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What clay season means for Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, others

Roger Federer's Traveling Magic Show is done touring for the time being. The winner of every big tournament this year, including the Australian Open, Federer has untied the laces and put his feet up. He says he won't swing a racket again until the French Open.

That will be the final stop on the European clay-court circuit that gets underway next week in Monte Carlo. By then, we'll have answers to these and other burning clay-season questions:

1. Will the "King of Clay" win back his kingdom?

None of the clay storylines has the resonance of Rafael Nadal's ongoing resurgence. He is already acknowledged by most as the greatest clay-court player of all time, with nine French Open titles. But while he is just 30 years old and ranked No. 5, there's been a sense since the middle of 2014 that he's not the same overpowering force who collected 14 major titles and became Federer's nemesis.

Like Federer, Nadal was coming back from injury (wrist) at the start of this year. But his case is more complicated, because he's also trying to recover from a puzzling slump that predated his physical woes. Nadal has been successful thus far: He's a three-time finalist in 2017, and two of those losses (Australian Open and Miami Masters) were inflicted by Federer on hard courts. In Miami, though, Nadal said he feels fully rehabilitated.

"I'm playing enough well to fight for everything, I think," he said. "I have good hopes that I going to be ready for Monte Carlo. Always when I am playing that well, on clay always helps a little bit more for me."

2. Can Maria Sharapova return to the elite level?

This question looms so large mainly because of the enormous attention it is likely to receive. Sharapova is a major star who will be trying to rehabilitate her reputation after a 15-month suspension for a doping violation. It's hard to predict how she'll be received by the public or her peers.

Over the years, clay gradually became Sharapova's best surface (the French Open is the only major tournament that the 29-year-old Russian has won twice). That's surprising, because she's a first-strike power player. But her range (she's 6-foot-2, with long limbs) and the slow court speed enable her to get to the rally shots of opponents and powder them.

It takes confidence -- gained through W's -- to play Sharapova's brand of aggressive, high-risk tennis, but she hasn't played officially since last January. Many of the players she intimidated in the past are hungry for revenge. She has her work cut out, but she's always been tough.

3. Is Novak Djokovic in shape to defend his title?

Djokovic realized an elusive dream by winning at Roland Garros last year. Then his world began to crumble at the edges.

The French Open of 2016 represented Djokovic's 12th Grand Slam title, the completion of his career Grand Slam, and his sixth major win in eight tries going back to July 2014. People were talking calendar-year Grand Slam; people were also talking about the eclipse of Roger Federer.

But since winning that title last June, Djokovic has made just one Grand Slam final (a US Open loss to Stan Wawrinka), has surrendered his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray, and has had to navigate personal problems that he's alluded to but never explained. His hope for a successful reset this year has been shattered. Djokovic embarks on clay with just one minor title to his name in 2017.

"I haven't had too many matches recently, and that's what I need to get back in shape," Djokovic told reporters at a recent Davis Cup tie. He had no trouble getting matches during past clay segments (he's won eight Masters 1000 titles on Euroclay as well as the French Open), but this is not the dominant Djokovic of 2011 or 2015. The pressure on Djokovic will be significant in the buildup to Roland Garros.

4. Will we see Serena Williams on clay at all?

It's not just that early June is a lovely time for a wedding, while the date for Williams' wedding with Alex Ohanian hasn't been announced. It's also that only one of the numerous reasons most pros eagerly compete on the clay circuit has even the slightest chance of appealing to Williams. That would be the prospect of securing her 24th Grand Slam singles title, equaling the all-time record held by Margaret Court.

Granted, that's significant incentive. On the other hand, she has won at Roland Garros "only" three times. The last time she pulled it off it, the feat took her to the brink of physical and emotional breakdown. Williams has a superior record at Wimbledon, which takes place just weeks after the French Open. It would make a lot of sense for a 35-year-old with a sometimes-tender right shoulder and troublesome knees to keep her powder dry until the tour moves to grass.

5. Can Andy Murray live up to his No. 1 ranking?

Murray still leads No. 2 Djokovic in the rankings by over 4,000 points. But like Djokovic, Murray has stalled since knocking himself out to take over the No. 1 ranking at the very end of last year. Also like his rival, Murray pulled out of the Miami Masters with a bad elbow and has bagged just one title in 2017.

Murray has had assorted illnesses, including shingles. Due to his elbow, he was out for over a month until he helped Federer out in the Swiss star's charity exhibition, The Match for Africa 3. Federer handled Murray 6-3, 7-6 (5). The elbow seemed fine, but it was just one match, and an exhibition at that.

"I'm hoping, if I keep progressing as I have with the elbow, to play Monte Carlo," Murray told reporters. "If not, then I just need to stay patient and I'll try the following week. I'm getting there; I just have to go slowly."

The larger problem for Murray is his overall clay-court record. He's been in only three clay Masters finals (two wins), by far the fewest among the Big Four. At least all three finals were since the spring of 2015.

Bonus: Will a new player pop into the limelight on either tour?

In 2016, the status quo was shattered on the WTA Tour, with Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza crowding Serena Williams at the top of the game. That was somewhat unexpected, but it won't happen again, mainly because there is no status quo.

The new reality for the WTA is that anybody can win, anytime, anywhere. That includes relative newcomers such as Elena Vesnina (champion of Indian Wells) and Johanna Konta (the winner in Miami) or veterans such as Kerber, Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova, et al. Anything goes.

As for the ATP, the status quo as enforced by the Big Four is vulnerable. Stan Wawrinka stands, as always, in the wings. Nick Kyrgios, 21, has become a menace, and 19-year-old Alexander Zverev is developing rapidly. Grigor Dimitrov, 25, has tailed off after a torrid start but could get hot again. Dominic Thiem, Lucas Pouille and Jack Sock are all under 25 with the strength, stamina and skills to power their way to wins on clay.