2014 ATP Clay Court Season In Review
Steen Kirby, Tennis East Coast
In review: The 2014 ATP Clay Court Season
After Kitzbuhel concluded last week, the clay court calendar portion of the 2014 ATP season came to an end. With that conclusion, we can now review which players performed the best, and which players underachieved on the dirt this season. Clay courts comprise a large portion of the ATP calendar so there is a much larger sample size to draw from compared to, say, the grass court season.
Biggest clay court surprise: Leonardo Mayer
27 year old journeyman Argentine Leonardo Mayer has transformed himself into a top 30 player this season and his best results have come on clay. He posted 18 wins on the surface compared to just 10 losses this season at the ATP level and scored wins over household names David Ferrer, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Joao Sousa and Tommy Robredo on the surface; he also pushed top 6 player Tomas Berdych to three sets in Oeiras.
He reached his first career final in Vina Del Mar, but fell short against Fabio Fognini there, and he finally got his maiden title in Hamburg over Ferrer in 3 sets. Winning that final set tiebreak ended a long journey to the top 30 for Leo and he remains an under recognized and underappreciated Argentine player. With Del Potro perpetually injured and Nalbandian now retired, Argentine will have to look to the likes of Mayer to carry Davis Cup and national hopes for a while. He reached the third round of the French Open and had quarterfinal appearances in both Oeiras and Nice to round out his best results on clay for 2014.
Honorable mentions for clay court surprise: Carlos Berlocq, Santiago Giraldo, Kei Nishikori, Roberto Bautista Agut
Carlos Berlocq joins his countryman Mayer as a surprising player this season. He won an ATP title for the second year in a row, this time coming in Oeiras where he upset and outlasted Tomas Berdych. The loud and flamboyant dirtballer also posted quarterfinals in Nice and a semifinal in Bastad to compliment his win in Oeiras. This highlights an overall 16-9 record on clay at the ATP level for 2014. He tends to get overmatched in the masters level and grand slam events but against a 250 level field he often flourishes. Notable opponents he defeated this year on clay include Andreas Seppi, Milos Raonic, Ferrer and Lleyton Hewitt at the French, along with the aforementioned Berdych.
Santiago Giraldo, a shotmaking Colombian with a huge forehand, has also had some of the best success of his career this season. He went 19-11 on clay and though he did not win a title, he reached the final in Barcelona, his second career final, along with semis in Houston and Vina Del Mar, and a pair of quarterfinals in Madrid and Stuttgart. Giraldo beat top players Tommy Robredo, Andy Murray, Nicolas Almagro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga this season. Giraldo joins Mayer as a first time top 30 player after success on clay.
Kei Nishikori had an underappreciated clay court season this year, partially due to the fact that he had to battle injuries during that portion of the season, He played just three tournaments but posted a 10-2 record in them with a title in Barcelona and a final in Madrid, where he took a set off Nadal but had to retire during the third set of the match. He had top tier wins over Roberto Bautista Agut, Marin Cilic, Ferrer, Ernests Gulbis, and Raonic among his 10 overall and should he be able to stay healthy he has shown himself to be a threat on clay.
Bautista Agut is the last player I’ll discuss. He went 12-5 on clay and won his first title on the surface in Stuttgart over Lukas Rosol. Success on clay has helped him reach the top 20 for the first time in his career and he beat Robredo, Fernando Verdasco, and Fognini this year on the surface. RBA doesn’t play prototypical Spanish tennis but he’s still a top performing Spaniard on red clay.
Biggest upset: ATP Barcelona quarterfinals: Nicolas Almagro d. Rafael Nadal 2-6 7-6(5) 6-4
The powerful Spaniard Almagro had been outclassed by his much more successful countryman Nadal eight previous times on clay. Finally, Nico was able to get a victory against perhaps the greatest clay courter of all time. The first set was a routine affair, but Almagro fought back hard and Rafa played poorly, resulting in Nadal’s first loss on clay after winning the first set in over six years. Nadal had his chances to close out the match in the second, and didn’t face break points himself, but he couldn’t convert and the tiebreak went against him, giving Almagro an opening he took advantage of by winning a decisive fifth and final break in the third set to seal the victory. Nadal struggled to win his service points, and at the time, many were deeply worried about how he was playing going into the French Open. The fact Rafa did win the French perhaps makes this victory by Almagro look even more improbable and top quality, given Rafa showed his career wasn’t in serious decline yet.
