The men's tennis tour moved to the clay courts this week, where a lot of questions will be answered in the next six weeks leading up to the French Open. Who's fit and who's pretending? Will the old Roger-Rafa dichotomy be reestablished? Can in-form Andy Roddick do damage? Whither goest the Joker, Novak Djokovic? Can any of the young talent break through?
Place two fairly large question marks next to the names of the former princes of Roland Garros, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both of whom floundered badly in the spring U.S. hard court season. Let's start with Nadal.
The Spanish Beast
Based on past performance, Rafael Nadal would normally be considered the preeminent favorite to continue winning most every clay court tournament he enters. But Nadal's battle toughness -- a huge gun in his arsenal -- seems unusually fragile as he finds his way back from injury. Nadal had knee and leg problems that contributed to his fall from grace at Roland Garros last year, where he was going for his fifth French Open in a row.
While physically sound now, the memory of his injury seems to be holding Nadal back mentally. He hasn't won a tournament in a year (!) and his results in 2010 are losses in a final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final. Perhaps wary of reinjuring himself, he's not quite the fearless, savage, pedal-to-the-metal performer who tumbled Roger Federer from the Number 1 perch in 2008.
Question No 1: Will the Beast regain his nerve on European clay?
The Swiss Master
Roger Federer: What a difference a year makes. About this time last year sports columnists were writing Roger off as washed up. He'd broken down in tears at the Australian Open after losing AGAIN to Nadal, and had pulverized his racket in a most un-Federer moment of pique while losing in Key Biscayne in March. As the clay season loomed last year, Federer was still trailing Pete Sampras for most grand slams, and many were saying it didn't look like he would ever make it.
Well, if you've read this far, you know what happened next. Federer roared past Pete in the record books by winning the French and Wimbledon 2009 titles and this year's Australian Open. He silenced all debate about whether or not he was the GOAT, Greatest of all Time.
But at 28, you have to wonder how hungry Federer is for the daily grind of the tour. Other than the Australian, his results have been poor this year, losing in the 3rd and 4th rounds of the top hard court tourneys in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. It's possible that he's becoming more of a Serena Williams player, one who only gets pumped up for the grand slams and loses rank and file tournaments.
Or is he slowly losing his edge after earning zillions of Euros, receiving every accolade for his sportsmanship and peerless play, and becoming the father of twin daughters born last summer ...
Question No. 2: How much does Federer have left?
After spending most of the last 4 years as the world's No. 3 player behind the Federer-Nadal mountain, Serbia's Novak Djokovic may be in good position to take advantage of the shifting rock at the top of the game. He made a strong run in Fall 2009, winning several tournaments including a win over Federer. He seems stronger, both mentally and physically.
The knock in the past has been whether Djokovic had the inner fortitude to tough out physically demanding moments, such as heat sickness in grueling matches. Only he can know how tough he is, but Djokovic is one of the few ATP players to wrestle away a Grand Slam win (Australian 2008) during the past 6 years, when the Federer-Nadal block won 21 of the last 25 slams.
Question No. 3: Can the Joker run the table?
While you normally wouldn't be mentioning Andy Roddick in a clay court preview, the big-serving American, at age 27, is playing some of the finest tennis of his career. He wrapped up the hard court season making the finals in Indian Wells and winning in Key Biscayne, his first Tier 1 (the biggest tournaments after slams) win since 2006.
If you've been following the Andy storyline then you know a year ago he lost 15 lbs. and improved his quickness. He also showed a willingness to take risks in his win against Nadal in the Key Biscayne semis, flattening out his strokes and forcing the action.
Clay is Roddick's least favorite surface, and you have to think that his eyes are on Wimbledon, where he came within a millimeter of winning against Federer last year. But as the clay season unfolds you have to wonder ...
Question No. 4: How much damage can Roddick do on clay?
A year ago it looked like Scotland's Andy Murray, who at one point had beaten Roger Federer five times in a row, was poised to make a breakthrough and become the first Brit to win a grand slam since Fred Perry in 1936. He came close, reaching the Australian Open final in January, but lost badly to Federer. Results since Australia have been spotty, and Murray, like Roddick, is probably looking to the green grass of Wimbledon.
Question No. 5: Will Murray get his mojo back on clay?
The Spaniards (and Argentines)
For some reason the Spanish speakers fare well on clay; a whole armada of Spaniards make their careers mainly on their clay court performance. Rolando Garros, more than any other Grand Slam, tends to favor one-slam wonders -- Gaston Gaudio, Andres Gomez -- who grew up playing on clay and did not have great success on other surfaces.
Los jugadores who could do well in the clay season include: U.S. Open Winner Juan Martin Del Potro, coming back from a wrist injury; Chilean veteran Fernando Gonzalez;. And Spain's Fernando Verdasco, Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer.
Question: Which non-Nadal Spanish speakers will win on clay this Spring?
A few others round out the cast of clay court contenders. Nikolay Davydenko ended 2009 strongly, beating Federer and Nadal and winning the season-ending championships. But he's been out with an injury, and it's unclear if he will compete in time for the French Open. Sweden's Robin Soderling, the David who slew the Nadal giant last May, continues to improve as does huge-serving Croatian Marin Cilic.
When the clay dust clears and the French Open comes around, will it be Federer and Nadal facing off in the final, as it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008? Or some other mix? What do you think?
David Hancock is home page editor for CBSNews.com. He played on the West Phoenix High School freshman tennis team in 1972.