All hail the King of Clay! Rafael Nadal was rarely troubled at Roland-Garros when landing La Decima, and ten French Open singles titles is an astonishing achievement in the modern age, especially with the likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka on the scene.
It’s clear that the 31-year-old loves the clay surface more than any other, while it’s also a reasonable statement that Nadal prefers the hard court surfaces found in New York and Melbourne rather than the grass of Wimbledon. However, that hasn’t stopped the man from Manacor from winning two Grand Slam titles at SW19.
Nadal has previously had to work very hard on his grass court game in order to compete at the business end of Wimbledon tournaments, with victories in 2008 and 2010 sandwiched between runner-up achievements in 2006, 2007 and 2011.
More recently, Nadal has struggled to reach the second week at Wimbledon, with the King of Clay failing to reach the third round in four of the past five renewals. He was absent 12 months ago, though some are expecting a strong showing from a player who has hit the sort of level that has seen him land 15 Grand Slam titles.
Indeed, Nadal’s odds to win Wimbledon shortened during the 2017 French Open, despite the fact that this is a different surface and grass clearly favours the big-serving players in a way that clay does not.
On the flip side, the Spaniard’s odds are hovering around the 7.00 mark, and that’s not dissimilar to his price about winning the recent French Open when he was going through the draw at the 2017 Australian Open, with Nadal having previously demonstrated that he has the game for Wimbledon with some fine-tuning.
The fatigue factor
Nadal is a player who has suffered burnout throughout his career – something that is little surprise when you consider his all-action style of playing. While Roger Federer has always had a graceful style around the court, Nadal’s physical approach has led to a number of injuries along the way.
Winning a tenth French Open title was the main goal in 2017, and that has now been achieved. Indeed, Nadal played in virtually every clay court tournament, and perhaps those exertions will catch up with him at some point.
What is to Nadal’s advantage is that he didn’t play any long matches at Roland-Garros. In one match, his opponent retired halfway through the match, and the Spaniard won’t quite have believed that he was able to not only win La Decima but also doing this while not conceding a set in Paris.
However, Nadal has previously experienced issues with his knees on the grass surface, with a harder court failing to cushion the impact compared to the softer clay. It is something that is not lost on the 31-year-old ahead of the grass court season beginning.
“There has been a while since I don’t play very good Wimbledon,” said Nadal. “It’s true that after 2012 what happened with my knees, [it has] been tougher and tougher to compete on grass for me. But if I have pain on the knees, then I know from experience that it’s almost impossible. Because I need to feel strong, low, and powerful legs to play well in Wimbledon. If I don’t feel that, then probably my chances are not there, no?
“We’ll see how my knee behaves. Playing on grass is very special. You need to play at a lower level. The body posture is down. You have less stability on grass.”
Beware of the competition
Andy Murray is a player who is virtually certain to reach the final stages of the 2017 Wimbledon tournament. The Brit has reached the quarter-finals in the previous nine renewals, and he’s made the semi-finals on seven of those occasions.
Victories in 2013 and 2016, along with an Olympic gold medal at SW19 in 2012, means that Murray has to be taken very seriously, and the 30-year-old appears to be coming back towards his best form after a difficult start to 2017 after becoming world number one towards the end of last year.
Indeed, it seems to be forgotten that Murray is the world number one after toppling Djokovic in 2016, and his raising of the bar means that the Scot could be the player to beat, especially at a familiar venue where he can count on home support throughout the Wimbledon fortnight.
Roger Federer played no part at Roland-Garros, and his decision to miss the entire clay court season could benefit the veteran player enormously when it comes to the grass court period and beyond. Let’s not forget the stunning performances Down Under, which saw the Fed Express land the 2017 Australian Open title.
Federer followed this up with victories at Indian Wells and Miami, with Boris Becker among those onlookers who expect the Swiss to perform very well when Wimbledon comes around.
“So far he has dominated, he is 35 and I thought from the beginning that he should have rested until the grass season events,” said Becker.
“When I knew he wouldn’t have played in Paris, I thought ‘very well, great move.’
“It’s very likely that Roger wins Wimbledon this year. He won in Australia, Indian Wells and Miami, then he took time off.
“I think it’s very likely that he wins his eighth title at the All England Club and the 19th grand slam title of his career.”
What about Novak Djokovic, a player who looked unstoppable two years ago, though has now hit a blip in his career that doesn’t look easy to remedy?
Since winning the French Open last year, his Grand Slam record is 3R-F-2R-QF, and the Serbian no longer looks invincible. Djokovic was beaten by Dominic Thiem in the 2017 French Open and admitted after that defeat that he wasn’t in great form, with Andre Agassi the latest coach to try to squeeze some improvement from the world number four.
Djokovic has won three of the previous six Wimbledon renewals, though this is the first time in eight years that he has dropped out of the top three in the world rankings, with the 12-time Grand Slam champion admitting that he has some hard thinking ahead of the next phase of the season.
“I love this sport," said Djokovic following his Roland-Garros exit. "I’m motivated as any other player on the Tour. Even though I have played for many years, I still want to do well. The least I can do is give my all whenever I’m holding a racket in my hand. But sometimes circumstances are such that you are not able to perform as well as you want.
“I always expect a lot from myself, but it’s a fact that I’m not playing close to my best, and I know that. All the top players have been through [it]. I guess you’ve got to go through it, try to learn your lessons and figure out a way how to get out of it stronger. It’s a big challenge, but I’m up for it.
“I was planning to play only Wimbledon. I might play a lead-up event; I might not. I have responsibility to the game itself, towards others. It’s not an easy decision to make.”
From a betting perspective, many might not look beyond the “big four” for Wimbledon 2017, though there are plenty of big-serving players who can go deep in this tournament, and they’ll consider any of the top men as beatable for various reasons.
Milos Raonic reached the final last year and appears to warm to grass, while Nick Kyrgios could have claims if the Australian is able to put together consistent performances, and he might eventually mature into something special.
Alexander Zverev is a player who is storming up the world rankings, and the German will be looking to emulate compatriots such as Boris Becker and Michael Stich, while the same applies to Marin Čilić, who can look to Goran Ivanišević for inspiration when he takes to the court at SW19.
Nevertheless, there is no time like the present for Nadal, who will be making sure that he’s fully recovered from his exertions on clay before formulating a game plan leading up to Wimbledon. The problem is likely to be breaking the serve of the big hitters and indulging in a series of tie-breaks even if he’s to come through several rounds at SW19.
Providing that the Spaniard’s knees withstand the grass court surface and he is able to continue the form that saw him wipe the clay with every opponent in Paris, then we might see the new world number two go very close at Wimbledon, though Murray and Federer are two big obstacles blocking his way.
Wimbledon 2017 betting odds