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.
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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