Who's going to beat Rafael Nadal on clay this year? Short answer: Nobody. Long answer: Stuff happens.
Remember 2009? Robin Soderling happened to Nadal at the French Open. Sure, Nadal was struggling with tendinitis in his knees. But he showed up, swung the racket -- and there went his perfect 31-0, four-year Roland Garros string of perfection.
It's ridiculous to try to predict who will next beat Nadal on red dirt. But we can take a look at the contenders who have at least a small shot to unseat the King of Clay. We'll include their 52-week clay-court record, as well as their overall record against Nadal.
Alexander Zverev: 17-4 on clay, 0-3 vs. Nadal
Zverev, still just 21 but solidly entrenched at No. 3 in the ATP rankings, already has won a Masters 1000 on clay (Rome, 2017). He appears to have the tools that have posed problems for Nadal, even on slow surfaces: a smoking serve, big wingspan (he's 6-foot-6) and the ability to attack and shorten points. But Nadal crushed Zverev just two weeks ago on clay in Monte Carlo, 6-1, 6-1. The big issue: Zverev's movement. "He's still young; he just isn't as mobile or quick as some of the other guys yet," ESPN analyst Chris Evert told ESPN.com. "He's moving a little better now but may not be ready for this big a job yet."
Marin Cilic: 16-5 on clay, 2-5 vs. Nadal
Cilic, also 6-foot-6, is a sleeper in the beat-Rafa sweepstakes because he moves very well for a big man and is capable of overpowering anyone on a given day. A former US Open champion, the world No. 4 reached the final in two of the past three majors -- Wimbledon (2017) and the recent Australian Open. He has an excellent 52-week record on clay and the two-handed backhand that seems a prerequisite for holding your own against the King of Clay.
But Cilic didn't post any standout wins on the dirt. His win over Nadal in the quarters of the Australian Open has an asterisk because Nadal retired in the fifth set of that excruciatingly close contest. Cilic's other win over Nadal also was on a hard court -- way back in 2009 in Beijing.
Grigor Dimitrov: 9-5 on clay, 1-11 vs. Nadal
Fans tend to love Dimitrov's explosive, exuberant one-handed backhand. But as one Tennis Channel commentator said on air last week: "No right-hander with a one-handed backhand is going to beat Nadal on red clay." Dimitrov, ranked No. 5, is a spectacular shot-maker, so you can't count him out. But his game isn't quite big enough to smother Nadal's, and Dimitrov falls a little short in the patience and attention-span departments -- as his so-so clay record suggests.
Juan Martin del Potro: 7-3 on clay, 5-9 vs. Nadal
There's something about No. 6-ranked del Potro. He showed it again at the Indian Wells final, where he outlasted defending champion Roger Federer in a third-set tiebreaker to win. Delpo is fearless. He feels entitled. He steps up. His rivals at the top know it too. And that can make a world of difference. He has a devastating serve and a forehand that can jar an opponent's fillings loose. The big question: Will del Potro's damaged wrists stand up to the punishment and deliver those power two-handed backhands? He has a decent record against Nadal (relatively speaking), but none of those wins was on clay.
Dominic Thiem, 24-6 on clay, 2-6 vs. Nadal
Thiem, ranked No. 7, is the last man to beat Nadal on red dirt. He did it last year on the relatively fast, golden clay of Rome. True, he's a right-hander with a one-handed backhand. But it's his vision of the game rather than his palette of strokes that lifts Thiem above the pack. Like Nadal, he's a true clay-courter. He's willing to grind all day. He plays from the nether regions of the court. He takes huge cuts, produces a lot of spin and has the stamina of a bull. A victim of his own precocious success, the powerful Austrian, 24, has nine ATP titles.
John Isner: 8-4 on clay, 0-7 vs. Nadal
Why include a 33-year-old player who has never beaten Nadal and has just one clay-court title to his name in this company? Simply because Isner enjoys playing on clay. He also knows how to exploit every advantage offered by his serve -- the most dangerous in the game. He's playing confident, loose tennis following his big win at the Miami Open. Is a 7-6, 7-6 win on clay over Nadal really that difficult to imagine?
Fabio Fognini: 21-10, 3-10 vs. Nadal
Confidence matters. Fognini, ranked No. 20, is full of the unpredictable and creative deviltry that can keep a straightforward player like Nadal off balance and frustrated. Fognini demonstrated that in 2015, when he logged two wins over Nadal on clay. There's scar tissue there, and both men know it. Fognini is one of the game's real originals, but he runs on inspiration. He can blow out a guy one week and get blown out by the same opponent a week later, but his 52-week record on clay is solid.
Hyeon Chung: 10-3 on clay, 0-2 vs. Nadal
Chung is challenging Zverev for the top spot among 21-and-under players. He's a superb, Nadal-esque defender with great stamina. Chung's shortcomings are on offense, where his serve is vulnerable and he has no killing shot. However, his temperament is outstanding.