It is the middle of the clay court season so Rafael Nadal should be hopping from one title triumph to another.

Actually the script is very different. At Monte Carlo it was the relatively unknown Fabio Fognini of Italy who walked away with the title. The following week at Barcelona it was the fifth ranked Dominic Thiem of Austria who emerged triumphant.

And Nadal?

Well, he lost in the semifinal to Fognini at Monte Carlo and went down in the same round to Thiem at Barcelona.

The ''King of Clay’’ has won both these tournaments eleven times each so is he losing his touch on his favourite surface? Well, there are many more clay court tournaments over the next month and a half including Nadal’s happy hunting ground Roland Garros. The Spaniard who turns 33 next month has won the French Open a record eleven times and despite his indifferent form thus far one can pass final judgement on Nadal only after the year’s second Grand Slam.

But the challenge to the ''Big Three’’ of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer started in real earnest last year and symbolizing this was Alexander Zverev of Germany winning the year ending Masters title. Zverev in fact is ranked No 3 one place ahead of Federer but the others in the top ten including the likes of Thiem, Kei Nishikori, Kevin Anderson and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all in hot pursuit. They have registered victories over the ''Big Three’’ around the circuit but when it comes to Grand Slams or the top rankings it is still Djokovic, Nadal and Federer who hold sway.

Nadal won the French Open last year while Djokovic has won the remaining three Grand Slams since – Wimbledon and US Open last year and this year’s Australian Open. And it should not be forgotten that the Australian Open last year was won by Federer. So even if the GenNext of players are closing the gap they still have some way to go before overhauling the ''Big Three’’.

But during the clay court season the main challenge to the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer need not come from those in the top ten but from specialists on the slow red surface. Fognini’s triumph at Monte Carlo is a case in point. The 31-year-old Italian in winning his first Masters title jumped from 18th to 12th in the rankings and with more clay court tournaments coming up he has the opportunity to break into the top ten. In any case defeating Nadal was not a new experience for Fognini. It was his fourth career win over Nadal and third on clay.

If Fognini was relatively unknown the man he defeated in the final 48th ranked Dusan Lajovic was hardly known outside the tennis circuit. In fact the unseeded Serb was playing in his first ATP Tour final after getting the better of Russia’s 10th seeded Daniil Medvedev who had ousted Djokovic in the previous round. His unexpectedly successful run at Monte Carlo saw Lajovic leap up to 23 in the latest rankings.

At Monte Carlo Djokovic bowed out in the quarterfinals. Federer will be missing most of the clay court tournaments in a bid to extend his career though he is expected to play at Madrid this month. And Zverev after promising much following his triumph at the season ending Masters last year has had an indifferent year making early exits at Indian Wells, Miami, Marrakech and Monte Carlo.

Like Nadal, Djokovic too cannot be too happy with his form though he is still comfortably perched on top in the rankings. He is looking to the clay court season as a preparation for the French Open for a title triumph at Roland Garros would give him a fourth consecutive Grand Slam.

But his preparations were dealt a severe blow and marked another comparatively early exit from yet another Masters 1000 tournament following early round losses at Indian Wells and Miami.

At the moment if there is one player who can halt Nadal’s juggernaut at Roland Garros it has to be Thiem. The 25-year-old Austrian made an early exit at Monte Carlo but bounced right back winning the title at Barcelona, his successful run including a straight sets semifinal defeat of Nadal.

It was his fourth win over Nadal on clay and Thiem went on to triumph without dropping a set. He had a major breakthrough triumph with his first Masters 1000 trophy at Indian Wells with a victory over Federer in the title clash. One must also not forget that Thiem was last year’s finalist at the French Open.