Can Simona Halep go one better? How much will Serena Williams play? Burning questions this WTA clay season

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Ostapenko beat Halep in last year's French Open final.

The WTA’s clay season has officially started with the Premier event in Charleston taking place this week, although some players are still holding onto one last opportunity to play on hard courts and have flocked to Monterrey.

Caroline Garcia and Petra Kvitova are the top two seeds on the green clay of Charleston, where Russia’s Daria Kasatkina is the defending champion and No. 3 seed.

The first few months of the year have seen a veteran like Caroline Wozniacki finally capture a maiden Grand Slam and a young up-and-comer like Naomi Osaka take the Premier Mandatory title in Indian Wells.

What will the clay season hold for the women of the WTA?

Here are the main storylines to look out for on the red (or green) dirt…

HOW MUCH CLAY WILL SERENA PLAY?

Serena Williams has been non-committal in any statements regarding her schedule since her return from maternity leave. The American superstar came back to the tour last month to play Indian Wells and Miami, losing in the third round of the former, and the first round of the latter.

She opted out of playing Charleston, even though it would have given her the opportunity to travel with her family inside the United States instead of taking a long flight abroad and it’s unclear whether she will play any clay events at all. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou had told the New York Times back in February that she plans on playing Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.

The following is what Serena said when she was asked about her clay schedule in Indian Wells.

“I have a really light schedule already. So obviously I want to work on getting my ranking to where I can just feel good about my ranking,” said Serena, who is currently ranked 449 in the world.

“But I don’t know how much lighter I can go. I don’t really play a lot. I just usually play tournaments and I try to do really good in those tournaments so I don’t have to play every week.

“And it’s different traveling with a kid. I definitely want to spend as much time as I can with her. My priorities are different.”

She has an apartment in Paris and loves the city. It’s hard to imagine she’ll skip the French Open.

HOW WILL OSTAPENKO HANDLE HER TITLE DEFENCE IN PARIS?

Jelena Ostapenko has had her ups and downs since she won the French Open as an unseeded 20-year-old last year. But still you can’t say that she wasn’t able to back up that win as she made the quarters in Wimbledon, claimed a title in Seoul end of 2017, and made the final in Miami last week.

The Latvian world No. 5 enters a critical part of her season where she has a title to defend at Roland Garros. Ostapenko isn’t playing Charleston, where she was runner-up last year.

It will be interesting to see how Ostapenko will deal with being the defending champion in Paris. She needed a bit of an adjustment period early this season, where she struggled with her results, but seems back on track after a stellar fortnight in Miami. The French Open will prove another important test for the young power-hitter.

CAN HALEP DO BETTER THAN LAST YEAR?

World No. 1 Simona Halep almost had the perfect clay season last year but fell one victory short of that. The Romanian made semis in Stuttgart, won Madrid, made the final in Rome then finished runner-up to Ostapenko in Paris.

She has won 19 out of 22 matches so far this season and now heads to her beloved clay as the world No. 1. She is a two-time finalist at Roland Garros, and a three-time Grand Slam runner-up overall. Can she go one better this year and finally clinch a first Major? She’s certainly one of the top contenders for the crown.

WILL DASHA UP THE ANTE ON HER FAVOURITE SURFACE?

Daria Kasatkina has had a stellar couple of months where she reached the semis in St. Petersburg and the finals in Dubai and Indian Wells. The 20-year-old Russian has notched SIX top-10 wins already this season and she wasn’t even playing on her favourite surface, which is clay.

Kasatkina won the Roland Garros junior title in 2014 and her only WTA trophy to date came on the green clay of Charleston last year.

She’s knocking on the door of the top-10 and is one to watch this upcoming stretch.

CAN SVITOLINA FINALLY CRACK THE SLAM CODE?

World No. 4 Elina Svitolina won two clay titles last season, in Istanbul and Rome, and went to Roland Garros as one of the main contenders. She led Halep by a set and 5-1 in the French Open quarter-finals, and held a match point, but ended up losing the second set tiebreak and got bagelled in the decider to go 0-3 in career Grand Slam quarter-finals.

Svitolina, the 2010 Roland Garros junior champion, has two titles under her belt this season, won in Brisbane and Dubai. She’s No. 4 in the Porsche Race to Singapore thanks to her 18-4 win-loss record in 2018.

Can she exorcise her demons from that brutal loss to Halep in Paris and finally enjoy a Grand Slam breakthrough?

WHO WILL END THE CLAY SEASON AS WORLD NO. 1?

