Clay crucible presents many unknowns
What if there were a stock exchange for tennis players? The start of the 2009 season would have produced wild gyrations, week-to-week uncertainty and a few standouts amid the sliding prospects a lot like the real financial markets, in fact.With the first quarter in the books, here's a look at how the players rate going into the clay season.
Serena Williams: HOLD
Williams managed to cling on to No. 1 by reaching the final at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last week, all the while declaring it was "psycho" that winning two Grand Slams and reaching the final of the third couldn't secure her the top spot. Her ranking will be under threat again next week at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, where she's the defending champion.
The source of weakness is Williams' relative lack of participation (and performance) in the tour's mid-level events. Though she has won the Australian Open and reached the final of the next-biggest event, Miami, Williams did not get past the semifinals in any of the three smaller events she played during the first quarter of the year.
The second quarter is dominated by clay, traditionally her weakest surface and a time when she plays few events. This year, she's entered in a slew of tournaments ahead of the French Open -- Marbella, Charleston, Rome and Madrid -- but it remains to be seen how many she'll actually play, particularly after the injury that hampered her during her Miami final.
But rankings aside, Williams has stood out as the most reliable big-match player during a chaotic 12 months on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. For that reason alone, she'll be one of the French Open favorites, no matter what happens between then and now.Dinara Safina: SELL
The biggest factor in Safina's transformation from dark horse to prime contender a year ago was her sudden ability to get going when the going got tough. That quality was prominently on display at the Australian Open, when she battled back from 2-5 in the third set against Alize Cornet in the fourth round and gritted out a nervy quarterfinal against crowd darling Jelena Dokic.
But in the past few weeks, Safina has struggled to raise her game in such matches, losing a battle of wills to Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and going down tamely in Miami when the No. 1 ranking was tantalizingly close.
If the pressure of trying to reach the top is having such an effect, what will happen when she's under pressure to simply maintain her current position? From May onward, Safina will have to start defending the excellent results she had at that time last year. Her response will be a real test of whether she's likely to have a long stay at the top. Elena Dementieva: HOLD
Elena Dementieva is something of an enigma right now. She led the tour with a 19-2 win-loss record at the start of the year, but didn't show to play in either Indian Wells or Miami. Her mother, who didn't attend any tournaments during the early part of the year for medical reasons, is back by her side, but Dementieva's drive seems to be missing.
What's more, she's only entered in Stuttgart and Madrid between now and the French Open; that's about half of Serena Williams' schedule. But the thought of winning her first Grand Slam title at Paris has to provide some motivation for the steady veteran to rediscover her January form.
Jelena Jankovic: SELL
Blaming her offseason training regime for bulking her up and slowing her down on the court, Jankovic is currently struggling to win matches.
But all is not lost for the outgoing Serb, because she's been in this position before: She dropped 10 of her first 11 matches in 2006 before turning things around in Rome. She hasn't lost a match at the tournament since, and if she's going to turn things around anywhere this year, it's most likely to be there. But if her struggles continue on the clay, where she has the best chance of defeating the big hitters, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the year.
Venus Williams: SELL, WAIT TWO MONTHS, BUY
Back-to-back titles in Dubai and Pattaya City for Williams didn't quite make up for her second-round loss at the Australian Open, and she was stopped by Serena in the semifinals of Miami. Clay is not a happy hunting ground for Williams, and she won't be considered a real threat at the French Open unless she secures some significant wins in the warm-up events.
Come Wimbledon, however, the whole picture changes.
Vera Zvonareva: BUY
The 24-year-old Russian is still undervalued despite reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and winning Indian Wells this year. She doesn't quite have the weapons to be a dominant force, but Zvonareva has turned into a consistent performer, and that shouldn't be underestimated in these turbulent times.
Ana Ivanovic: HOLD
After going down early at the Australian Open, Ivanovic hired Craig Kardon to try to get back on track. She's not where she was last year, but it looks like she's starting to head in the right direction. The results could return quickly if things suddenly click for the big-hitting Serb.
Azarenka is the flavor of the month after reaching the semifinals of Indian Wells and winning in Miami last week. The switch to clay will break her momentum a little bit, but the 19-year-old did reach the fourth round of the French Open last year and could continue to rise. The X-factor is how she handles suddenly going from hunter to hunted; most players struggle a bit after their first big win, so any French Open talk is a bit premature.Svetlana Kuznetsova: BUY
She has disappointed too many times to inspire any confidence, but with zero expectations surrounding Kuznetsova at the moment, there isn't much to lose.
Losing to Serena Williams after being up a set and a break was typical of this chronic underachiever, but Kuznetsova did well in Miami shortly after parting ways with her coach. The Russian likes handling her own affairs so much that she sometimes even does her own travel bookings, so perhaps this period of independence will agree with her.
Agnieszka Radwanska: HOLD
After rising into the top 10 last year, Radwanska seems to have hit a plateau, falling to No. 11 a couple of weeks ago. But though she's not on the rise, the 20-year-old's crafty game is well-suited to clay, and she should be a reliable performer during the next couple of months.
Caroline Wozniacki: HOLD
The first quarter was a race between Wozniacki and Azarenka to see who could break into the top 10 first, and Wozniacki failed to take her opportunities while Azarenka seized hers.
The 18-year-old Wozniacki has not had many bad losses this year, but also few big wins. She lost a third-set tiebreaker to Serena Williams in Sydney, was overwhelmed against Jelena Dokic at the Australian Open and lost winnable matches against Vera Zvonareva in Indian Wells and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami. So her career is in a holding pattern until she produces a clutch win.
Alize Cornet: BUY
Another talented teen, Cornet's stock has dropped after a string of mediocre and nervy performances this year. She's been frustrated with her lack of progress, but clay is by far her strongest surface, and she should see an uptick in her results before playing her home Grand Slam in Paris.
Maria Sharapova: HOLD
Sharapova is expected to return to the tour in Rome, her first singles appearance since August. It would be a surprise to see a rusty Sharapova make major waves on clay, her least favorite surface, but the gritty three-time Slam champ is a former semifinalist in Paris. Either way, the whole idea will be to get match-tough for Wimbledon, and anything before that is gravy.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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