Connect with us

Tennis

Top five storylines on European clay: Swiatek’s dominance, Osaka’s return

Published

on

After a one-week break for national team callups, the Hologic WTA Tour heads to Europe for the start of the European clay swing. The eight-week swing begins in Germany and France before winding through Spain and Italy then returning to Paris for the second Grand Slam of the season. 

The European Clay Swing

  • April 15: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (WTA 500); Open Capfinances Rouen Metropole (WTA 250)
  • April 23: Mutua Madrid Open (WTA 1000)
  • May 7: Internazional BNL d’Italia (WTA 1000)
  • May 19: Internationaux de Strasbourg (WTA 250); Grand Prix Sar La Princesse Lalla Meryem (WTA 250)
  • May 26: Roland Garros (Grand Slam)

Here are the five pressing questions as the tour heads to the dirt:

Will Iga Swiatek rule the clay again?

We all know the drill: the tour moves to clay, everyone slides around for a bit, and in the end, Iga Swiatek is the Roland Garros champion. At least, that has been the story in three of the last three years. Has the terre battue shifted enough to change the result?

Once again, Swiatek got her season going during the Middle East swing and continued that momentum through North America. Her two losses over that stretch came to Anna Kalinskaya in Dubai and Ekaterina Alexandrova in Miami. 

Swiatek takes the Porsche for a spin after winning Stuttgart 2023

While there is no air of invincibility surrounding the World No.1 as she heads to her favorite surface, she’s still the only player to have won more than one WTA 1000 this season (Doha and Indian Wells). She’s locked in a three-way tie for most wins this season (22, along with Elena Rybakina and Danielle Collins) and has the best winning percentage on tour (92.0 percent). 

It’s folly to label Swiatek a clay-court specialist. After all, she’s won more titles on hard courts than clay at this point in her career. But the 22-year-old loves playing on the dirt. Her innate understanding of what she needs to do to maximize her game on clay means she’s just more comfortable in matches. And a comfortable Swiatek is a tough one to beat. She’s lost only three matches on clay over the past two years.

Can Danielle Collins stay hot?

If the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix had any available wild cards, Collins would be the obvious choice. How fun would it be to unleash the red-hot American on the elite field in Stuttgart and see what happens? 

As it is, we won’t see Collins again until the back-to-back WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome. No doubt she’ll be raring to go.

Collins will take a deserved break after running the table to sweep the southern double across Miami and Charleston. The retiring American has blown through 13 consecutive wins — she lost only two sets — to zoom into the Top 20 in the rankings. As she packs her bags for Europe, she sits at No.4 on the Race to the WTA Finals Leaderboard behind Swiatek, Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka. 

Can Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina continue their trend?

Clay might not be their favorite surface, but No.2 Sabalenka and No.4 Rybakina each handed Swiatek a loss on it last year. For Sabalenka, the win came with what could be considered her best-career performance on clay, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win in the Madrid final to capture her first clay-court title.

Rybakina picked up the torch two weeks later, outlasting Swiatek 2-6, 7-6, 2-2 before Swiatek retired with a leg injury in the Rome quarterfinals. Rybakina went on to win the title. It was Rybakina’s first title on clay as well. 

And both are proven threats at Roland Garros. Sabalenka was a point away from making the final last year, succumbing to Karolina Muchova in a dramatic semifinal. Rybakina made a quarterfinal in Paris in 2021. 

Champions Reel: How Aryna Sabalenka won Madrid 2023

Rybakina and Sabalenka are both on the brink of breaking Swiatek’s stronghold on the surface. That quest begins in one week in Stuttgart, where nine of the Top 10 are set to play. Sabalenka has made the final in the past two years.  

Will Naomi Osaka’s decision pay off? 

The former No.1 is back in the Top 200 after an encouraging pair of tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. But after a disappointing result against Caroline Garcia in the third round of Miami, Osaka told reporters that she wasn’t sure what her clay schedule would look like but she was keen to play as many tournaments as she could. 

So it was no surprise to see Osaka accept a wild card into the WTA 250 tournament in Rouen, France, which will be played the same week as Stuttgart. It’s an encouraging decision, one that would indicate that the four-time major champion is enjoying the competition and taking on the challenge of rebuilding her confidence from the ground up. Since winning her first major at the 2018 US Open, Osaka has played just two WTA 250 events. 

Will there be another surprise winner at the WTA 1000s?

Four WTA 1000 tournaments are in the books. Two were won by the World No.1. The other two? By players who no one saw coming: Jasmine Paolini in Dubai and Collins in Miami. 

With two more to play on the clay at the Mutua Madrid Open and Internazionali BNL d’Italia, will the pattern hold? Surprise winners have been few and far between in Madrid and Rome. The last time a non-Top 10 seed won Madrid? Petra Kvitova in 2011. As for Rome? Swiatek in 2021. You have to go back all the way to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez’s surprising win in 2010 to find another champion outside the Top 10. 

Continue Reading