After making our ATP picks a week ago, the TTI gang reconvened to hash out the biggest storylines of the upcoming WTA clay court season. With two “non-traditional” clay court events in the books, which players will shine and who will fail to deliver on Europe’s red clay?
Of the WTA, who is/will:
1) Who will slide down the rankings?
It’s an obvious answer, but I guess it needs to be said: Lucie Safarova is almost sure to fall at least a few spots in the rankings as she’s defending runner-up points in Paris and quarterfinals points in Madrid. She’s yet to win a match on tour since returning from a prolonged absence due to illness, but she *did* finally grab her first set of the year in her loss to Karolina Pliskova last week in Stuttgart. I don’t think Safarova will still be winless after the clay season; however, it’s a pretty big ask of her to defend a final at Roland Garros in her current state — so expect a couple of extra scrolls down if you’re looking for her in the rankings as the tour heads into the grass season.
I’m going with Daria Gavrilova — last year, the Australian made a breakout run on the red clay of Rome, but her form of late has been slightly worrying. Last year’s Italian Open semifinalist hasn’t been able to sustain the momentum she gained with a second-week showing in Melbourne, and she’s suffered a lot of early losses. With her Rome points gone, the 22-year-old could find herself falling down the rankings in one very swift motion if she can’t find some results on the red stuff.
Apart from Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova who are both out with injury (ankle and…ethical) and who have quite a large chunk of their points to defend during the clay season, Svetlana Kuznetsova has a huge sum of points to defend at Madrid — where she made the final last year. Although she salvaged those points by making the final of Miami just last month, the talented Russian’s form is always unpredictable these days (as is anyone’s though, to be fair) and an early loss in Madrid might send her recently resurgent ranking back down once again.
Let’s not forget that Ana Ivanovic has one big result on her ranking from 2015 — and that’s a semifinal at Roland Garros. Currently barely hanging on to a Top 20 ranking, the Serb has been the beacon of inconsistency this year, and hasn’t won back-to-back matches since Dubai in February.
While Ivanovic clawed her way to a semifinal in Paris a year ago on the back of three three-setters, it’s tough to see her replicating anything close to that this year. She also won two matches in Madrid a year ago, so she’s defending 900 ranking points from those two tournaments. (And if you’re inclined to believe the swirling rumors about her wedding to Bastian Schweinsteiger…well, tennis might not be the first thing on her mind this spring, either.)
2) Who’ll make their mark? (No Hawkeye necessary.)
Maybe I’m naive and falling for the same trap Sloane Stephens has set before (see: Auckland win followed by a first round exit in Melbourne earlier this year) but to me, she just seems ready. There’s something about the look in her eyes this year as she’s won titles, and it was there again when she won Charleston. I think many underrate her on this surface, and Roland Garros is probably her most consistent slam by the numbers — let’s not forget how close she was to beating Serena in the fourth round in Paris last year. I expect big things from Stephens for the rest of the season, but the next several weeks on clay might be her best chance to make big noise.
I’m going with Petra Kvitova here — the Czech has her Madrid Open title to defend but she looked in good physical shape last week. The longer preparation — as well as having Frantisek Cermak as her new coach — seems to have added a breath of fresh air for the lefty. While Stuttgart and Madrid might both be slight outliers in terms of conditions, Kvitova was hitting a solid ball nonetheless and this might just be the year that she does well in the more “traditional” clay court event in Rome, and returns to the business-end of the tournament in Paris.
It bears repeating: Sloane Stephens has won three titles this year — isn’t that crazy? Formerly known as a big-events-only player who peaked just in time for the Grand Slams, the American has made her name this year in winning any title where she’s won a match. Stephens is surprisingly adept on clay given her exceptional movement and big-swinging groundstrokes, and will be looking to finally register some solid results at the bigger events in 2016. With women’s tennis wide open at the moment, this could be Stephens’ chance to deliver on the hype that has fueled her rollercoaster career thus far.
Goodness was Angelique Kerber‘s 2015 on clay disappointing post-Stuttgart. She lost to Samantha Stosur in Madrid, which is a tough opening round draw when Stosur’s playing well on the red stuff, but was upset by Irina-Camelia Begu in Rome and ran into her recent kryptonite, Garbiñe Muguruza at Roland Garros. While she’s won Stuttgart again in 2016, it’s safe to say that I think her clay campaign will be much different than it was a year ago.
While she’s never excelled on the red stuff, confidence goes a long way — and Kerber’s entered a new stratosphere this year. She seems settled in her role as a Grand Slam champion, and handled the increased expectation and scrutiny in her home event beautifully. She can only go up from her results in 2015, and I think she’s primed to have the best clay-court results of her career.
3) Who’ll make a clay breakthrough?
