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By Chris Oddo | Thursday April 12, 2018

With the Road to Roland Garros beginning on the red clay in Lugano this week, we figured it would be a good time to look at the prospects for the WTA Tour. Which players are primed to make a big impact on the terre battue this season? Can Serena Williams make strides towards reclaiming her dominance? Is this a make or break segment of the season for two-time Roland Garros champion Maria Sharapova?

Here’s five storylines we’ll be watching closely:

1. Serena’s next step

Serena Williams got a ton of information to process at Indian Wells and Miami, and the 23-time major champion has no doubt been spending quality time on court with her team mulling over her past, present and future. Sure, Williams is a mom now and that’s no doubt a distraction at times. But don’t think for a second that Williams isn’t itching to return to relevancy on tennis’ biggest stages this spring.

That will all start on the Road to Roland Garros. Maybe clay isn’t an ideal surface for Williams to make a run at her next major title, but it could be instrumental in forcing Williams to regain her fitness, shot tolerance and consistency—tools that will ultimately help her get that Slam-winning game back. It’s an interesting time for Williams, who is now married, with child, and nearing 37 years of age.

Time isn’t necessarily running out, but let’s just say that it’s pretty critical that Williams starts ramping up her game in the next few months, given the state of the WTA Tour, with all its depth and talent, and given that it will only become harder for her to dominate as she once has as she ages.

She comes into clay season with a 3-2 record and now is the time for her to start racking up a few wins and playing more than a few matches per week.

2. The race for No.1

Simona Halep has a boatload of points to defend from last clay season—semis in Stuttgart, title in Madrid, final in Rome, final at Roland Garros. Can the Romanian stay on top of the rankings through a difficult stretch of the year with all those points to defend? If not we could see a push from Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, a player with a shining clay pedigree and a Roland Garros title to her name. The Spaniard has nothing to defend at Stuttgart and Madrid, a semi in Rome and a round of 16 performance at Roland Garros.

She’s currently 2075 points behind Halep and could at the very least make a significant dent in that deficit ahead of grass-court season.

Caroline Wozniacki doesn’t have many points to defend either. The Dane only won two matches on clay before reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. It’s not her best surface but she’ll have chances to close on Halep.

3. Now or Never for Sharapova?

Maria Sharapova has only gone 21-10 since returning from her 15-month doping ban. We all knew it would take her some time to rebuild her ranking and rediscover her menacing game, but nearly a year after her comeback began there seem to be more questions than answers about her long-term potential.

And her ability to stay healthy.

Sharapova has had big difficulty getting and staying fit, and that has to a certain extent sabotaged her results. But to chalk up her failing as easily conquerable niggles would be premature. Perhaps Sharapova simply doesn't have the strength or stamina that it takes to win at the level she used to. Sometimes it's the smallest drop in physical form that relegates a once dominant athlete into the ranks of the also-rans. Has Sharapova dropped into this category, or does she simply need more time to train and get her bearings? Maybe, it's just been a run of bad luck.

It's not like she hasn't overcome injuries before, but these days it seems like every other week something recurs or--worse--something new pops up to knock her back off the tour.

Despite it all, there have been a few big wins. Sharapova’s title at Tianjin was a big step, as was her win over Simona Halep at the U.S. Open. But 2018 has been a big step back for the Russian. She was walloped by Angelique Kerber in the third round at the Australian Open and then dealt an eye-opening defeat at the hands of eventual champion Naomi Osaka at Indian Wells.

If Sharapova can get healthy she’ll have ample opportunity to find her missing mojo on the clay, a surface that has been extremely kind to her in recent years. She went 78-9 with 11 finals and two Roland Garros titles from 2011-2015. If there is a surface that might wake the sleeping giant in Sharapova, it’s red clay. But she’ll have to be in perfect health to get it done.

4. Can Halep get over the hump?

Simona Halep enters the clay season as the World No.1 and the Romanian has pretty much done everything in her career except win the big one. Could this he her time to shine? Clay has been to Halep over the course of her career—she’s a two-time Roland Garros finalist and she has gone 59-15 on the surface with eight finals and four titles to her name since 2014. Halep is going to get that elusive major title someday—she’s too excellent not to—so why not this year?


#tennis❤️ @dc10s pretty good right? 😜 😊👊🏼

A post shared by Simona Halep (@simonahalep) on

Having endured the heartbreak of squandering a set and break lead (and a 3-0 lead in the decider) in the French Open final last season, Halep can take comfort in the fact that it can’t get any worse. She’s been through the fire and came out the other side, and she’s still number one. If she can stay healthy, play relaxed and get a half-way decent draw in Paris, this could be the year.

5. Generation next?

The youth are coming but it’s a question of when. And how. And where. But one player we are extremely excited about following this spring is Russia’s Daria Kasatkina. The 20-year-old had a breakthrough at Indian Wells and she’s now No.14 in the world. Even better, she has a game that is well-suited for clay, with her variety, touch, athleticism and spin.

Can she take the next step this spring? It’s tough to say. The tennis world will be watching her closely, and there’s pressure that comes with that. But if Kasatkina finds her game there are big points on offer. Last season she lost her first-round matches at Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome before reaching the third-round at Roland Garros. Kasatkina should make her top 10 debut at some point during this clay season, and she’ll be one to watch all spring.

Speaking of young players, Jelena Ostapenko hasn’t even turned 21 yet and she’ll be defending her title at the French Open. How will the Latvian handle the pressure of returning to that magical city?

Naomi Osaka has barely been a .500 player on clay over the course of her career, but maybe this is the year that the Japanese powerhouse makes big strides on the red stuff. She’s improved her movement significantly, and like other powerful players that have become great clay-court players, has the racquet velocity to hit through the clay.


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