As the tennis season gains momentum with the French Open and Wimbledon round the corner the contours are getting more and more interesting. In his 37thyear Roger Federer is No 2 having just lost the top slot to his long time rival Rafael Nadal thanks to a shock second round defeat at the Miami Masters at the end of March to an unassuming journeyman from Australia Thanasi Kokkinakis ranked 175 in the world.

Federer in fact became the oldest to climb to the No 1 spot in February but had to make it at least to the quarterfinals at Miami to retain it. Nadal was always in hot pursuit and is currently perched at the top of the rankings but only just. Indeed had Nadal lost to Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters on Sunday Federer would have regained the top slot. But there was never any chance of Nadal not winning the tournament given his awesome record on clay. Indeed he romped to a record extending 11th Monte Carlo title becoming the first man to win a single tournament eleven times in the Open era.

It is a tribute to the genius and durability of both these superstars that they still occupy the first two slots. After all the Swiss won the first of his record 20 Grand Slam events 15 years ago while the Spaniard won the first of his 16 Grand Slam titles 13 years ago. Such longevity is simply amazing in a highly competitive sport like tennis particularly when it is seen that the two other members of the ''Big Four’’ Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray who came on the scene much later have slipped in the rankings.

The Serbian has had a rather indifferent record over the past year and he went down in the second round both at Indian Wells and Miami. The latter loss in fact snapped a 16 match winning streak at Miami for Djokovic had won the tournament in 2014, 2015 and 2016 but missed the event last year with an elbow injury. Djokovic also suffered an early round defeat at Monte Carlo. Murray on the other hand has not played in a ournament for nearly nine months because of a hip injury has fallen alarmingly to 29th. He hopes to make a return to tournament play after the French Open.

The only Grand Slam event held this year so far the Australian Open was won by Federer who outlasted Marin Cilic in a five setter. But the Swiss legend hasn’t it had all smooth sailing during the season. Besides the shock defeat to Kokkinakis Federer went down in the final at Indian Wells to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro. Just before he came over to Miami in an attempt to defend his title Federer made it clear that retaining the No 1 ranking was no more than a ''mini goal’’ as he put it. ''It would be nice to stay there but it is no more important than that.’’ As luck would have it his early exit saw Nadal regain the top slot.

Following that defeat Federer made an announcement that was largely expected in the tennis community. For the second successive year he was going to skip the entire clay court season to preserve himself for an assault on Wimbledon and the US Open. At his age it is hardly a surprise that Federer is eager to save himself from the grind of the most demanding surface in the sport.

Clay court specialists are conditioned to trading rallies from the back of the court often resulting in energy sapping contests. In his rejuvenated avatar Federer prefers an electric style of play - keeping the points short, attacking the tram lines on either side of the court and hustling his opponents into playing at his rapid pace.

Having chosen to keep away from clay courts for a second consecutive year it appears increasingly unlikely that Federer will adopt a different method in 2019. He will be a year older and if this formula of preserving himself for the grass and hard court seasons pays dividends he will surely stick by it. On the other hand if he plays and falters thoughts of putting the plug altogether on his glittering career may start to enter his mind.

It is not that Federer has been averse to playing on clay. He has been a regular at the French Open and even though only one of his 20 Grand Slam triumphs has been achieved at Roland Garros – in 2009 – he has reached five finals at the tournament losing the other four to the greatest ever clay court player, Nadal.

With ten French Open singles trophies in his cabinet Nadal has been essentially unassailable on the surface. From 2006 to 2008 Federer ran into his great Spanish rival in three straight summit clashes. They clashed again in the final in 2011 but in none of these matches was Federer able to capture more than one set against the relentless Nadal.

However unlike other modern day greats such as Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg who were never able to even reach a French Open final Federer’s record establishes him as one of the most accomplished players on the surface. He has won 11 titles on clay during his career. Nadal has been a consistent nemesis though having beaten him in 11 of the 15 other finals Federer reached allowing him just two wins.

Meanwhile the season continues to throw up its share of surprises. If Djokovic is out of the top ten and Murray is out of the picture the tour is not without challengers to Federer and Nadal.

The next four in the rankings Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin Del Potro have every chance of winning a Grand Slam going by the form they have displayed so far. Del Potro has of late been in great touch winning the Mexican Open title after getting the better of Zverev in the semifinal then defeating Federer in the final at the Indian Wells Masters and following this up with a semifinal appearance at the Miami Open.

Zverev himself made it to the title round at Miami before losing to John Isner. Cilic it might be recalled lost a tight five setter to Federer in the Australian Open final and Dimitrov will always be a serious challenger after an outstanding 2017 which saw him finish the year at No 3 behind Federer and Nadal. Zverev and Dimitrov both made it to the semifinals of the Monte Carlo Open.

So “The Big Two’’ can take nothing for granted for the competition is fierce and bound to get fiercer as the tennis caravan rolls on.