The clay court season gets underway this week with International level events in Marbella, Spain and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. While the crucial clay court hardware will not be given out until May and June, the beginning of this new part of the year seems an opportune time to break down the women’s field as they make the surface transition. Ever since the retirement of Justine Henin, the title of Clay Court Queen has been vacant, and it looks to remain so for the foreseeable future. Last year, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic broke through in the Spring and established their presence at the top. This year, they are among the slumping players who need to find a cure for their games in the European season. Along with Safina and Ivanovic, all of the top players come into this season with grand expectations, all of them looking to be the one to take up Henin’s crown.
1) Serena Williams: The reigning #1 player (though probably not for long) comes to the clay with impressive results so far this year. With the last two major titles and a recent trip to the Miami final under her belt, Serena is certainly still the player to beat. There are, however, several question marks haunting the Williams game right now that could provide openings for her closest competitors. First, we do not know the extent of her left leg injury. She was clearly hobbled in the Miami final against Azarenka, yet still plans on playing the next two weeks in Marbella and Charleston instead of taking some time off to rehabilitate. If the leg does continue to bother her in the coming months, the clay surface with only serve to accentuate it. Even though Serena won the French Open title in 2002, ever since her knee surgery she does the not have the same level of movement, which is exposed most drastically on clay. Any hint of a leg problem and she could be in the same trouble that she was against Srebotnik in the third round of the French last year.
2) Dinara Safina: Of all the players, Safina is in desperate need of solid results on the clay. Because of her excellent and consistent play over the last 52 weeks, Safina is in a position to assume the #1 ranking, but she has recorded miserable results ever since the Australian final. With significant points coming off her ranking in the next few months, she could see herself falling quite rapidly if she does not start to improve. Ever since she fell apart in the Australian final against Williams, Safina is 4-3, without a win over a top 30 player. The Berlin event last year was where Safina finally broke through, defeating Henin and Serena Williams en route to the title. As she proved then, she has the skills to beat anyone in the world on clay, she just desperately needs to regain her confidence and groundstroke range before then.
3) Elena Dementieva: Dementieva had a solid start to the year, winning two titles, but has likewise looked lost over the past month. Nonetheless, with the fall of Jankovic, she ascended to a career high #3 in the world this week. Dementieva is a notoriously difficult player to predict, as she can go from greatness to disaster and back to greatness for seemingly no reason at all, sometimes all within the same set. She had a very solid clay court run last year, only to be spoiled by Safina on a few occasions, so she will need to find greatness more often than not if she wants to hold on to that #3 for an extended period of time. In Indian Wells and Miami, Dementieva seemed uninspired in addition to playing erratically. It will be interesting to see whether she can regain that fire from the beginning of the year.
4) Jelena Jankovic: If anyone needs the results more than Safina, it is Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic has had a miserable year this year, with no impressive results to her credit. She currently sits at #25 in the race rankings, and has not won a match since a second round victory over Monica Niculescu in Dubai in February. Already this year she has fallen from #1 to #4 in the rankings, and looks to continue on this downward trajectory unless she can find some form on the clay. She is playing in Marbella this week, but she finds herself with another tricky first round opponent in Francesca Schiavone. With significant French Open points to defend, Jankovic is in danger of falling quite far during the clay season.
5) Venus Williams: Venus has had her best season start in quite some time so far in 2009. In the past few years, she has not really found her game until Wimbledon, but this year she already has two titles and has her ranking back up to #5. She is hardly defending any points at all during the clay court season, so she looks in solid position to make up ground on the slumping players above her. The problem for Venus is that she is not defending many clay points for a reason. Her game, more so than her sister’s, is reliant upon a fast surface. Even on a slower hard court like in Australia, her game becomes more vulnerable, with her groundstrokes and serve losing some effectiveness. This becomes more significant on a clay court, which could stand between her and some impressive clay titles.
6) Vera Zvonareva: Over the last 6-8 months, Zvonareva has played the best tennis of her career. She is more confident emotionally, and her groundstroke angles have never been more effective. She reached the Semifinals of Australia and won the title in Indian Wells, which pushed her to a career-high #5 ranking. Unlike the Williams sisters, Zvonareva feels quite comfortable on clay, having made her breakthrough at the French Open years ago. With great results and a surface that suits her to spur her on, Zvonareva may be the story of this clay season, sliding her way to a series of titles.
7) Ana Ivanovic: Ana Ivanovic was the story of last clay court season, but things have taken a drastic turn for her since her triumph at Roland Garros. She had a miserable second half to 2008, which continued at the beginning of this year, marked by a severely wandering ball toss. The bright spot for Ivanovic is that she did make the final of Indian Wells, which may indicate brighter results to come on the surface that gave her a Grand Slam title. She certainly feels comfortable on the clay, and her lack of serve and groundstroke confidence may not be as significant of a problem as it is on a hardcourt. While she is still in the midst of a slump, unlike some of her peers, there are indications that it may finally break on the clay.
8) Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka is the talk of the WTA Tour after her dominant win over Serena Williams in the Miami final. Azarenka is playing the most confident tennis of anyone on tour right now, and currently holds the position of being the only teenager in the top 10. While many of her competitors are struggling with range and consistency on their serve and groundstrokes, Azarenka’s game has been notably solid. She did not crumble under the pressure of her first significant tour final, which makes her an ever more compelling candidate for future star of the game. Azarenka has shown impressive clay results before, but this year she will be entering the season with much more pressure than in the past. If she deals with that pressure and continues to rack up the top 10 wins, she could solidify her place among the game’s best.
The Rest: Svetlana Kuznetsova recorded a desperately needed Semifinal result in Miami, which could help her confidence on the clay, where she has been a French Open finalist in the past. Caroline Wozniacki is always on the player to watch list, and this does not end with the clay. The question with her is: when is she going to record that huge result? Teens Alize Cornet and Dominika Cibulkova play their best tennis on the clay, and will be dangerous to some of those top players who are struggling. Veterans Amelie Mauresmo and Patty Schnyder are no strangers to the clay and could score some big wins. Finally, Maria Sharapova says she is coming back in Rome, but she is the biggest question mark of all at this point.