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Friday, April 10, 2009
Five imperative questions heading into the clay

Whoever wrote the script for the tennis year clearly didn't know a lot about writing good drama. The first act of the season ought to end, not begin, with the grand finale of the hard-court season, the Australian Open. And that event was finished over two months ago.

Still, the back-to-back hard-court events at Indian Wells and Miami aren't exactly anti-climactic, and they drop the curtain on what you might call the first act of a five-act play called "A Year in Tennis." So while you can say the play gets off to a slow and confusing start, it's pretty well-crafted from here on in -- the next four acts end with, in order, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the U.S Open and the ATP and WTA Tour championships (and Davis Cup final).

So what are the five major questions going into Act II?

1. Can Rafael Nadal win an unprecedented fifth Roland Garros championship at the end of the long and grueling Euro-clay season? The short answer is, "yes." The long answer is, "yes." This guy is a clay-court player for the ages, although he struggled a bit at the end of the hard-court swing (citing vague "personal" reasons following his quarterfinal loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Miami).

Nadal's biggest threat may be injury, and though the soft clay will help reduce the stress on his body, his suspension and wheels will take a beating. Nadal has said he's "50-50" about playing the brand-new combined event in Madrid. Skipping it could be a good move, just as much to save energy as to avoid the quick transition from that high-altitude event to Roland Garros (there's just a week between them).

2. Can Andy Murray's winning game carry over to the clay courts? Since finishing as runner-up in the U.S. Open in September, Murray has established himself as the greatest hard-court threat to the three men ranked above him (Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic), and he's already eclipsed the third of those Grand Slam champions. During Act II last year, though, he never went past three rounds, or made much progress after going that distance in the first big Euro-clay event, Monte Carlo (where he put up a win over Djokovic).

So there's some question about whether Murray's quick-strike, counterpunching game works as well on a surface that gives his opponents a little more time to read his intentions and shots. One big difference, though, is that Murray is a far more fit and confident guy than he was 12 months ago.

3. Can Jelena Jankovic find her game again? Jankovic finished at the top of the rankings last year without having won a Grand Slam; you can think of her 2009 as karmic payback for having accomplished that feat. At the Australian Open, she had that deer-in-the-headlights look (and game) that comes over players who suddenly know they have a lot to prove -- and defend. She crapped out in appalling fashion and hasn't improved since.

4. Is Roger Federer likely to equal or surpass Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles? With 13 majors, Federer is sitting pretty, but his ride is getting bumpier by the minute. He suffered a huge blow in Australia, surrendering the title to Nadal in startling fashion in yet another five-set final. Since then, he's seemed a confused champion, and it's unlikely that he's going to gain ground on Nadal, or win that clay-court major that has so far eluded him. But one thing Federer can do is use the clay-court season, with all those long matches, to get his groove back (execution and concentration-wise). Clay is a great surface for rediscovering your game, and Federer might be best off looking at the spring as a training ground for a big push on grass and hard courts.

5. Is anyone on the WTA side capable of stepping up to establish herself as a legitimate No. 1? It's unlikely that Venus and Serena Williams will be big, consistent winners on clay, but then just look at whom they'll be up against: Dinara Safina backed into the No. 1 ranking, Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic (defending French Open champ) are slumping badly, and the rest of the women at the top are a deadly combination of inconsistent and unpredictable. In short, the WTA pecking order is a mess, but maybe someone can step in to straighten it out. Victoria Azarenka, anyone?

Azarenka showed a lot of heart, desire and courage in winning Miami. And that will take you awfully far down the WTA's yellow-brick road these days.