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Ordinarily, this blog post would be about the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, as that event had more heft than the WTA event in Charleston. But I worked the Rafael Nadal territory pretty fully last week, and just as expected, he demonstrated that on clay, he's money.
The result of the Family Circle Cup was improbable as well as far more intriguing. Slammin' Sammy Stosur whipped Vera Zvonareva in Charleston about as comprehensively as Nadal shanghaied Fernando Verdasco in Monaco. But predicting a Nadal-Verdasco final in Monte Carlo had a "Duh!" quality, while anyone who would have predicted that Charleston would wind up with Stosur and Zvonareva battling for the title could have been said to have a screw loose.
Let's start with this: The Family Circle Cup is a clay-court event, and although green U.S. clay (aka Har-Tru) is certainly faster than the red dirt of Monte Carlo or Paris, it's still clay. And the two women who played the Charleston final -- unlike the men in Monte Carlo -- could hardly be called clay-court experts. In fact, they both have a healthy, habitual desire to attack.
A cynic could put the result down to the mess that is the WTA -- the theory being that none of the very top players was in Charleston, and even if they were, you couldn't count on them to get the job done. So what? The significant thing is that in the WTA we seem to have a bizarre confluence of factors that make the game less predictable than ever before.
If you want to see the glass half-full, you put it down to the increasing depth on the WTA Tour; if you want to see it half-empty, you put it down to a combination of indifference among the top players and basic inconsistency (or is it incompetence?) among the hoi polloi.
Take your pick, but this fact towers above all the rest of it: The WTA seems to be producing more and more versatile players who can't be pigeonholed by surface preference and who play a satisfying brand of all-court and even attacking tennis.
Zvonareva, head case though she may be, has an almost Federer-esque willingness to hit whatever shot her mood calls for. And Stosur, despite some conspicuous limitations (such as a disturbing tendency to drill ordinary rally balls into the back fence), has learned to manage her shortcomings and become something that may be nearly impossible to aspire to in today's men's game: a careful, methodical, attacking player. In a way, she's the Mardy Fish of the WTA.
At the outset of Charleston, the tournament could be said to have been Caroline Wozniacki's to lose -- even if it wasn't quite as definitively as Monte Carlo seemed to belong to Nadal. And although the Woz had to default to Zvonareva in the semifinals (with an ankle injury), she was trailing 2-4 at the time and, perhaps significantly, suffered her injury trying to chase down an artful Zvonareva drop shot.
If you want to read into it, here's the text: Great defense (classic clay-court consistency if you prefer) was by no means guaranteed to earn Wozniacki a W. Those of you who remember how a host of successive champions, starting with the Nadal-esque Chris Evert, once dominated on clay by virtue of sheer consistency and mental toughness will understand what I mean when I say this isn't your mother's clay-court tennis anymore.
Maybe it's just an accident of history or a generational seam, but the result in Charleston supports the idea that stylistic diversity is the buzzword when it comes to the WTA these days. Think about it for a moment: Clay is, if anything, the Achilles' heel of Venus and Serena Williams as well as Maria Sharapova. Kim Clijsters is better on hard courts than clay. Justine Henin is still best on clay, but even she is a bit of an anomaly. You wouldn't call her a classic dirt-baller in any way, shape or form.
If the term "clay-court expert" (we should say "specialist" only about players whose results on clay are far and away better than on any other surface) is usually code for consistent, mentally tough, patient and, well, boring (to some), we no longer have clay-court experts on the WTA Tour.
In some ways, that's as welcome as it is startling.