Nadal opened up on his competition (Picture: Getty Images)Rafael Nadal may well be the overwhelming favourite to dominate on the clay once more in 2019 but he believes there is a crop of young stars who can challenge the established guard this time around.
His own preparations for his favoured surface have been disrupted by a knee injury – he was only able to begin practising two weeks ago – but he will chase a record 12th title in Monte Carlo before eventually going on to target the same feat at Roland Garros.
Nadal’s injury woes combined with Novak Djokovic’s brilliance at Grand Slam level in recent times suggests there is at least one contender to dethrone the 32-year-old Spaniard, while Dominic Thiem – last year’s French Open finalist – impressed on the hard courts of Indian Wells and is expected to offer a serious challenge once more.
Roger Federer’s return to clay, for the first time since 2016, is also intriguing and Nadal believes he can still be a contender at the clay-court Slam he won in 2009.
Federer will return to clay (Picture: TPN/Getty Images)And the world No. 2 also pointed out some of the young guns – namely Stefanos Tsitsipas, Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov – who he believes could make an impact.
‘We can’t predict the future, so I hope to be one of them,’ he said of this year’s clay-court contenders. ‘You never know.
‘So there is a young generation coming, and they are good, and they play well on clay, too. So let’s see about Felix, let’s see about Shapovalov, let’s see about Tsitsipas. They are good. They are good in all the surfaces, and they like to play on clay, too. And they played matches on clay already.
‘Going to be an interesting clay court season. Of course Dominic is one of the candidates for everything, especially after winning in Indian Wells. Novak always, of course. And let’s see, for Roger, always is a candidate.
Djokovic is expected to challenge (Picture: Getty Images)‘Let’s see how he’s able to adapt his game again to the clay after a while without playing on clay. I don’t think will be a big trouble for him, because he has the talent. But let’s see. I can’t tell you now. Let’s wait a couple of weeks.’
Nadal will face compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut in his opening match on Court Prince Rainier III on Wednesday in an all-Spanish affair – a potentially tough opener on paper, particularly if he’s not fully fit.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion, as ever, was reluctant to big up his own chances on the dirt – where he has lost just two matches in the past two years – and opened up on his recent injury struggles.
‘I don’t know. I understand the clay court season. I can’t tell you any feeling,’ he said.
‘You know, have been a tough year and a half for me, so it’s tough to have a clear view about how I am, because I had too many stops in between. I didn’t find the way to play three weeks in a row or this kind of stuff without problems. So have been hard for me personally.
‘So is normal that when you have these things going on, in the mental part you are a little bit more up and down, so now is work of every day and is the work of try to improve, small improvements in every practice, because I had to stop after Indian Wells for a while again and start slow. So it’s always like a comeback, no?
‘So let’s see. It’s important for me to have a good practice tomorrow before the tournament start and then try to be competitive for the first round. Gonna be a tough one. So let’s see.’
On Tuesday, Djokovic will begin his quest for a third Monte Carlo title against Philipp Kohlschreiber – who famously upset him at Indian Wells – while Britain’s Cam Norrie will take on France’s Adrian Mannarino.
Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsgona are among the other players in action.