When the tennis season moves to the European clay for a grueling two-month stint each spring, the difficulties of playing on the crushed red stuff become apparent. Winning on clay takes patience, nuanced footwork and an elevated understanding of how to open up the court with angles. It also takes experience and an elite level of conditioning.
For WTA Rising Star Elina Svitolina, the transition to clay hasn't always been an easy one to make. Prior to 2015, she had never won more than half of her matches on clay, but the 20-year-old has turned in a 9-2 record on clay this year that includes a semifinal in Bogotá and a title in Marrakech.
"I've been practicing and trying to improve my footwork on the clay court," said Svitolina, who is currently the WTA's second-youngest Top 30 player, "because you need special preparation for this. I'm really happy that I could show that my hard work has paid off."
Thanks to her improved performance on the clay, Svitolina finds herself on the cusp of an important double milestone this week in Madrid. She is likely to reach the Top 20 for the first time in her career, and she's inching ever closer to becoming the highest-ranked player in Ukraine's history. It's something that the World No.21 admits has been on her mind.
"I've been thinking about it," the Odessa native told WTAtennis.com. "I started thinking when I was in the semifinal in Bogotá because the highest ranking in Ukraine has been 19 (Alona Bondarenko reached this ranking in 2008). It's really an amazing feeling for me that I can be higher than it."
Svitolina has needed time to mature on the clay, but when it comes to producing inspiring tennis in finals the hard-hitting baseliner has proven to be a fast learner. She's won all three of her WTA-level finals in straight sets, and dating back to her days on the ITF Circuit, she has won her last eight finals.
"I didn't really think about it," said Svitolina with a chuckle, "but someone told me that I won all my finals. Each final has been really special, and it's great that I could win them all."
Shining Bright: Joining Svitolina in the winner's circle last week was rising star Karolina Pliskova. The tall, cool Czech made her way through the draw at the inaugural J&T Banka Prague Open to win her first title of 2015 and fourth of her career. Pliskova now owns a WTA-leading 29 wins on the season and stands fourth in the Road To Singapore standings.
Pliskova also leads the tour in aces with a whopping 257, is second in first serve points won and fourth in service games won.
Also Rising: Pliskova wasn't the only rising Czech making noise last week in Prague. Katerina Siniakova reached her second career semifinal and nudged her ranking to a career-high No.66. The 18-year-old is the WTA's second-highest ranked teenager behind Belinda Bencic.
Speaking of Bencic, the World No.33 paired with Siniakova to claim the doubles title in Prague. It was Bencic's first WTA-level title, and the second for Siniakova.