April 10, 2011

Adding to, or Starting, the Trophy Case

There are a select few players who really thrive on clay -- champions like Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin have the ability to intimidate their opponents on the surface, but when they're out of the picture anything really can happen. And as we kick off the 2011 clay court season it was both some relative veterans and a few brand new names that made the first statements.

As the youngest of this week's victors, it's a little strange to think of Caroline Wozniacki as the most accomplished of the four. But ranked #1 in the world and already owning fourteen career singles titles before arriving in Charleston, that's exactly what she is. The twenty-year-old Dane didn't play the best tennis during the week, but she'd done what she needed to make her fourth final of the year, surviving scares from Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Yanina Wickmayer on the way. But she was able to raise her game on Sunday against Russian Elena Vesnina, firing off six aces and denying her opponent on all four break opportunities. After about ninety minutes, she was the one lifting the trophy, her third of the year.

On the European courts it was Caro's good friend Victoria Azarenka who prevailed. Fresh off her second title run in Miami, the top seed in Marbella began her clay court campaign in impressive style. She only dropped serve three times in her first four matches, reaching her first final on the surface since 2006. Against qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu in the championship match, she was able to take advantage of her challenger's inexperience. Though her service games were a little more spotty, Vika only allowed the Romanian -- who, over the week, had out-toughed players like Klara Zakopalova and '09 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova -- to hold serve once during the match, and with the scoreline decisively in her favor, the Belarusian won her first ever title on the dirt.

While the ladies were adding to their trophy collections this weekend, the men were just out to capture that maiden title. The Casablanca final boasted two players who'd lost all four of the finals they'd played before -- Potito Starace, the fifth seed, took on world #69 Pablo Andujar, who'd beaten Jeremy Chardy and tournament favorite Albert Montanes on the way to the championship. The Italian had won both of the pair's two prior matches, most recently on the Santiago clay this year, and though Starace had pulled off a few comebacks this week, Andujar proved to be too much for him today. The twenty-five year old won more than eighty percent of his first serve points and stayed aggressive on return to get the win and put his clay court season on the right track.

And in another case of first-time victory, we saw American Ryan Sweeting make good on a wildcard entry in Houston to claim his premier Tour trophy. After taking out second seed, and last-year's runner up, Sam Querrey in the second round, he'd been impressive against a tough Teymuraz Gabashvili and outlasted big-serving Ivo Karlovic to make his first final. On the top half of the draw, a resurrected Kei Nishikori backed up a win over U.S. #1 Mardy Fish in the quarters by taking out clay-court specialist Pablo Cuevas in the semis. But Sweeting was solid on Sunday, holding strong after losing a break lead in the second set and ultimately earning the victory, 7-3 in the tiebreak. If nothing else, it's encouraging to see an American win on this surface again.

With just a few weeks left before the French Open, we've started setting the stage for what's to come. Of course we've come to know that almost nothing is certain on the red clay of Paris, but all four of this weekend's champions have certainly gotten off on the right foot. And whether their success came from experience or beginner's luck, if it continues we might have some new favorites to talk about at Roland Garros.

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