Sunday, April 12, 2009

Odds & Ends Between Marbella and Paris (and Top 10 Second Thoughts)

"Is Justine playing?"

That used to be all that needed to be asked when looking out at the expanse that is the WTA's clay court season, and Clay Queen Henin the First usually made sure things went according to plan. But ever since La Petit Taureau up and retired two weeks before the start of Roland Garros a season ago, it's been more of a 'Who?," or "Really, her?" or "Are you sure she can keep it together long enough to do something like THAT?" proposition on the clay.

And since know one's thinking about Sesil when they're asked potentially leading questions such as those, it's probably best to devise some sort of plan of action when it comes to who to pay attention to over the next few months.

The 2009 Clay Court Experience has begun at, to name one tournament, "The Andalucia Tennis Experience" in Marbella (seriously, has there ever been a cooler name for a tournament than that?) in Week 14, and some interesting things have already occurred that could alter the course of the road to Roland Garros.

Here's a quick look at the players who'll be looking at the clay court season in entirely different ways:

**MOST IMPORTANT**
Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic: last clay season, these were the players who filled the space left by Henin's departure. Jankovic defended her Rome title, Safina won Berlin and reached the RG final, and Ivanovic became a grand slam champion in Paris. As of Monday April 20, when Safina moves up, all three will have spent post-Justine time at #1, but up until this weekend none had been able to win a singles title in '09. Jankovic changed that today by winning her tenth career (fifth on clay) title in Marbella, overcoming a slew of clay courters and seeming to regain a great deal of the fluidity of movement and defensive skills she lost during that "bulking up" offseason phase that pretty much blew up in her face during the 1st Quarter. Before the season, Roland Garros seemed to be Jankovic's best shot at that elusive slam title. After a slow start, maybe that conventional wisdom will turn out to be true after all. This weekend could have been the unexpected beginning of Queen Chaos' triumphant march toward Paris.

Umm, or not. Who can tell with the J-Bot?

Ivanovic admits to having a hard time balancing her life and tennis with the new expectations heaped upon her since winning RG in '08. Occasionally over the past year, she's popped up with a good result, but she's never been able to follow it up with another one and regain the confidence she had in Paris. A return to the clay might be her best chance to reclaim the memory, though. As for Safina... well, maybe she won't experience the same #1 slump that has struck the Serbs since she's pretty much been going through it BEFORE assuming the top spot. Of course, sitting atop the rankings will encumber the Russian Cat with a whole new type of pressure, won't it? Being a Safin, she could be about to soar to new heights... or crash in a fashion that might make you want to cover your eyes to block out the carnage.

Maybe none of these three will scale the heights of their previous clay seasons, but here's their collective chance to begin to save their campaigns and reclaim the spotlight that Victoria Azarenka has stolen from them so far in '09.
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**LEAST IMPORTANT**
Serena and Venus Williams: Serena is hobbled and pulling out of tournaments as the clay season is getting underway, while Venus has never been a dominating presence at this time of the year (though she's not inconsequential by any means, and already has a clay title in '09). The Sisters have carried the tour on their shoulders in '09 as Maria Sharapova has been absent and the aforementioned trio of Europeans have fallen off, and maybe they're owed the next few months to refuel and get ready for the grass and hard court seasons that very well could be dominated by the pair as thoroughly as they were last year. Serena held onto her #1 ranking as long as she could (her 1st Round loss in Marbella finally put that to rest), so there's no longer any urgency to play when she's not 100%. Venus might have her best chance to challenge for year-end #1 since the beginning of this decade, though, and a good clay season would go a long way toward helping her pull off the feat (she's never finished a season at #1). Somehow, though, being healthy enough to win in London and New York would seem to be a higher priority for her. Ditto for Serena.
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**POISED FOR "GREATNESS"?**
Vera Zvonareva & Victoria Azarenka: The Diplomat and the tour's Little Miss Sunshine '09 herself have been the two revelatory players of the past six months. Both have already claimed "premier-plus" titles, reached new career highs (Zvonareva Top 5, Azarenka Top 10) and flashed at a slam (the Russian reached her first slam SF in Melbourne, while the Belarusian had eventual champ Serena on the ropes before the heat got the best of her) in '09, but the best may be yet to come. The true test will come in Paris, though. Will the "new" Vera allow HER to become the next first-time slam winner at the event that has produced so many, or will it be Azarenka (who's yet to reach a slam QF) who'll continue her climb there? Surely, they'll both be (at the very least) dark horse choices to win the title, though Azarenka's shoulder soreness will have to be watched. While there are many things she has in common with Sharapova, that need not become one of them.

If not these, too, though, then whom? Hmmm... maybe Elena Dementieva, though her recent dip in results has sort of removed her from the first paragraph of the conversation. She might not have a better chance to win a slam than she could have in Paris, especially if the Safina/Serbs trio aren't on the upswing come RG time.
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**READY TO TURN HEADS**
Caroline Wozniacki & Carla Suarez-Navarro: Wozniacki is following along in Azarenka's footsteps. As of this posting, she hasn't yet won a title in '09, but she'll be playing for the Ponte Vedra Beach title in a matter of hours. In the SF, she showed great defensive skills and an intense steadiness in the face of the Shakespearean drama going on on the other side of the net with Elena Vesnina. C-Woz saved four match points and ultimately won a 3rd set tie-break by putting away her third match point. Hmmm... defense, steadiness, patience and a knowledge of how to win a close, grueling match under tough conditions... yeah, those things could come in handy on the clay.

Suarez-Navarro made her mark last year by qualifying in Paris and reaching the QF. She reached her second slam QF in Melbourne in January, but she's lacked enough consistency (and steady nerves) to move up the rankings as quickly as one might expect from her slam exploits. She did reach her first career singles final in Marbella this weekend, though (after nearly letting the potential moment get the better of her in the SF against Sorana Cirstea), so her post-Australian Open lull seems to be over. As long as she can remain slightly under the radar, she could be a natural force to reckon with on the clay thanks to her Henin-esque backhand, mobility and fighting skills.

Looking for another potential mover-and-shaker? Well, Alize Cornet would certainly be a good bet. While she's improved her hard court results over the last year, she always has been and still is a menacing fighter with the potential to topple just about anyone on clay.
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**LURCHING TOWARD DISASTER?**
Maria Sharapova: oh, remember when it looked as if Sharapova was going to head to Melbourne to defend her Australian Open title? Well, we're still waiting... and with every passing week one wonders if we'll see the Supernova at all in '09. A season ago she was winning her first career clay title in Amelia Island, but now she's the biggest question mark in the sport. Shoulder injuries can be tricky and potentially devastating (ask Ms. Capriati), and she's learning that the hard way. Rome is the next rumored city where Sharapova will resurface, but one wonders why she'd bother to try to come back on slow clay when she can wait for the grass or hard court season to re-emerge. I guess this sort of year was in the cards whenever both Pierre Cantin and I picked Sharapova to finish the season at #1, huh? I guess the ol' "Kuznetsova Curse" is still just as potent as ever. Sorry, Maria.



Speaking of those pre-season rankings, here's where the "second thoughts" come in. It's been three months, and it's clear that I was under the influence of something when I picked my original Top 10. So, I'll try again.

(original prediction in parenthesis)

1. Serena Williams (3)... still the best
2. Venus Williams (6)... unless
3. Vera Zvonareva (8)... the next slammin' Russian?
4. Victoria Azarenka (-)... ready, set, go?
5. Jelena Jankovic (2)... she's baaaack, maybe
6. Elena Dementieva (9)... January already seems ages ago
7. Dinara Safina (5)... heavy wears the crown
8. Caroline Wozniacki (7)... looking for something BIG
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova (-)... against my better judgment
10. Ana Ivanovic (4)... still looking for the bottom?

I suppose I'll know in a few months whether or not I was under the influence of something else when I made THESE picks. If I was, though, I'll refuse to be wrong a THIRD third time. My limit for looking like a fool in the same arena is twice... well, unless I'm under the influence of something, I guess.

All for now.

5 Comments:

Blogger Neven said...

You know,Ivanovic has better results than Kuznetsova and Jankovic this year.

Sun Apr 12, 04:44:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Karen said...

I just have to say that this is the most under-rated blog on the internet right now, especially ones that are dedicated to tennis. Your writing is so inciteful and you bring to the fore players that we have never heard of. Apart from wtaworld, this is one of my favourite sites for women's tennis. Continue to keep up the good work. As regards your potentials for RG, I have to say after seeing Jankovic floundering against a lesser opponent, I just cannot see her pulling it together to play Top 10 players when something like a major is on the line. Her shots were still off, her serve is still a liability, even moreso now. It will be good to see how the ladies play at Charleston, Stuttgart and especially Rome. I guess we will play the waiting game until ...

Sun Apr 12, 06:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Neven-

True, on the whole. As I noted, Ivanovic does pop up with a very good result on a regular basis (Indian Wells), but she hasn't been able to string them together like say, Jankovic did in the 4Q last season, since she won in Paris (and now Jankovic has a title in '09, but Ivanovic is still empty-handed). Once she learns how to deal with everything better, though, I'm sure she'll pick up where she left off. It's just a matter of how long that'll take. As for Kuznetsova, who knows?


Karen-

Thanks. ;)

It'll be interesting to see how JJ follows up Marbella. I know I figured she'd lose in the 1st Round to Schiavone, and in no way thought she'd be able to string five straight wins together against some good claycourters like she did after so many bad results coming in. It looks like she might be ahead of schedule as far as getting her game back, which I thought she might not have a shot at accomplishing until Rome. She's not in the draw in Charleston, and Fed Cup play is the next week, so she's got a few weeks to get ready for the rest of the EuroClay grind. Remember, she got to #1 and the U.S. Open final with all those same liabilities, but made up for them with her movement, defense and spirit... most of which she lost when she bulked up and had a hard time getting her body to respond the same way on the court. If she can just get back to THAT form, she'll have a shot against a good many Top 10ers (especially if a few of them play as they have so far in '09). As the announcers on Tennis Channel were saying today, she's just going to need to find a different way to train to make herself stronger and her game bigger (her trip to Mexico obviously wasn't the RIGHT way).

At the beginning of the season I was giving her a good shot in Paris. A week ago, I was giving her none. Now... we'll see. It'd great if she was a legit contender for the title again.

Sun Apr 12, 10:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger leia said...

"Being a Safin, she could be about to soar to new heights... or crash in a fashion that might make you want to cover your eyes to block out the carnage."

>>>This sentence is GOLD. I feel so bad for Dina. Hopefully, people will cut her more slack than they did JJ.

I'm glad JJ won in Marbella - yes, it wasn't a particularly impressive display of play but I think the major improvement is she's finding a way to win again - even if it's winning ugly. In her past matches, she looked as if she didn't want to try when her game wasn't clicking. Hope this is the beginning of the return of her form.

Of course, being that it's Queen Chaos, I'm not getting my hopes that high up. I will feel better if she defends Stuttgart. (Does that still work the same, even with the change of surface and season?)

I'd like to see Vera's hard work pay off as well. Excited to see Caro and Carla play in the next tournaments. Especially Carla, she's adorable and that backhand is pretty.

And lastly - we miss you, Masha!

Mon Apr 13, 04:39:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

todd, did you see the draw for charleston yet? sesil and venus could meet in the 2nd round!! i'd like to see that drama!

i always felt that sesil "beat" venus the year that she could have won the French Open...

anywho, thanks for all the posts!!

Mon Apr 13, 04:58:00 PM EDT  

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