STUTTGART, Germany & MARRAKECH, Morocco - The clay court season kicks back into full swing this week as the WTA stars hit Stuttgart and Marrakech for the next leg of the French Open lead-up.
Seven of the Top 10 players in the world are among those going for the Premier-level Porsche Tennis Grand Prix title in Stuttgart, and leading the field as the No.1 seed will be Maria Sharapova. The World No.2 has not only been extremely sharp so far this year - she has put together a 19-3 record on the season - but she was also exceptional on clay last year, putting together a 19-1 record on the surface. After a first round bye, she will open her campaign against either Lucie Safarova or Mona Barthel.
There's a very big threat at the other end of the draw, namely the No.2 seed, Li Na. Li, who was just named among the TIME 100 for 2013, not only has serious clay court credentials - she won the French Open two years ago - but she accounts for one of those three losses Sharapova has suffered this year (the other two are Serena Williams). Li will open against either Elena Vesnina or a qualifier.
Rounding out the Top 8 seeds are Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Nadia Petrova, with a few of them particularly dangerous on clay - Errani and Stosur are both former French Open finalists, while Kvitova and Petrova are former semifinalists.
Meanwhile, the Grand Prix SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem spends its first year in Marrakech, having previously been held in other Moroccan cities - Casablanca, Rabat and Fès. Headlining the field at the International event is World No.15 Dominika Cibulkova, a former French Open semifinalist who could actually have a very tough first match in Karolina Pliskova, who recently broke through to her first WTA title at Kuala Lumpur. The Czech rising star is 0-8 against Top 30 players, however.
Rounding out the Top 8 seeds are Sorana Cirstea, Alizé Cornet, Kaia Kanepi, Kiki Bertens, Francesca Schiavone, Kristina Mladenovic and Romina Oprandi. Some very heavy clay court credentials in that group as well - Schiavone is a former French Open champion, Cirstea and Kanepi have both been to the quarterfinals of the clay court major, and Bertens actually won this very title in Fès last year.
"The organization is really good here, especially given it's the first year of the tournament being here," Minella said. "It's not easy to have everything done in the first year but it looks like they already have a lot of experience. It's going really great so far and I'm excited to play here in Marrakech this week."
How is the clay at the venue? "It's really fast because of the heat drying it really fast, and because the high altitude makes the ball fly a bit more," she said. "It depends on each player, but I like that."
And on her confidence going into the tournament? "I try to be well prepared," she said. "I just do my practice and all my stuff I have to do the best I can every day, and I hope the results will follow."