Previewing the 2017 WTA clay court season

Charleston may have kicked off the WTA clay court season at the start of this month, but following this weekend’s Fed Cup ties, the tour goes full steam ahead for the European clay court swing in the lead up to Roland Garros. Many major names on the women’s tour are yet to have started their clay proceedings, and the Fed Cup has represented the first opportunity of several of these players to test their mettle on ‘la terre battue’ in 2017.

The change in surface of each spring is accompanied by shifting stocks in the power stakes on each tour. Some slide forth into the limelight, and others stumble in the dirt. The storylines and headline players of the first quarter of the season are often replaced by fresh narrative and new names at the top table. With several top players struggling for consistent form on the WTA tour in 2017, a few notable absentees, and the return of one of the tour’s dominant clay court forces in Maria Sharapova, an imminent change-up in narrative is even more palpable than usual.

Who will take charge? Opportunity and uncertainty on the red clay

The return of Maria Sharapova to the game, following her doping suspension, this Wednesday in Stuttgart looked to be the storyline that was going to dominate this part of the season. This was before Serena Williams shocked the tennis world by announcing this week (on Sharapova’s 30th birthday nonetheless) that she is 20 weeks pregnant, and would be playing no further part in the season.

The ramifications of this announcement will be felt more at the culmination of the clay court season, at Roland Garros, than in the events leading up to it.  Serena had already withdrawn from Rome, and has played only one tour level tournament this year, being absent since her Australian Open victory. Serena’s absence from the tour events has become a regular fixture in recent times – so in terms of opportunities opening up, it is really only at Roland Garros this will come to fruition. Though her dominance in women’s tennis has started to wane, Serena’s victory in Melbourne this January was yet another reminder that if her name is in the draw of a grand slam, she is still the favourite. The same would likely have held true for the upcoming French Open, and her absence removes a roadblock for several potential champions.

Before Serena’s announcement, it is likely the WTA clay court season would have panned out as follows – a few players would have put themselves in position following their performances in Rome and Madrid as frontrunners for the French Open, and then Serena would have returned and probably won the tournament anyway. For balance’s sake, it is worth noting that Serena has not won the title in Roland Garros since 2015, falling to Garbine Muguruza in each of the past two years, and a victory in Paris is less of a safe bet than it would be on the courts of Melbourne, Wimbledon, or Flushing Meadows. However, you would still probably take Serena against the field, and without her there, we will be more able to set more stock in the chances of the players who emerge from the warm-ups as the favourites.

Who these players will be, remains to be seen. Sharapova has an excellent clay court pedigree in recent years, reinventing herself from her self-proclaimed moniker of the “cow on ice” with her victory at Roland Garros in 2012, and following it up with her second French Open title in 2015. 15 months out of the game renders her form as unknown as it can be, and how Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome will pan out for the former World No. 1 really is anyone’s guess. Her participation at the French Open isn’t even guaranteed – with a decision on whether the French Tennis Federation will award her a wildcard expected within the next few weeks. If she is in the draw, and depending on how she does at the warm-ups, Sharapova is one player who could benefit heavily from Serena’s absence at Roland Garros; few need reminder that the Russian has failed to beat her American rival since 2004. Sharapova plays her first tennis match since January 2016 on Wednesday in Stuttgart, against a veteran who knows who way around a clay court in Roberta Vinci, and the world of tennis will be watching very closely to see how the Russian fares.

Joining Sharapova at Stuttgart will be a host of premier WTA players, including the (now) World No. 2 Angelique Kerber. Kerber has struggled to replicate her stunning form of last year that saw her win two grand slam titles and reach the World No. 1 ranking, and clay has not traditionally been her strongest surface – although she is defending a title in Stuttgart this week. Fed Cup has brought Kerber’s first clay court match play this year: a comfortable victory over Lesia Tsurenko will have boosted her confidence, although being followed by defeat to Elina Svitolina may have knocked some of the wind out of her sails. As the de facto number 1 in Serena’s absence, it will be interesting to see whether Kerber will finally be able to step into this role after her troubles so far this year. She is a proven champion, and the reset the switch in surface brings may be what is needed to kick start the German’s season.