The world No. 1 ranking has been in play almost every week on the WTA tour and it won’t be surprising if it switches hands again by the end of the clay season. With Halep defending 3,070 points on clay in the next two and half months, it’s possible for others to catch up.

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Rafael Nadal back on top, but who could be next non-Big Four world No. 1?

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Nadal replaced Federer as world No. 1 this week.

Rafael Nadal returned to the top of the rankings on Monday, replacing Roger Federer, with this week being the Spaniard’s 168th overall at world No. 1.

Nadal and Federer, together with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – the ever famous ‘Big Four’ – have seen their dominance in Masters 1000 tournaments disrupted recently, with six of the last 11 of these events won by a player outside this elite quartet.

But when it comes to the No. 1 ranking, no non-Big Four player has managed to take the helm since Federer first took over the top spot from Andy Roddick back in February 2004.

It’s more than 14 years later and no one has managed to shake the Big Four’s iron grip on that coveted No.1 position.

Only 110 points separate Nadal and Federer at the top but a total of 3,685 points stand between the Swiss and world No. 3 Marin Cilic.

Narrowing that gap between the top-two and the chasing pack is one mighty task with Federer and Nadal currently holders of two Slams each. One Grand Slam is worth 2,000 points.

It’s obvious that in order to get a new world No. 1 by the end of the year or next season, Federer and Nadal would have to perform very poorly at the Majors and the tournaments they’ve won last year and the chasing pack would have to step up and win Slams and Masters 1000s.

Even with two Masters and three more titles under his belt, someone like Alexander Zverev was more than 5000 points behind Nadal and Federer in the rankings end of last season.

It will take a herculean effort, but sooner or later, we will eventually see a non-Big Four player at the top of the rankings.

These are three of the most likely candidates to pull it off…

JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO

Currently at No. 6 in the world, the tall 29-year-old from Tandil, Argentina has been marching back up the rankings, showing signs of the form that saw him stun Federer to win the US Open nine years ago. Already a two-time titlist this season, having triumphed in Acapulco and Indian Wells, Del Potro is becoming more and more comfortable with his new backhand, after triple-surgery on his left wrist forced him to add more slices and variety to that shot.

If he stays healthy, Del Potro is one player who has the quality and experience to win Slams and threaten the Nadal-Federer duopoly. Del Potro’s career-high ranking of No. 4 was first achieved back in 2010. Could he go higher by end of 2018?

MARIN CILIC

Only one of three players outside the Big Four to win a title in the last 52 Grand Slams, Cilic continues to be underrated even when he’s No. 3 in the world, a US Open champion in 2014, and a runner-up at Wimbledon 2017 and Australian Open 2018. While he upped his consistency last season (which is why he is No. 3 with only one title won in the last 12 months), Cilic will have to dig even deeper to try and close in on Federer and Nadal.

The Croat has got a lot of points to defend during the grass season (finals in Queens and Wimbledon), and has had indifferent results this year outside of the Australian Open.

Remains a candidate though due to his ability to surprise on the biggest stages, and has weapons to defeat anyone on a good day.

ALEXANDER ZVEREV

The glaring hole in the young German’s resume is the fact that he has never made it past the fourth round at a Grand Slam. He’s made the second week just once at the Majors – reaching the Wimbledon fourth round last year – but has won two Masters 1000s and was runner-up in Miami last Sunday. The 20-year-old is 11-17 against top-10 opposition, and is 6-4 in career finals so far. He’s already a top-four player without doing well at the Slams. Just imagine where he’d be if he finally cracks the best-of-five, two-week formula!

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John Isner and Sloane Stephens reign supreme in Miami - Sunshine Swing wrap

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Tennis’ version of March Madness came to a close on Sunday with John Isner grabbing a first-ever Masters 1000 trophy thanks to a three-set win over Alexander Zverev in the Miami final.

Americans scored big in the tournament’s final staging in Key Biscayne, with the Miami Open relocating to the Hard Rock Stadium next year.

Besides Isner’s success in south Florida, his compatriot Sloane Stephens walked away with the women’s title, the Bryan brothers won in doubles, while CoCo Vandeweghe triumphed in women’s doubles alongside Australia’s Ashleigh Barty.

With Juan Martin del Potro and Naomi Osaka clinching titles in Indian Wells earlier in March, all four singles champions in the California desert and Miami were first-time winners at that level.

Here’s a look back at the four weeks of thrilling action on the hard courts of the United States.

