Rally: Who Will Be Queen of Clay?
Most of the attention, as we head to Roland Garros, has been on the men’s side. That’s not surprising, considering what awaits us in Paris: Djokovic chasing the Nole Slam, Rafa chasing his record seventh title there, and Federer and Murray and maybe even an unlikely American, Big John Isner, chasing both of them. But I do feel like the women’s side is rounding into shape at the right time as well, with new faces and big stars both finding their form.
The rise of Radwanska has added an appealing, throwback, change-of-pace game to the mix. Serena played her best tennis in many months in Charleston. Maria broke the finals jinx and the Azarenka jinx in Stuttgart. Vika herself has set a high standard and, with her feud with Aga and brush-back changeover with Maria on Sunday, has thrown some spice into the game. Maybe she’s ready to claim the role of tour villain. Any sport can use one of those around. Plus, there’s the intriguing potential of Petra Kvitova, Li Na, and Sam Stosur to hit their way past anyone at anytime—or do the opposite at any time. We seem to have variety without anarchy at the moment.
Is there one thing you’re looking forward to seeing from the women in the next two tune-ups, in Madrid and Rome? One that comes to my mind is Radwanska. She always seems ready to hit a ceiling—right now it’s Azarenka, who gives her the cold shoulder even as she's making her look like a junior. At the same time, though, the scrappy Aga continues slowly but surely to rise higher. She just beat Sharapova for her biggest title in Miami. But I wonder about her ability to create her own pace, which is typically essential to clay-court success.
The early player reviews say the blue clay in Madrid is slippery and produces a lower bounce. I wonder who might benefit most? Sharapova has stayed neutral in her opinion of it so far: “It’s unique,” she says. That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me.
Serena’s sweep in Charleston and Sharapova’s spirited fight to the Stuttgart title makes the bruising (red and blue) path to Paris even more interesting. Because if either of them can reproduce that level this month, they should be factors: Sharapova is defending Rome champ; and in a “aren’t we all getting old fast” reminder, it’s been 10 years since Serena beat Justine to win Rome. Time and la terre battue do fly.
Indigo issues and ball visibility are pre-tournament topics, but playing Madrid reminds me a bit of the old blue book college essay exams: You’ve got to think clearly and make your mark quickly. Because of the higher elevation and lower bounce things can happen fast on Madrid’s clay. Remember the 2011 Kvitova-Azarenka Madrid final? They were smacking winners at grass-court pace.
Both Madrid and Rome play mind games in different ways, because the bounce and conditions can vary so much that, depending on the day, it can reward the imposer, or the improviser. I’m interested to see aggressive baseliners—Vika, Maria, Serena, Petra, Li Na—against players like Samantha Stosur, Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani (still undefeated on clay this year) who can change the spin and use the slice effectively. I still feel the kick serve and slice backhand are under-utilized shots in the women’s game. Schiavone has obviously used them to great effect in Paris the last two years, and she has to be part of any conversation about the French Open.
The Germans intrigue me. Mona Barthel is fearless, explosive, and can hit just about anyone off the court—she can also implode if she’s missing—but as she gains experience and learns to play the score and situation I think she’s going to be dangerous. Julia Goerges can struggle to put complete matches together, but she plays with more margin than most power players, won Stuttgart last year, and can play on her terms. Angelique Kerber has stepped up significantly since the U.S. Open semifinals last September.
Interesting also to see if two former French Open champs who just met on clay last month—Ivanovic and Kuznetsova—can recapture the magic this month.
The way you describe the clay in Madrid and Rome reminds me of seeing a room full of Robert Ryman white-on-white paintings. They’re all the same on the surface, but when you look closer, they all have subtle differences. Clay isn’t as monolithic a surface as we think it is. Even Nadal, who dominates the dirt in general, has his favorites—Monte Carlo, Roland Garros—and his less favorite, Madrid. Something about that tournament, whether it's the altitude, the blue clay, or Ion Tiriac's facial hair, seems to rub him the wrong way. Like Federer, Rafa has his traditionalist side. And who can blame him? Why would he want anything changed about the clay season?
I don’t think I’ve seen enough of Kerber, to be honest, to know what to think of her future. It’s certainly brighter than I ever thought it would be in the past. She’s 24, which used to be too old to make a move toward the Top 10—that's no longer the case, obviously. I thought after she crushed Caroline Wozniacki in Stuttgart that she might run straight through the tournament. But she didn’t.
