When thinking about clay court tennis what are the first things that come to mind?
First and foremost it's probably Rafael Nadal the king of Clay! The way Rafa has dominated this particular surface is like nothing we have ever seen before. The holder of 63 clay court titles and a mindblowing 14 French Open titles is just some of the amazing records the great Spaniard holds.
When looking at his game on the surface it's not hard to see why he is so dominant. Powerful groundstrokes with heavy topspin, pushing opponents back mixed with delicate touch shots but perhaps more important than the physical make-up of Rafa's game is the mental side.
His mental toughness to outlast his opponents and wear them down playing every point as if his life depends on it. The mental strength required on the red dirt is perhaps more telling and critical than the other surfaces.
Clay courts can be a great leveller, where a huge server can get a lot of free points on the other surfaces, the service can be nullified by a deep return position and someone who is willing to grind and fight for every point.
At the top level of the sport, everyone there certainly knows how to hit a tennis ball so the mental and physical strength to be prepared to play long gut-busting rallies time and time again is even more important on clay.
As a viewer, I love watching clay court tennis for a variety of reasons but watching two great opponents go toe to toe in long physical rallies and seeing who can outlast his opponent or who can come up with a final brilliant shot to end the point is for me what is great about tennis on this surface.
Now that the clay swing is upon us who are we going to see be real contenders for the pinnacle of the clay season the French Open.
Rafa who we haven't seen play since the Australian Open in January due to injury is still trying to recover and come back to the tour. It's been a very long layoff for him but if he can get a couple of tournaments in before Roland Garros start then he still has to be considered the favourite or one of as we have seen him win it before on limited preparation.
Novak Djokovic is an exceptional clay court player and still clearly the man to beat on the tour. He has won the Major twice and has been beaten by Nadal a further 8 times preventing him from having many more French Open titles.
Carlos Alcaraz has proven that he is the main contender outside of the big two mentioned above with what he has already achieved in his short career to date. His game looks perfectly suited to clay and he has beaten both Nadal and Djokovic on the surface. Missing Monte Carlo this week with some injury concerns, here is hoping we see him in Barcelona next week on the road to Paris.
Stefanos Tsitipas has shown that clay could be his best surface over the years being 2 sets to love up on Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final and by weekends end is hoping to make it three consecutive Monte Carlo titles on the red dirt.
Alexander Zverev has also shown that he is very capable on the surface reaching the semi-final last year at the French Open and locked into an enthralling contest with Nadal before a disastrous injury struck him down. He is having a indifferent return in 2023 - 10-10 win loss, hoping he can build some form with two Masters 1000's in Madrid and Rome to come before the French.
Caper Ruud has been building over the years on the clay cleaning up titles before reaching the French Open final last year where he was humbled by Nadal. He will be looking to take an extra step this year.
Jannik Sinner has shown his game is suited to the surface with his easy power and ski-like movement across the court, he'll be looking for a deep run.
Dominic Theim has been struggling to find form for a while now after a long injury lay-off but we have seen in the past that his game is perfectly suited to the surface when on.
He made back-to-back French Open finals in 2018/19 where he was only stopped by Nadal. Dominic is a long way from that form at the moment but he does have the game if he can find it.
So the intrigue is there with what we will see in this clay court swing.
All the players mentioned above and plenty of others will know that going into these big matchups on clay that their mental game can be the difference between winning and losing on tennis most pure surface.
As the king of clay said himself " I learned during all my career to enjoy the suffering " Who will enjoy the suffering the most this clay court season... let's find out?