The two biggest tennis tournaments of the year outside of the four majors are in the books. Most of the men are enjoying a week off from official tournament play. The women are already hard at work on the clay courts in Charleston, South Carolina. This is always a good time to take a look at the top storylines on both tours.
Uncertainty reigns supreme
Injured stars or just big names playing poorly have made many of the big tournaments a crapshoot over the last couple years. Indian Wells and Miami were no exception. Juan Martin Del Potro and Naomi Osaka took home the singles trophies in California. Americans John Isner and Sloane Stephens emerged victorious in Florida.
Del Potro is the only singles champion that is not a major surprise. He had his 15-match winning streak snapped in the semifinals of Miami. Osaka came into Indian Wells unseeded and ranked outside the top 40. She is an immensely talented young player, but no one saw this coming. The 20-year-old who represents Japan blasted her way through names like Maria Sharapova and former World No. 2 Agnieszka Radwańska, dropping just one set on her way to her first career title.
John Isner had just one official tour match win on the year prior to Miami. The window for winning prestigious titles looked to be closed for the big-serving 32-year-old. But something clicked and Isner rode his big serve all the way to what is by far his biggest tournament victory on Easter Sunday.
After winning last year’s US Open, Sloane Stephens went on an eight-match losing streak that did not end until late February. She had started to show signs of life again, but beating four Grand Slam champions on her way to the title in Miami was well beyond realistic expectations before the tournament began. This year’s United States spring swing further reinforced what anyone who follows tennis already knew. The only sure thing the sport has to offer at the moment is that nothing is a sure thing. Whether this is good or bad for the sport is another debate for another day.
Some stars have a long road back
Sharapova, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have been dominant forces atop women’s tennis for over 10 years now. However, all three of them are finding it very difficult to reclaim their turf after long absences.
Sharapova lost her Indian Wells opener to Osaka before withdrawing from Miami and splitting with her longtime coach. The 30-year-old has made it perfectly clear that she wants to keep playing and is training hard for the clay season. The problem is that it does not appear her body will allow her to play this game at a high level anymore. She was never considered durable even before her 15-month suspension. Her career is at a crossroads. It is hard to forecast any kind of future for the five-time Grand Slam champion.
New moms Williams and Azarenka also hit roadblocks on the American hard courts. Williams had difficult draws at both events, but this is a bottom-line sport. She won a grand total of two matches during the month of March. It is foolish to put anything past the younger Williams sister, but clay is by far the surface where she has been most vulnerable over the years. Knowing that we are entering that part of the calendar only adds to the sting of a disappointing March.
Despite winning multiple matches at both events in March, Azarenka was completely out of gas by the time she reached the Miami semis. Worse yet, she said after the match that her ongoing child custody battle may still dictate her upcoming playing schedule. Clay has also presented the most problems for the Belarusian over the years, but that is completely irrelevant if there is still question as to whether she is legally allowed to travel to Europe and play the tournaments leading into the French Open.
All three of these legends appear to have underestimated the difficulty of getting back to the top of the game. They all still seem to be dealing with their own very unique set of problems. Lastly, the emergence of young players like Osaka makes the climb back all the more difficult. The great ones don’t forget how to win. Thus, it is silly to write any one of them completely off, but reaching the peak of the sport again might be the toughest challenge that they have dealt with on the court in their storied careers.
Federer is human and the clay season is wide open
Roger Federer entered March as the top-ranked player in the world. He did not start April that way. The reigning Australian Open champion failed to convert match points in the Indian Wells final against Del Potro and followed that up by losing his opener in Miami to an Australian wild card. After that match, the 20-time major champion announced he will skip the entire clay season to preserve his body for the second straight year.
Rafael Nadal has won the French Open a staggering 10 times. He has proven to be virtually unbeatable on clay throughout his career, but has spent the vast majority of the last six months on the shelf due to injury. No one would be surprised if the Spaniard still dominates the second he steps foot on a clay court to play the first tournament of his French Open preparation. However, with question marks surrounding him, Federer out of the picture until mid-June’s grass court season and Novak Djokovic winless since reaching the round of 16 in Australia, the rest of the field has to feel like they have more of a chance to win big clay-court events this year, including the French Open.
The same can be said for the women. Williams and Sharapova were by far the best clay-court players in the world prior to their absences. At least one of them reached every French Open final from 2012-16, but their current issues are well documented.
Only time will tell if any man or woman can take advantage of the situation this clay season, but there is certainly opportunity on both sides.
Featured image from latimes.com
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