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Tennis

Key storylines to watch as top players embark on clay swing

There was a time, not so long ago, when the contrast in tennis surfaces amounted to the difference between quicksand and a bed of hot nails. The clay-court season represented a radical shift from American hard courts, and the onset of fast-track Wimbledon had the feel of a strangely different sport.

The demands of transition have become more subtle. Wimbledon play has slowed considerably over the past 10 years, due to an advanced strain of grass (100 percent rye) and heavier balls. The clay courts of Roland Garros have firmed up considerably, to the point where Brad Gilbert noted at last year's French Open that "people are playing through the court like it's a quick hard court." At Indian Wells and the recently concluded Miami tournament, players were unanimous in their observation that the courts played slower than ever.

Arguments rage back and forth as to whether such homogenization is progressive, but there's little doubt about the calendar's next phase: It's the most romantic time of year. With the clay-court season upon us, Rafael Nadal's reported schedule reads: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Paris, all in the glory of spring.

It's not as if that much has changed. Set against the backdrop of these fine European locales, clay-court tennis still offers a singular swirl of aesthetics, grind-it-out tennis and panache, images lingering of Nadal, Francesca Schiavone, Gustavo Kuerten and so many others on the victory stand, fashioning the stains of red clay on a once-immaculate outfit.

A look ahead at some of the key players:

Nadal: It's time for him to get off the couch, literally (after resting his sore left knee) and figuratively (he may as well be on the psychiatrist's couch, in light of his candid and introspective comments of late). There's a mood of self-pity surrounding Nadal, a malaise he seems more than willing to generate, and it hardly becomes the man who ranks alongside Bjorn Borg with the greatest clay-court players in history. Still, I won't count out Nadal until he has officially retired "to go fishing in the sea," as he says. The European settings couldn't be more perfect for a career resurgence.

Ryan Harrison: Given that this weekend's Davis Cup play will be on clay, against France in Monte Carlo, the season starts early for the young American -- and what a chance to embellish his reputation. Harrison is the perfect choice to replace the fatigued Mardy Fish, given that he's more trustworthy than Sam Querrey or Donald Young and more primed for the challenge than Andy Roddick, who has had his Davis Cup time -- he'll go down with the all-time greats -- and has graciously stepped aside with a nod to the future.

Maria Sharapova: Mary Carillo made an interesting remark on the CBS telecast of the Miami final, saying, "I actually think Sharapova is moving better now than ... perhaps ever." That certainly appeared to be the case as she ran down some of Agnieszka Radwanska's artful drop shots, racing to the net to keep the points in play. The problem isn't her fitness or her right shoulder, which she happily reveals is 100 percent problem-free, but rather her mindless brand of attack. It's a powerful sight when she's "zoning," but Sharapova has no sense of pace, variety, patience or tactical adjustment. Radwanska, with a quiet and thoughtful game Venus Williams described as "nothing special," completely dismantled Sharapova. Her vulnerability will be a recurring issue on clay.

Venus Williams: It might be more about Wimbledon for Venus, based on her glorious history at the All England Club, and although she hates to hear it, questions remain about her stamina. After a sensational run through the early rounds of Miami, including difficult three-set wins over Aleksandra Wozniak and Ana Ivanovic, Williams was spent and flat-footed in her 6-4, 6-1 loss to Radwanska, at times barely making an effort. When a reporter connected that match with the disease (Sjogren's syndrome) she continues to fight, Venus was not happy. "I don't have a conditioning problem -- let's definitely get that straight," she said, sternly. "I'm always fit."

Serena Williams: If you have even the first clue what she'll do, at any time, feel free to fill this space. I wouldn't even hazard a guess.

Victoria Azarenka: As the shrieking issue simmers on -- ideally leading to concrete resolution -- both Azarenka and the WTA need to keep something in mind: People are in no great hurry to watch her play. Azarenka played before several sparse crowds at Indian Wells, and as she took the court with a 26-match win streak in Miami, there appeared to be about 70 people in the stands (it never got close to capacity during her loss to Marion Bartoli). Miami officials reported "record attendance" over the course of two weeks, but the world's No. 1 player was not a big attraction.

Novak Djokovic: The great ones don't let up, for any reason, and there hasn't been a hint of drop-off in Djokovic's fitness or motivation this year. So now it begins: the countdown to the French Open, where Djokovic took a disheartening semifinal loss to Roger Federer last year -- and proceeded to dominate the next three majors. Should he win the French, Djokovic will be the first man to hold all four major trophies simultaneously since Rod Laver's epic calendar Grand Slam in 1969. And however the draw shakes out, Djokovic must play Nadal at Roland Garros. Right time, right place, and all sorts of history on the line.

Caroline Wozniacki: Her fans rode a rollercoaster of emotion in Miami. First, there was the depressing news that, with so few writers or television crews interested, her post-match interviews had been relegated to a smaller room -- generally the province of juniors or complete unknowns. Then she knocked off Serena Williams, the win of her life, Serena graciously saying that Wozniacki "definitely served the best she's served in her career." But then came the unfortunate dismissal at the hands of Sharapova, and Wozniacki's ill-timed criticism of chair umpire Kader Nouni. Now comes the season in which defensive tennis is at a premium, and there are rewards for a point well constructed. No bets from this corner, but give Wozniacki a fighting chance to score her first major.

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