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Ubha: European Clay Court Preview

From the biggest names to 2014's breakthrough artists and ones to watch, who's looking good for this year's European clay court season? Ravi Ubha investigates it all for us on wtatennis.com...

Published April 21, 2014 12:12

This week's Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, which always boasts a stacked field, marks the start of the 2014 European clay court swing.

Serena Williams went unbeaten during this stretch last year, Maria Sharapova is now much more confident on clay and Li Na is no stranger to success, either, at the French Open.

Those three are among 10 players to watch on the dirt this season.

Of the Grand Slam champions...

Serena Williams: We already know Williams won't match her overall 2013 clay court season, since she lost her opener at the Family Circle Cup; last year her record in Charleston, Madrid and Rome was unblemished before Serena finally won a second title at Roland Garros. Williams said she was "just dead" after her defeat to Jana Cepelova in Charleston, so seeing how she starts in Madrid next month will be particularly interesting.

Here's some motivation for Serena, besides seeking an 18th major that would put the World No.1 in the company of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert: The French Open is the lone Grand Slam Williams hasn't won in back-to-back seasons.

Maria Sharapova: Don't look now, but Sharapova has slipped to ninth in the rankings. And she has a whole bunch of points to defend as the reigning champion in Stuttgart.

In Miami, Sharapova said she was still strengthening her troublesome right shoulder; having to hit more balls, given the surface, will be a significant test for the Russian.

But at least those "cow on ice" days are gone: Sharapova owns a 35-3 record on European clay the past two seasons.

Li Na: Aside from that little hiccup in Doha, Li won't be complaining about her post-Melbourne results. Any talk of Li being a one-Slam wonder have vanished, which should, presumably, allow the Chinese trailblazer to play more free.

Further, isn't it time for Li to string together a solid, consistent clay-court swing? Subtract Stuttgart, and Li went 2-3 last year. In 2012, she was ousted in the fourth round at the French Open - unable to handle the pressure of being the defending champion.

Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka likely won't be worried about results on the clay, her least productive surface. Instead, it's all about getting that foot healthy and being in a position to compete at full fitness - and she wasn't close to full fitness in her loss to Lauren Davis at Indian Wells.

Of the 2014 breakthrough artists...

Dominika Cibulkova: Prior to 2014, beating Top 10 players was nothing new for Cibulkova. But reaching a maiden Grand Slam final in Melbourne pushed her up the depth charts.

Going deep in Stuttgart may prove difficult, since Cibulkova opted to play in Kuala Lumpur - on a hardcourt - last week. The change of surface, not to mention jet lag, is sure to be a challenge.

Once, however, Cibulkova acclimatizes, switching from hard to clay shouldn't be an issue. The French Open is the only major Cibulkova has tallied two quarterfinals - even landing in the semis in 2009.

Simona Halep: Like Cibulkova, Halep achieved a first at the Australian Open. In the Romanian's case, it was appearing in a Grand Slam quarterfinal. And similar to Cibulkova, Halep knows how to move and construct points on clay.

Halep's first four finals came on clay, with the 22-year-old also featuring in the semifinals in Rome last year as a qualifier. Now her days of playing in qualifying are over.

Eugenie Bouchard: Bouchard, certainly, is more at home when she's on hardcourts. But the Canadian has made it known she doesn't mind playing on clay.

Her semifinal showing in Melbourne continuing to serve as a springboard, Bouchard outlasted Venus Williams in Charleston, upset seasoned clay courter Jelena Jankovic a round later and had the eventual champion, Andrea Petkovic, in trouble in the semis.

Bouchard's mindset, too, ensures that she lacks a defeatist attitude on clay.

And some others...

Andrea Petkovic: Petkovic, after all her injury troubles, was a popular winner in Charleston. "Not a single player on tour would not feel good for Andrea Petkovic" was how television analyst and coach Darren Cahill put it on Twitter. All three of her titles have come on clay.

As in the case of Cibulkova, just don't expect a lot from 'Petko' in Stuttgart: She's on Fed Cup duty this weekend, in Brisbane and on a hardcourt.

Alizé Cornet: Imagine how long Cornet's matches would be if she had to play best-of-five set encounters. Her latest marathon? Topping Camila Giorgi in three hours, 11 minutes in the final in Katowice.

While the in-form Cornet remains some distance away from her career-high in the rankings - No.11 in 2009 - the former French Open junior champ could make up ground in the coming months since she doesn't have many points to defend in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.

Caroline Garcia: Garcia's victory in Bogotá, twinned with Cornet's title in Poland, made it a French double. Not many wouldn't have been happy for Garcia, since she endured a 10-match losing streak that only concluded in late February.

A once highly touted junior, Garcia, you might remember, had Sharapova in deep trouble at the 2011 French Open.

~ Ravi Ubha (@raviubha) has written for ESPN.com, CNN.com, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is also a tennis broadcaster. He is based in London.

Topics: 2014, news
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