Daria Kasatkina is the obvious choice here, so I’ll go in a different direction: Danka Kovinic currently sits at No. 47 in the world and has the type of game that — when she’s on — makes you say, ‘She should be ranked higher.’ I think now is as good a time as ever for that breakthrough to come. She’s very comfortable on clay, and has weapons big enough to put her in control against most opponents — a rare and often deadly combination on a tour in which many struggle to find their footing on dirt. Kovinic is already off to a good start to her clay season, making the final in Istanbul and reaching her career-high ranking. If a draw or two goes the right way, I think this could be Kovinic’s time to break the Top 40 and grab a big win or two — or seven on her way to the Roland Garros title, who knows.
Is Laura Siegemund an easy pick? Maybe — but having watched the 28-year-old dropshot, charge the net and bully Roberta Vinci, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska off of the court during her Cinderella run in Stuttgart, it wouldn’t be unfeasible if the German late-bloomer ended up blossoming even further during the European swing on clay.
The former tennis prodigy has the right outlook and mentality and has little to nothing to lose over the next few weeks — if she can summon up even half of her Stuttgart form in Rome and Madrid, she might just end up being seeded at a Grand Slam tournament less than a year after qualifying for a her first Grand Slam main draw last year at Wimbledon.
It’s impossible not to go with Kasatkina. Although she withdrew from the event in Prague this week, her emergence in 2016 has been a bit of a revelation and I’m firmly on board with it. The Russian’s intelligent counterpunching game on hard courts translates smoothly onto clay, with her weaknesses being neutralized and her strengths enhanced. Her court craft is impeccable, and with the right draws she might be able to make a dent in any of the draws she’s entered in.
I have an interesting feeling about Lara Arruabarrena this year — call it an inkling, a hunch, 2016 in women’s tennis, who knows? The Spaniard has always known her way around a clay court, and she’s already had a decent start to her year on the dirt; while Charleston certainly isn’t an indicator of potential clay-court success, she played one of the highlight matches of the season vs. Angelique Kerber in defeat, and I thought she was a shoe-in to win Bogota before she fell to an inspired Irina Falconi in the semifinals.
In a season where you can count the number of dependable players on one hand –and there may be even less on clay — Arruabarrena plays the kind of dirtballin’ tennis that can give headaches to more than a fair few on the WTA. With the right draw, she could spring an early surprise or two.
4) The biggest question mark?
Honestly, I feel like I could say almost anyone in the Top 10 is the biggest question mark and be able to justify it — but the conversation has to begin and end with Serena Williams, because let’s face it: it’s all up to her. If she shows up and plays like she did in the early rounds of the Australian Open, she will win the tournaments she plays. If instead she brings the…less-than-clean game we saw against Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami, it could be a short clay swing for her. That’s really all there is to it in my view, and it will be fascinating to watch.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that Serena’s appearance in Beyonce’s #LEMONADE brought her to a new level of invincibility, meaning she will never lose again. Biggest question mark indeed!
The signs for Simona Halep in Stuttgart were confusing to say the least. While Halep said she had no expectations for the clay season, was ready to play and only felt “a little pain” in the ankle that she rolled over in Fed Cup the weekend before, she put in an utterly puzzling performance one day later. Her footwork was the opposite of crisp, her racket was leaking errors and she was getting wiped off of the court by aforementioned Siegemund — and had to leave the court midway through the second set to deal with breathing issues.
The clay season 2016 should be the time when Halep makes up for lost ground after a sub-par swing on the red dirt last year, but her opening tournament at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix puts a question mark next to her — right after it appeared she had rediscovered some form at Indian Wells and Miami.
Although I’m not sure how keen Serena is to be headed back on clay courts given her recent Snapchat-documented off-court activities, it’s hard to imagine she still won’t be the huge favorite at any of her three clay court events this year — even if not at full fitness. Meanwhile, what are we to expect of Simona Halep? Clay courts have traditionally yielded positive results for the former Roland Garros junior champ, but this year has not been marquee by any means — despite having finally settled on a coach in on-court-coaching king, Darren Cahill. Halep has made just one semifinal this year — in her first event — and yet another injury concern has dampened her start to this year’s clay campaign. Can she get it together on this comfortable surface or will she leave her draws wide open with more early exits?
I’m going with Victoria Azarenka, but not for the reasons you might expect. While Williams and Halep’s forms leading into the clay court season have been less than stellar, Azarenka is just the opposite. She quickly became the player to beat over the first three months of the year, as she rounded into near-impervious form and wound her way through the North American hard court season. However, clay has never been her forté — and she looked quite shaky at times in defeating Kasatkina on the dirt in Fed Cup.
As she’s back in the world’s Top 5, Azarenka would likely want to at least break even when it comes to matching her results from last year — round of 16 in Madrid, quarterfinals in Rome, third round in Paris — but when you consider how she’s started the year, that seems underwhelming. She has an opportunity to gain some ground as she seeks to get all the way back to the summit of women’s tennis, and performing well on clay would certainly serve her in good stead.
Do you agree with our picks? Are we big jokes? Sound off in the comments!