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Adjusting to Clay: On the Grounds in Charleston (Entry #2)

Photo: Christopher Levy

Photo: Christopher Levy

On the green clay of the Family Circle Cup, Germany’s Andrea Petkovic started all wrong in her opening match.

“I was just playing hard court tennis,” Petkovic said. “There were let’s say, 10 or 12 shots, where I just stopped moving because I thought that the rally was over, and the ball just came back normally. I was trying to hit through her, not changing any rhythm.”

The No. 3 seed eventually pulled off the win against Chanelle Scheepers, which was a good thing for Petkovic and the tournament – she’s the defending champion, after all.

The German fan favorite is not alone in her struggles to adjust to the green clay of Daniel Island. For many of the women here, this week arrived directly from Miami and its more “concrete” venue. One was Ekaterina Makarova, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, who had played in Sunday’s women’s doubles final in Miami.

Taxed with an abrupt change in mind and body, the Russian struggled early and often on Wednesday against a game Zhang Shuai, ranked No. 84 in the world. Hours after the match, Makarova was forced to withdraw from the tournament with to a gastrointestinal problem.

“I just practiced yesterday, and then today is the matches,” Makarova said, after defeating Zhang, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. “It’s first time for me that I’m changing pretty fast from the hard court to the clay before I [could] practice for a couple weeks. Today was really tough for me to understand because it’s really different game [than] hard court.”

Makarova is right, of course; Charleston – and its signature green clay courts – are a world away from Indian Wells or Miami.

The surface is inherently rough and gritty, so the ball does not have a true bounce. A clay court grabs the ball, slowing it down just a touch, which then requires minute adjustments in footwork and timing. Offensive players like Makarova, who play well on hard and grass courts, have to therefore revise their instinctive tactics and prepare for extended rallies.

Trying to hit clean winners can backfire, as Petkovic discovered.

Finally, running and more running becomes part and parcel of the game. Making an opponent hit one more ball is not a mere tactic for clay court success, but it could make the difference between winning and losing any given point. Longer rallies, coupled with the slippery surface, tires muscles not typically used on hard courts.

Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic felt the strain yesterday in her three-set match, which lasted two-and-a-half hours. She was grateful for the practice, so to speak, but knew there would be consequences.

“I will be a little sore tomorrow, especially after doing all this sliding,” Jankovic began. “It’s a little bit different than playing on hard courts. But, I don’t play tomorrow so I can recover and be ready for Thursday.”

Jankovic’s opponent Thursday was projected to have been the No. 12 seed, Belinda Bencic. Instead, the Swiss star lost to another gifted player, qualifier Danka Kovinic of Montenegro.

Photo: Christopher Levy

Photo: Christopher Levy

Jankovic and Kovinic have a history.

“I’ve known Danka since she was a child,” Jankovic revealed. “I’m her role model. She really admires me, has my shoes, has my things in her room, and it’s unbelievable that maybe I can play against her. I was hitting balls with her when she was 10 years old.”

Kovinic backed up her idol’s comments.

“That was one of my inspirations of today, to beat Bencic because I was practicing all my life to play with Jelena,” she said, smiling. “I’m so happy that I have a chance to play [her] tomorrow.”

The two met in a Serbian tennis club when Kovinic moved to Belgrade at 10 years old. During last weekend’s qualifying tournament, Jankovic was seen court side, watching her young friend. The 20-year-old Kovinic admires Jankovic’s happy demeanor and relaxed personality.

But the youngster could surprise Jankovic on a couple fronts.

Photo: Christopher Levy

Photo: Christopher Levy

Kovinic professed she had no problems switching from hard courts to clay courts, which showed in her opening-round win over America’s Christina McHale.

“Normally I don’t have problem with adjustment from surfaces,” she said, smiling and displaying a full set of braces on her teeth. “Last year I did very crazy calendar. I played Doha on the hard court. I played next week Rio Open, clay. And then I played Australian Open, hard court. It was just three tournaments, three different surfaces, and I did pretty well.”

Kovinic also comes equipped with a wicked serve, one clocking at 122 M.P.H, and eleven others as aces. Most impressively, she knew how to adjust from a set down. “I expected when she have a ball to attack me,” Kovinic said. “But she made, like angles. She played so wide. And I stayed a little bit behind the baseline. After I was a little bit on baseline. I think that was the key.”

The question is, does she have a chance against her mentor and 2007 Family Circle Cup champion?

“There’s always a chance,” she mused. “Maybe it will be kind of weird and kind of weird because all the time I was cheering for her. I’ll give my best to win. If not, it’s just good tournament for me this year.”

What do you think of the surface transition? Sound off in the comments!

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About Jane Voigt (89 Articles)
Jane Voigt is a recognized tennis journalist who has covered the pro game for over 12 years. She created and owns DownTheTee.com, and has contributed to TennisGrandstand.com, WorldTennisMagazine,com, TennisWeek.com, Tennis Week Magazine, TennisServer.com, and Tennis.com.

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