Players to watch as clay swing rolls on
If you can believe it, the French Open is a mere 17 days away. With two significant lead-up tournaments to go in Madrid and Rome, here's a look at six players whose tune-up work is worth watching for various reasons.
Li Na: It feels like the defending French Open champion has fallen off the face of the earth in 2012, but a closer look at her results shows that she hasn't actually had a bad loss this year. Notwithstanding a first-round retirement to Tsvetana Pironkova in Paris, Li has lost to Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Those are five respectable losses, right? Well, yes, she did have match points against Clijsters in Melbourne, and she had beaten Sharapova in their previous four meetings, but it's not like she's losing to journeywomen.
Li is capable of turning around her season on a dime, as she demonstrated last year. After the 2011 Australian Open, she dropped four straight matches before hitting the European clay, where she made the semifinals of both Madrid and Rome. She then went through Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, Sharapova and Francesca Schiavone on her way to winning Roland Garros.
Fail to produce in the next month, and she'll go tumbling out of the top 10. That would be a darn shame for a woman who is one of the best personalities on tour and the primary ambassador for tennis in China.
John Isner: This is the most anticipated clay-court season in recent memory for the Americans, and the 6-foot-9 Isner is the reason for much of the excitement. But enough with the talk and hype. Isner has proved this year that he can win big matches on European clay, knocking off Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup. Now it's time to put it all together and show he can play his attacking game consistently in clay tournaments before pundits can slot him as a real threat at Roland Garros. Understandably exhausted after flying to Monte Carlo and back to the United States in February for Davis Cup, Isner's sluggish performance in Houston wasn't entirely convincing. But after three weeks of rest and preparation, he should be fresh.
Ana Ivanovic: Somewhere along the line, the woman who burst onto the scene by making the finals of the 2007 French Open and came back a year later to win her first and only major title in 2008, forgot how to play on clay. She advanced to the Rome semifinals in 2010. But outside of that, since 2009 Ivanovic is 0-2 in Stuttgart, 0-2 in Madrid, 2-2 in Rome and 4-3 at Roland Garros. Some of that can obviously be attributed to her overall slump, but we're talking about losses to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Johanna Larsson and Yanina Wickmayer during last year's clay swing. Ivanovic is better than that. The Serb has shown signs of a resurgence this year, but her clay season stalled with a tight first-round loss to Mona Barthel in Stuttgart. If she really wants to prove she's back in the mix, Ivanovic needs a deep run in Madrid and/or Rome.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Jon Wertheim discussed the concept of awarding additional ranking points to players for "quality wins," a system Martina Navratilova has been advocating for some time now. I love the concept in theory. Why should a first-round upset of a top-10 player be worth the same as a routine win over a qualifier? Anyway, if you were to apply that system to Tsonga from, say, 2008-2011, I suspect he would have been ranked higher. It's also likely he'd be ranked lower in 2012 despite reaching a career-high No. 5.
It's been a quiet year for the Frenchman -- not a bad year necessarily, but an undoubtedly lackluster one. After starting with a title in Doha, Tsonga -- whose been playing without a coach -- has been flat. Back-to-back losses to Juan Martin del Potro (Marseille, Dubai) and losses to Kei Nishikori in Melbourne and David Nalbandian in Indian Wells that went the distance weren't bad on paper, but Tsonga is missing that energy and freedom that made him a fan favorite. As the top seed in Munich, he suffered a surprising 6-1, 6-4 loss to Tommy Haas on Wednesday. It's time for Tsonga to find a coach who can help simplify the game for him and free him up to play the dynamic style we've come to love.
Andy Murray: The Scot had his best year on clay in 2011, making the semifinals of Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros. His 2012 has been a step back. He lost in the quarterfinals of both Monte Carlo and Barcelona and now he's been forced to withdraw from Madrid with a bad back. Murray's two losses -- to Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic -- have highlighted the fact that while he's still struggling to introduce more offense into his game (namely with a more aggressive forehand), he remains vulnerable to big hitters and servers who have more time on clay to set up for their shots. It's entirely possible that skipping Madrid, even to rehab an injury, could be a blessing. He'll have some time to rest and train and he doesn't have to deal with playing in altitude (or the blue clay, for that matter). But the pressure will be on in Rome. He needs to string together some quality performances to be considered a threat in Paris. Francesca Schiavone: What was the more remarkable feat: Schiavone's winning Roland Garros in 2010 or following that up by making the finals in 2011? Don't answer that, it's a rhetorical question. My point is simply that we can't dismiss her 2011 run, which was impressive given the spotlight and pressure. Unfortunately, Schiavone has had a 2012 to forget. The Italian hasn't beaten a top-25 player since the Australian swing, going 3-9 in that span. What elevated Schiavone from mediocrity to the elite was her heart and joie de vivre. She seems to have lost that this year. Does the 31-year-old have it in her to make one more run? She has loads of points to defend on clay and it just doesn't look like she's as inspired as she was last year.