Castles built of sand are easily washed away by high tide, but what of castles made of that much more durable substance, clay? That’s the intriguing question that looms as Barcelona and, to a lesser extent, Stuttgart, get underway. So let’s take closer look at what the week holds in store on the two tours at these two prestigious tournaments.
Indoor red clay
Draw is here
Nobody ever confused Maria Sharapova with Rafael Nadal, but in her own way she’s built a modest fortress of clay in recent years. Her record at this tournament is a perfect 8-0, and she’s going for a three-peat.
As usual, Stuttgart boasts a strong field, but it won’t be anything like the 64-player celebration of Spanish clay-court tennis in Barcelona. For one thing, the host nation has struggled to produce Top 10-quality players since the days of Steffi Graf. For another, Stuttgart touts a 32-player draw that’s proven comfy for the top stars. A title run by a top four seed requires just four wins, thanks to the first-round byes awarded to the the elite quartet. This tournament, the baby of renowned and controversial promoter Ion Tiriac, embodies his vision of reducing draws to accommodate fewer but higher-quality players.
Agnieszka Radwanska is the top seed, but she’s been spinning her wheels lately. The former Wimbledon finalist and one-time world No. 2 hasn’t won an event since last September in Seoul. Most recently, she was unable to win Katowice in her native Poland despite being by far the highest-ranked player in the draw. Sure, the weight of expectations was heavy, but ultimately, Radwanska misfired against Alize Cornet in the semis.
The good news for Radwanska in Stuttgart is that shell face either the rapidly-fading Roberta Vinci or a qualifier in her first match. The bad news for her is that she could get Sharapova—down to WTA No. 9, and the sixth seed here—in the third round. Still, Radwanska is better off getting Sharapova before the defending champion gets a chance to dial in her game. The Russian hasn’t won a tournament since this one last year, and this will be her 2014 clay-court debut.
Germany’s own Angelique Kerber is the other beneficiary of the four-bye set-up. The No. 4 seed will have to contend with the likes of Carla Suarez Navarro, Caroline Wozniacki, and Sara Errani in her quarter of the top half. She won’t survive the quality.
Semifinalists: Radwanska, Errani
It wasn’t all that long ago that a match between Serbians Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic was likely to be a semifinal or a final. At Stuttgart, they will meet in the first round. This is a pretty good illustration of the Tiriac theory at work: Reduce the field, the number of seeds (there are just eight), and number of byes, and you do get some eye-popping early match-ups.
Jankovic is in resurgence, but so is wild card and former Top-10 player Andrea Petkovic, who won the first clay-court event of the spring a few weeks ago in Charleston. A Serb by birth but now a German citizen, Petkovic is an emotional woman who will feed off the crowd. She’s back up to No. 28 and the main threat in her quarter is unreliable No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova.
The bottom quarter of the draw is stacked. Simona Halep is the high seed, but Dominka Cibulkova is in that section, as are a pair of German ball-bashers, Sabine Lisicki and wild card Julia Goerges. That final quarter promises to be a real shoot-out.
Semifinalists: Petkovic, Cibulkova
€1,845,585, ATP 500
Draw is here
Nadal began building his clay castle when he won his first title at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2005. Shortly afterward he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero to win Barcelona, establishing as reliable a winning tradition as we’ve witnessed in the Open era. Nadal has gone on to win this event eight times—four times at the expense of David Ferrer, the same man who stunned him in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo just a few days ago. (Nadal has also beat Ferrer in the semifinals of Barcelona once.)
Nadal is top-seeded in Barcelona, and Ferrer is again No. 2, but what once was nearly a foregone conclusion is no longer a sure thing. True, Nadal’s record with Ferrer is still a commanding 21-6. But the reality is that Nadal has failed to win a tournament in his last three tries—all of them Masters 1000 events, and one of them on clay no less. Surely it’s too early to ask “What’s wrong what Rafael Nadal,” but you have to wonder, what’s wrong with Rafael Nadal?
Nadal’s chances of getting back on a winning track are good: The next highest-ranked player after Ferrer is No. 13 Fabio Fognini. That’s right, no Novak Djokovic, Stanislas Wawinka, or Roger Federer. The highest seed in Nadal’s quarter is Nicolas Almagro, who has yet to win his first match of any kind from Rafa (0-10).
Should the desire to bite the trophy once again prove insufficient motivation for Nadal, he can call on his desire to be first among his countrymen. Barcelona—the crown jewel of Spanish tournaments, tier designations be danged—is laden with prestige and significance; a Spaniard has won the event for 11 years running.
All of the top Spanish players are entered in Barcelona. The one most likely to give Nadal the most trouble before the semifinals is probably Fernando Verdasco. The 30-year-old has a huge serve and forehand, and is in resurgence. The recent winner (over Almagro) in Houston, the lefty is back up to No. 26 in the rankings.
Fognini is well-positioned to emerge as Nadal’s semifinal opponent. But Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who made the semis two weeks ago in Houston, could be a tough first match for the temperamental Italian.
There's also Dominic Thiem, an Austrian 20-year old who’s already been awarded the nickname, “Dominator.” He’s coming on strong and had a terrific hard-court season in the U.S., which boosted him up to No. 80 in the rankings.
Last but not least, No. 10 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber is always a tough out, and he’s projected to meet No. 7 seed Jerzy Janowicz in the third round. The man to watch, though, may be No. 14 seed Marcel Granollers. The Barcelona native was a finalist in Casablanca a few weeks ago.
Semifinalists: Nadal, Granollers
Kei Nishikori, the No. 4 seed, is coming back from a groin strain that forced him to issue a walkover in his last tournament appearance—the semifinals of the Miami Masters. That makes him a vulnerable high seed, and he could meet Roberto Bautista Agut in his first match.
Tommy Robredo, 31 years old but still ranked No. 18, is seeded fifth. He’s played two finals in Barcelona, a loss to Nadal and a win over Gaston Gaudio. But Robredo probably will face at last one significant obstacle early on: Marin Cilic. Still, Cilic has played just two matches on clay this spring, so who knows?
Benoit Paire, the No. 16 seed, is as dangerous as he is unpredictable.
Above all, Ferrer must strike fear in the heart of all his rivals in this section, now that he’s salted away that big win over Nadal. The worst case third-round scenario for him is a meeting with Dmitry Tursunov, who simply doesn’t have the consistency to stay with the Spaniard in rallies.
But the top half of Ferrer's quarter has some electric shotmakers in Alexandr Dolgopolov and Ernests Gulbis. Luckily for Ferrer, those two would meet in the third round.
The dangerous Spanish floater in the bottom quarter is Albert Montanes, the unseeded 33-year-old who will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of a trip to the Barcelona semis.
Semifinalists: Robredo, Ferrer