So . . . did you know the clay season is starting? This is the last of the Crystal Balls, I promise. Here are the final four contenders and pretenders that I'll assess before we get down to it in Monte Carlo on Monday.
Dirt is where it all began for Stosur two years ago. It’s sort of hard to believe now, but she didn’t crack the Top 10 until Indian Wells that year, and then she suddenly, briefly turned into one of the two or three best players in the world during the subsequent European swing. Then came the Roland Garros final against Francesca Schiavone . . .
Sam can still play on the stuff, can still use the extra time to get around for her forehand and knock it off from shoulder height. And she did that last week in Charleston, where she reached the semifinals before getting schmonked by Serena Williams. After her poor start in Australia, where she lost in the first round of Sydney and Melbourne, Stosur has found a semblance of her best game, and would seem to be set up well for the run through Europe. Last year she made the semis in Stuttgart, the round of 16 in Madrid, and the final in Rome, before suffering a surprising early loss to Gisela Dulko at the French Open. We should be seeing a lot of Sam over the next month and a half.
Tsonga recently reached a career-high No. 5, but he won’t be rising any higher anytime soon—he has half as many ranking points as the man at No. 4, Andy Murray. Jo is also coming into his least productive part of the year. Last season he lost in the second round in Monte Carlo, first in Estoril, second in Rome, and then lost a painful third-rounder to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros after being up two sets to love. I watched much of that match live and thought, as I’ve thought on more than one occasion over the years, that Tsonga would never get it done at a Grand Slam. Three weeks later, he went to Wimbledon and beat Roger Federer to reach the semifinals. You never quite know with Jo.
But the clay swing hasn’t begun well for him. He lost a clinching Davis Cup tie in Monte Carlo to John Isner last weekend. Tsonga also looked lost and even a little paranoid in his last regular tour match, against Rafael Nadal in Miami. The coach question, specifically his lack of one, may come up more often if he struggles on clay.
But, as I said, you never know with Jo. He's too good not to come up with a big win or a good run sometime over the next six weeks. Tsonga is, like Isner, one of the few guys who can take the racquet out of one of the Top 4 guys’ hands and beat him with his own good play alone.
Serena, as she often does, left us wanting more in Charleston. Over the course of the week there, she found her timing, and, to her own surprise, never lost it. Now, unfortunately, we won’t get any follow-up to that vintage thrashing until next month in Madrid. Who knows where Williams’s game will be by the time she gets there? Who knows if she’ll get there?
In other words, as much as many of us would like to think Serena is fully back in the mix, we’re going to have to wait. But in Charleston she did show, both her opponents and more importantly herself, what she’s still capable of on a clay court—even if it was a different color. Judging by Serena’s own comments afterward, she knows that she can still produce her best tennis, but it’s producing it day after day that’s been the problem. Look no farther than last year’s U.S. Open, where she straight-setted the top seed, Caroline Wozniacki, one night, and couldn’t do anything against Sam Stosur the next day.
Following up won’t get easier on clay, where points are longer and more patience is required; though if Charleston is any indication, Williams’s points aren’t much longer on dirt—a return of serve was all she needed to end them. The important question for her is: Can she win the French Open? She’s currently ranked No. 9; pushing herself into the Top 8 would help her avoid a higher seed before the quarters. But looking at her history there, that might not matter. The last two times she’s played in Paris, Williams has lost in the quarters, to Stosur and Kuznetsova, and she hasn’t been to the semifinals in a full 10 years.
As Serena says, she’s always ready to win the French Open. She has her own unusual motivation, naturally: Paris is her favorite city, she says, and she hates leaving it. That’s as good as reason to stick around long enough to win the thing as any.
As of this week, it sounds like Wozniacki will be getting more upfront coaching from Sven Groeneveld, and less from her father. This has to be considered a good thing going into the Slam season. Groeneveld has said that he didn’t think Caroline and Piotr focused enough on the majors. Maybe that will change in time for this round of them.
Wozniacki’s ranking is down from No. 1 to No. 6, she hasn’t won a tournament this year, and she ended her last important one on a down note, stalking off the court after losing to Maria Sharapova in Miami. Plus, clay hasn’t been her best surface historically—she lost to Daniela Hantuchova in the third round at the French Open last year. But there have been signs of hope, foremost the way she played—more aggressively, but within her own limits—in beating Serena Williams in Miami.
In a perfect world, the game she played that night would serve as a template for how she approaches this clay season. She’ll need to do more on dirt than loop balls back; her forehand, as she hits it now, isn’t heavy enough to push anyone off the baseline on clay. But I think not being No. 1 is going to help. Last year at this time she was plagued by questions of her legitimacy; now she’s just plagued by questions about her boyfriend. That’s progress. Wozniacki, with a tweak or two, could be a contender. Maybe, at No. 6, she'll show us she belonged at the top after all.