Speaking of Wozniacki, am I wrong to continue to look on the bright side for her? I had thought that getting Sven Groeneveld more involved was a positive, but then, when you see her father still out on court coaching her, you wonder how much more involved he’s going to be. That was a bad loss to Kerber for her, but she also took a bad loss to Ivanovic in Indian Wells and bounced back to beat Serena in Miami. Like del Potro and Murray on the men’s side, even if Caro never wins a major, she’s given us plenty to speculate about and shake our heads over. That’s something.
Mona Barthel: I’ll start by saying that I wish she didn’t have the same first name as the lusty grandma character in a Tony Danza sitcom from the 80s. At the same time, there’s no more exciting element of pro tennis than seeing a new talent start showing what she can do. It’s been a while since we had one of those on the men’s side, but Barthel has qualified so far this year. I like her timing and loose power, but I wonder about her mentality. She’s tough and pesky most of the time, but then she has flat-out choked on a few recent occasions as well. Will Barthel grow out of that with experience and more confidence? Or will it be a permanent feature of her game? For now, it's good just to be able to ask the question of a young player and really wonder about the answer.
I was just going to mention Ivanovic. She recently broke up with a boyfriend; she isn’t in the process of doing the same with another coach, Nigel Sears, is she? Ana once said that if you think about walking down the stairs, you can't walk down the stairs. I wonder if she can identify with that concept on court, where she seems to treat each mistake as a sign of ultimate doom. One of her old coaches, Craig Kardon, always said she needed to find a new way to react to adversity on her own. Right now it's hard to imagine her keeping it together mentally and physically long enough to win a big tournament.
I was also going to mention Errani. She is the proverbial tough out at the moment, and I'm thinking she'll knock off a big name or two in these next three events.
Speaking of art, did you see Munch’s “The Scream” sold for a record $120 million at Sotheby’s yesterday? The Shriek is a shared self-expression for the world’s Top 2, but will either make major noise at the French Open? They’ll be in the mix, but I’m not convinced Vika or Maria will raise the title trophy in Paris, where they’re more vulnerable to being dragged out of position and defused. In the last 15 years only one top-seed—Henin in 2007—prevailed at Roland Garros, and in the absence of a true dominant clay-courter, dirt is more inviting to more players this year.
There was a time when Ana played with audacity of one who believed she could reduce almost anyone to a reactive role. She’s had some good wins, but I still sense that disconnect between thought and action. If she can just get to the point where she’s letting it fly, I think she can get back to the Top 10, though experience—realizing what’s at stake with each swing—sometimes dulls the sharp edge of daring.
When I think of players defining themselves, I’m reminded of the Chris Evert line from Johnette Howard’s The Rivals. Evert, assessing the “Chris America” image assigned to her, said “I was given a personality before I had the opportunity to develop one of my own.”
My concern with Caro is the old “being and becoming” issue: What playing persona is she trying to develop? I think Wozniacki is athletic enough to evolve (not as dramatically as a Tauziat, who actually changed her style and reached the Wimbledon final playing serve-and-volley at times), but I wonder if she has truly defined the player she wants to be? Sven Groeneveld once told me his goal coaching Ana was, “to help Ana become so confident in herself, she doesn’t need me there constantly.” Can Caro achieve that independence, and does she want to?
Mona’s game excites me because there’s no sense of acquiescence to more accomplished players: She’s been very good at compelling opponents to play on her terms. There’s also that buzz of discovery that comes with newer players—learning what shot they hit when in danger, when in charge, etc.
Hingis, who I (mistakenly) believed would win multiple Roland Garros titles, always said it was easier “to be the hunter than the hunted” and I think about that in terms of Serena, who reiterated in Charleston that it’s the titles not the ranking that drives her. Think of any potential French Open final four you want and I’d favor Serena over any other three because she’s one of the best big-match players I’ve ever seen, and because she’s the best bet to hold serve.
At the same time, I wonder if her standards, and external expectations, are so high that anything short of a title can be disappointing, a racquet bag of burden on your back. For Serena, clay can be both more challenging (only four of her 40 career titles have come on clay) and liberating (she hasn’t been to the French Open semis since the infamous Henin Hand loss in 2003), but you had to love the way she was serving and moving in Charleston. It would be exciting to see her go deep in Paris, as Agassi did in ’99, when most of us felt his moment on clay had passed.