Clay court breakthroughs: Dominic Thiem, Alex Zverev and Dusan Lajovic
A trio of young players found maiden ATP success on clay, while new Austrian number one Dominic Thiem was a mere 12-8 on clay at the ATP level. He went 4-0 in qualifying matches on the surface and won multiple main draw matches in Barcelona, Madrid and Hamburg. He finally reached his first career ATP final on home soil in Kitzbuhel and appears very close to his first career ATP title. Thiem had notable wins over Radek Stepanek and Stan Wawrinka this year on clay.
Alex Zverev, a teenager, notably made the semifinals in Hamburg, a one off showing but clearly a sign of things to come for the young German. Zverev had wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Giraldo en route. I have a feeling Thiem vs. Zverev may develop into a clay court rivalry in the future. Both players have things to work on but we could have a Germany vs. Austria French Open final come 2018 or beyond.
Dusan Lajovic established himself as a top 70 player with a strong clay court season. He also established himself as the Serbian number 2 behind Djokovic and should feature on their Davis Cup team for quite some time. He went 14-11 in both ATP main draw action and qualifying on clay this season and along with quarters in Hamburg and Bastad, he reached the round of 16 at the French Open, his best ever result in a major. He didn’t beat many top names this season but he still proved he can grind out matches to increase his ranking.
Clay Court Disappointments: Tommy Robredo, Stan Wawrinka, Gilles Simon, Joao Sousa and Andreas Seppi
The well-liked veteran Spaniard Robredo went just 15-12 this year on clay after going a tremendous 25-10 on the surface in 2013. His age may finally be catching up with him as he reached just one final, one semi and one quarterfinal this season along with posting seven early round exits. Once he finishes this season he will have a lot to think about going into to 2015.
Wawrinka did not have a terrible clay court season, but he underachieved after high expectations were placed on him after winning his first grand slam in Australia at the start of the year. He won Monte Carlo, but that was the only highlight of his 6-3 clay court season. He had a trio of surprising early exits in Madrid, Rome and the French Open, and next season he will have much to gain during the clay court portion of the year. He posted a 43-17 record on clay over the previous two seasons before this one and has the ability to do much better than he did in 2014.
Veteran Frenchman Gilles Simon has struggled to stay healthy in 2014 and he had a disappointing clay court season that has contributed to his fall from the top 30. He won consecutive matches in a clay court tournament just twice this season and failed to beat any players ranked above him on the surface. He also had bad losses to Teymuraz Gabashvili, Lukasz Kubot and Pablo Andujar. He was a subpar 8-9 on the surface overall in 2014. ‘
After a breakthrough 2013, top Portugese player Joao Sousa was a disappointing 7-13 on clay in 2014, struggling against ATP level competition on the surface. He reached one quarterfinal and one final but suffered ten opening match exits and eleven early round exists overall with multiple losses to players ranked below him. Sousa will need to improve considerably and adjust his game if he hopes to be more successful on clay in the future.
After struggling on clay in 2013, Italian veteran Andreas Seppi did so again in 2014. He is just 18-22 on the surface over the past two seasons and was 11-12 this season. He failed to reach a semifinal in any clay court tournament this year.
First time winners: Federico Delbonis, David Goffin and Pablo Cuevas
23 year old Argentine Federico Delbonis won his maiden title in Sao Paulo and has been successful on clay overall this season, posting an 18-13 ATP record. He later made a final in Nice, semifinals in Casablanca and a quarterfinal in Stuttgart to complement his Sao Paulo victory. Delbonis also showed his prowess on the red stuff last season when he reached the final in Hamburg and he should be a name to watch in many clay court tournaments to come.
David Goffin snagged a maiden title in Kitzbuhel at the tail end of the clay court season after getting red hot on the ATP Challenger Tour prior. Goffin, who had that run to the fourth round as a qualifier at the 2012 French Open, and has seen his once promising career fade from the spotlight since then, returned to the challenger tour to find his game and hopefully he will be able to keep himself at the ATP level this time. Goffin is undersized and many players were able to hit him off the court at the top level but perhaps he has rediscovered a path to success for himself given the limitations of his physical stature.
Lastly, Pablo Cuevas, who has overcome multiple knee and shoulder injuries and built his ranking back up to ATP status from the challenger tour, won his maiden title at 28 years old in Bastad, then followed it up with a title in Umag a couple of weeks later. Cuevas makes his living on clay and has been rapidly improving as of late. He pushed Fernando Verdasco to five sets at the French Open and has wins over Robredo, Fognini, Seppi, Sousa, and Verdasco this season. Cuevas’ rise is a testament to his tenacity and the work he has put into his game.