Garbine Muguruza, last year’s winner at Roland Garros, is another big name in the Stuttgart draw. Despite her breakthrough title run in 2016 – and hugely impressive win over Serena Williams in the final – Muguruza does not actually have the clay court credentials one would expect, with her results on hard courts having been her strongest over the course of her career. Any player who has won the title in Paris will always be marked as a favourite in the clay court swing, and although she has also struggled with consistency in 2017, sitting only 13th in the WTA Road to Singapore rankings, Muguruza shouldn’t be underestimated in the coming months. A return to the clay courts which brought her the highlight of her career so far may be what she needs to pick up the trajectory she left off last June.

2017 has been plagued with inconsistency and injury for another big name on the clay courts on the WTA in recent years, the World No. 5 Simona Halep. Halep, a French Open finalist in 2015, has traditionally called clay courts her favoured surface, although this is perhaps less true in recent seasons as her hard court results have caught up. Halep did secure two straightforward victories this weekend, beating Great Britain’s Heather Watson and Jo Konta in Romania’s controversy-ridden Fed Cup victory over the British team. Given her history on clay, if Halep can find the consistency that has eluded her this season, she will likely be a major player this spring. This is a big “if”, however – Halep sits at a lowly 44 in the WTA Road to Singapore.

The difficulty of predicting the WTA clay court season is further compounded this year by the lack of clay court pedigree in the players who have driven the tour so far this season. On top of the Race sits Karolina Pliskova, the World No. 3 having won two titles on hard courts so far this year, and reaching the semi finals of both Indian Wells and Miami. The powerful flat hitting and big serve the Czech boasts do not traditionally translate well to clay, with these weapons being muted by the surface, and the 25 year old, not the strongest mover at the best of times, also struggles with the physical changes the surface brings, and so she is unlikely to make big waves.

Another dominant force on the tour so far this season is the unfancied Jo Konta, who won her career-best title in Miami. Not much can be said for Konta’s clay court history, who has come out of nowhere in recent years to surge up the rankings, and has never won a main draw match at Roland Garros – though she has only been in the main draw twice. In Fed Cup competition this weekend, she won well against the former top 20 player Sorana Cirstea, who is a fine clay courter, and in extremely adverse circumstances. She was however comfortably beaten by Simona Halep in the following rubber. How she will perform in the upcoming tournaments is much a mystery given the lack of evidence for her credentials on clay courts whilst a top player, but Konta has made her career out of springing surprises.

Sitting between Pliskova and Konta in the WTA Road to Singapore is former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki, who had the second half of her 2016 season truncated by injury, has been a consistent name in the late stages of draws this season, but has failed to translate this impressive form titles, falling in several finals. Clay court has not brought huge results historically for the Dane – her career-best at the French Open is a solitary quarter final in 2010, and she has failed to reach the final of a clay Premier Mandatory tournament. Given this history, and her problems in getting over the line so far in 2017, you can probably expect to see her making runs to quarters and semis, but without cementing herself as a title winner in the upcoming tournaments.

One player who can claim to have combined hot form this year with previous good form on clay is Elina Svitolina. The 22 year old sits outside the top 10 in the rankings, but is 6th in the race following a strong first quarter of the season. Svitolina won the Junior Roland Garros title at the age of 15, and the French Open has brought her only grand slam quarter final of her senior career, in 2015. Svitolina is one player who has been marked for a big grand slam breakthrough this season, and with Serena absent in the draw, a good lead up to the tournament could make the 2017 French Open the perfect opportunity. The Ukrainian fell to Julia Goerges in a shock defeat at Fed Cup this weekend, but then comfortably disposed of Angelique Kerber, a victory sure to fill her with confidence ahead of participation in Istanbul this week, where she is top seed.

Specialists and early movers

As the tour turns to the red clay,  the so-called ‘clay court specialists’ of the tour deserve some attention. Surface homogenisation in recent years means this is less a consideration than it was historically, but it would be remiss to ignore the potential of such players.

One such name is Carla Suarez Navarro – the Spaniard is a perennial name around the WTA top 10, often owing to her results on clay. The degree of her success on the surface is perhaps a tad overstated, however. She has reached only two French Open quarter finals, though this lack of success at majors pervades her career; she cannot really claim to have ever really made a truly deep run at any of the slams. You would expect the elegant Spaniard, with her game suited to and honed on clay courts, to be more of a force in this part of the year than she truly is.

