Last year's clay court season saw the continued rise of Jelena Jankovic, the major breakthrough of Ana Ivanovic, and the stunning run of Dinara Safina, whom I nicknamed "Thrill Ride" for her repeated ability to come from behind at the last moments of a match. Those three were clearly the leaders on clay, surpassing talented clay veterans like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva.
One would think that, this year, we would be wondering who of those three is going to win the most clay titles, and who among them is going to win the French Open. But things have changed. All three women are still top clay contenders, to be sure, but not in the way they were last year--at least not at this moment. Ivanovic continues to struggle with her serve and her consistency, Jankovic is trying to reverse an off-season training disaster, and Safina has returned to head case status.
Of course, at any moment, one (or more) of these three players could repair what is wrong in her game and once again set herself on a serious clay court title track:
Jankovic recently won a small red clay tournament in Spain, which should give her some badly needed confidence. Her newly bulked-up body has betrayed her, prohibiting her movement--and movement is one of Jankovic's finest qualities. Getting that superior movement back is the key to Jankovic's success on clay (and every other surface) this year.
But restoring her superior court movement will not solve all of Jankovic's problems. Almost exactly a year ago, Jankovic began to serve better--sometimes a lot better. Her second serve was still weak, but her first serve was much better. But as the months have passed, the improved serve has often gone away, leaving her, once again, with a service game that is dramatically lower in quality than the rest of her tennis. Jankovic has won some big titles, but her athletic and intelligent game--so far--has been a fine-tune or two below what it needs to be to win a major.
No such problem for Ivanovic--she has won a major. The 2008 French Open champion--and the finalist in 2007--has prevailed under pressure, though she has won only two clay surface titles. Ivanovic, like other top players, has seen her anxiety leak into her serve. Ball toss problems have plagued her for a while now, and she will have to steady her nerves in order to be a big winner this clay court season.
The last thing Safina needed was more pressure, but here she is, number 1 in the world, and all most of us can think about is her dismal performance in the final of the Australian Open. It's safe to say that she, too, thinks about it, and she will need to do some serious head work to put it--and her 2009 season, so far--behind her. Can she do it? Safina is a very fine clay player who--despite her talent--can double-fault her way to a loss.
Jankovic, Ivanovic and Safina are not the only players who entered this year's clay court season as possible big winners. We are only a few tournaments into the season, and the twists and turns have already begun:
For Vera Zvonareva, the twist and turn was literal. Shortly after she began the first set of her third round match in Charleston last week, Zvonareva reached to make a return, got her foot caught in the clay, then fell and twisted her ankle. She now has two torn ligaments, and her clay season is most likely destroyed. This occurrence is extremely unfortunate. I and many others picked Zvonareva to be a big winner on clay this year--I thought she would win Charleston, in fact--and now she is walking on crutches.
Victoria Azarenka won Miami. The Sony Ericsson Open isn't a clay tournament, but the win was a whopping breakthrough for Azarenka, who also happens to play well on clay.
Amelie Mauresmo, now that she has won a 2009 title, could make a nice run in Europe, where she has had much past success.
Caroline Wozniacki just missed winning the U.S. green clay tournaments back-to-back. She won Ponte Vedra Beach, and was the finalist in Charleston.
Sabine Lisicki made a spirited and efficient run through Charleston, never dropping a set, and won the title.
And then there is Serena Williams. Williams has a leg injury, so it is hard to predict how she will do in the coming weeks. The defending champion withdrew from Charleston, and is not scheduled to play in Stuttgart next week. If her injury heals, she is always a threat.