The hard times are over, tennis fans, now it’s time to get dirty. Yes, the clay court season is here.

Hologic WTA Tour players will be transitioning to longer wash cycles with more laundry detergent as the 10-week schedule unfolds. There are two WTA 1000 events (Madrid, Rome), three 500s (Charleston, Stuttgart, Strasbourg) and three 250s (Bogota, Rouen, Rabat) — all leading up to the fortnight at Roland Garros. There are also 10 WTA 125s, two of which have already been completed in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and Antalya, Turkey.

The Credit One Charleston Open begins play Monday with 10 Top 20 players in the draw, including No.5 Jessica Pegula, No.6 Ons Jabeur and No.9 Maria Sakkari.

For players raised on hard courts, clay can be a slippery slope — with an extended learning curve. But if you were raised on it, as World No.1 Iga Swiatek was, there’s no better stage to play on.

“This was my favorite surface,” Swiatek said at Indian Wells. “I was raised on it, played in summer on clay, in winter on clay. I wouldn’t say there was any learning process because that was my game style.

“It was always pretty natural for me.”

Some compelling storylines as the clay season commences:

Will Swiatek land the Quad?

Growing up in Poland, her unabashed hero was Rafael Nadal. Swiatek’s fabulous topspin forehand, although it comes from the other side, is similarly lethal. And now her record at Roland Garros is going in the same direction.

Nadal, of course, has won 14 French Open titles, a mark that may never be broken. But a week after her 23rd birthday, Swiatek could already have four in the bag. She won there in 2020, 2022 and 2023. Maria Sakkari’s 6-4, 6-4 victory in the 2021 quarterfinals might be the only thing standing in the way of a five-peat.

Swiatek has won 25 of her past 26 matches at Roland Garros, and there’s nothing to suggest she won’t win her third straight in Paris. And there’s a bonus this year, for the Olympic tennis tournament will be played there. Her 19 wins on clay in 2023 were five more than second-placed Aryna Sabalenka.

Can Rybakina continue her surge?

Elena Rybakina has a penchant for fast starts. The Miami final was her fourth at a WTA event in the first three months of the season — and she did it in 2020 as well.  Since the turn of the century, only two other players, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, managed that.

Road to the Final: Rybakina makes back-to-back finals in Miami

Rybakina’s biggest titles have come early — the 2022 Australian Open and 2023 Indian Wells — but it’s easy to forget she’s more than just OK on clay. Rybakina’s one of the biggest hitters on tour, and yet she’s developed the patience to succeed on the dirt. Last year, she won nine of 11 matches (.818).

She swept to the title in Rome, defeating Swiatek in a taut quarterfinal that ended when Swiatek retired. Strangely, half of Rybakina’s six wins ended that way. She’s a tidy 9-4 at Roland Garros.

Is this Ostapenko’s year in Paris?

She was a freshly minted 20-year-old when she tore through the field at Roland Garros, defeating Simona Halep in the 2017 final.

Since then, Jelena Ostapenko has a 4-6 record in Paris.

Early returns have her back in the Top 10 and a multiple winner, grabbing titles in Adelaide and Linz. She’s 17-6 for the year, losing to a red-hot Anna Kalinskaya in the third round at Miami.

Ostapenko, now 26, is a famously streaky player with aggressive tendencies. She’s hoping to navigate her way through seven matches in Paris.

Can Jabeur rediscover the magic?

A year ago, she won all five matches in Charleston, defeating Belinda Bencic in the final. She was a semifinalist in Stuttgart and reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Only three players won more matches in 2023 on clay than Ons Jabeur,

No one is probably looking forward to a return to clay than Jabeur.

‘Only Ons can do that’: Jabeur’s clutch tweener in Charleston final

She’s the tour’s No.6-ranked player but she’s struggled in 2024. Her past three tournaments — Doha, Indian Wells and Miami — have produced one-and-done results. Most recently, Jabeur lost to Elina Avanesyan in three sets.

The nagging knee injury has been a factor, but clay is much easier on those strained ligaments.

Did you know?

  • That Julia Grabher, the No.1 player from Austria and last year’s Rabat runner-up, was tied for the fourth most wins on clay last year (11)? Or that she hit 457 winners, second only to Sabalenka’s 491? Grabher returned last week from a seven-month layoff due to a wrist injury in Antalya, losing in the first round to Noma Noha Akugue.
  • That Alycia Parks was fourth in aces on clay a year ago with 65 — behind only Zheng Qinwen (81), Rybakina (68) and Sabalenka (67)?
  • That Maria Timofeeva (5-1, .833) and Noma Noha Akugue (4-1, .800) had among the best winning percentages on clay?
  • That Paula Badosa was tied with Swiatek for most Top 10 wins on clay (3), followed by Veronika Kudermetova, Beatriz Haddad Maia, Karolina Muchova, Sabalenka and Anastasia Potapova, with two each?

Bonus Charleston storylines

  • A year ago, hometown star-to-be Emma Navarro was ranked No.118 — and, playing with a wild card, lost her first match to Madison Keys. This year, Navarro comes in at No.20 and is the No.10 seed. Based on seeds, she would play Keys in the third round.
  • Two Miami semifinalists, Victoria Azarenka and Ekaterina Alexandrova, could meet in the third round. Miami quarterfinalist Jessica Pegula could play the winner in the quarterfinals.
  • Wild cards include former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, Haddad Maia, Wimbledon junior champion Clervie Ngounoue and Charleston’s Shelby Rogers.

Source: https://www.wtatennis.com/news/3948647/our-top-clay-court-storylines-jabeur-s-quest-swiatek-s-dream-run-more

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