Joining the Show

Monday, April 23, 2012 /by

VaThe clay-court season begins in earnest on the women’s side this week. If a darkened dome in Stuttgart isn’t as scenic a kick-off point as the sky and sea of Monte Carlo, there is at least a strong field on hand for the Porsche Grand Prix. Compact, too; just 28 players allowed. They’re so jammed together on the official draw sheet that it can be hard to figure out exactly who is playing whom.

The men haven’t dropped out of sight, either. They’ve made the quick trip from the red clay of the Principality to the red clay of Barcelona, where some first-round matches have already been completed. There’s no time to waste in the heart of the tennis season.

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Porsche Grand Prix
Stuttgart, Germany
Indoor clay
$740,000; Premier
Draw is here

The first thing I noticed, or thought I noticed, on this draw sheet was that Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, and Na Li must have decided to skip town while no one was looking. None of these Top 10 players’ names appeared where they usually appear, on the second line, where the seeds who are given first-round byes always go. But a closer look revealed that all three are indeed here; they’ve just suffered the indignity of having to play first-round matches. This is an exclusive event, and no one outside of the Top 4—Azarenka, Sharapova, Kvitova, and Radwanska, who also happen to be the Top 4 players in the world at the moment—gets a free pass.

But it’s not a draw that lacks for storylines. They start at the top, with Vika: Now that the self-fulfilling momentum of her streak is over, can the standard of play that she established during it live on? Clay has never been her best surface, but it shouldn’t be kryptonite for her, either. If she can win on slow hard courts, she should be able to do it on dirt as well. Azarenka could get the newly returned crowd favorite Andrea Petkovic in her first match.

Next we have Radwanska. She is currently riding some momentum after her win in Miami, but her crafty counterpuncher’s style isn’t a perfect fit for this surface. The question for her is: Considering her relative lack of size and power, what is her ceiling? She seems already to have smashed through it many times to get to No. 4 in the world. Aga has a manageable draw. She’ll open against a qualifier, and the highest-ranked player in her section is Na Li. A semi against former friend Vika looms.

As for Wozniacki, you might wonder whether the glass is half-full or half-empty at the moment. Despite her loss in the final in Copenhagen to Kerber, I’m sticking with half-full over the longer term. She’s going to be working with Sven Groeneveld more seriously, which is good news. But she’s also not a dirtballer, she has a tough first round against Jelena Jankovic, and she could get Kerber after that. It’s hard to avoid people in this draw.

At the bottom are Kvitova, Stosur, Sharapova, and defending champ Julia Goerges. Of these, the most interesting case to me is Kvitova's. She bottomed out, as she tends to do, on U.S. hard courts, but she says she has made a concerted effort to get back in shape after suffering early season illness and injury. We’ll get an idea of which direction she’s heading this week. With her, it’s usually straight up or straight down.

Sleepers: A German, Goerges, won this last year, and this one has its share of potential native Cinderellas. Mona Barthel plays Ana Ivanovic first and could yet another shot at Azarenka after that. Kerber has Vinci and then the winner of Caro and JJ. Petkovic is healthy again. And Goerges has a winnable first round with Pavlyuchenkova for the right to play Sharapova.

For fans of all-Slovak first-round throwdowns: Hantuchova vs. Cibulkova

Rn*****

Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
Barcelona, Spain
Clay
$2,137,000: 500 ranking points
Draw is here

We know about Rafael Nadal’s dominance in Monte Carlo, but he’s been almost as good at this tournament, which he’s won a mere six times. It’s a 500 and non-mandatory, which means that Djokovic and Federer haven’t followed Nadal here. But Andy Murray, former resident of Barcelona, and David Ferrer, finalist a year ago, have. So, while a loss by the Spaniard would be highly unexpected, we can’t call it the Rafa Invitational just yet.

Aside from his knees and his results, Nadal-watchers will be looking to see whether the game he brought to Monte Carlo, and especially to the final against Djokovic, will arrive intact in Spain. The emphasis on the serve was its most important element. Rafa went after it and moved it around more all week. But you never know from day to day or week to week where your serve is going to be.

Nadal will open against one of two talented players, Rochus or Garcia-Lopez. Pablo Andujar, who troubled him at the French Open last year, is nearby. Janko Tipsarevic is the second-highest seed in his quarter. That could be a bruiser.

Others: Eighth seed Kei Nishikori will look to build on some solid clay play in Monte Carlo. Fifteenth seed Bernard Tomic will do the same. Third seed Ferrer is in Murray’s half, and will try to bounce back from an early loss to Thomaz Bellucci in Monte Carlo. Eleventh seed Milos Raonic has already won his first round and sits in Murray’s quarter.

As for Murray himself, what should we expect? This would seem like an ideal spot for him to throw his usual caution to the wind and try a few things out—a bigger forehand, a down the line backhand, maybe even a trip to the net or two. But I’ve said that about a lot of places where Murray has played over the years.

First-round match to watch: Tomic vs. Gulbis. You just knew they would find each other sooner or later, right?

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