More to clay than Rafa and Wozniacki
Rafael Nadal wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Surprise, surprise. Caroline Wozniacki, the globe-trotting Dane, triumphs in Charleston and goes deep in Stuttgart. No big shock there, either. But who else is firing -- and slumping -- so far in the clay-court season?
We take a closer look with Madrid on the horizon and the French Open less than a month away.
David Ferrer: He approached this clay-court season with caution. He'd excelled in 2010 by reaching the semifinals or better in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Madrid, falling early at the French Open. But the Spanish No. 2 battled to the final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona this month, despite being hindered by a calf injury in Catalonia.
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A short stay in Madrid or Rome this year wouldn't be so bad, allowing Ferrer to put more emphasis on Roland Garros. He's been knocked out in the third round four of the previous five years -- not good enough for him.
Julia Goerges: The WTA must be secretly hoping Goerges continues to climb the rankings. With Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova still struggling to find old form, the tour could use another highly marketable pro. Goerges has been dubbed "Gorgeous Goerges," which says much.
Goerges had a dream week in Stuttgart, doing what appears to be so simple, yet in truth is so difficult: hit Wozniacki off the court. Goerges produced nearly 40 winners in their final, a staggering number over two sets on clay.
Nicolas Almagro: He has been considered a dangerous opponent on clay for a while, piling up wins mostly at smaller tournaments. His victory over a fading Nikolay Davydenko in Barcelona made him the latest top-10 debutant, although he was later crushed by Ferrer.
Almagro's performances in Madrid and Rome will tell us whether he's among the second tier of contenders at Roland Garros. For all his hard hitting, Almagro isn't as athletic as others in the top 10, also mentally suspect.
Samantha Stosur: She needed a serious boost -- and got it in Stuttgart.
Bounced in the third round as the defending champion in Charleston, the French Open finalist finally strung together a few wins in Germany, reaching her first semifinal of 2011. As it turned out, losing to Goerges 7-5 in the third set was nothing to be embarrassed about. If only the timid Stosur had the belief to match her hefty serve and forehand.
Agnieszka Radwanska: She can be a joy to watch. And it seems the Pole is no longer content to linger well behind the baseline and solely counterpunch.
Maybe a foot injury sustained late last year had something to do with the change in philosophy.
Radwanska has improved her serve and is hitting with more intent from the baseline.
Fernando Verdasco: He is sinking fast.
He lacked fight against fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo in Monte Carlo, and last year's finalist thus departed in his opener.
Then came the Barcelona brouhaha. The defending champion, Verdasco was upset organizers didn't give him a wild card.
But (and this seems to be the real issue), why didn't Verdasco sign up for the tournament? Strange. He's in Estoril this week as the second seed.
Verdasco isn't overly concerned about sliding in the rankings, saying he can pick up points in the fall.
Similarly, French Open champion Schiavone has faltered since beating Svetlana Kuznetsova in nearly five hours at the Australian Open, going a mediocre 6-7.
The Italian's decision to skip the Fed Cup semifinals to prepare for the clay-court season angered squad member Roberta Vinci, and the move didn't immediately pay off. Radwanska crushed Schiavone -- for the second straight match -- in Stuttgart.
Alexandr Dolgopolov: Dolgopolov made his breakthrough on hard courts in Australia in January but says clay is his preferred surface.
And while the watchable Ukrainian's first final came on dirt during the Latin American Golden Swing, European clay has been less kind. Dolgopolov lost his opening matches in Monte Carlo and Barcelona to the unpredictable pair of Ernests Gulbis and Davydenko.
Aravane Rezai: Nearly 12 months ago, Rezai was the toast of French tennis.
Richard Williams, who knows a thing or two about spotting talent, predicted Rezai would become a future No. 1.
The wait continues.
Rezai didn't deliver at the French Open and has gone 2-3 on clay this year -- a year blighted because of personal problems with her controversial dad.
But the two-time French Open finalist vows he's ready to go this week in Estoril. Like Verdasco, he'll hope for a protracted stay in Portugal.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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