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Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Will Serena dominate on dirt again?

By Greg Garber

If anyone should complain about the power of clay to blunt her thunder-and-lightning game, it's Serena Williams.

But last year she was perfect on the dirt, winning titles at Charleston, Madrid, Rome and Paris. The record was 23-0, and her second French Open title came 11 years after the first.

Nothing we've seen so far in 2014 would suggest it will be much different this time around. The only premier mandatory event before Paris is in Madrid the first week of May. That's where you'll get your first definitive look at Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na. Most of the rest will be getting after it next week in Stuttgart.

Until then, here are our Up or Down observations:


Serena Williams: She was drained after Miami and promptly lost her first match in Charleston (to No. 78-ranked Jana Cepelova). But see above for Serena's recent résumé on clay. As long as the WTA's No. 1 has some big names in front of her, she's going to lift some titles in the coming weeks.


Li Na: The reigning Australian Open champion has a bit of a clay allergy; her spring clay record last year was 5-4. But ... Li is 21-3 this year and has already banked $3 million in prize money. More importantly, as the 2011 winner at Roland Garros, she knows how to win on this stuff.


Agnieszka Radwanska: The No. 3-ranked player grew up on the clay in Poland and is comfortable on the surface. She's off to a typically solid start, but last year she was 1-2 in pre-French Open clay events. That said, she reached the quarters in Paris, losing to Sara Errani.


Victoria Azarenka: She was a semifinalist a year ago in Paris, but throw out the history. Azarenka has played one match in nearly three months and has been struggling with a foot injury. We'll see how she looks in Madrid.


Ana Ivanovic: On the other hand, the No. 12-ranked Ivanovic has been playing well again, already collecting two titles this year, including her last tourney in Monterrey, Mexico. And don't forget, her one major moment came six years ago in Paris. But Ivanovic did not play particularly well at Indian Wells or Miami.


Sloane Stephens: The start of the clay season did not go well for world No. 17 Stephens, who lost her first matches in Charleston and Bogota. In the latter, she fell to No. 129-ranked Mariana Duque-Marino in straight sets. The good news? Last year, Stephens made the fourth round at the French Open and was 7-5 on clay.


Andrea Petkovic: After a series of injuries -- back, ankle, knee among them -- the eclectic German is back at No. 28 after winning the title at Charleston. This, up from her No. 177 ranking of last March. This year, Petko is 12-7 and beat two top-20 players in South Carolina. She has missed Paris four of the past six years, but made the quarters in 2011.


Venus Williams: For Venus and her well-documented autoimmune issues, it's a victory to string a few matches together. She's at No. 32, has a title this year (Dubai) and some other nice results. She seems poised to go deeper than her past two Paris appearances, when she won a total of one match.