It’s time to get dirty.
After the hard courts of Australia, Indian Wells and Miami, the ATP and WTA tours now switch to clay for the next six weeks, building up to the French Open on May 22.
There are combined ATP/WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome as well as the ATP 1000 Monte-Carlo Masters on April 10, where Novak Djokovic is set to play just his second tournament of the year.
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But who is best placed to dominate on the clay this year?
WTA clay power rankings
It was on the clay in Paris in the autumn of 2020 that Swiatek made her big breakthrough. Less than two years later she is undisputedly the best player in the world after a stunning start to the season that has seen scoop three successive WTA 1000 titles and reel off 17 straight wins. And those were on hard courts, so how much more might she win on her favorite surface?
Swiatek only played three clay events last season, with the standout result her run to the Italian Open title, capped off by a remarkable 6-0 6-0 thrashing of Karolina Pliskova in the final. She also lost to Ashleigh Barty at the Madrid Open and saw her French Open defense ended in the quarter-finals by Maria Sakkari.
Swiatek has pulled out of this week’s Charleston Open but looks set to return to action at the Stuttgart Open on April 18, after playing for Poland in the Billie Jean King Cup.
With Barty out of the picture following her retirement it seems likely that Swiatek will not only be a strong favorite to win the French Open for a second time, but also to add a few more titles along the way. She is without question the one to beat.
It seems slightly crazy that this will only be Badosa’s second full clay season on the WTA Tour, but it would not be crazy to see her make some deep runs and challenge for silverware.
The 24-year-old showed her skill on the surface last year as she beat Barty in Charleston and then captured her first WTA title in Belgrade. She also made the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and suffered a tough three-set loss to Tamara Zidansek in the quarter-finals of the French Open.
Badosa has a chance of getting to world No.1 if she has a good clay swing and Swiatek is not as dominant as expected. With more experience behind her the Spaniard looks set for a big few months.
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Sakkari was so close to her first Grand Slam final at last year’s French Open, leading Barbora Krejcikova 5-3 in the third set and unable to convert a match point. Krejcikova rallied to win 7-5 4-6 9-7 and then beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final, while Sakkari was still stinging from her defeat.
“Today’s loss hurts a lot. I was so close, one point away. I would do things differently now, but it’s too late. I got stressed on the match point; I was passive. It’s a rookie mistake. I didn’t go for it.”
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A year on and it’s hard not to imagine that Sakkari would go for it. She’s now the world No.4, and has shown over the last 12 months that she can compete on the biggest stages. The only question marks against her are consistency – she has suffered some surprise early exits over the last year, including in the second round of the Miami Open after making the Indian Wells final – and lack of silverware – her only career title was in Rabat in 2019.
However, if she’s on her game she should be a factor on clay.
Krejcikova had enjoyed an encouraging start to 2022 with a run to the Sydney Classic final and Australian Open quarter-finals, but a shoulder injury kept her out of Indian Wells and the Miami Open. It feels like she is heading into the clay season slightly under the radar, even as world No.2 and defending singles and doubles French Open champion, but if she is fully fit she should not be written off.
Krejcikova was a surprise winner in Paris last year even though she entered the tournament in good form, having won her first career singles in Strasbourg in the lead-up. This time around she will be one of the leading contenders and if she can find her feet quickly might be one of the biggest rivals for Swiatek on the clay.
There are a few wild card contenders like Jelena Ostapenko and Naomi Osaka, but Halep could be the surest option if she can get fit and rediscover her encouraging form from the start of the year.
The two-time Grand Slam champion suffered a thigh injury during her semi-final loss to Swiatek at Indian Wells and did not play the Miami Open. She is also missing Charleston and the Billie Jean King Cup, but is hoping to return on the clay.
“I am keeping the confidence from my great start to the year and am motivated to do everything to be ready for the clay-court season,” she said.
Some of Halep’s best career results have been on clay, including winning the French Open in 2018, and she could challenge again this season.
ATP clay power rankings
With just three matches under his belt this season due to being unable to travel to events as he is unvaccinated against Covid-19, Djokovic might take some time to get going when he returns at the Monte-Carlo Masters, which has not been a hugely successful tournament for him in recent years. Last time out in Monte Carlo he was beaten in his second match by Dan Evans and he has not made it past the quarter-finals since 2015.
But while his form is unknown, Djokovic should be physically fresh and more determined than ever to win considering there is still some uncertainty over whether he will be able to play every tournament on the calendar.
For now it looks as though he will be active on clay, with the Serbia Open a sure thing and the Madrid Open and Italian Open also looking likely ahead of the defense of his title at the French Open.
Rafael Nadal’s injury-enforced absence means world No.1 Djokovic has to be top of the clay rankings for now.
It looks like he will miss at least the Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open, but may return for the Madrid Open on May 1.
If Nadal comes back in top shape and in the form he showed in the first few months of the season he should again be the man to beat on his favorite surface, but if he is still hindered at all by the injury then he might find it tough going.
A French Open rematch with Djokovic and a clay clash with Carlos Alcaraz would be two of the most highly-anticipated matches of the next two months.
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It’s easy to forget after the way the clay season ended for Tsitsipas last year that he was arguably the best player on the surface. He won titles in Monte Carlo and Lyon, and was a point away from completing the hat-trick in the Barcelona Open final against Nadal.
He was then two sets to love up against Djokovic in the French Open before the match slipped away from him. Tsitsipas’ form this year has been somewhat mixed; semi-finals of the Australian Open, final of the Rotterdam Open, semi-finals of the Mexican Open, but then early exits in Indian Wells and Miami.
If Tsitsipas can rediscover his 2021 clay form then he should be a favorite to go deep at most events he plays.
What a year already it has been for Alcaraz.
An 18-2 record, titles in Rio de Janeiro and Miami, big-name wins, up to No.11 in the world rankings, and the in-form player heading into the clay season.
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It’s still not certain how good Alcaraz will be on clay. He said after winning the Miami Open he is “comfortable on both” clay and hard courts, while his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero admitted he is “not sure” which surface will be Alcaraz’s best.
Alcaraz has shown promising signs on clay, winning his first career title on the dirt in Umag last year and also sweeping to the Rio Open title in February, beating top seed Matteo Berrettini and veteran Fabio Fognini in the same day due to rain delays.
It might still be a year too early for him to challenge for the biggest titles on clay, or he might continue to propel himself even further towards the top.
Much like Tsitsipas, it’s difficult to read where exactly Zverev is heading into the clay season. He has not backed up his ATP Finals win in 2021, losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open, second round of Indian Wells, and quarter-finals of the Miami Open.
Zverev has had some strong results on clay during his career and last year beat Dominic Thiem and Nadal on his way to winning the Madrid Open. He also pushed Tsitsipas close in five sets in the French Open semi-finals.
But is his mind fully focused right now? The disqualification from the Mexican Open for hitting the umpire’s chair with his racquet, which he called the “biggest mistake” of his life, was only a month ago, and the ATP have also recently contacted his ex-girlfriend Olga Sharypova after claims of abuse , which Zverev has always denied.
Zverev showed in Turin just a few months ago that he is one of the best in the world, but he needs to find a high-level consistency again over the clay season.
Casper Ruud is perhaps unfortunate to miss out on the top five after winning four titles on clay last season and winning the most matches (28) of any player on the surface. He’s also already won on clay in Buenos Aires this year, but he can elevate himself past the likes of Tsitsipas, Alcaraz and Zverev?
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