5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder: Clay Edition

It’s always a pleasure to contemplate Henin’s exquisite all-court game, especially on the surface where she has won four of her seven majors.  Although the petite Belgian hasn’t played on clay since Berlin 2008 and claims to be have recentered her game around grass, she’ll be one of the main focal points during the next several weeks.  Can she and Nadal reclaim their long-lived mastery of Roland Garros?  This question and four (actually, five!) others are addressed straight ahead.

1)  Will the king and queen be crowned again?  Despite Monte Carlo’s depleted field, we were highly impressed with the composed, merciless Rafa who systematically dismantled the draw.  To the dismay of his rivals, he appears to have recaptured the inner confidence that flickered throughout the past year.  Never was this fact more visible than in the final, a match that he couldn’t afford to lose (odd as it may sound); revealing no signs of pressure at all, he played with conviction and a determination not to allow Verdasco a ray of hope.  The post-injury Rafa hasn’t yet proven that he can defeat the likes of Federer, Del Potro, or Soderling, but the early omens are excellent.

Unlike Nadal, Henin voluntarily abdicated her throne without a legitimate successor.  Watching Justine’s retooled style on the hard courts, we wondered whether her enhanced aggression would diminish her chances on a surface designed for longer points.  Against a battered WTA lacking in clay-court specialists, though, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of players who could trouble her on it.  Safina will be rusty after a long absence, Kuznetsova is nursing a shoulder injury and has underwhelmed this year, Clijsters looked hapless in Marbella, Venus rarely makes an impact at Roland Garros, Jankovic hasn’t defeated Henin in nine attempts (think Verdasco-Nadal), Dementieva already has lost twice to her this year, and the Wozniacki-Azarenka generation still seems intimidated by the veterans.   Her greatest potential challenges might come from Serena and Sharapova, two players who have both the weapons and the self-belief to trouble her on any surface; however, neither of them can be expected to perform at their best until (at least) Wimbledon.  Who else is there?  We think that Henin is even more likely than Nadal to dazzle on the final weekend in Paris.

2)  Will injuries play more or less of a role on this surface?  The extended, grinding points played on clay test fitness more than do the staccato shootouts that so often develop on hard courts.  On the other hand, the softer surface will be gentler on sore joints and perhaps allow players such as Soderling or Del Potro to regain their rhythm with minimal aggravation.  We’ll be curious to observe the trends in withdrawals and retirements during the events in Rome and Madrid, where many of the recent absentees will be tentatively testing their repaired wheels.

3)  Will another Soderling find unexpected glory?  After winning one lone game against Nadal in Rome, the Swede abruptly scored The Greatest Upset Ever and has been soaring ever since.  (By the way, it’s curious how Nadal both won the Greatest Match Ever and was the victim in the Greatest Upset Ever.)  Less loudly, Stosur achieved a significant breakthrough with her semifinal run in Paris and likewise has capitalized on it to establish herself as a permanent threat.  We’ll keep our eyes on anyone who strings together a few surprises, aware that they might be a genuine contender in 2011.  At the moment, the WTA looks more open than the ATP to the rise of a dark horse; perhaps a name like Pennetta, Wickmayer, or Szavay will forge a path deep into the Paris draw.

4)  How much will the clay specialists trouble the top seeds?  Quite a bit, if Monte Carlo is any judge.  It’s doubtful that Cilic loses to Montanes, Tsonga loses to Ferrero, or Berdych loses to Verdasco on a surface other than clay, while Ferrer won’t reach many Masters 1000 semifinals on a hard court.  Cilic did defeat clay-court warrior Andreev, and Tsonga outlasted dirt devil Almagro, but the draws ahead will be about more than just the boldfaced names; unexpected pitfalls and ambushes will spring from players who struggle to win consecutive matches for much of the season.  Since few of them are seeded, early rounds often will be more dramatic than the usual straight-set yawners. (This issue applies almost exclusively to the ATP, for clay-court specialists are rapidly plunging towards extinction in the WTA.  Standard hard-court tennis won the Charleston title for Stosur without the loss of a set.)

5)  How much will momentum from Indian Wells and Miami matter?  Maybe not so much in the case of ATP Miami champion Roddick, whose next major target will be Wimbledon.  Not so much either in the case of Indian Wells champion Ljubicic, whose title represented an overdue career highlight rather than a foundation for the future.  But it might matter for Jankovic, who was struggling mightily until her triumph in the desert and always has felt comfortable on the clay.  Another beneficiary could be Venus, who found a way to reach the Miami final despite playing far from her best; similar tenacity and determination would benefit her in Europe.  Following his run in Key Biscayne, Berdych played confident tennis and consistently displayed positive body language in Monte Carlo.  Could we be watching a permanently transformed Czech?  Of course, Soderling’s consecutive semifinals augur well for him, but he has demonstrated that he can beat, um, just about anyone at Roland Garros.

There’s also the possible impact of negative psychological detritus, especially relevant in the cases of Federer, Djokovic, and Murray.  It’s unlikely that Federer will suffer from memories of Baghdatis and Berdych, since he rebounded brilliantly from early losses at these events in 2007.  In Monte Carlo, the Scot reminded us why he’s rarely a serious contender on clay, but he has many more issues at the moment than what’s under his feet, and most of his problems date from Australia.  After impressive wins over Wawrinka and Nalbandian, Djokovic regressed in a dismal loss against Verdasco.  He’s not anywhere near the level where he was at this stage last year, yet the clay suits his increasingly florid strokes and will be an ideal setting to rediscover his serving rhythm.

5+1)  Will matches be more competitive or more lopsided?  On clay, it’s significantly easier to break an opponent’s serve, since fewer points are won on that shot alone.  This distinctive feature could lead to one of two opposite outcomes.  On one hand, players will have more opportunities to rally from a deficit than on hard courts, where a set-and-break lead for a decent server usually makes us hit the snooze button until the next match.   On the other hand, a player who struggles with consistency or who is enduring a mediocre day won’t be able to rest secure in the knowledge that he can collect sufficient cheap points and easy holds to save himself from a humiliating scoreline.   It’ll be curious to see whether epics or routs more frequently develop in matches not involving the top seeds.


Mixing together all of these intriguing plotlines, we’re hoping for a clay season as delicious as Maria’s chocolate chip cookies!