Posted on April 14 2021
The 2021 clay court season is upon us and as the pros head to the Monte Carlo Country Club to kick off their clay court campaigns, let's break down who the main contenders are this year and what rackets they’ll be using.
In my opinion, there are three players who stand above the rest when it comes to men’s clay court tennis. And it’s not the ‘Big 3’ you might be thinking of…
Of course, we can’t mention clay court tennis without mentioning the king of clay himself, Rafael Nadal. You’re a fool to bet against him on this surface and he’ll be back on court with his Babolat Pure Aero later this week in Monaco. There are some questions over his health this year as he looked far below his best in Australia as he struggled with a back injury. But he hasn’t played since the Australian Open and looks to be in fine form on the practise courts after two months of rest and rehab.
Rafa is a major contender at any clay court event he plays regardless of the build-up or circumstances. Like I say, you’ll be hard pressed to bet against a man who has won 13 Roland Garros titles. That’s right, I said 13.
Novak Djokovic is unbeaten so far in 2021 and he’ll be planning on extending that run as far into the season as he can. He hasn’t played since winning his record 9th Australian Open at Melbourne Park in February. He is undoubtably Rafa’s greatest challenger on clay this year and he’ll be keen to avenge his straight set loss to Nadal in last year’s Roland Garros Final. Quotes from Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic have indicated that Djokovic is hell bent on revenge. Earlier this year Goran commented on Djokovic’s harsh defeat at the hands of Nadal, saying:
“To be honest, I do not think Novak could repeat it even if he wanted to. Rafa is the favourite, no doubt about that, but favourites do not always win.”
It will be fascinating to see what happens if Novak and Rafa meet on the clay before Roland Garros this year, tensions will be high and history will be on the line. It’s worth noting that Djokovic grew up on clay after all, and his ability on the surface is most likely overlooked due to his success on hard courts and Rafa’s dominance on the dirt.
Djokovic will of course be using his trusty Head Graphene 360+ Speed Pro Novak Special Edition. I have to say the all-black paint job bears a striking resemblance to a certain Roger Federer’s Wilson Pro Staff... imitation is the highest form of flattery after all.
And the 3rd member of my unofficial clay court ‘Big 3’ is none other than the prince of clay himself, Dominic Thiem. He has earned that title by notching up four wins against King Rafa on his beloved red dirt, a feat only surpassed by Djokovic with seven wins against Rafa on clay.
However, there are more questions hanging over Thiem as we head into this year’s clay season than in previous years. He’s had a pretty awful 2021 so far beginning with a 4th round loss at the Australian Open and then subsequent early defeats in Doha and Dubai. He’s taken some time away from tennis to ‘come up with new ideas’ to rekindle his hunger for the game. It seems that he’s fallen into a bit of a mental slump since his US Open victory last year, this is a relatively common pattern that we see when a new Major champion is crowned.
I should mention that he’s also struggled with a foot injury, but Thiem has stated that he’s fully recovered from that now. With all that said, I still think he’ll be a key contender during this year’s clay season. His game revolves around heavy topspin shots and he’s definitely a clay court specialist despite his recent success on hard courts.
Thiem uses the Babolat Pure Strike Tour which is a heavy, spin orientated racket designed for maximum weight of shot mixed with control. If you enjoy ripping the living day lights out of the ball like Thiem, then consider giving this racquet a demo.
Dominic kicks off his clay court campaign in Belgrade as he’s opted to skip Monte Carlo this year. After a mental reset, Thiem will surely be fresh and motivated when he takes to the dirt later this month.
If, like the pros, you plan on playing some clay court tennis this spring, then make sure you pay close attention when these three players take to the court. You might just gain a little inspiration that will aid you in your quest to master the dark art of clay court tennis.