The heavy pounding has ceased. We won't be hearing any hard-court complaints on the professional tours for the next couple of months, and it's off to more exotic locales: Rome, Madrid, Paris and that most exquisite of all tennis settings, Monte Carlo. A few thoughts on the clay-court season, which begins next week ...
? I've always enjoyed watching David Ferrer, even as he hits that inevitable roadblock against the Big Four. He represents everything honorable about the sport and how it should be played. I'd love to see him break through with a title on the clay-court circuit, even as Rafael Nadal's presence looms so ominously, because he needs it -- badly.
When have you ever seen Ferrer (a) give up on a point or (b) fight through cramps and fatigue as early as the third set? Both of those things happened in the Miami final against Andy Murray, and it won't be easy for Ferrer to shake the memory of his match point at 5-6 on Murray's serve in the third set. Murray drilled a forehand right on the baseline, Ferrer stopped play to challenge the non-call and the replay showed "in."
This was so out of character for Ferrer, he could hardly believe it himself.
"I'm sorry," he told the crowd, later saying, "Bad moment. I want to forget it as soon as possible."
This man needs a stirring result, on his favorite surface, to ease his troubled soul.
? The U.S. has never failed to place at least one man in the top 20 since the ranking system was put in place 40 years ago. The streak is just barely intact -- Sam Querrey sits squarely on No. 20 -- and is likely to end by the conclusion of the French Open, if not before.
Querrey has never shown much consistency on clay, and this is hardly his favorite time of the year. He was bounced out of last year's French Open in the first round (tough draw: Janko Tipsarevic), and his reputation took a massive hit at Roland Garros three years ago, when he took a discouraging loss, admitted he was "mentally fried," bailed out on the doubles with John Isner and flew back to California.
Isner, ranked 23rd, appeared to have made a dramatic clay-court breakthrough in last year's Davis Cup when he beat Roger Federer in Switzerland and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in France, each en route to U.S. victories. But the rest of his season was a disaster. After departing early at Madrid, Rome and Nice, he lost to 261st-ranked Paul-Henri Mathieu at the French Open and said his confidence was totally shot -- "I don't even want to think about tennis right now. I just let this whole trip get to me."
There is nothing in the pile of recent evidence to suggest Isner or Querrey can forestall a drop in the rankings. No man in the top 20? That would be the most discouraging news in American men's tennis since Andy Roddick's retirement.
? With Nadal so fearful of hard courts and Federer in the twilight, their head-to-head matchups become precious gems on tour. Let's see it happen at least twice in the upcoming clay-court finals, and be sure to appreciate this rivalry while it's still in play. John McEnroe never played Bjorn Borg on clay (McEnroe reached the French Open semifinals only twice in his career).
? You can't beat Nadal in a very high-profile tournament and then just disappear. It would be nice to hear more from Argentina's Horacio Zeballos, the 39th-ranked player who shockingly defeated Nadal at Vina del Mar, Chile, in the first tournament of Nadal's comeback. Zeballos couldn't get past the second round at either Indian Wells or Miami, but he loves the clay. A rematch with Nadal, at any stage of any event, would be fascinating.
? The tennis community was in an uproar last year when Ion Tiriac, mastermind of the Madrid event, unveiled a blue clay surface. This was an acceptable idea for just one reason: The ball is much easier to follow on TV. But a number of players (notably Nadal and Novak Djokovic) complained about the slippery surface, and for those with a traditional bent, it was an aesthetic disaster. Many of us don't care if the ball is a bit obscured against the backdrop of red clay; it just feels right.
Clay courts mean crushed brick, red-colored stains on the clothing after an all-out dive, a sense that all is earthy and natural. Madrid's center court has no architectural character in the first place, and the blue clay only served to diminish the event -- as if somehow it didn't matter. How splendid that the good red clay will be in place this year.
? Among the matchups I'd like to see along the way:
Bernard Tomic vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov: These two played a fabulous match at the 2012 Australian Open (Tomic, 6-3 in the fifth), causing some to wonder if they were watching the future of tennis. If only that were the case. These are the masters of improvisational genius, their clever virtuosity such a welcome tonic to baseline drudgery. Sadly, their white-hot flame often turns to soot, in the form of incomprehensible losses. But when they're both in the zone, it's priceless theater.
Michael Llodra vs. Benoit Paire: Who wouldn't want to see a rematch after the first round at Miami, where the two nearly came to blows and Llodra called his fellow Frenchman "a little s?t?" There was no handshake at the conclusion of Llodra's win, with Paire saying later, "I won't ever talk to him again. He insulted me." I'd say Roland Garros would be the perfect setting for an encore.
Sloane Stephens vs. Victoria Azarenka: Perhaps a win would be too much to ask of Stephens, after her desultory performances of late, but she won't stay down for long. She's learning what it takes to be a professional -- consistent in her play, her on-court demeanor and her relations with the press -- and she's going to win all of those battles in time. Both of these players need to erase the memory of the Australian Open, when Azarenka's ill-timed bathroom break cast such negative light on her win.
Maria Sharapova vs. Serena Williams: Sharapova may be the only person in the world who feels there's "no doubt" she will be able to beat Serena, as she claimed after the Miami final. That encounter did little to alter the dynamics of this matchup, with Serena winning 10 straight games to close it out. Interesting, though, how Sharapova has made such formidable strides on clay. All three of her 2012 titles came on that surface -- Stuttgart, Rome and Roland Garros -- and few of history's great players can claim such success after being labeled a hopeless case (think Pete Sampras or Roddick) on that surface.
? When it comes to the all-time greats on clay, most discussions center on Borg (five French Open titles) or Nadal's unrelenting magnificence. Not nearly enough attention is granted Chris Evert, who won a record seven French Opens and, astonishingly, won 125 straight matches on clay between August 1973 and May 1979 (Tracy Austin ended the streak, 7-6 in the third, in the semifinals of the Italian Open). When you catch Evert's TV commentary during this year's French, know you're watching the most accomplished of them all.