Will Clijsters recover for clay season?


Novak Djokovic became just the fourth man in more than 20 years to win the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami in the same season. He did it with plenty of oomph, downing Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer a combined four times.

At next week's Monte Carlo Masters, the unofficial, and dazzling, clay-court curtain-raiser, the Serb is sure to match Ivan Lendl's 25 straight ATP victories to begin a campaign. He needs simply to win a round. Whether he can pull level with John McEnroe's 39, set in 1984, is the real question.

If Djokovic falls short, he'd happily settle for success at Roland Garros. Never before has a men's pro bagged the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami and the French Open in a single calendar year.

Kim Clijsters has outdone Djokovic in winning two straight Grand Slam titles, yet her U.S. road trip was, relatively speaking, disastrous. An ailing shoulder contributed to a pair of early defeats, with the Belgian also worried by any radiation that might have filtered to California in the aftermath of Japan's ravaging earthquake and tsunami.

Clijsters, atypically, brooded.

Here are five burning questions heading into the European clay-court swing:

Can the Djoker outdo Rafa -- again?

It was quite the sight Sunday, Djokovic beating Nadal at his own game. Undone by heat and fitness in the past, and on the biggest of stages, Djokovic this time outlasted the Spanish gladiator.

Nadal was tired, admitting as much afterwards. His serve and forehand didn't click. Djokovic found energy following a shaky start, and the final score didn't reflect his substantial superiority.

But clay is another animal; yes, there's a reason Nadal didn't lose on the sport's slowest surface last year, collecting a sixth straight Monte Carlo title and fifth French Open.

Nadal's heavy forehand, which failed to trouble Djokovic in Miami, becomes a bigger weapon, exploding off clay. While Djokovic moves better than the nine-time Grand Slam champion on hard courts, the same can't be said on dirt. And Djokovic won't get as many free points on serve.

Further, Nadal, as strange as it may seem at the moment, enters this clay-court spell with more momentum than in 2010.

Once Nadal works himself into optimal shape, losing over five sets is unlikely. When Djokovic almost took out Nadal in Madrid two years ago, it was a three-set affair, psychologically a different proposition.

Nadal isn't into revenge. However, you can bet he'd like to send a message to his buddy if they meet in Monte Carlo.

Where does Roger stand?

At this juncture, the thought of anyone but Nadal and Djokovic appearing in the French Open final is unfathomable.

Federer still has little difficulty dispatching the likes of Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer, going a combined 7-1 since Wimbledon. But the gap between the Swiss and the top two is stretching.

Federer, though, probably enters the French Open with as little pressure as ever, or at least since his dominant reign began. Never really playing the sort of aggressive game pundits have wanted on clay, perhaps Paul Annacone can lend his expertise in their first clay-court season together.

And who knows, Nadal and Djokovic could pummel each other, a la 2009, boosting Federer's chances in Paris.

Don't expect a hat trick of finals for Soderling at Roland Garros. Since the last French Open, he's no closer to seriously challenging Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.

Sure, injury and illness explained some of it, but his body language in Indian Wells and Miami wasn't good.

Will Kimmy brighten?

Upon exiting to the reinvigorated Victoria Azarenka in Miami, Clijsters told Belgian journalists she was drained -- physically and mentally. The fighting spirit and motivation were gone.

Would Clijsters recover in time for the Fed Cup semifinal against the Czech Republic on April 16? She was unsure.

Tuesday's announcement on her website ended speculation -- Clijsters was ruled out for a month with right shoulder and wrist injuries.

More and more, it appears this is Clijsters' last full season, and no one would be surprised if she calls it quits altogether at the end of 2011.

In the very short term, spending time at home with hubby and daughter should ease Clijsters' mind and benefit her body.

Even if Clijsters plays a solitary Roland Garros warm-up, she'd have to be the favorite or close to it -- assuming she's 100 percent. Well before winning three U.S. Opens, Clijsters reached a pair of French Open finals.

How will Woz hold up?

Caroline Wozniacki flew to New York after losing to the flamboyant -- off court, that is -- Andrea Petkovic in Miami, barely missing out on a meeting with President Obama. The Slam-less world No. 1 returned to Miami, then zipped off to Charleston to compete in this week's Family Circle Cup.

Why, oh, why did Wozniacki do that?

She, too, said she was exhausted following Key Biscayne. Wozniacki hopes for a better outcome this year than last, as an ankle injury sustained in South Carolina hampered her preparation for the French Open and Wimbledon.

Wozniacki is setting herself up for more physical woe, no matter if she's a tender 20. After a week off, the Dane plays in Germany. It's another week off, then Madrid, Rome and Brussels, leading straight into the French Open.

Hardly the recipe for peaking at a major. Even Rafa plays only four tourneys.

What's the prognosis for the two Andys?

Murray is slumping. Andy Roddick can't get healthy.

The Scot thus needs to garner some momentum leading into the grass-court season, and the U.S. No. 2 (yes, No. 2) wants to get fit in time for Wimbledon, since Roddick's best shot at winning a second major comes in southwest London.

Reaching the second week of the French would be plenty good enough for both.

Murray should have a coach in place by then. He continues to get linked with everyone who's anyone, including Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Darren Cahill (again), Roddick's coach, Larry Stefanki (again), Roger Rasheed and Bob Brett.