TENNIS – In 2013, Serena Williams closed her season on clay with 28 wins and no losses, but in Charleston she lost to Cepelova. So what is going to happen in the next couple of months, with her and the other ruler of the past clay seasons, Maria Sharapova, looking far from their best? Giulio Gasparin
In 2013, Serena Williams closed her season on clay with 28 wins and no losses, something remarkable not only for the numbers, but also for the clay-court game she was able to bring to the table.
On the green clay of Charleston, the most suitable to the powerful American, Williams started her new year on the dirt being unable to defend her title. Her campaign actually started with a straight sets loss to Jana Cepelova.
So what is going to happen in the next couple of months, with her and the other ruler of the past clay seasons, Maria Sharapova, looking far from their best?
It is fundamental to state that the general level of the women’s tour on clay is suffering quite a lot lately. Mostly due to the small number of tournaments being played on it, more and more players seem to feel awkward and out of place on clay, trying to make their hard-court game plan work on the dirt.
For that reason, it is quite common to see strange results in the leading to the Roland Garros and often the seeding means quite little on the single match up.
One other reason why to expect Serena Williams not to show the same commitment on the dirt as last year could be the desire of winning Wimbledon again, hence a focus on grass rather than clay.
Maria Sharapova is coming back from the shoulder injury that forced her out of the season finale last year and despite the semi-final in Miami, she still looks vulnerable, especially on her serve.
The physically more demanding clay could prove a test too difficult for the Russian, who might even find it hard to hang in the top 10 by the end of the Parisian slam.
This year’s Australian Open and 2011 Roland Garros winner Li Na could be the one to pick up the pieces once again.
However, the world number two is currently struggling with a knee injury that forced her out of Stuttgart. For that it is hard to know whether she will be able to raise her game once again when it matters, especially given her game, which is forcedly adapted to clay, despite her past success on it.
World number three and four do not seem to be the suitable candidates for the dominance of the clay season either.
Agnieszka Radwanska lacks the power to hit through the clay and her touch skills work better on faster surfaces, while Victoria Azarenka is still struggling with injuries, besides that even at her best, clay was surely her worst surface.
World number five and last year’s biggest surprise Simona Halep could easily be the name to appear in most of experts’ lists of Roland Garros favourites. The Romanian started her breakthrough on the clay of Rome in 2013 and is a former junior champion in Paris.
A mix of smart game, powerful counterpunching and natural aptness to the red clay is what seems to lack to most of her fellow top 10 players.
The only other player to share a similar quality is Jelena Jankovic. The former world number one is looking particularly solid and tenacious lately and has always loved the red clay. However, the loss in Bogota’s final to Caroline Garcia is raising some doubts on her chances to be a real contender for the Roland Garros.
The only true clay specialist in the top 15, Sara Errani, looks far from her best in this 2014 and wins are struggling to come regularly.
It will be hard for her to achieve the same results as in the past two seasons, but her fighting spirit and smart game will make her tough to beat.
Apart from the already mentioned Sharapova, the group of players from five to 15 have all big question marks next to their names.
Petra Kvitova has never excelled on the red clay and with the horrible physical preparation showed during this season, it will be hard for her to shine in the next months.
Angelique Kerber has showed solid results at the beginning of the year, but similarly to Radwanska her game is not suitable for the slow red clay.
Same can be said for the revelation of 2014 Dominika Cibulkova, whose aggressive baseline tennis does not match with the ideal standards of clay tennis. Nonetheless, the Slovak has reached the semi-final in Paris in the past and could look for a similar run if her form keeps up.
Despite her Roland Garros title in 2008, Ana Ivanovic does not seem a real competitor for the title this year. Her improved form is still far from reliable and it would not be surprising to see her struggling to back up the good results so far.
Indian Wells champion Flavia Pennetta has never passed the Roland Garros fourth round in the past and despite the numerous WTA titles won on red clay, the Italian has proved to be a bigger threat on hard courts.
The already named Garcia could well be one of the names to keep an eye on in terms of surprises. The young French player has had a successful past as a junior, but never quite transferred it to the pro circuit, ever since failing to close her match against Sharapova at Roland Garros a few seasons ago.
