Tennis

WTA players lack a love for red clay

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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The WTA's European red clay-court season begins in earnest this week in Stuttgart, Germany, with many of the world's top-ranked players participating in the indoor event, but not one of them can be called a standout favorite at the upcoming French Open, which kicks off in just five short weeks.

With 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams on the sidelines, four-time French Open champion Justine Henin having retired again, and four-time Grand Slam champ Kim Clijsters' ability to play uncertain because of an ankle injury, this is perhaps the most wide-open field in the history of the Open Era.

No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki did a fine job in winning Charleston, S.C., on green clay two weeks ago. But she has never won a major red clay-court crown, and last year at the French Open she was spun around by eventual champion Francesca Schiavone.

The Italian has complained of overplaying and skipped the Fed Cup last week in order to get a little R-and-R, but at 30 years old and with virtually nonstop play over the past year, it's highly unlikely she can repeat as champion.

So who exactly does that leave as formidable contenders? No one from the United States, at this point. Serena — who is likely out until at least Wimbledon — is the only current U.S. player to have won the tournament (in 2002), and her sister Venus is the only one to have finished runner-up (also in 2002).

Venus is having a very hard time just returning from injury, let alone trying to win Roland Garros, where her results have declined over the past five years. As we saw last weekend in Fed Cup when the U.S. fell to Germany on red clay, as game and feisty as teenagers Melanie Oudin and Christina McHale can be, they are both highly undeveloped players on the surface.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who skipped the tie to rest a sore back and hip, would be the first one to tell you that her attacking style isn't well suited to red clay.

A look at the 2011 results for players who have played excellent ball on the surface — namely Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Sam Stosur and Jelena Jankovic — reveals that none of them is brimming with confidence.

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If any one of them can make headway in Stuttgart this week or the upcoming high-level tournaments in Madrid and Rome in May, perhaps that player can enter the French Open as the standout favorite. But they have all had spotty years at best and, in the case of 2009 French Open champion Kuznetsova and 2010 runner-up Stosur, extremely below-par ones. It will be all they can do just to get the rhythm back in their games, much less exude confidence.

Without question, on a great day on clay 2008 French champion Ivanovic has shown she can beat anyone, but an abdominal injury suffered just before the Australian Open has kept her from charging back into the top 10. While she has come back from an emotionally draining stint outside of the top 50 back into the top 20, if she cannot get healthy (she was forced to retire in the second set of a Fed Cup match last weekend with a recurrence of the same injury), then she will not be able to play freely.

The same goes with former No. 1 Safina, who has been making progress and scored a win in Morocco on Monday, but just suffered another injury scare with her formerly broken back and is still lacking a bit of necessary power.

Without question, if you asked the WTA's top 30 players what their favorite surface is, only a handful would come up with clay, and most would say hard courts (a few would also say grass).

So unlike on the ATP Tour — where there is a phalanx of Spaniards and Argentines who love the dirt and prosper on it — only Schiavone, Spain's Maria Martinez, possibly France's Aravane Rezai, and maybe Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova and Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru would pick red clay.

Yes, some of the other Spanish and Italian women love red dirt, but competitors like No. 20 Flavia Pennetta of Italy actually have had better hard-court results, and Spain's most promising young player, Carla Suarez, can't get out of the doctor's office.

At this point, before any player potentially gets hot in the next month prior to Roland Garros opening its doors, there are only two players who would realistically be in anyone's top 5 picks: Wozniacki and No. 5 Victoria Azarenka, who just won back-to-back titles in Miami (on hard courts) and Marbella (on red clay).

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If conditions are slow during the European clay court season and the summer comes in late, Wozniacki will be hard-pressed to win major crowns because she has trouble producing pace off her forehand side. As great of a mover and defensive player as she is, she isn't as comfortable sliding into wide shots on clay as she is skidding to a stop and setting up her shots on hard courts.

Azarenka can produce plenty of her own pace, and has improved her conditioning. But she has retired from plenty of matches in her young career, and until she proves she can last seven matches, she cannot be seen as a lock to win any major.

Belgian fans are praying that Clijsters can return and win Roland Garros without any warmup tournaments. But it's highly unlikely that the torn ligaments in her ankle will heal in time to give her enough confidence to go all out on a surface that can play havoc on sore muscles.

Russian Vera Zvonareva, who holds the No. 3 ranking despite having won only one decent-sized title over the past year, has had some good results in Paris, but does anyone expect her to win a major after she was clubbed in her last matches at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open? Maybe just her most ardent supporters.

Perhaps a player will come out of the wilderness like Schiavone did in 2010. A good, but not great, player who finally found her nerve at the not-so-young tennis age of 29. Or perhaps Wozniacki or Azarenka will finally fulfill her potential and win a Grand Slam. But from the looks of things in mid-April, you could throw 30 names into a hat, pick one out and be just as likely to be holding the winner's name on it than if you projected a winner based on form and past performances.

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