Old and new generations prepare to fight where patience and fight create legends and triumphs. Will the clay-court season offer a new French revolution? Will Halep finally seal her first major in Paris? Only time will tell.
Halep - One year ago, Simona Halep lived her personal, psychological, technical midnight in Paris. After midnight, as Eric Clapton sang, “we're gonna find out what it is all about. After midnight, we're gonna let it all hang down”. The world No.1 lost another Grand Slam final but she looked solid throughout the season, she's 19-3 at mid-April and reached 300 main draw career wins in Miami. In Melbourne she gave it all, she did her best. She fought her demons, her fears and beat them at their own game. Her ability to turn hardships into opportunities gave her the chance to win the third longest women’s singles match ever at Australian Open, after saving three match points and become the first player to save match points in multiple matches and reach a Grand Slam final.
On clay, she defended her title in Madrid in 2017, her third at Premier Mandatory level, and reached two more finals in Rome (l. Svitolina) and Roland Garros (l. Ostapenko). Variety and subtleties in her game seem to suit this surface, though on clay she gained just two of her eight top 5 wins, against Karolina Pliskova in Paris last year and against Radwanska in 2013 Rome
The third Romanian to break into the WTA Top 10 (after Ruzici, Spirlea), twice runner-up at Roland Garros, has the second highest percentage of return points won against second serves this year among players with more than 10 matches behind their shoulders at WTA level (61,1%), behind only surprising American Catherine Bellis.
This mature consistency, the patience in her game, the ability to create an exception to the rule of not giving an opponent a shot she likes to play, can come to her rescue. But to have a chance to win the long-awaited maiden major title, Halep needs to find enough self-assurance to maintain the type and level of aggressive tennis she showed in Melbourne. She needs to use more effectively the down-the-line forehand to take control and seal the points earlier to save energy for the expected battles during the final rounds.
Wozniacki – The Dane finished the 2017 season recording the most match victories overall, and against Top 10 or Top 5 opponents. She was ranked eighth in the inaugural list of the Most Powerful Women in International Sports by Forbes, a list that considered money, media presence, spheres of influence, and social impact on sport.
Her decision to add the Istanbul Open, where she won the title in 2014, to her schedule, preferring the commitment to the Turkish capital to Stuttgart, can be seen as an easier way to prepare the biggest events in Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Like Halep, also Wozniacki would need to be more proactive without sacrificing her usual consistency as she struggled to do at Indian Wells when she lost to Kasatkina, and Miami when Monica Puig completed a stunning comeback win. She complained that organizers slowed down the courts at BNP Paribas Open, that they reminded a little bit of clay with balls going slower and bouncing even higher. Against big hitters who go for the lines or all-court opponents able to change rhythm and pace, the defense could not be enough to shine.
Muguruza – On clay, an instinctive game is expected to pay less than a more reasonable and patient approach. However, Muguruza represents the golden exception to this rule. When she's on-court, it's all up to her and not to the surface. It shouldn't come as a surprise that her winning percentage on clay doesn't relevantly differ from her overall one. More significantly, her style doesn't differ. Serve, return and the first strokes in the rally remain the key factors in her game on clay. Also, her way of moving throughout the court seldom shows the usual adaptations on the slowest surface in modern tennis. No intense running far from the baseline, almost no sliding to approach the ball but the same stubborn will to create pace off the backhand side to outsmart her opponents and then hit with the court at her mercy.
“I’m excited to go back on clay courts because it’s my home surface,” she said in Monterrey. “I’m very motivated to keep up this level, to fight for No.1, for trophies, and having a top ranking. I’ll make my way, and that’s it.”
Ostapenko – Jelena Ostapenko, on the contrary, is the Top 10 player whose performances improve more clearly on clay. The Roland Garros champion wouldn't seem to fit the profile of the classical claycourt specialist as she hit flat groundstrokes from both sides and need to control the pace of the rally not to find herself under pressure. Her defensive skills, in fact, could improve as much as her consistency on serve. When she was attacked having the ball towards her body, Ostapenko tends to overhit, to lose control because her strokes remain flat and flashy from every position. The surprise effect that surely helped her to wreak havoc and complete a French revolution at Roland Garros last year is going to end. And she would need more variations, topspin and backspin backhands, drop-shots and spicy ways to build the point to maintain the expected level next summer.
Kasatkina – Claycourt season could make Daria Kasatkina prove herself. “I was using slices the whole week long and spin. I'm playing with the spin” she said after losing the Indian Wells final to Naomi Osaka, whose passionate all-or-nothin-at-all approach would need a couple of adjustments to turn the Japanese into a big contender in Madrid, Rome or Paris. The new Russian No.1 in Charleston “was able to go on court and forget” about results and pressures, but facing Osaka in the most important final in her career “was a different story. I think with experience with matches I will get it, especially just at the beginning of the season a little bit further. I think it will get better”. She won 75,6% of matches played on clay. Adding more confidence and the ability to rise to the occasion, she could complete the definite transition from good to great.
Honorable mentions – Elina Svitolina and Caroline Garcia can't be discarded easily from this group. The Ukrainian went 8-1 last year against Top 5 opponents and even held a match point before accepting the lone defeat in the French Open quarter-final defeat to Simona Halep. She won the seventh most return games and return points this season and this could give her a precious competitive edge. Caroline Garcia finally found relief and happiness on-court at Roland Garros last year and that quarter-final gave her motivations and drive to close her best season ever. New pressures await her coming back in Paris, her maturity will be heavily tested. Finally, the incoming summer is expected to answer the question every WTA fan is asking himself: will Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams shine again? Recent results left them more doubtful. It's now or never for them. Ready to rumble?