FEDERER’S ABRUPT MOMENTUM SWITCH

Roger Federer went from topping the world rankings and starting the year with a stellar 17-0 undefeated record to losing two matches in a row (Indian Wells final to Del Potro and Miami opener to Thanasi Kokkinakis) for the first time since 2014 and relinquishing the No. 1 spot to his rival Rafael Nadal. The 36-year-old Swiss is also skipping the clay swing, which means we won’t see him on court again until June.

Things change ever so fast in the world of tennis and Federer’s sudden halt in momentum is another reminder of that.

SPRING OF SLOANE?

Just six months ago, the ‘Summer of Sloane’ was in full effect. Stephens, who had returned from an 11-month injury layoff last June at Wimbledon went on to make semis in Toronto and Cincinnati, then won the US Open, to enjoy one of the most stunning comebacks we’ve ever witness in the sport.

The American then went on an eight-match, five-month losing streak, which she finally snapped in Acapulco end of February. And just like that, Stephens found her groove and defeated three top-10 players en route to the Miami crown – her first Premier Mandatory title.

Stephens, who is making her top-10 debut this week, also extended her perfect record in career finals to 6-0. Is this the start of a ‘Spring of Sloane’?

FOURTH TIME’S A CHARM

Contesting his fourth Masters 1000 final, Isner finally got his maiden title at that level, with a run that included three top-10 victories (over Cilic, Del Potro, Zverev). His win took him back into the top-10 for the first time since May 2014.

It also means that the last three consecutive Masters 1000 winners were all first-time champions at that tier, with Jack Sock triumphing in Paris last year, Del Potro reigning supreme in Indian Wells and now Isner in Miami. The last time this happened was in 2003 when Guillermo Coria, Felix Mantilla and Andy Roddick won Hamburg, Rome and Canada.

We’ve now had five first-time winners in the last 11 Masters 1000 tournaments.

VIKA WITH A VENGEANCE

Playing just her second tournament of the season, and fourth event in nearly two years, Victoria Azarenka made the semi-finals in Miami, taking out world No. 6 Karolina Pliskova and two more top-20 players en route, before falling to Stephens in three sets. She’s back in the top-100 (currently at 92) but remains uncertain about her upcoming plans on tour.

“I need to be more tournament fit, more match fit, and I need to continue to play,” she told reporters after losing to Stephens.

Azarenka’s ongoing custody dispute with the father of her child means she isn’t able to take her son Leo out of California, which has kept the Belarusian away from the tour for the majority of the past nine months.

Dealing with that and managing to make the semis of a Premier Mandatory event with virtually no match play under her belt is truly remarkable. In Miami, we were also reminded of how much Azarenka brings to the WTA tour. Here’s hoping she can play a full schedule soon.

OLE, OLE, DELPO, DELPO

As a fellow journalist put it, Del Potro got quite the support in “Miami, Argentina”. The popular Argentine had the Miami crowd firmly behind him throughout the fortnight, even when he was facing USA’s Isner in the semis. Isner snapped Del Potro’s 15-match winning streak that stretched back to Acapulco end of February but the South American can only walk away with positives from the past five weeks, that saw him win Acapulco and Indian Wells, and make the last-four in Miami. He’s up to No. 6 in the world rankings and climbing.

KVITOVA SLOWS DOWN A BEAT

Also someone who saw their winning streak end during the Sunshine Swing is Petra Kvitova, whose run of 14 consecutive victories came to an end at the hands of 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova in the third round of Indian Wells, then lost to eventual runner-up Jelena Ostapenko in the Miami fourth round.

It seems that Kvitova’s super February caught up with her in March but the Czech world No. 10 is still playing really well and is healthy enough to head straight to Charleston and begin her clay season. That is good news for everyone.

SERENA STARTS NEW JOURNEY

Serena Williams dipped her toes back into competition by taking on the world’s best at two Premier Mandatory events: Indian Wells and Miami. While others may choose to return from maternity leave – as well as some serious medical problems post-delivery – by playing smaller tournaments, Serena is not that person.

She wanted to test herself at the highest level and can walk away with positives from her first two events. She lost to Venus in the Indian Wells third round and fell to Naomi Osaka in her Miami opener.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion chose to skip her post-match press conference in Miami and get fined over facing the media and reiterating what she said in Indian Wells, which is that she knows she has a long way to go but believes she can return to her best.

