Clay-Court Preview: Ladies First

by: Peter Bodo | April 10, 2014

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Spring is a time of renewal, of fresh starts. Apparently the WTA takes this theme very seriously. Just ask deposed and sometimes besieged former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, or hard-luck case Andrea Petkovic. Both women got back on the fast track last week with tournament wins as the WTA clay-court season got underway.

Ivanovic’s win was on Plexipave in Monterrey, Mexico, so officially it was more like the epilogue to the hard-court swing. But it boosted the Serb’s ranking back up to the threshold of the Top 10, at No. 12. Given that Ivanovic is a former French Open champion who loves playing on clay, she’s well-positioned to make a strong run in the weeks up to and including Roland Garros.

Petkovic was the first clay-court champion on the new year, winning on Charleston’s green dirt. The lively, spirited, articulate German has been plagued by injuries since reaching the Top 10 in 2011, and is presently No. 28. Perhaps best known for her amusing “Petko” dance, Petkovic also seems poised to continue her rise from the rankings pits.

One of the big advantages that both women—along with their peers in that class that has proven or potential Top 10 talent—enjoy is that for the next few weeks they will have good chances to pile up rankings points and prize money, thanks to the selective scheduling of the the top players. The only two members of the Top 5 who will play tournaments before Madrid in early May are Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep. They, along with Maria Sharapova, will begin the road to Roland Garros at Stuttgart, during the last week of April.

Top-ranked Serena Williams, No. 2 Li Na, and No. 4 Victoria Azarenka (who is still rehabbing a left foot injury) are all scheduled to start in Madrid, and all the top players are penciled in for the last big tune-up for Paris, the Italian Open (Rome). Players who need a little “extra credit” can also enter Strasbourg or Nurnberg, which are played in the week after Rome, immediately preceding the French Open.

In all, the clay season will consist of 10 tournaments, including the French Open, alongside two odd-duck hard-court events in Katowice and Kuala Lumpur. It may be sloppy schedule-making, but the money earned at those events spends just as well and the rankings points count the same as on clay.

Let’s refresh our memory of what the clay-court season of 2013 looked like, and speculate on what it might suggest about the coming weeks.

Katowice (hard-court); defending champion Roberta Vinci: Returning this year as the No. 2 seed, Vinci is already out, upset by her Italian countrywoman Camila Giorgi. Agnieszka Radwanska, showing patriotic loyalty to her native Poland, is the top seed, and it’s hard to envision anyone beating her—not when the next highest seed, No. 3 Carla Suarez Navarro, is ranked 14 places below the Pole.

Bogota; defending champion Jelena Jankovic: The resurgence that propelled Jankovic back into the Top 10 after a long and painful slump began at high-altitude in this tournament last year, and she’s on track to win it again. Second-seeded Sloane Stephens was knocked out by Mariana Duque-Marino in her first match.

Kuala Lumpur (hard-court); defending champion Karolina Pliskova: If you’re wondering what this hard-court event is doing in the midst of clay-court segment, it’s the result of some awkward calendar tweaks (last year, it was played at the end of February). Pliskova will defend her title this year, and the tournament also has secured Venus Williams and Dominka Cibulkova.

Marrakech; defending champion Francesca Schiavone: Given that the 33-year old Italian had won exactly one match in 2014 (1-9) entering this week, it’s hard to imagine her adding another title to her collection—perhaps ever.

Stuttgart; defending champion Maria Sharapova: The stakes for the WTA hopefuls and contenders rise dramatically starting at Stuttgart. One of the interesting storylines in recent years has been Sharapova’s maturation as a terrific clay-court player, as demonstrated by her win over Li in last year’s final. Down to No. 8, Sharapova hasn’t won tournament or even reached a final in five tries this year. She’s due for a renewal.

Oeiras; defending champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: About the only thing that seems like a sure bet is that the wildly erratic Russian will not repeat as champion. Last year, Marion Bartoli was the top seed; she lost in the first round. Thus far, Vinci (presently No. 16 but likely to drop further on Monday) is the highest-ranked player entered. If her seeding holds up, we could be in for another upset of the top seed in the first round.

Madrid; defending champion Serena Williams: Mark May 4 on your calendars—that’s the first day of Madrid, the first Premier Mandatory tournament of the clay-court season. Last year, Williams routed Sharapova in the final (nothing new in that, right?). Serena is 32 now, but still playing some of the best tennis of her life.

Only a fool would demote her on the tote board of contenders, but there’s no doubt that the competition in the WTA has really heated up this year. Azarenka is scheduled to play Madrid, Li is more consistent than ever before, and the combination of clay and altitude will certainly help big hitters like Sharapova and Halep.

Rome; defending champion Serena Williams: Whoa! Did you notice that in Williams’ triumphs in Madrid and Rome last year, she lost a total of one set (6-0, oddly enough, to Anabel Medina Garrigues) and just nine games combined to Sharapova and Azarenka? That’s outrageous, and all you can do is wonder, “Can she possibly do that again?” This is Serena Williams, so the answer is “yes.” But if all goes as planned by the Azarenka camp, she’ll be pretty well dialed in by then from her long layoff due to a foot injury. They might end up playing the final again.

Nurnberg; defending champion Simona Halep: Ivanovic and Petrovic have already embarked on their renewals; another player who could use one is Angelique Kerber, who is featured on the tournament’s website. Meanwhile, this is where Halep claimed the first WTA title of her career—and the first of an astounding six in 2013. The Romanian has only improved so far this season, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the semifinals of Indian Wells, and the winner’s circle in Doha, after defeating Kerber.

Strasbourg; defending champion Alize Cornet: Just as in Oeiras, the top seed last year was Bartoli. And just as in Oeiras, Bartoli lost her first match—in Strasbourg, it was to Giorgi. Apparently it was all part of her preparation for Wimbledon, which she won some weeks later.

Strasbourg recently bagged Petkovic, and Cornet is committed to defending her title. Meanwhile, I’m sure the organizers will be holding their wild cards until the last possible moment, hoping that a struggling star will want a few more matches before the start of the French Open.

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