Another player with historically strong results on clay, and who has thus become “one to watch” in the second quarter of the year is the Italian Sara Errani. Errani currently sits outside the top 100 in the rankings, however, and it seems unlikely she will reproduce the sort of form that saw her reach the 2012 French Open final this season. Her compatriot Francesca Schiavone had a stunning run to win the title in Bogota last week. The veteran is playing her last year on the tour this season, and with that title victory secured her entry into the French Open main draw, where she was champion in 2010. The likelihood of her replicating the form that brought her these titles throughout the next couple of months however, does seem low – with her title in Biel representing more of a ‘last hurrah’ than a true return to form. Sam Stosur is another whose stock rises on the clay courts – the Australian has a good history at Roland Garros, a former semi finalist, and is most at home on the dirt. In truth however, it is hard to claim any of these players as legitimate threats to the established top 10.

An early title winner on clay in the 2017 season is the 19 year old Daria Kasatkina, who won in Charleston. Not as much stock is set by results on the green clay of Charleston, which plays differently to the red European clay courts, but it is not a result which can be ignored – especially given the high hopes for the Russian teenager in the future, who currently sits just inside the top 30 in the rankings. Markéta Vondroušová is another teenager making waves, the 17 year old breaking through to lift the title in Biel last week. However, given her youth and inexperience, the future the 2017 clay swing seems too early for the future the young Czech has been marked for to materialise.

Anyone’s game?

Much seems unknown as we move to the second quarter of the 2017 season, particularly owing to the absence of Serena Williams, the return of Maria Sharapova, and the difficulty finding players who can boast of combining good form in 2017 with a strong clay court pedigree. Two other notable absences on the WTA Tour this season – in Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka – remove two other potential title winners from the equation, although the former in particular has never hugely excelled on the surface. Eight of the WTA top 10 are in action this week in Stuttgart (Keys and Serena being the two absentees), which also will feature the 2017 debut of Sharapova, and could be a good indicator of how the action will unfold on clay. A title there for any of these players would set them in good stead ahead of Madrid and Rome.

It does not seem unreasonable to predict that the 2017 French Open will see a new champion, depending on how players such as Muguruza and Sharapova perform in the coming weeks, and whether we even see the Russian at Roland Garros. Halep has been much mooted as a potential slam winner over the past few seasons, and despite her patchy form this year, this year’s Roland Garros seems as good a chance as any she’s had in recent times. The emergence of a new generation has shifted emphasis in terms of the names bandied around as first time major winners, of which Elina Svitolina seems best positioned going into the clay.

There will be ample opportunity for a player to step up and take the mantle of French Open favourite, and without the prospect of Serena looming, the player or players who emerges in this role can look forward to having a real run at the title in Paris.

Correction: Serena Williams won Roland Garros in 2015, not losing to Muguruza as incorrectly stated. Muguruza knocked Serena out in 2014 and 2016, not 2015 and 2016. Maria Sharapova defeated Simona Halep in the 2014 final, not 2015.

Maria Sharapova: wilderness and wildcards

This clay court season, Maria Sharapova will return from the tennis wilderness. A five-time Grand Slam champion, former World No. 1, and with an enormous off-court profile, she is one of the biggest stars of the game, but will not be welcomed back in the manner we have seen Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal return from injury this season, as hers is an exile steeped in controversy and fault.. Her 15 month suspension from the sport, after she was found to be taking the banned substance meldonium in January of 2016, is the biggest doping scandal to ever rock the sport.

Much has been said and written about this case – how the change to meldonium’s status on the banned substance list was communicated, where the culpability lies, and the fairness of Sharapova’s suspension (the length of which was reduced down from 2 years on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport from the Russian’s legal team). This controversy will follow Sharapova for the rest of her career, and it is a brush she will always be tarred with.

Never a popular character in the locker room – something she will admit to, and accepts that her own standoffish behaviour has cultivated – her return from the cold will be sure to be greeted by further frostiness. The consensus amongst her colleagues is condemnation, as one would reasonably expect for any athlete caught doping, although the comments made by some WTA players have gone beyond the sanitised disapproval that marks this era of media training and professionalism – the Frenchwoman Kiki Mladenovic openly branding Sharapova a “cheater”, and making it clear that she will snubbed in the locker room upon her return.

The latest facet to this controversy revolves specifically around this return – namely the decision of several tournaments, to award her wildcards. With over a year out of the game, Sharapova’s name has been removed from the ranking list entirely, meaning she would not be able to enter tournaments on the WTA Tour level without being granted entry through this means. Stuttgart – a tournament who shares a sponsor with Sharapova – were unsurprisingly the first to make this move, and she will play her first round match there on the 26th April, the first day she is eligible to compete as a tennis professional again. Stuttgart’s example has since been followed by Madrid and Rome, completing the clay court schedule that Sharapova has adhered to for the past several years in the lead up to the French Open.

