Clay court questions — Must-click women’s tennis links

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, Apr. 25, 2023

Howdy and Happy Tennis Tuesday! The clay court season has commenced, but the two WTA 1000s of the surface — Mutua Madrid Open and Internazionali BNL d’Italia — are set to take over the calendar for the next month.

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With the calendar being barren two most important Roland Garros tournaments on the horizon, I figured I would offer three questions to keep an eye out on:

Is Iga going to be stopped?

Following her second consecutive Stuttgart title, the two-time Roland Garros champion seems to be in cruise control. In fact, this time of year is where the Pole peaks. Last year, she won Stuttgart, Rome and Paris, only dropping two sets in total. In another weird fact I find incredibly interesting, her Stuttgart quarterfinal win over Karolina Pliskova was her first three-set match of 2023. 50 shades of iconic to go nearly four months without seeing a final set, in my opinion. Red clay suits Swiatek’s game the best, specifically her movement. The way she glides around the court is perhaps her biggest weapon and her toolkit has more than just a Plan A. That being said, she’s not unbeatable. Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina are perhaps the two that could knock her out. If I were a betting man, Rybakina has a slight edge in odds considering the only times Sabalenka has gotten Swiatek have been at the last two WTA Finals. A healthy Ons Jabeur is due for a deep run in Paris, but her calf injury against Swiatek has knocked her out of defending Madrid. The list of players who can down the World No. 1 is small, but not empty. If you’re going to drop a Benjamin, put the whole bill on Swiatek to escape with another Grand Slam trophy.

Can a former slam champion make some noise?

Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka currently hold the four Grand Slam titles, but there’s a healthy list of players who have crossed the finish line. Petra Kvitova, Barbora Krejcikova, Victoria Azarenka, Jelena Ostapenko, Bianca Andreescu, Sloane Stephens and Emma Raducanu are all entered to play Paris. Simona Halep is the lone question mark as she awaits a ruling on her doping case, but don’t expect her to be playing. Krejcikova and Ostapenko have won Roland Garros before and Stephens was a few games from the 2018 title. Kvitova, Azarenka and Ostapenko can beat anyone on any day, but clay isn’t their best surface. I’d pick Kvitova to do the best out of those three. Of US Open champions Andreescu, Stephens and Raducanu? Might be biased because she’s a IX friend, but Stephens loves the red clay. The downfall is her ranking puts her unseeded and shafted in the draw. She showed what she can do with a quarterfinal showing in Paris last year, so she’s perhaps the one Slam champ that can go furthest out of anyone. It’s all dependent on the draw. Andreescu and Raducanu’s health are big question marks, especially given the ankle injury Andreescu sustained in Miami. Yes, red clay is easier on the body, but I’m not 100% convinced we’ll see the Canadian until the grass.

Who will surprise us?

If there’s one thing you can count from the clay season, it’s that a Cinderella story will be produced. Last year’s Roland Garros semifinal lineup was Swiatek, Daria Kasatkina, Martina Trevisan and Coco Gauff. Again, a lot of these names can go far with the right draw. Names that immediately come to mind that we can see deep in the second week? Zheng Qinwen, who made the fourth round last year and trains out of Spain. She’s a Chinese player with the toolbox and isn’t afraid of clay — or anyone, for that matter. Though she’s a Top 10 player, Maria Sakkari has only passed the fourth round of a Slam twice — both in 2021 at Roland Garros and the US Open. She was a point from the Roland Garros final against Krejcikova, which haunts her still to this day. She has the physical grit and game to exceed on the surface, but it’s all upstairs. One final name is Sorana Cirstea, who is playing some of her career-best tennis in 2023. The 33-year-old reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2009, but also is a two-time Madrid quarterfinalist. This year, she reached the Indian Wells quarterfinals and Miami semifinals back-to-back and although is ranked No. 41 in the rankings, she’s currently No. 18 in the 2023 Race.

Like always, take predictions with a grain of salt. There’s still a month until Roland Garros and anything can — and will — happen. On to links!

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Tweet(s) of the Week

Welcome back, Barbora Strycova!

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Joey Dillon