April 7, 2011

A Change of Season

Here in New York we've been teased with signs of spring for several weeks, but there hasn't yet been a definitive shift to the brighter, warmer weather we in the Northeast have been longing for.

Similarly in tennis after a sprinkling of "Golden Swing" events on the Latin American clay, the real shift to dirt only officially took place this week -- and it could be time for some new players to take center stage. The winter hard court season was all about Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters, and Caroline Wozniacki. Notwithstanding Kim's injury-induced hiatus, I wouldn't expect any of them to completely disappear in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros, but they might not have the week-after-week success they've become accustomed to.

The men in Houston are helmed by new American #1 Mardy Fish, whose gutsy Davis Cup wins late last year proved that boys from the States do not always crumble on the dirt. Still third-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, one of my dark-horse favorites at last year's French Open, and Teymuraz Gabashvili, who shocked Andy Roddick in Paris, might be the bigger threats. And Pablo Cuevas, a six-time Challenger titleist on the surface, might be ready to make his own breakthrough on the main Tour.

There are even more specialists over in Casablanca, where the seeds have ten trophies and another twelve finals to their names. Albert Montanes, who beat players like Marin Cilic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Roger Federer on the surface, is hoping to go one better than his runner-up finish here in 2007. He hasn't had the best record this year, but on the courts which make him most comfortable, I expect that to change. And Fabio Fognini, whose French Open second round made my list of best matches of 2010, could easily turn around his year with a few more wins this week.

But if anyone is going to make a big statement in Morocco, it could be former top-ten Frenchman Gilles Simon, the champion here four years ago. He's been climbing his way back into the elite all year, winning a title in Sydney and taking Federer to five sets in the Australian Open second round. It's been a while since he's claimed a clay-court trophy, but with his game back on the right track this could be a good opportunity.

Over in Marbella the ladies draw is stacked with players who've seen most of their success on the dirt. French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and finalist Dinara Safina spent much of the 2009 season battling each other on this surface, and they very well could meet in the final again, but it might not be that easy. Alexandra Dulgheru has won her only two titles on the Warsaw clay and will be looking to branch out, while feisty Sara Errani has been known to cause some higher ranked players some trouble too.

But we might get a better idea of the real threats this season in Charleston where four top-ten players, including world #1 Wozniacki and Roland Garros runner-up Sam Stosur. Last year's champion at this tournament hasn't had a real deep run at any event in 2011, but now on the courts where she really hit her stride, I would expect her style of play to really shine.

Of course, with the clay court season really just getting started, there's plenty of time for some hopefuls to upend the status quo. But in the next few weeks, don't be surprised if we see a few new faces on the championship blocks -- after all, some previously latent talent is bound to wake up after the winter thaw.

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