Azarenka

Many WTA Candidates In Line to Conquer the Blue Clay

While all the talk has been about the colour of the clay in Madrid ahead of this week’s combined Mutua Madrid Open, there is an important tournament to be played on the new surface and there is a long list of title contenders in the women’s draw.

The top half of the draw features World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka who overcame a tough first round hurdle this weekend with a straight sets win over Svetlana Kuznetsova. Despite a flawless start to her season, the Belarussian could use a strong showing at a major clay court event leading into Roland-Garros. Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams and Na Li are all in Azarenka’s quarter and her arch rival, new world no. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska is once again a potential semifinal opponent. Azarenka is the only player to beat the Pole so far in 2012. Radwanska’s section is already void of three seeds, Marion Bartoli, Dominika Cibulkova and a slumping Francesca Schiavone. Despite some of the favourites bowing out early, Radwanska could meet Sara Errani, the hottest clay court player in the world, in the second round. Errani has won 15 straight matches and three consecutive tournaments on the red dirt, including a title win last week in Budapest.

On paper, the bottom half of the Madrid women’s draw is definitely the tougher and deeper side. Leading the way is Stuttgart champion and world no. 2 Maria Sharapova. The rejuvanted Russian continues to make strides on clay and she rolled through her opening match. Fans are looking ahead to a potential blockbuster quarter-final  between Sharapova and Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, or even the emerging Mona Barthel. Sharapova and Williams have not played eachother since Stanford last summer and with many labeling them French Open favourites, both would likely relish the opportunity to go head-to-head before Paris. Defending Madrid champion Petra Kvitova and the clay savvy Samantha Stosur could also meet in the quarter-finals. Both could use a big showing on the blue clay courts. As she proved last year with her title run, the Madrid altitude and quicker surface are certainly favourable conditions for Kvitova’s big game.

In keeping with a prevalent WTA trend in 2012, expect the top four players to be still standing in the latter stages of the tournament, but not without being tested along the way. At the same time, upsets will not be uncommon given the uncertainties and concerns about the new clay surface. It will be interesting to see what kind of champion the blue courts will crown.

The Ladies Hit the Dirt Hoping for Feats on Clay

What promises to be a thrilling spring and summer of tennis for the WTA begins this week for the ladies in Stuttgart for the start of the clay court season.

This much-anticipated segment of the calendar begins with a bang as 17 of the Top 20 players in the world are entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madrid and Rome will also host Premier events during the month of May as preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the year at Roland-Garros.

Over the past few years, the expectations and results on the red dirt for the women have been highly unpredictable and 2012 will be no different. Gone are the days of dominant clay court specialists on the WTA like Justine Henin or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Instead, today’s Tour is all about parity making it anyone’s game, especially on clay. Case and point, the French Open has crowned a different champion each of the last four years. It will be interesting to see if World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka can continue her dominance this season on a different surface or whether Maria Sharapova will finally breakthrough with some titles after finishing as the runner-up at the three biggest tournaments of the year so far. Can Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova kick-start her season after a slow start? Will Caroline Wozniacki claim that elusive Grand Slam crown? Can Na Li repeat in Paris? Will a resurgent Ana Ivanovic be a threat again on a surface that brought her Grand Slam glory in 2008? All of these questions will be answered over the next few weeks with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.

Don’t be surprised if a player outside of the Top 10 makes some noise at the big tournaments and look for Agnieszka Radwanska to make a serious run at her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros. Her all court game is well-suited for clay. Not to mention, she is enjoying the best season of her career.

It’s impossible to discuss a pending Major without throwing the name of Serena Williams into the mix. She played the Australian Open on one ankle, but comes into the clay court season in much better shape especially after rolling through the draw in Charleston a few weeks ago to win her 40th career title. Williams is driven to continually overcome health obstacles for another opportunity to add to her Grand Slam tally. The expectations may be low heading into Roland-Garros considering her recent results at the Majors and the fact clay is her worst surface. However, tennis fans have learned over the years to never discount Serena and it would be very much her style to triumph in Paris when everyone least expects her to.