By Bruce Jenkins
April 12, 2011

The mind searches for an image of Kim Clijsters on the dance floor. It comes easily.

Now she's gettin' crazy, a veritable whirlwind out there. Sure, it's a family wedding -- why not?

Then she tears up an ankle so badly, she'll be out at least six weeks.

That's a tough one.

As Clijsters shopped for crutches, you had a pretty accurate snapshot of the women's tour as it approaches the heart of the clay-court season. Venus Williams can't stop the torrent of injuries, Serena Williams will be lucky to play Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova is locked in a death struggle with her serve, and we're left with Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka as the only top-flight players with a measure of momentum.

Put it this way: As of this week's rankings, the No. 6 and 7 players are Samantha Stosur, who can't win a match to save her life, and Li Na, whose game has simply vanished since her inspiring run to the Australian Open final.

Not sure about you, but I'm counting on Francesca Schiavone to resurrect the tour's appeal in the coming weeks. Clay is her surface, and she made a permanent imprint on the public's consciousness with that stirring victory at last year's French Open. That's only a temporary fix, however. The real question is whether the public will warm to the prospect of Wozniacki-Azarenka matches with so much at stake.

It seems to be heading that way. Azarenka, as flighty as she's been in the past, began altering her on-court temperament last summer (with a win over Sharapova at Stanford) and put it all together -- the strokes, the serve, the nerve -- with her recent triumph at Key Biscayne. Wozniacki took the other prestigious hardcourt title, Indian Wells, and tour insiders were impressed by the fact that both players charged immediately into the clay-court picture, each winning titles over the weekend (Wozniacki in Charleston, Azarenka at Marabella). If you want to question Azarenka for choosing a lesser, low-budget tournament in Spain instead of the time-tested Family Circle Cup, go ahead, but it's hard to replace the confidence gained from two consecutive wins on tour.

Life couldn't be a whole lot better for Wozniacki, who is savoring that No. 1 ranking and frankly couldn't give a damn about the tour's fractured state. "One of her best characteristics is that she's so fit," said Jelena Jankovic after taking a straight-set loss in the semifinals. "She can run all day long. You feel like she can go for days. You don't expect her to get tired or winded. Sometimes you feel that she's everywhere on the court."

As for Clijsters, this is only the latest in a sequence of troubling news. She has essentially retired, in her mind, at least when it comes to the small stuff. She's only concerned with the majors and the 2012 London Olympics, and she'd just as soon pass on everything else. In a way, the injuries (including those she recently revealed to her shoulder and wrist) keep tour officials off her back; she doesn't have to explain why a certain tour stop doesn't spark her interest.

There reaches a point, though, where long layoffs become a problem. No one understands that better than Serena, who once drew severe criticism for her flightiness and incessant tournament withdrawls but is now a highly sympathetic figure, perhaps dealing with the end of her career. Clijsters can't expect to storm into the French Open at the top of her game if she can only resume practice the week before.

So I'll say it again: Go, Francesca. Shameless rooting from the press box. I've got everything but the T-shirt.

Assorted notes and observations:

• Interesting report from ubiquitous media maven Matt Cronin: "Wozniacki left the (Charleston) site almost right after the victory to catch a plane to Monte Carlo, where she will play an exhibition against Francesca Schiavone on Monday -- a strange occurrence given that champions are usually obligated to do at least a 10-minute post-match press conference. That the tour allowed Wozniacki to put the exhibition above its needs is just another indication that the star players continue to do what they want and when they want. Apparently the tournament had to beg Wozniacki to take a late entry once they knew that the Williamses wouldn't compete, so they were willing to accommodate her."

• Kei Nishikori really needed that title at the U.S. Clay Court tournament over the weekend. Ryan Sweeting is a terrific story, a 23-year-old, Bahamas-born Floridian who got into the event as a wild card and captured his first-ever ATP title, but Nishikori has become established as a future star, a man on the verge, and he had a 4-0 record against Sweeting going in. It had to be a disappointment to Nishikori, and part-time coach Brad Gilbert, that he took a 6-4, 7-6 loss on Sunday, especially with Nishikori gaining such worldwide support with his dedication (spiritually and financially) to the relief cause in Japan.

"It's hard to put all that aside and go play tennis," Gilbert said after the final. "But he's doing a good job with it. He's a really great kid, a pleasure to work with."

• The last time we saw Sam Querrey in that tournament, he was heroically dispatching the villainous Wayne Odesnik. Remember that scene? Odesnik had recently pleaded guilty to importing eight vials of human growth hormone into Australia at the beginning of the year. Nobody on tour wanted him anywhere near the sport ("There's just no room for him," said Mardy Fish), and there was massive support for Querrey to just blow him off the court. It didn't happen quite that way, but Querrey prevailed, at times revealing his utter disdain for Odesnik through body language and wry remarks.

I liked that version of Querrey. There was a lot of passion, a lot of game. He has been one of the most lackluster players in tennis since that time, losing to Sweeting -- in the first round, no less -- as he returned to Houston. Wander on, big Sam.

• Robin Soderling pulled out of Monte Carlo with a knee injury, and that's just not a big loss. The man is talented, but do you really drop everything to watch him play? An infinitely larger concern is the knee injury that took Novak Djokovic out of the tournament. I think we can all agree that the next Djokovic-Rafael Nadal match cannot come too soon. No player has ever won the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne and the French Open in a single calendar year, and Djokovic has a legitimate shot.

• The prospect watch: Good to see Milos Raonic pick up a win in Monaco, downing Michael Llodra 6-3, 0-6, 6-0 in the final. It appears he's refreshed after taking on a marathon schedule at the beginning of the year, and he adds an essential, big-power element to the tour.

The news wasn't so good in Monaco for Alexandr Dolgopolov, who lost in the first round to Ernests Gulbis. That just shouldn't happen. Cronin, in a comprehensive set of first-quarter grades for Fox Sports, issued only two F's: One to Stosur ("her problems are all mental now") and one to Gulbis, whom he claimed "doesn't compete that well," suffers from a "rich-kid's mentality," and is "spinning out of control."

• Hey, a big-serving titanic between John Isner and Ivo Karlovic in Houston! Awful! Couldn't be worse!

You could almost predict the scores: 7-6 in each of the three sets, neither man able to return or break serve to save his life. I can't even remember who won, because it doesn't matter. Two guys going nowhere. Has nothing to do with elite tennis.

• Andy Roddick looked curiously stylish as he visited Augusta National and donned the all-white threads of a Masters caddie. He worked the Par 3 Contest for Zach Johnson, and when he got a chance to hit a few shots, he revealed a perfect, effortless golf swing. Good stuff.

And the Masters in general? "There's definitely a Wimbledon parallel," Roddick said. "There's a pride with people just being in the venue."

• Thanks to the always-entertaining Greg Couch (Sporting News) for one of his classic busts on shrieking. Couch called it like it is, accusing Azarenka and Sharapova (among others) of "screaming on purpose to distract the opponent." He said such lamentable tactics "cross the line into out-and-out cheating" and "should be legislated against."

Also, this gem: "Tennis isn't likely to stop anything. It comes mostly on the women's side of the game. For one, it creates discussion. Also, it comes off as semi-pornographic to have fit, young women in short skirts grunting and screaming. That's a big part of what sells in women's tennis. Some players argue that they aren't doing it intentionally. They are lying."

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