As I mentioned yesterday, Thursday and Friday will mostly be ladies’ days at the Crystal Ball. Their last names come later, though I probably could have bumped Na Li ahead of Andy Murray yesterday. Or could I? Something to ponder...
Na has a well-deserved feast or famine reputation. One month she’s winning the French Open and signaling a future Chinese takeover of tennis, the next month she can’t get out of the first round or put a forehand into the court. So far in 2012, though, she’s held fairly steady. She made the final in Sydney, the round of 16 in Melbourne—she had Kim Clijsters beaten before choking it away—and the quarters at both Indian Wells and Miami. If only Na hadn’t closed the latter event with a horrid, shank-filled 0-6 second set to Maria Sharapova, you might say things are looking up for the clay season.
They still could be. Last year she came to her first event in Europe on the heels of three opening-round losses in Dubai, IW, and Miami. She broke that streak with a win in Stuttgart, then reached the semis in Madrid and Rome, before going all the way at Roland Garros.
Na, who always takes a cut at the ball and can be wildly inconsistent, is not your prototypical dirtballer, and she had never done much in Paris before last year. But when she’s on, few women can hit through the court the way she does. The question is: Since she’s always liable to go in a completely different direction from what she's just done—first-round losses quickly lead to Slam titles, Slam titles quickly lead back to first-round losses—which way will she go after two straight quarterfinal finishes? Let’s see how she does in Stuttgart and Madrid. They got her going last spring.
A “monster” of expectations: We’re all familiar with that phrase of Roger Federer’s about what his success had created. It definitely fits with what Nadal has done over the last seven years during the clay season. Seven titles in Monte Carlo, six in Barcelona, five in Rome, a couple in Hamburg/Madrid, and six in Paris: No player has dominated this, or any, stretch of the season so thoroughly and for so long.
Last year things went a little differently. For the first time, someone, Novak Djokovic to be exact, was better than he was on the surface, beating him in straight sets in the finals of Madrid and Rome. But it was still a successful clay swing in the end for Nadal, outstanding by any normal measure, and one that Rafa would almost certainly be happy with again in 2012. He won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and in the tournament of record, Roland Garros.
Monte Carlo has always been the key, the bulwark. He loves the brand of clay there (it’s similar to the dirt in Paris), and any early season doubts and niggles typically get blown out to sea as he blows out his opponents—he lost just 14 games in five matches there two years ago. This is where Nadal’s best seasons, 2008 and 2010, really began for him. The hope is obviously the same in 2012. Nadal had his periodic knee treatments done in preparation for the long haul between now and the U.S. Open, and didn’t seem overly concerned with his up-and-down play in Indian Wells and Miami.
One problem: Djokovic is also going to be here. If Nadal were to lose to him in the final—and Djokovic would likely be the favorite in that match—how would it affect him? On the other hand, how would it affect Novak if Rafa were to beat him? Both have streaks of seven on the line—Nadal’s seven straight in MC, Djokovic’s seven straight wins over Rafa. Something would have to give. I think a Nadal win would be more significant, because he would finally break Djokovic’s hex, which has been the major storyline of the last year in tennis. At the same time, a Nadal loss in Monte Carlo would also be significant. The bulwark would finally have been knocked down, and the immediate jolt of confidence from a title—he hasn't won a tournament since Roland Garros last year—would be missing.
That’s just the first stop on the clay road for both of them, though, a road that could end with one of the most epic tournaments in tennis history in Paris, where Nole goes for his Slam at the same time that Rafa tries to become the all-time men's winner at Roland Garros. There will also be other complications along the way, such as the presence of Andy Murray and the return of Roger Federer, each of whom beat Nadal the last time they played. But this is still clay, and I don’t see any reason why Rafa won’t be at his best on it again. The question this time is whether someone else will be better.
She should be good on dirt, right? Crafty player, uses the whole court, scrambles well, knows how to win long points. And she has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros three times. But last year she was mediocre on the stuff—a semifinal appearance in Stuttgart was followed by a second round loss in Madrid and an opening-round exit in Rome.
Aga the counterpuncher likes pace, and she has to create more of her own on clay. Also, it’s not like she hits with the kind of topspin that helped Justine Henin and Svetlana Kuznetsova to titles in Paris. Still, this part of the year feels like an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, for Radwanska. She’s already ranked No. 4 in the world, and she doesn’t have a lot of points to defend.
More important, her steady improvement over the last year under a new coach, which was capped by her biggest win, over former nemesis Maria Sharapova in Miami, must have her believing she can do a lot more on any surface. The move away from her father seems to have brought the newly feisty Radwanska out of her competitive shell. She’s already gone farther than I would have thought she could. It's time for the next test.
The self-proclaimed “cow on ice” returns to try her hands—and feet—at sliding once more. Sharapova is no dirt devil, but it was during this period last year, with her win in Rome and semifinal run at the French Open, that she began the turnaround that has brought her back into the Top 3 and back to regular appearances in the finals of major events.
Sharapova has been knocking on the door ever since, finding ways to win until something or someone doesn't let her in the end. The good news is that her two final-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami weren’t caused primarily by her famously faulty serve. The bad news is that she wasn’t consistent enough from the ground to take even a set from Azarenka or Radwanska. That means clay, where consistency is a virtue if not a necessity, will continue to be an uphill battle for her. It’s one she should be motivated for, though; all she needs is the French Open for a career Grand Slam.
The player who keeps putting herself into position should get a break at some point. That’s how life works, right? Right?