Osaka kicks off her clay season, while Nadal tries to bounce back

Osaka kicks off her clay season, while Nadal tries to bounce back

After ramping up for a few weeks, the clay season reaches top gear this week.

After ramping up for a few weeks, the clay season reaches top gear this week. As the men close out their European-swing opener in Monte Carlo and head for Barcelona, the women kick off their first big event on dirt, in Stuttgart. All in all, there are 10 players ranked in the Top 10—six on the women’s side in Stuttgart, four on the men’s in Barcelona—in action this week.


Porsche Grand Prix (WTA)

Stuttgart, Germany

$886,077; Premier

Indoor red clay

Draw is here

You remember Naomi Osaka, right? She has won the last two majors and is ranked No. 1 in the world? Somehow, she seems to have been flying under the radar for the last couple of months. After terminating a successful coaching relationship and losing early in Dubai, Indian Wells, and Miami, the status of the WTA’s top player is something of a mystery at the moment. So is her clay form; in 2018, Osaka didn’t make many inroads on the surface, which wouldn’t seem to fit her blast-first-and-ask-questions-later style of play. Osaka has surprised us plenty of times before, of course, but she has a tough-looking road ahead in Stuttgart: She’ll start against either Qiang Wang or Su-Wei Hsieh (Hsieh beat Osaka in Miami), could face two-time Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber after that, and defending champ Karolina Pliskova in the semis.

With six of the Top 10 in Stuttgart, Osaka isn’t the only draw this week. No. 2 seed Simona Halep will arrive after a big Fed Cup weekend in France. No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova will come here with hopes of matching her excellent run on clay in 2018. Belinda Bencic will try to regain the March momentum that has flagged a bit in April. Pliskova will aim to make a successful title defense, while Kerber will try to rally once again for the home folks.

First-round matches to watch:

Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Victoria Azarenka

Anastasia Sevastova vs. Jelena Ostapenko, in an all-Latvian affair


 

Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (ATP)

Barcelona, Spain

$3,100,000; 500 ranking points

Red clay

Draw is here

Rafael Nadal will never “need a win” on clay. The fact that he’s going for his 12th title in Barcelona should tell us that he has nothing left to prove on the surface. That said, after a rare defeat in Monte Carlo to Fabio Fognini, Rafa will be looking to get his game on track—as we saw in 2015, when he failed to win any clay events at all, even he can lose some confidence on dirt. He’ll start this week against either Marius Copil or Leonardo Mayer. If all goes as planned, he’ll play Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarters, and Dominic Thiem in the semis.

Speaking of confidence boosts, Thiem could use one himself. After reaching the Roland Garros final last year, he likely has big plans for the next couple of months; but he stumbled out of the gate in Monte Carlo, where he lost to Dusan Lajovic. And how about Alexander Zverev? The German has two titles and a final to defend over the next month. After losing to Fognini in Monte Carlo, he’s taken a wild card into Barcelona.

Which brings us to Fognini himself. His first reaction to his win in Monaco was to say that he needed some time off. As of now, he’s still the No. 8 seed in Barcelona, on the other side of the draw from Nadal.

Potential third-round matches to watch:

Nadal vs. Lucas Pouille

Tsitsipas vs. David Goffin

Thiem vs. Frances Tiafoe

Karen Khachanov vs. Pablo Carreño Busta

Fognini vs. Denis Shapovalov

Kei Nishikori vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime

A.  Zverev vs. Grigor Dimitrov

All-American first-round match to watch: Taylor Fritz vs. Reilly Opelka


 

Hungarian Open (ATP)

Budapest, Hungary

$800,000; 250 ranking points

Red clay

Draw is here

The tournament is in Hungary, but the draw has a Croatian flavor: The top two seeds are Marin Cilic and Borna Coric, who together took their country to the Davis Cup title last year. Cilic, it seems, never recovered; he has won just one match since the Australian Open.

Also here: Monte Carlo finalist Dusan Lajovic


TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup (WTA)

Istanbul

$250,000; International

Red clay

Draw is here

The week’s smallest event is this WTA 250K in Istanbul. Carla Suarez Navarro is the top seed, followed by a struggling Mihaela Buzarnescu, who could use a win or two.

Also here: Dayana Yastremska, Maria Sakkari, Camila Giorgi, Petra Martic, Svetlana Kuznetsova