THE DJOKOVIC PREDICAMENT

“I’m trying, but it’s not working. That’s all. That’s all it is,” said Novak Djokovic after his latest defeat – this time an opening round loss to Benoit Paire in Miami. The Serb, currently ranked 13 in the world, went winless in Indian Wells and Miami, which were his first two tournaments back from elbow surgery.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion also ended his coaching partnership with Andre Agassi, who told ESPN of the split: “We far too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree.”

On paper, this collaboration felt like a match made in heaven but it seems like it was bad timing.

“I’m not at the level that I used to be. I’m aware of that. I just have to obviously believe in myself and hopefully it will come,” said Djokovic in Miami.

The 30-year-old is 3-3 win-loss this season. Six matches is not enough to draw any major conclusions but if you’re worried about Djokovic at the moment, no one can blame you.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA?

Maria Sharapova lost her first round to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells and skipped Miami as she continues to struggle with a forearm injury. She also split with her coach Sven Groeneveld. It’s difficult to make a proper assessment of the Russian’s game at the moment simply because her physical problems are preventing her from playing regularly.

As Svetlana Kuznetsova told me in February: “In order to say what’s going on with Maria, you’ve got to know inside information and nobody does.”

Sharapova’s on a three-match losing streak and is 5-4 this season. When you try to check her schedule on her official website, the link doesn’t work. It’s not looking good for her at the moment.

LUCKY NUMBER ‘97

The year 1981 gave us both Roger Federer and Serena Williams. No other year can beat that. But in terms of young promise, 1997 is proving to be a hotbed for talent on the women’s tour.

Three of the four women’s singles finalists in Indian Wells and Miami were born in 1997 – Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko, who continues to back up her French Open triumph with solid performances on the big stage, despite the lapses in between.

“I think actually the year of 1997 is quite strong, because I think we are maybe like 10 players in top 100. It’s quite strong year,” Ostapenko told reporters in Miami.

“I remember back in juniors we had some tough matches and some great players.”

NO SUNSHINE FOR GRIGOR

Grigor Dimitrov had a forgettable March with the Bulgarian winning just one match across Indian Wells and Miami. The ATP Finals champion is now on a three-match losing streak and is far from his end-of-2017-season form.

CHUNG ON A MISSION

Marinate on this for a while. South Korea’s Chung Hyeon has made the quarter-finals or better in his last six consecutive tournaments. The only event in which he missed out on the last-eight was his first tournament of the season in Brisbane.

The 21-year-old’s ability to keep going strong after his breakthrough semi-finals appearance at the Australian Open is incredible and his quarter-finals in Indian Wells and Miami have taken him into the top-20 for the first time as he sits nicely at No. 19 this week.

RAONIC’S RETURN

After a string of injuries and coaching changes, it appears Milos Raonic is back on track. And while he’s still not at his former top-three in the world level, the Canadian had a promising March, making semis in Indian Wells and quarters in Miami. He’s moved up from 38 to 22 in the rankings over the past four weeks.

SHOUT-OUT TO COLLINS

Danielle Collins started Indian Wells ranked 117 in the world and he second round win there over Madison Keys was her first against a top-20 player.

Fast-forward to Monday and Collins is ranked 53 in the world and has won 10 of 12 matches (including qualifying) played in Indian Wells and Miami, making the fourth round in the former and the semi-finals in the latter, including an upset over Venus Williams in south Florida.

A career-changing month for the two-time NCAA champion.

RISING OSAKA

Osaka followed up her Indian Wells title run with a win over Serena Williams in the Miami Open first round. The world No. 21 then fell to fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the second round but it’s fair to say the young Japanese looks and feels like a totally different player. She truly has flourished in March.

CHARGING CORIC

Semis in Indian Wells and quarter-finals in Miami have lifted Borna Coric to a career-high No. 28 this week. The young Croat is becoming more and more dangerous for others on tour and things are finally falling into place for him.

BIG GUYS RULE

Five of this week’s top-10 players are 198cm or taller: third-ranked Cilic (198cm), fourth-ranked Zverev (198cm), sixth-ranked Del Potro (198cm), eighth-ranked Anderson (203cm) and ninth-ranked Isner (208cm). Looks like size does matter on the ATP tour.

JO’S STAYING POSITIVE

Johanna Konta, who started the year ranked No. 9 in the world, has dropped out of the top-20 thid week (now at 22) after seeing her title defence in Miami end at the hands of Venus in the fourth round.

The Brit is 8-7 this season and is still trying to build momentum after ending her 2017 a month early due to injury that saw her finish the year on a five-match losing streak.

If Konta doesn’t pick things up in the clay season, she could slip even further since she’s defending semi-final points at Wimbledon and Eastbourne.

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