Her win in Bogota followed a series of nice wins and good results, including a three sets loss to Serena Williams, in which she tested the world number one until the very end.
Another couple of names to keep under the radar are Jana Cepelova, Andrea Petkovic, Eugenie Bouchard and Alize Cornet.
The first three all showed great things in Charleston, especially the young Slovak, who was capable of winning against Serena Williams with ease.
Petkovic’s form has been coming and going, but the confidence boost she received after the win of her first ever premier title could prove important for a streaky player like she is.
As for the French number one, she demonstrated a new attitude on court, especially in the way she deals with her own temper.
The talent that pushed her as high as number 11 a few years ago following a dream run in Rome has always been there, but Cornet has been more concrete this season and has started to win long, tough mental battles, with the latest being on the final of Katowice.
If she is able to keep these progresses up, she could easily be one of these dark horses for the next few weeks on red clay.
For quite the opposite reason, an eye should be kept on some of the top players, who might find the roughly two months of red clay a nightmare.
Caroline Wozniacki will find it very hard to do any worse than in 2013, when she managed to win a single match on red clay and it was at her very last attempt in Paris. The Dane surely does not like clay, but given her mediocre season so far, it is hard to expect anything much better.
Sabine Lisicki has just suffered from the “hard-worker” of team Germany the worst loss of her career score-wise, as she was left with a single game to her bag by Petkovic in Charleston.
Lisicki’s game and mind are all projected to the grass swing and her poor form and confidence might play a big role too in the coming weeks.
Finally, Sloane Stephens, the great hope of American tennis, seems to be lost in a status of confusion between aggressive and defensive inputs, tactics and instinct. In a word: confused.
She comes from two awkward losses on clay and it is hard to believe she can suddenly find the plot on a surface where her lazy footwork can be easily exposed.
French Open Finalist Marketa Vondrousova Undergoes Surgery
It is a premature end to what has been a breakthrough season for the Czech.
Czech rising star Marketa Vondrousova will miss the rest of the season after undergoing an operation on her left wrist.
The 20-year-old made the announcement on her Instagram account where she uploaded a picture of herself after undergoing the procedure. Vondrousova hasn’t played a match on the tour since Wimbledon, where she first sustained the injury. According to Czech media, she received treatment at the same facility which Petra Kvitova attended following a knife attack that severely injured her playing hand.
“For two months I tried to treat my wrist conservatively and tried everything possible. Unfortunately, nothing led to a significant improvement. That is why I decided on this solution, which should relieve me of my pain for good,” Vondrousova said is a statement issued by her team.
“Unfortunately for me, 2019 ended earlier than I wanted. I can’t wait to play back on the courts without pain anymore,“ she added.
The premature end draws the curtain on what has been a breakthrough season for Vondrousova. At the French Open she defeated Petra Martic and Johanna Konta en route to the final. Becoming the youngest player to do so at the tournament since Ana Ivanovic back in 2007. She was denied the title by Ash Barty, who prevailed in straight sets.
Yet to win a title, Vondrousova has managed to remain consistent on the tour by reaching the quarter-finals or better at six consecutive tournaments between February and June. Including the final of the Budapest Open. During that time, she managed to score two wins over Simona Halep. The highest ranked player she has defeated so far in her career.
Vondrousova is currently ranked 22nd in the world. She ends the season with a win-loss record of 29-9.
‘Relaxed’ Su-Wei Hsieh Saves Match Point To Oust Muguruza In Osaka
Su-Wei Hsieh saved match point to eliminate Garbine Muguruza from the premier-level tournament in Osaka.
Su-Wei Hsieh was in a relaxed mood as she saved match point to edge out Garbine Muguruza 3-6 7-6(1) 6-1 in Osaka.
The Wimbledon doubles champion claimed her second straight win over the Spaniard having saved match point in the contest.
After winning a tight second set, Hsieh cruised through the deciding set to secure a spot in the second round against Elise Mertens.
Even though this final part of the season can prove quite tiring, Hsieh is approaching in a more relaxed manner, “I know that anything can happen because this is almost the end of the year,” Hsieh said to the press after the win.
