To skid and slide on a slippery surface can probably bring juvenile joy but for a tennis player wanting to hit pay dirt on a clay court, it becomes an essential skill. As the clay season heads to its grand finale at the Roland Garros for the year’s second Grand Slam, the French Open starting Monday, a few key things remain to be seen. Will the men’s top order change from being a two-way fight to a threesome? Will the wide gap in the women’s field left by the Williams sisters’ withdrawal and the top-ranked Danish player Caroline Wozniacki’s almost stubborn desire to win everything else except a Grand Slam give way to a new rising star? We take stock:
THE MEN’S FIELD
Having already won 37 matches in a row since the start of the year, he can surpass John McEnroe’s best start in a season if he reaches the final at the French Open. McEnroe had won 42 matches in a row at the start of 1984, a world record. The Serb may not have won the French Open yet, but he has figured out a way to beat world No. 1 Rafael Nadal from Spain— with confidence, aggressive groundstrokes and the brutal strength to keep up with Nadal’s energy and keep him pinned right behind the baseline. Improved fitness and mental conditioning have been key to Djokovic’s success.
New contender: Victoria Azarenka from Belarus is a player to watch; Hot streak: Novak Djokovic (left) has beaten Rafael Nadal in two successive finals this clay court season. Photos: Reuters
“Everything is possible. You can do it if you fit well with the team of people around you and focus on your goal...to be physically ready for the match. We did a great job and today I was able to get the maximum out of my fitness,” Djokovic said at a press conference on Sunday, after beating Nadal in the Rome Internazionali BNL d’Italia final.
Last year, he won all the 22 matches he played on clay, including the French Open. With an 18-2 win-loss record on clay this season, Nadal’s only challenger remains Djokovic.
“Nadal doesn’t seem to know what to do against him, and if Nadal is baffled by playing him, that just shows you how great he (Djokovic) is playing on clay,” McEnroe told Associated Press on Monday.
“I watched Nadal in the Rome finals and noticed that he was clearly troubled by Djokovic, little shaken up, trying to figure out how to get him,” says Mary Carillo, tennis broadcaster and a former player, over the phone from New York. “There’s little anyone can do at the moment to beat Djokovic—he has managed to get inside everyone’s head, including Rafa’s.”
But Nadal remains optimistic. After losing to Djokovic in Rome, he said: “The most important thing is to be confident with myself... The champion...is not only able to win every week, it is when they are able to wait at the right moments...we will see what is going on next time.”
Leave out Roger Federer at your own peril, though his chances of winning another French Open crown diminish with every passing day. Having never beaten Nadal in Paris, he now has a rejuvenated Djokovic to contend with. Yet if the first set of his match against Nadal in the ATP World Tour Master, Madrid, on 8 May is any indication, Federer still has the shots to turn every match around.
Rounding up the quartet is the dark horse from Sweden, Robin Soderling, the 2009 and 2010 French Open finalist. With the help of his new coach, Fredrik Rosengren, Soderling hopes to improve his fitness and movement around the court. “Since I am tall (6ft 4 inches), my movement gets hampered at times and it’s difficult to move fast,” he said from Rome recently in a conference call.
THE WOMEN’S FIELD
Twenty-three women contested the 28 semi-final berths across seven clay court events played this season (besides two events being played this week in Brussels and Strasbourg). Only three made it to the semi-finals, with only one (Wozniacki) appearing in more than two semis. Only one, Victoria Azarenka from Belarus, appeared in more than one final (she won in Marbella, Spain, and lost in Madrid). Throw in Kim Clijsters from Belgium and the women’s field splits wide open.
At 21, she is better known for her loud grunts than her results. A spectator with a hearing aid had to recently walk out of her match at Key Biscayne. Nevertheless, she
remains one of the tour’s most promising players, with two titles this year (one on clay). But her best performance at the French Open was a quarter-final appearance in 2009. If Azarenka finds a way to beat the Paris heat— and stay cool—this could be her year.
The reigning Australian and US Open champion is a serious threat even if she has not played any match on clay this season. This two-time French Open finalist is coming back from wrist and shoulder injuries. Her biggest strengths are her mental ability and experience.
The other one
A Top-10 ranked player is hardly a dark horse, but 21-year old Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic, who won three of her four career titles in 2011, is a serious contender. She may not be ready to win the crown, but expect her to go deep into the draw. Last year’s Wimbledon semi-finalist, Kvitova has shown she can play well on clay as well; she won the Mutua Madrid Open this month, one of the biggest clay court events of the season.