Looking for another way in which the women get the short end of the professional tennis stick? Look no farther than the starts of their respective clay seasons. Next week most of the top men get underway on dirt in sunny, glitzy Monte Carlo, with the Mediterranean rolling in beneath them. The ladies? They kick things off the following week in a murky indoor arena in Stuttgart. The gleaming Porsche that sits behind the court is nice, but this is not what you would call a picturesque springtime scene. Still, whoever wins in Stuttgart, as she gets behind the wheel and eventually drives that Porsche away, probably won’t care what city she’s in or what the weather happens to be like.
Over the coming weeks, the women join up with the men in Madrid, Rome, and finally Paris. It will be an intriguing time of year on the WTA side: open, but not too open, with weekly twists and turns at the top of the rankings. So far this season, the women’s version of the Big 3 have continued their winning ways of 2012 by dividing up the three most important tournaments. Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova won in Indian Wells, and Serena Williams won in Miami. Depending on the extent of Azarenka’s current ankle injury, you have to favor them to do the same in Europe through the spring. Last season Sharapova won in Stuttgart, Rome, and Paris, while Serena rolled in Madrid.
Will we see a repeat in 2013, or a different scenario? Can anyone from outside the Top 3 spring a surprise? Here’s a look at the Top 10 (plus one)'s prospects over the next two months.
It should be said that the women already have a clay event under their belts. It was played on the green version of the surface in Charleston, and it was won, as expected, by Serena. She had a couple of slow starts there, and even dropped a set to Jelena Jankovic in the final. But this was Serena’s second straight tournament win, which matches what she did last year and sends her to Europe with the No. 1 ranking.
Last season, though, Serena’s strong spring and high expectations coming into Paris ended up backfiring. Feeling like she had a real shot at winning the title for the first time in 10 years, she tightened up in the first round and lost to Virginie Razzano. Will that defeat, in turn, inspire her not to let the same thing happen again in Paris, her adopted part-time hometown, in 2013? Serena must feel like it's time for her to win the French again. I don’t expect her to run through Madrid, Rome, and Paris unscathed, but she’s the favorite for the big one.
It’s been said that Sharapova and her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, are more focused on the fast courts at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this time around. Which would make sense: Sharapova accomplished her clay mission last year when she won the French Open and completed a career Grand Slam. How many does the “cow on ice” realistically think she can win?
For that reason, I wouldn’t make Sharapova a favorite to repeat at Roland Garros. Then again, she was at her best, by far, last year on clay—she won in Stuttgart, Rome, and Paris, and didn’t win another tournament all season. She’ll start again in Germany in two weeks, and we know she’ll give it her best wherever she goes. Most interesting will be how she does against her top rivals, Azarenka and Serena. They’ve generally owned her in the past, but she’s made inroads against both lately.
Suddenly, after starting the year with a title in Melbourne and a win over Serena in Doha, Vika is on hard times. She’s down to No. 3 in the rankings, and the ankle injury she suffered in February is still bothering her. We’ll see how she responds when she does comes back. Clay isn’t her favorite surface; she’s never been past the quarters at Roland Garros, and last year she lost her winning streak to Sharapova in Stuttgart and was pretty well thrashed by Serena in Madrid. But perhaps the time away this year will help in the long run. When Azarenka went out to Dominika Cibulkova in Paris in 2012, she was looking burned out after a very busy first half of the season.
Aga and clay generally don’t mix; she’s never been past the fourth round at the French Open. The most common explanation is that a player needs to be able to generate his or her own power on the slow dirt, and that’s not this counterpuncher’s specialty. True enough: She was blown out by big-hitting Svetlana Kuznetsova in Paris last year, and was upset by Petra Cetkovska in the first round in Rome.
Aga also won a title on clay in Brussels the week before the French. That would be cause for hope, except that she did the same thing in Auckland and Sydney this year before not winning the Australian Open. She'll do better the longer Azarenka is out.
The 2011 French Open champion isn't consistent, the way dirtballers traditionally are, but she can create her own pace and her own winners, which champions on clay traditionally do. The lessons of coach Carlos Rodriguez seem to have gotten through so far this year—Li made the final in Melbourne and lost to Serena in the Miami quarterfinals after having a set point in the second set. Li will take her bad losses this spring, but chances are she’ll also either win an event or reach a final.
She’s competent on all surfaces. Is she ready to rise out of her injury-plagued early-year slump? She made the quarters in Paris last season.
Last year’s surprise French Open finalist is a surprise no longer. Still grinding, still grunting, she’s mostly picked up where she left off in 2012. No one will be happy seeing her in their draw on clay.
Rather than the future of women’s tennis, Kvitova has settled in as a perennial dangerous dark horse. At any event, on any surface, she could break out and win the whole thing. But you would never bet on it. She reached the semifinals in Paris last year.
The Aussie has been to the final and the semis here, and she’s another heavy hitter who likes clay. We’ll see how she recovers from a calf injury that forced her out of both Indian Wells and Charleston.
Like her friend Radwanska, Caro has never made her home, or her money, on clay. She’s been to the quarterfinals in Paris once, but otherwise she’s been a perennial third-round loser there. Once the Masters is over this weekend, it could be a long road through the spring for Wozniacki.
JJ is only ranked 18th, but she had a great run in Charleston last week, where she reached the final and recorded her 500th career win. Can she turn that into a late-career renaissance, an Indian Spring? She's been to the semis at Roland Garros three times. The chatty Serb has herself back in the conversation, anyway, talking the way only she can talk.
Tomorrow, a preview of the men’s clay swing.