Winter has receded from sight, like a weary qualifier whose legs are drained from extended action, as the spring clay-court season gets into full swing this week.
Three tournaments on three different continents are already underway, including the inaugural, indoor Katowice Open on the WTA, while the ATP occupies the salmon-colored clay in Casablanca and Houston. Here's a preview of each event.
Playing beneath a roof often reveals just how high a ceiling Petrova Kvitova has to her game. Though the Czech won her lone major on grass, she's an all-surface threat, having won titles on hard, grass, and clay courts, and reaching the semifinals of every major except the U.S. Open. The world No. 8 is at her best indoors, where she can disarm opponents and detonate points with a single swing, attacking with her flat drives from the baseline and angled finesse from the front court.
Predicting which Kvitova will appear on a tournament-to-tournament basis can be as tricky, though. Will we see the brilliant ball-striker who swept Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Sara Errani to win her 10th career title in Dubai last month? Or will the player prone to inconsistency and prematurely pulling the trigger on her down-the-line drives, who struggled to put together successive wins through the early part of the season, return? The fact this is a lower-profile tournament just a few hours from her home in Fulnek should help Kvitova make the successful transition from hard courts to clay.
Second-seeded Roberta Vinci, who opens against Charleston doubles finalist Andrea Hlavackova, has been playing some of her best tennis this season. Vinci's court-sense, net skills, and the combination of her heavy topspin forehand and slice backhand should help her make inroads into the draw.
Lourdes Domínguez Lino saved a match point in a second-set tiebreaker yesterday to subdue eighth-seeded Laura Robson, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-1, in the type of comeback win that could serve as a springboard for the 59th-ranked Spaniard.
Two-time French Open quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who has been sidelined with a right Achilles injury, returns to WTA action in her first tournament since playing Tokyo last September. Kanepi is a power player who can hit through virtually anyone when she's landing her strikes, or hit her way right out of a match when she's impatient and trying to squeeze shots too close to the lines.
Ultimately, this tournament is in Kvitova's hands, and if she reproduces the level of tennis she displayed in Doha and Dubai, stays positive, and maintains intensity on every point, I like her chances here.
The Pick: Petra Kvitova
Pablo Andujar has cleaned up in Casablanca, posting a 9-0 record and winning his both of his two career ATP titles there. The unseeded Spaniard has failed to survive the opening round in six of his nine tournaments this season, so his return to comfortable clay surroundings should help him halt his slide.
Andujar resides is in the bottom half of the draw along with big-serving, No. 2 seed Kevin Anderson, who has made a quick comeback from elbow surgery with quarterfinal appearances in Delray Beach and Indian Wells, and the talented, erratic lefty Martin Klizan, who has lost four straight matches and is just 8-11 lifetime on clay.
Top-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka is playing doubles with Benoit Paire today, which should help him acclimate him to court conditions in his first match in Casablanca since he captured the 2010 tournament title. Wawrinka, a finalist at this year's clay event in Buenos Aires, can change spins and speeds to create acute angles and unsettle opponents, and has a weapon of a first serve. If he's hitting his backhand down the line with authority and accuracy, he can spread the court effectively.
While the Casablanca court has infused Andujar with confidence and some swagger, Wawrinka has more weapons than any man in the field. The sturdy Swiss with the whipping one-handed backhand should navigate a top half of the draw that includes the fourth-seeded Paire, former world No. 5 Tommy Robredo, and sixth-seeded Daniel Gimeno-Traver, whom Wawrinka swept in Buenos Aires.
Players often say the toughest task in tennis is to win when you're expected to, and Stan hasn't always answered the call when favored. Though this is a 250-level tournament, Casablanca will be a mental and emotional test for Wawrinka, who has only three career titles to his credit and is bidding for his first championship since winning Chennai in 2011. Still, if Stan holds his nerve and tempers his power with patience, I see him prevailing.
The Pick: Stanislas Wawrinka
The only ATP clay-court event staged on U.S. soil features five Top 25 players and a hall-of-fame history. Walk through the front gates at River Oaks and step back into a glorious tradition inherent in an intimate stadium. Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Manolo Santana, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver (who beat a 17-year-old Bjorn Borg in the 1974 final to collect his fourth River Oaks title), Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick are all past champions.
The presence of three of the four ATP ace leaders—Nicolas Almagro, Sam Querrey and John Isner—may suggest a Lone Star shoot-out. But surprises have risen from the red clay in recent years. Juan Ignacio Chela was ranked No. 82 when he won the 2010 title, and Ryan Sweeting was No. 93 when he won his first ATP title here in 2011.
The 12th-ranked Almagro leads the ATP in aces (242), is second in first-serve points won (80 percent), and has led the ATP in clay-court match wins three times in the last five years. He hasn't won a title this season, but he has been competing with grit and gusto—three of his last five losses have come in final-set tiebreakers to quality opponents, including squandering a match point to Tommy Haas at Indian Wells and losing to Richard Gasquet in Miami.
Almagro will be tested immediately, facing the flashy Gael Monfils in his opening match. They have split four meetings, and if Monfils—who hit 15 aces and earned 15 break points in an opening-round win over James Blake—is sharp, he could surprise. But Almagro is typically more disciplined in his shot selection and has beaten Monfils in both of their clay-court clashes.
The 35-year-old Haas, who was 10-4 on clay last season, has shown his savvy and all-court acumen by winning nine of his last 12 matches, including a win over No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Miami.
The court has served as a sinkhole for defending champion Juan Monaco, who cracked the Top 10 last year, but has suffered opening-round exits in all five of his tournaments this year, amazingly winning just one set. Still, Monaco should be highly motivated returning to a site of past success.
This is a well-stocked draw, including Isner, Querrey, Fernando Verdasco, and Lleyton Hewitt, who faces Argentine Martin Alund in what could be a tough opener: The world No. 92 has won 11 of his last 15 clay-court matches, with two of his four losses coming to Rafael Nadal. But I like the top seed, once again, to top them all.
The Pick: Nicolas Almagro