“I just want to be more relaxed, going more to my game. Sometimes I lose a little bit of rhythm at the beginning, so I just need to play more games to get the rhythm.
“In the second set, I felt a little bit more rhythm, and more stable myself, my personal style. It helped me a lot to get into the match and to get more game.”
As for Muguruza, this loss would have hurt her confidence a lot having not won a WTA match since June and her ranking slowly falling by the week.
Next for Hsieh will be US Open doubles champion Elise Mertens, where they have split their opening two meetings which came last season.
In other results today there were comfortable wins for Madison Keys and US Open quarter-finalist Donna Vekic over Daria Kasatkina and Caroline Garcia respectively.
Here is the second round line-up, which matches will be played across Wednesday and Thursday:
Naomi Osaka (1) v Viktoriya Tomova – Wednesday
Varvara Flink v Yulia Putintseva – Thursday
Sloane Stephens (3) v Camila Giorgi – Thursday
Su-Wei Hsieh v Elise Mertens (9) – Wednesday
Madison Keys (5) v Zarina Diyas – Wednesday
Nicole Gibbs v Angelique Kerber (4) – Wednesday
Donna Vekic (7) v Misaki Doi – Thursday
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova v Kiki Bertens (2) – Thursday
Despite New WTA Guidelines, Could Kim Clijsters’ Return Be Marred By Aberration?
Kim Clijsters will not have any restriction in the number of wildcards she receives. But she also deserves more in her upcoming third stint on the Tour
By the time, Kim Clijsters makes her return to professional tennis in 2020, around eight years will have passed since her second retirement from the WTA Tour. In this near-about octet of years, there have been several changes on the Tour, especially for those women attempting a return post maternity. But where does the 36-year-old stand amid these alterations?
The Belgian was one of the earlier trendsetters – of this decade – to resume her professional activity after becoming a mother for the first time. In 2009, when she returned during the American hard-court summer, the subject never gained as much traction as it did when Williams returned to the game, in 2018 after her pregnancy hiatus in 2017.
Clijsters’ win at the US Open that year – the first for an unseeded player – stifled the mushrooming of any possible avenues of such ranking tweaks back then. Over the next couple of years, as Clijsters ascended in the rankings boosted by her performances, including re-attaining her career-high of no. 1, the topic became moot.
Now, after all these years, in spite of the WTA bringing in modifications to its rules – by way of provision of special ranking to women re-joining the Tour after motherhood, among other factors – Clijsters’ continues to remain an outlying scenario. The obvious reason for this is the lapsing of time of the four-time Major champion’s returning to pro tennis. According to the new rules, a player who is out of the Tour on account of pregnancy must make a comeback within three years after her child’s birth, at most.
Her previous successes and titles ensure Clijsters will never lack for wildcards from tournaments, as per the WTA regulations. However, the question stemming here is should an exception be made for the former world no. 1 vis-à-vis the special ranking while overlooking the passing of years?
When announcing her imminent return to the Pro Tour on the WTA Insider podcast, Clijsters mentioned about challenging herself. “I don’t feel like I want to prove something. I think for me it’s the challenge…,” she said.
“The love for the sport is obviously still there. But the question still is, am I capable of bringing it to a level where I would like it to be at and where I want it to be at before I want to play at a high level of one of the best women’s sports in the world. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I want to challenge myself and I want to be strong again. This is my marathon. This is where I’m saying, ‘OK, let’s try this’.”
Clijsters’ path to trying this while taking it on as a challenge need not come at a cost of her being immediately pushed off the deep end in terms of encountering a higher-seeded opponent. The present state of the WTA would make it for an interesting match-up – whenever it happens – but it would also be akin to defeating the purpose underlining her return, regardless of how confident the 2011 Australian Open champion is with her timing.
The norms, too, could be nudged into further relooking easing them towards a player’s preference in ascertaining her post-childbirth return instead of clubbing them, at large. After all, as significant as Williams’ laurels were to usher in changes, Clijsters’ stunner yet again proves the variety that exists in women’s decision-making.
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