There was a time, not so long ago, when the contrast in tennis surfaces amounted to the difference between quicksand and a bed of hot nails. The clay-court season represented a radical shift from American hard courts, and the onset of fast-track Wimbledon had the feel of a strangely different sport.
The demands of transition have become more subtle. Wimbledon play has slowed considerably over the past 10 years, due to an advanced strain of grass (100 percent rye) and heavier balls. The clay courts of Roland Garros have firmed up considerably, to the point where Brad Gilbert noted at last year's French Open that "people are playing through the court like it's a quick hard court." At Indian Wells and the recently concluded Miami tournament, players were unanimous in their observation that the courts played slower than ever.
Arguments rage back and forth as to whether such homogenization is progressive, but there's little doubt about the calendar's next phase: It's the most romantic time of year. With the clay-court season upon us, Rafael Nadal's reported schedule reads: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Paris, all in the glory of spring.
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A look ahead at some of the key players: