Wednesday, May 05, 2010

To Reign or Not to Reign on Clay? That is the Question.

The pre-Roland Garros clay season is a month old. Do you know who your Paris favorites are? Well, I mean, besides HER.

It's become something of an unofficial "tradition" in this spot to preview the season's second slam before the clay season begins. Umm, then do it all over again about mid-way through. Hmm, then do so yet again on the eve of play in Paris. Either I'm addicted to perpetually hedging my bets (yep, sounds about right), or the pre-RG clay season is tougher to decipher than the lead-up to any of the other three slams (pretty much, or at least that's what I've been telling myself since about 2008). Either way, quite the opposite of the Rafa-Rules-Again-on-Clay men's tour at the moment, figuring out which of the women stand the best chance to shine on the red clay is a monutmentally fluid situation.

A month ago, it seemed that Roland Garros had the potential to be anyone's tournament. Even with the return of four-time RG champ Justine Henin, the Belgian's early-season serving issues, inconsistency and wavering match toughness made it a legitimately open question whether she'd be able to gather her game together enough my late May to be the force she used to be in Paris. Then, this past weekend, Stuttgart showed that, while she's still not an every-round rock-solid certainty, Henin IS still capable of working her way into a tournament, improving with each round and closing things out in the final. Her five matches in Germany required only a fraction of the execution that'll be required to win seven straight and lift career slam #8, but now the thought is that it's possible that the slightly slower clay courts are going to provide the extra split second of time that will allow Henin's newly-attacking style to feel more natural to her. Where as her new in-game thought process was a sometimes hit-and-miss proposition on the faster hard courts, her improved comfort level on the clay will give her already-proven game on the surface a little more bite. If she can avoid a truly bad serving game that digs a hole so deep that even she can't find a way to climb out of it (though she did finds all sorts of ways to do that in Melbourne in January en route to the Oz final), she might quickly get on a Parisian roll (or would that be a croissant?) that no one will be able to stop.

The coming Henin Perfect Storm could be even more perfect, if that's possible. The result: Henin's longstanding clay magic -- she's lost just one RG match since 2003, and that was when she was feeling the effects of the cytomegalovirus -- stands a good chance of having been replicated by the middle of next month.

Of course, we still have to keep track of all the players who might be "second choices" in Paris. You know, just in case. Here are the (most recent, as of an hour ago) Power Rankings for Roland Garros:

1. Justine Henin
...a single La Petit Taureau in the hand is worth 163 others in the clay-encrusted bush. Assuming Stuttgart wasn't a one-time dream, we'll soon remember why RG was such a wide-open crap shot when Henin walked away two weeks before the start of the tournament in 2008.
2. Serena Williams's a slam. Understand? Enough said. Oh, and if she wins it she's got an incredibly good shot at a Grand Slam... and you know SHE knows that, too.
3. Samantha Stosur
...she's got the background (RG SF '09), form (11 straight clay wins in '10) and seeming confidence. But can Stosur -- even the NEW Slingin' Sammy -- withstand the pressure of a slam all the way to the final Saturday? It'll be a question until she does it. If she ever does.
4. Elena Dementieva
...this will be her forty-sixth career slam, one more than Jana Novotna when she set the WTA record by finally winning HER first slam in appearance #45.
5. Caroline Wozniacki
...she's been a shadow of her early clay self ,since injuring her ankle. Being a player who plays her best when she's on a week-by-week roll, she's going to need something to hang her proverbial hat on before Paris begins or risks being the first highly-seeded early-round out at RG.
6. Nadia Petrova
...if healthy, she'll always be a threat. Or at least a THREAT to be a threat. Oh, Nadia.
7. Jelena Jankovic long as Henin is around, it's hard to see her seeing herself winning anything. She missed her window. Slam (shut)!
8. Svetlana Kuznetsova & Dinara Safina
...the ability is there, but the head and the health of both are/have been in question. But, back on familiar ground with a month of prep behind them, you can't rule out the muscle/psychic memory kicking in at just the right time for one or both of last year's finalists.
9. Yanina Wickmayer
...her results have slipped considerably since January, but she's been a good slam player. Still, today's love & two loss in Rome to JJ stings.
10. Ana Ivanovic????? a stunning, but-you-didn't-see-it-coming turn, she's looked REALLY good in Rome (wins over Vesnina, Azarenka and Dementieva!), and she reached the Round of 16 in Paris in' 09. Of course, getting that close again in a slam will only remind her what's happened to her career since RG '08. At that point, it'll probably already be too late.

A Spaniard: more likely MJMS than AMG, or even CSN
Melanie Oudin & Agnieszka Radwanska: big event stars
Sharapova/Zvonareva/Li/Cibulkova: slam semifinalists (or better) all, bad form/results/health can't rule them out from upsetting a few dreams along the way
Maria Kirilenko: hey, she upset Sharapova in Oz, and Kuznetsova & Cibulkova (two of the final four in Paris last year) recently on clay
A Pastry: Rezai and Razzano reached the 4th Round in '09
Victoria Azarenka: she's having one of those "Sophomore" seasons that vex young up-and-comers, though
An Italian: they rule in FC, but the Italians rarely flash in slams. A nice slam run from Flavia Pennetta would be great, but don't hold your breath.
A New Russian: there always seems to be one breaking through somewhere. Is Anastasia healthy?

And, of course...

Barbie: Not that there's much chance she'll show up in Paris, or stay for long if she does.

Hmm, while I'm at it, how about a quick check on the doubles, too, with the Black/Huber Era apparently over and out:

1. S.Williams/V.Williams
...anytime they play, they're the favorites -- even though they haven't lifted a RG trophy since 1999
2t. Huber/Petrova or Petrova/Stosur
...the teamings are in question, but their potential to win is not
3. Dulko/Pennetta
...they've won titles in recent weeks on hard courts and red clay
4. Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez
...though they haven't sparked in slams, nor on clay as often as you'd expect them to
5. Medina-Garrigues/Ruano Pascual
...they're the defending champs. If they play.
6. Peschke/Srebotnik
...Peschke's ability to hold it together in a big moment is a real question
7. Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova or Benesova/Medina-Garrigues
...all are contenders, no matter who they play with
8. Errani/Vinci
...neither has won a slam title, but they've proven to be a lethal team in WTA and FC action

Let the countdown begin.

1. Samantha Stosur, AUS
2. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3. Justine Henin, BEL
4. Flavia Pennetta, ITA
5. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA & the U.S. Fed Cup Team
HM- Italian Fed Cup Team

1. Samantha Stosur, AUS
2. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3. Gisela Dulko/Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
4. Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
5. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
6. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
7. Olga Govortsova, BLR
8. Kaia Kanepi, EST
9. Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP
10. Vania King/Michaella Krajicek, USA/NED
HM- Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP & Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ

1. Melanie Oudin, USA
2. Simona Halep, ROU
3. Alexandra Dulgheru, ROU
4. Johanna Larsson, SWE
5. Polona Hercog, SLO
6. Bopana Jovanovski, SRB
7. Tatjana Malek, GER
8. Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
9. Ayumi Morita, JPN
10. Monica Niculescu, ROU
HM- Christina McHale, USA & Zarina Diyas, KAZ

1. Sachie Ishizu, JPN
2. Karolina Pliskova, CZE
3. Monica Puig, PUR
4. Tian Ran, CHN
5. Krista Hardebeck, USA
HM- Sophia Kovalets, UKR

1. Anna Lapushchenkova, RUS
2. Beatriz Garcia-Vidagany, ESP
3. Julie Coin/Alize Cornet, FRA
4. Anastasia Rodionova, AUS
5. Varvara Lepchenko, USA
6. Dijana Banovec, CRO
7. Ons Jabuer, TUN
8. Estrella Cabeza Candela, ESP
9. Maria Kondratieva, RUS
10. Silvia Soler Espinosa, ESP
HM- Sophie Ferguson, AUS & Anna Tatishvili, GEO

1. Justine Henin, BEL
2. Flavia Pennetta, ITA
3. Liezel Huber/Nadia Petrova, USA/RUS
4. Francesca Schiavone, ITA
5. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
6. Iveta Benesova, CZE
7. Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP
8. Roberta Vinci, ITA
9. Renata Voracova, CZE
10. Liezel Huber, USA
HM- Katarina Srebotnik, SLO & Arantxa Parra-Santonja, ESP

1. Justine Henin, BEL
2. Mirjana Lucic, CRO
3. Alize Cornet, FRA
4. Katarina Srebotnik, SLO
5. Michaella Krajicek, NED
HM- Laura Pous Tio, ESP & Lauren Albanese, USA

1. Huber/Petrova, USA/RUS
2. Dulko/Pennetta, ARG/ITA
3. Errani/Vinci, ITA/ITA
4. Mattek-Sands/Huber, USA/USA
5. Coin/Cornet, FRA/FRA
HM- Benesova/Medina-Garrigues, CZE/ESP & Hantuchova/Rybarikova, SVK/SVK

1. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2. Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
3. Belgian Barbie, BEL
4. Sabine Lisicki, GER
5. Dinara Safina, RUS
6. Chinese Fed Cup Team
7. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
8. Alona Bondarenko, UKR
9. Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP (singles)
10. Sofia Arvidsson, SWE
HM- Jelena Jankovic, SRB (vs. Henin)

1. Nina Bratchikova, RUS
2. Kaia Kanepi, EST
3. Madalina Gojnea, ROU
4. Jamie Hampton, USA
5. Edina Gallovits, ROU
HM- Lee Jin-A, KOR & Ksenia Palkina, KGZ

Team USA upsets Russia in the Fed Cup semifinals, reaching a second consecutive FC final
Samantha Stosur wins Charleston (destroying Vera Zvonareva in the final), leads Australia to a Fed Cup World Group Playoffs sweep of Ukraine, then is the runner-up in Stuttgart
Justine Henin wins the Stuttgart title, her first in LPT 2.0, in the maiden clay court event of her comeback

["Classic Caroline"]
PV Beach SF - Wozniacki d. Vesnina
A slow start. A gradual working of herself into the match. The visible wearing down of an easily-frustrated opponent. Keeping one step ahead of the Russian all the way to match point, the Dane won here and ultimately defended her PVB title.
[The Queen of Clay: The Sequel]
Stuttgart Final - Henin d. Stosur
La Petit Taureau flashes her old brilliance, with a bit of 2.0 flair, in the 3rd set

Marbella 2nd Rd - Garcia-Vidagany d. The Doll Model
In her first clay court event since her immediate retirement in Warsaw in the spring of 2007, and only her third match on the surface since the 2006 Roland Garros SF, Barbie was upended by the world #258.

*CHOKES (or "Comebacks," to be more politically correct)*
Fed Cup Group II Playoffs - Peng(CHN) d. Arvidsson(SWE)
With the tie on her racket, Arvidsson twice served for the match, and held eight match points. She lost, but the Swedes eventually won.
Charleston 1st Rd - McHale d. Kudryavtseva
The American came back from a 6-3/5-2 deficit, turning back two match points. Soon after, she won the U.S. playoff tournament to earn a wild card into the RG main draw.

=NOTES TO SELF (or, "What's Good for Oudin is Good for Me, Too")=
Samantha Stosur won Charleston while playing with wrist tape on which she'd written "attitude" and "composure." In her next event, she reached the Charleston final. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's Monica Puig won a junior event using a racket emblazoned with the phrase "I Believe." Weeks later, Puig won her first career ITF singles title.

**By the Numbers...**
0... wins Jelena Jankovic STILL has after ten career meetings with Justine Henin
1... matches won on clay by The Squeegee Queen since her win in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2006
2... singles and doubles titles won this season by Iveta Benesova in Fes
5... consecutive Fed Cup ties lost by Team China, which appeared in the SF in 2008. It's back to Zone Play in 2011.
6... number of months Dinara Safina decided to give up chocolate. "The most stupid idea that I could ever come up with," said the Russian.
8... match points Sofia Arvidsson failed to convert against Peng Shuai in their Fed Cup match
10... consecutive matches lost by Lauren Albanese, dating back to November '09, before she recently won a $25K challenger title in Mexico
10... consecutive breaks of serve to start the match between Elena Dementieva and Melanie Oudin in the Fed Cup SF
11... tour-leading number of clay court matches won by Samantha Stosur this season
12... years since Mirjana Lucic won a singles title of any kind before her Jackson, Mississippi challenger crown gave her her first since she was a tour titlist in Bol in 1998
163... weeks Cara Black has spent in the #1 doubles ranking in her career, just 74 behind Martina Navratilova's WTA record. Currently, Liezel Huber is the sole #1, a position she once shared with former partner Black before their break-up allowed her to play an additional event and move ahead. The American has spent 130 total weeks at #1.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

hi todd,

i have a different opinion on your list. of course i have no objection putting juju on first. :)

first, i think dementieva has past her peak this year (that was the first quarter), just doesn't impress enough. there is no fire in her game, maintaining the evermore average good performance just won't get her anywhere.

second, JJ should be up more on the list. she is really really fit and in hot form, to a point i believe she can smoke stosur. i was already very impressed last week when she played justine, very composed, with controlled agression and extreme consistency. probaby the best form i'd seen her. (and yes, as much as i like justine winning that match, i still scratch my head of how she lost - almost illogical)

3. caroline, i think you can easily replace her now with ivanovic. so i guess when down to a point of ranking 58, there is only way up to go.

my view of top 5 - justine, serena, JJ, stosur (maybe ana). venus will be a curious case, if she doesn't lose control she might be able to go far, but she never likes to grind long matches. let's see what happened with JJ and her in rome. interesting.

if JJ and Ana keep their forms going into RG. it's deja vu 2007. ^0^

Wed May 05, 11:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Colette Lewis said...

It's Monica Puig, not Claudia.

Thu May 06, 09:00:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

You know, Colette, when I typed that in I wondered why it didn't look right to me. Then I just left it alone. Now I know why. Thanks.


Oh, I'm sure the order will be changed again in a few weeks. :)

I think JJ could go far in Paris, but since she'd probably have to go through Henin to do it is why I have her lower than she probably should be. She's come close to defeating Henin before (remember the ten straight lost games to end that U.S. Open match a while back?), so until she actually does I just can't allow myself to give her a better chance to win such a big title now just because she ALMOST beat Justine again.

Same with Ivanovic. What she's doing in Rome is great for her, but doing it at RG is a whole different thing. The better she does now, the more pressure she'll have on her shoulders to last longer in Paris. Again, I'll believe it when I see it, especially considering she didn't want to play Fed Cup because of the pressure of playing such a match in front of the Serbian fans.

Who knows what to expect from Dementieva?

Yeah, I guess I left Venus off the list entirely because I just don't think she and RG mix very well. That said, I could still see her winning in Rome or another pre-Paris event (if she's playing one). She always finds trouble at Roland Garros.

Thu May 06, 12:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

mmm, JJ smoked venus in flame....thought should would win, but just didn't expect the scoreline... so a serbian final looks like in making in rome.

Thu May 06, 09:33:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank for share, it is very important . ̄︿ ̄

Fri May 07, 06:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

ok ok, really didn't see that coming from sanchez. what to make of her?

and gosh, justine got into controversies again from serena mouthing 'cheating'.... and all the while she wasn't even in rome. wow, what to say, justine is just everywhere.... :o

Sat May 08, 01:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Oh, Serena never forgets ANYTHING, and she believes that Henin did her wrong (which, honestly, she did... I thought it then, and pretty much still do). It's one of the traits that has made her such a champion, really.

Mon May 10, 02:50:00 AM EDT  

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