss rival Roger Federer as John Isner breaks back into the top 10.
The 31-year-old regained his world No 1 ranking but only holds a 100-point advantage over Federer and will be under pressure to defend the points he earned during a hugely successful campaign last year.
The Spaniard won a record 10th title at the prestigious event on the Cote d'Azur and consequently became the first man in the Open Era to win a single tournament 10 times. Nadal also won titles in Barcelona and Madrid before Dominic Thiem ended his 17-match unbeaten winning run in Rome. He arrived for the French Open as the overwhelming favourite and cruised through to the showpiece at Roland Garros before completing a successful fortnight with a resounding victory against Stan Wawrinka.
Greg & Annabel's sunshine talking points
Just as Roger Federer appeared to have control of the tennis landscape, we witness back-to-back maiden Masters 1000 champions in Juan Martin del Potro and John Isner.
Thiem is sure to be a player to make an imprint during the clay-court swing. The Austrian is known to relish the challenge of playing on the surface and should return in time from an ankle injury sustained at Indian Wells.
He underlined his credentials on clay with victory at the Argentina Open in February for a first title of the season and first since the Rio Open - also held on clay - nearly a year earlier.
Thiem has proved himself to be a viable threat to Nadal's dominance on the red dirt and was the only player to beat the Spaniard last year on clay. The world No 7 is a back-to-back French Open semi-finalist and there is no reason why he shouldn't impress once again in the lead-up to the second major of the campaign.
The term 'feisty competitor' doesn't do Schwartzman justice. Despite his diminutive stature he continues to punch well above his weight and has already picked up a title on the clay at the Rio Open.
The world No 15, coached by former clay court specialist and countryman Juan Ignacio Chela, struggled to replicate his early season form on the hard courts and should look forward to a return to a surface which is more familiar. His game plan is comparable to a youthful David Ferrer or Guillermo Coria - both players to have reached a French Open final.
Schwartzman has a good opportunity to make a move up the rankings with a strong clay court campaign after struggling to challenge in the latter stages last year - apart from his quarter-final run in Monte-Carlo.
Where next for the giant American? Can he build on his maiden Masters 1000 title at the Miami Open? Typically you might think he would struggle to replicate the form on clay but his record isn't as bad as you would imagine.
Isner moved up to a career-high equalling world No 9 with his victory in Florida after a challenging start to the season. If he can maintain his composure on the big points and continue to take the initiative with his serve then he could go deep during the European clay court season.
Last year he reached the semi-finals in Rome before losing to eventual champion Alexander Zverev in three sets. A career-best run to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros is a realistic target if the American can stay injury free.
His Miami Open final defeat arguably left more questions than answers but the German is without a doubt a contender on clay over the next two months. With a bit of time to iron out the flaws that hindered his ability to secure a third Masters Series title last week, he should be in contention for further honours.
'Lendl could take Zverev to next level'
Ivan Lendl would be a 'masterstroke' coaching appointment and form a great partnership with Alexander Zverev, says Greg Rusedski.
His early season form prior to Miami didn't show any anything of note and he endured more disappointment on the Grand Slam scene with a third round exit in Melbourne. Nevertheless, he's still only 20 years old and should take confidence from an excellent campaign on clay last year.
The world No 4 won on home soil in Munich and captured a maiden Masters 1000 title in Rome with victory over 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic. However, under the spotlight he suffered a first-round exit to veteran Fernando Verdasco in Paris.
Edmund excited for clay season
British No 1 Kyle Edmund is "100 per cent fit" and "excited" for the clay season following problems with injury and illness
We'll be back on Monday, April 16 for the start of the ATP Monte Carlo Rolex Masters with coverage underway from 9.30am on Sky Sports Arena.
Keep up to date with the latest on www.skysports.com/tennis with news, previews, live blogs, reports and expert analysis. On the move? Head to our app for mobile devices and iPad, or follow our Twitter account @SkySportsTennis to join in the conversation.
Tennis updates straight to your phone
How to receive all the latest tennis news straight to your mobile