Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Road to Roland Garros kicks off.

After February's brief flirtation in Latin America, the clay court swing becomes a full-blown affair this week, starting with the Family Circle Cup in Charleston and Andalucia Tennis Experience in Marbella. For the next two months the stars of the WTA will battle it out on the dirt, passions reaching fever pitch at Roland Garros at the end of May.

The best writer could not have scripted a more sublime climax to last year's clay season: Francesca Schiavone's swashbuckling run to the French title, and the unbridled joy of her celebrations, will be remembered for many years to come. With any luck, the red stuff will again yield something special. A much-desired (and deserved) first Grand Slam title for hard-working world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, perhaps?

The 20-year-old Dane certainly knows how to play on clay, which suits her retrieving style and willingness to stay out there all day. But, much as she thrives on playing tournament tennis, staying fresh and peaking at the right moment will also be key. While her top ranking is safe at least into May, she won't be underestimating the competition that stands in the way of realizing her dream and silencing the doubters.

Backspin To The Future?

How 30-year-old Schiavone prepares for and fares on her title defense will also be a chief storyline of the European spring. The way the Italian veteran has consolidated her Top 10 position with strong results on less favored surfaces, she must have a real shot at repeating. But will she be able to play with characteristic joie de vivre when the pressure is on?

With a 20-3 win-loss record on the surface, the other clay court standout of 2010 was Samantha Stosur. The Australian won her first Premier title at Charleston, was runner-up to Justine Henin at Stuttgart, and reached her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros. In order to hold her Top 5 status, she, too, needs to win a lot of matches in the coming weeks after some disappointing results this season.

There were other breakthroughs in 2010: María José Martínez Sánchez applied her enterprising lefty game to great effect in capturing Rome, while Aravane Rezai's played a blinder to triumph in Madrid. Likewise, the International events proved happy hunting grounds for up-and-comers such as Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova, who won her first WTA title at Estoril, and Romanian teenager Simona Halep, who reached her first tour final at Fès as a qualifier. Both have since risen up the ranks; who will follow suit?

Serbian teen Bojana Jovanovski could threaten at the smaller events, and maybe even breach the second week in Paris. Ditto Dominika Cibulkova, at No.25 the highest-ranked player without a WTA title. The diminutive Slovak will be one of the top seeds at the Barcelona Ladies Open later this month; is this her chance to get the trophy monkey off her back? China's Peng Shuai, a three-time tour finalist making her Top 30 debut this week, is also one to watch: she's having a great year, was runner-up on Strasbourg's clay in 2006, and is a three-time quarterfinalist there.

Expect big things too from Andrea Petkovic, another ranking riser (she joined the Top 20 this week) who won her first WTA title on clay at Bad Gastein in 2009. And, right in front of the German at No.18 in the rankings, is Petra Kvitova. The Czech lefty has already pocketed two titles this year, at Brisbane and the Paris Indoors; she reached the last 16 at Roland Garros on her Grand Slam debut in 2008, and when she is confident, she is unstoppable.

With her dazzling victory at Miami, Victoria Azarenka reasserted her claim as a potential Grand Slam champion; she's never won a clay court tournament, but is no slouch on the surface. With two major finals under her belt but no clay court title since 2008, Vera Zvonareva's fortunes should also be monitored in the weeks ahead. Maria Sharapova, back in the Top 10 after a great double-whammy at Indian Wells and Miami, doesn't favor the dirt either - but, force of nature that she is, won Strasbourg 12 months ago.

Former No.1s Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic could also threaten. If history repeats, Jankovic should do well at Rome, where she is a two-time champion and was runner-up last year to Martínez Sánchez; in prevailing conditions, there's no reason the Serb can't convert such success to a major. Looking much like her old self, Ivanovic - who has already lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen - just needs to close out a big match or two to prove she is truly back.

The same goes for another former champion of Paris, Svetlana Kuznetsova, who can do it all but is looking for momentum mojo; Dinara Safina, whose rise to the top in 2009 was grounded on a superb clay season, also seems to be back on a positive trajectory.

And the list of potential spoilers is just as long: Agnieszka Radwanska - surely due a Grand Slam semifinal appearance at least - Marion Bartoli, Shahar Peer, Flavia Pennetta, Kaia Kanepi, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Alisa Kleybanova, Yanina Wickmayer. Not far behind are players like Jarmila Groth, who has been scoring runs this year and is strong on clay.

Finally, spare a thought for Alexandra Dulgheru, who won the Premier level Warsaw Open in 2009 as a qualifier ranked No.201 - and coolly defended her title last year. Now firmly in the Top 30, the 21-year-old Romanian can't go for the hat-trick because her favorite event is no more. But, given her record in that tricky final week before the Slam, she might just contend at the new Brussels Ladies Open, which has picked up the Polish capital's slot.

From the WTA Tour website

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