Alexander Zverev is the top seed in Marrakech.

Zverev, Nadal Ready For Clay-Court Swing

Houston, Marrakech kick off the nine-week swing on Monday

Two-time clay-court ATP Masters 1000 titlist Alexander Zverev isn't waiting around to start his clay-court swing. The World No. 3 is the top seed at the Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech, an ATP 250 event that starts Monday.

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Zverev heads into Africa's only ATP Tour event as the favourite to win his 11th ATP Tour title and fifth on clay. The 21-year-old German has won a clay-court Masters 1000 title in each of the past two seasons, first beating Novak Djokovic at the 2017 Internazional BNL d'Italia in Rome for his maiden Masters 1000 crown. Last year, Zverev didn't drop his serve all tournament en route to beating Austrian Dominic Thiem for the crown at the Mutua Madrid Open.

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With thousands of ATP Ranking points up for grabs, the nine-week clay-court swing will be vital for Zverev and anyone else looking to gain ground in the ATP Race To London. The clay-court swing features three Masters 1000s – the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Mutua Madrid Open and Rome – along with Roland Garros. From those four tournaments alone, the winners will take home 5,000 points.

World No. 2 Rafael Nadal has dominated the stretch better than anyone during the past decade-plus. Last year, he captured his 11th titles in Monte-Carlo, at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell and Roland Garros. No other male has won a single event 11 times, let alone three events on that many occasions.

The Spaniard will especially want to flex his muscle on the red dirt if he's to be in contention for the year-end No. 1 ATP Ranking come November. Nadal is defending 4,680 points that he earned last season. In 2018, 63 per cent of Nadal's total 7,480 ATP Rankings points came from his time on the European clay courts.

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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic will also be itching to return to his home surface. Djokovic, however, won't be eager because of his memories from a year ago, but rather, by what did not happen last year.

Twelve months ago, the Serbian was still in the midst of his comeback from right elbow surgery, and he began to make strides by reaching the semi-finals in Rome and the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. But the 31-year-old seeks his first clay-court title since 2016 Roland Garros.

Dominic Thiem, an eight-time clay-court ATP Tour champion, should start this year's clay-court swing armed with more confidence than ever. The Austrian beat Roger Federer to win his maiden Masters 1000 title at the hard-court BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells last month.

The past two seasons, Thiem is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay, doing so at 2017 Rome and 2018 Madrid. Nadal, for his career, has won 92 per cent of his clay-court matches (415-36), according to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone.

This could be the year Thiem matches his Indian Wells breakthrough on clay. The past two years, the Austrian, No. 5 in the ATP Rankings, has reached the Madrid final (l. to Nadal, Zverev).

Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro is still recovering from his fractured right patella, but he received positive news from his doctor last week and hopes to return soon.

The clay-court swing also begins on Monday with the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston. Two-time defending champion Steve Johnson will go for the trifecta. No player has won back-to-back-to-back titles at the tournament since Bobby Riggs in 1936-38.

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