Clay Q&A: WTA
After the men, it’s now the WTA tour’s turn to hit the clay, with the event in Rio de Janeiro. What can we expect from the 15 tournaments that will make up the clay swing this year, culminating at Roland-Garros at the end of May and early June? Let’s see what our journalists have to say on these matters…
Who can stop Serena Williams?
The American is clear of the pack at No.1 in the world and is very much the woman to beat on clay. Who could possibly knock her off her perch?
Myrtille Rambion: Serena? On clay or indeed any other surface, the only person who can really knock her off her stride is the same as it’s always been – Serena herself…
Amandine Reymond: I think that Angelique Kerber will be able to surf the wave of confidence that she acquired at the Australian Open. With her physique and her lefty game, she’s got everything you need to do well on clay. Victoria Azarenka also looks to be close to her very best. Serena’s greatest adversary however has always been and will always be herself. I don’t want to underestimate the competition, but if Serena is on top of her game, she is still a fair way clear of the chasing pack in the rankings.
Guillaume Willecoq: I have every faith in Garbine Muguruza. Every since she beat Serena Williams at Roland-Garros two years ago, in fact, and even more so since she’s been working with Sam Sumyk. And talking of coaches, I can’t wait to see the results of Simona Halep working with Darren Cahill. It must have been quite a mouth-watering challenge for the Australian to have decided to return to the circuit full-time, after ten years of turning down offers from plenty of the top men’s and women’s players.
Which newcomer(s) might come along and shake things up?
We may not be expecting them to shine just now, but who are the players who could come good on the biggest of stages?
Myrtille Rambion: Belinda Bencic. The Swiss has already showcased her talent but primarily on faster surfaces, but let’s not forget that in 2013, she won Roland-Garros juniors. She turns 19 on 10 March, and she’s made a lot of progress in recent months. Her overall vision of the game and her ability to mix things up remind us of her mentor Martina Hingis, who is following her protégée every step of the way. 2016 is set to be Belinda’s year, on clay and indeed on any surface.
Amandine Reymond: 2010 world junior champion Daria Gavrilova has already taken a big step this season by making the Round of 16 of the Australian Open, which was a first for her at a Grand Slam. The naturalised Australian went from No.231 to No.35 in the world in 2015, and she has already beaten three top 10 players in the past 10 months as she made up way up the rankings. She only turns 22 on 5 March, and first and foremost she will be looking to win her first title on the WTA circuit – and why not on clay? After all, she made the final of Roland-Garros juniors in 2009…
Guillaume Willecoq: Caroline Garcia has been the stand-out player in the French Fed Cup team, with a record of nine wins and just three defeats in her burgeoning career. The semi-finals of that competition are coming up right in the middle of the clay season, and with that to look forward to, she could well enjoy her clay swing all the more. A more obvious pick would be a return to form for Eugenie Bouchard. She’s got too much potential to be stuck outside the top 30 for long.
French Open girls singles champion Belinda Bencic of Switzerland (GTY) pic.twitter.com/EWhZEit4Pa— Joe Fleming (@ByJoeFleming) 8 juin 2013
What about Maria?
10 of her last 14 WTA titles have come on clay, with two of them at Roland-Garros (2012 and 2014). Maria Sharapova has transformed herself into a dirtballer. What can we expect from her on what has become her favourite surface?
Myrtille Rambion: The gap between her and Serena got a little bigger after their quarter-final in Melbourne. Since then, Sharapova has been constantly struggling with her left forearm. Ironically, this injury should mean that she is fresh and rested once she finally gets back on court. If she gives herself enough time off and makes sure she gets the right treatment – and the Russian is nothing if not a seasoned pro – then Masha should come back even stronger, mentally and physically. And since clay no longer holds any fears for her, Sharapova should once again be among the favourites on this surface, including and in particular at Roland-Garros, where she was victorious as recently as two years ago.
Amandine Reymond: Having struggled with injuries over the past few months, Sharapova will be making her comeback on clay in the first tournament of the European swing, in Stuttgart – an event she has already won three times. It will be an ideal situation for her to get a feel for the surface again and load up on confidence before the main event comes around in May and June. For the past couple of years, the Siberian star has enjoyed much of her success on clay, and it has become her most "solid" surface. Every year, she picks up one or more titles in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome... and indeed Roland-Garros, and there is no reason why 2016 should be any different.
Guillaume Willecoq: Serena Williams is to Maria Sharapova what Novak Djokovic has become to Roger Federer: an unsolvable problem. If she is to lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen for a third time, the Russian will have to hope that someone else takes care of an opponent that she has not managed to beat in the past 12 years… But, if that set of circumstances were to come about, with her experience and her character, you can be sure that Maria will be ready to grab the opportunity with both hands, even if she has to grind out the necessary results. Exactly as she did in 2014.
Which French players should we be talking about?
Roland-Garros is obviously the main date on the calendar for the French players – which ones are poised to have a good clay season and peak at the right time for Roland-Garros?
Myrtille Rambion: Kristina Mladenovic! Kiki has really worked on the physical side of things, and you can see the results out on court. Particularly in terms of the lower body, which will make things so much easier for her on clay, where movement and stamina are key to the game even more than on other surfaces. Add to that her finesse with the racquet, her tactical nous and her variations on service, in terms of speed, placement and slice, then you can only come to one conclusion – Kristina Mladenovic has everything that a player needs to shine at big clay-court tournaments.
Amandine Reymond: Alizé Cornet and her sliced-filled brand of tennis are ideal for clay. And this is the surface on which she’s won three of her five WTA titles. Last year, even though she did not do particularly well at the warm-up tournaments ahead of Roland-Garros, she still made the second week of the French. In 2016, she’ll be playing more events in the build-up, and it could well be that the European clay swing sees her get back to being French No.1 and follow in the footsteps of Marion Bartoli, who was the last “local” woman to make the final four of her home Slam (in 2011).
Guillaume Willecoq: I am going to make a distinction between the clay season in general and Roland-Garros in particular. Across the swing, as I said earlier, I go for Caroline Garcia, but when it comes down to the French Open, it has to be Kristina Mladenovic who tends to turn it on when she comes to Paris. And now that she’s going to be seeded at big tournaments, she’s going to have a chance to show what she’s made of in the second week…
Who will rack up the most titles on clay?
Will it be a spring sprinter or a long-distance accumulator? Who will win the most trophies on the red dirt between February and July 2016?
Myrtille Rambion: The European swing season always favours a Spanish touch, and I can see the one-handed backhand and clay-court smarts of Carla Suarez Navarro driving her opponents crazy.
Amandine Reymond: I’m going to go for Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian has Justine Henin on her coaching staff, and after winning in Marrakesh last year and making the quarter-finals of the French, I think that she’ll be one of the players to watch. Then you have Sara Errani and Carla Suarez Navarro. They know this surface inside-out, and it really suits their game.
Guillaume Willecoq: Everyone’s going for Carla Suarez Navarro and I agree. She knows the clay and plays plenty of tournaments on this surface, so she has all the right ingredients. I’d also go for Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is someone who can be up and down, but when she’s on form, she’s a joy to watch on clay.