So, for Sharapova on her return to the tour, it will very much be business as usual – and debate rages over whether this is appropriate for a player who has, in the bluntest terms used by Mladenovic, been caught cheating. It has been widely put forward that it is inherently unfair for a player who has compromised the integrity of the game, and the principles of fair play that underwrite every competitive sport, to be given a wildcard – the numbers of which are limited – in place of a player who has not fallen foul of such a crime. To many, it just does not seem right. A wildcard is generally seen as a reward – and to reward Sharapova in such a way is therefore to condone her behaviour. It’s amoral.

This discussion raises the question however, of who, or what, a wildcard is really for. The concept is one which allows tournaments to have free reign over who they grant entry to, rather than being beholden to ranking and entry requirements. Wildcards are awarded for all manner of reasons – sometimes they are won through knockout competitions amongst lower-ranked players, they can be traded between federations to secure their own players entry to overseas Grand Slams, are often granted to fading stars and former champions for last hurrahs at former hunting grounds, and an inside track for lower-ranked players at their home tournaments.

The primary use of wildcards, though – and one which generally underpins these other uses – is to give the tournaments a boost in attendance and publicity by filling their draw sheets with ‘big names’ who would be unable to compete otherwise, usually due to return from injury that has seen their ranking fall below the requirements. In essence, tournaments use wildcards to sell tickets – and whatever you may think about Maria Sharapova, it is undeniable that few in the sport can eclipse her ability in this domain.

So where again does morality tie into this? A wildcard is a shortcut – and the argument is that a proven doper shouldn’t be allowed to take shortcuts, especially at the expense of other players, who haven’t been caught cheating; these players are more deserving.

But what makes them more deserving? It could be argued that their clean records alone do so, but it where the morality lies on awarding players wildcards based on the sheer virtue of their nationality is less apparent. Wildcards can be a murky business – what made Novak Djokovic’s younger brother Marko, ranked No. 869 in the world, more deserving of a wildcard into the 2012 Dubai Tennis Championships over No. 104 Malek Jaziri? Wildcards are often dogged by similar nepotism, and decisions over them are frequently steeped more in monetary gain and commercialisation than fair play. Decisions over them are not made on entirely moral grounds, so it could be said that to deny Sharapova them based on a moral argument is flawed at its premise.

Another point in Sharapova’s defence would be that she has served her time – the 15 month suspension was her punishment, and to deny her wildcards that in other circumstances she would secure with ease is a further and unnecessary punishment. A further counter argument is that the success Sharapova has had in the sport, and the fans and therefore money that her star power has brought to the game, means she is deserving of wildcards on virtue of these achievements. Popular figures such as Sharapova help to grow the game – and it could be framed that she is being awarded wildcards based off of this merit, and that this is something she has earned that a sub-100 journeywoman player has not. It can be seen as a cold way to look at it, but money drives modern sport. In this guise, giving Sharapova wildcards is not approval of her doping, but rather recognition of the positive contribution she has brought to the game.

It emerged this week that the organisers of Roland Garros are yet to come to a decision over whether to grant Sharapova a wildcard. As a two-time champion, in any other circumstance this would be unquestionable. The majors, for obvious reasons, stand head and shoulders above regular tour-level events, and the prestige and respect they garner both within tennis and to the wider sporting world confer more scrutiny. Opinions vary, but it seems to be more acceptable for a tournament like Stuttgart to compromise on morality than it is for a Grand Slam; the four majors are the pillars of the sport, and they are what represent tennis to the majority of viewers, commentators, and consumers. So whilst Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid have been able to give Sharapova wildcards with little uproar, it is inevitable that the decision Roland Garros makes will lead to far more discussion, criticism, and controversy.

An increasingly sage spokesman for the sport, the World No. 1 Andy Murray probably summarised the situation best: for all of the moral wrangling, tournaments will do what benefits them the most. Ultimately, the wildcard system exists to give tournaments freedom to do this, this is the purpose they have long been used for, and are being used for in the case of Sharapova. How much morality does and should factor into this system, remains unclear, and the dubious nature of wildcards is not limited to this exceptional case.