- Kamakshi Tandon
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Who are the hottest players heading into the French Open? We take a look at which players have earned the most ranking points during the clay season so far, and find both some expected and unexpected names.
It's no surprise to see Rafael Nadal far ahead of everyone in terms of ranking points earned on clay this season -- with wins in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. With two victories over last year's nemesis, Novak Djokovic, in the process, the King of Clay has resumed his dominance. His only loss during this period was on Madrid's now-infamous blue clay, and that, as far as Nadal is concerned, was "not clay."
But look who's No. 2: Not Djokovic, not Federer -- but David Ferrer. That's partly because Ferrer has played more clay events than either of them, but also because he has maintained a consistently high level since an early loss in Monte Carlo, where he was injured. Only Federer or Nadal has been able to stop him, and he has played well enough to really threaten Nadal in both Barcelona and the first set in Rome, but just faltered a little against his good friend and fellow Spaniard.
Like Nadal, Djokovic lost unexpectedly early in Madrid but reached the final in Monte Carlo and Rome, losing to Nadal both times. But after starting to find some good form in Rome, he expects to arrive at the French Open in "top form." Federer is down at No. 4 despite his title win in Madrid and semifinal in Rome, but that's because those were the only two clay events he played.
And right up behind those guys is Tomas Berdych, who hasn't lost to anyone except Djokovic, Nadal or Federer on clay this year. On what should be his weakest surface, Berdych is expected to be a threat to the top guys in Paris. Gilles Simon at No. 6 is a bit of a surprise, but the Frenchman quietly has been posting good results, reaching the semifinals in Monte Carlo and winning Bucharest.
Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Monaco, two Argentines who have struggled with wrist injuries, both look to be coming back into form, with del Potro in particular looming as an outside contender for the French. Andreas Seppi is also up significantly after his heroics in Rome, where he thrilled the local crowds by getting to the quarterfinals. He isn't expected to repeat the feat farther away from home in Paris.
Two big names way down are Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who haven't been able to find their momentum on clay so far this season. But with their talent, and the home-crowd support for Tsonga, don't count them out of being able to make a run at the French anyway.
Few would have predicted that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova would dominate the clay season heading into the French Open, but that's exactly what's happened as the two have split the four biggest WTA titles between them. Williams won on green clay in Charleston and blue clay in Madrid, while Sharapova won on indoor red clay in Stuttgart and outdoors in Rome.
Last year's French Open champ, Li Na, is No. 4, picking up her play just in time for her title defense by reaching the final in Rome, where she was barely edged out by Sharapova in a rain-affected match.
Most of the top women, however, are lagging, starting with world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. After scooping up everything in her path to start the season, Azarenka has been good but not great on clay, reaching finals in Stuttgart and Madrid before withdrawing in Rome with a shoulder injury. Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova have also had indifferent results, and both had to deal with injuries in Rome last week. Even Samantha Stosur hasn't made an impact during a time of year when her game is particularly effective.
Don't see recent No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki? That's because she's at No. 21, and seemingly in a free fall.
Their places have been taken largely by a host of veterans, starting with Sara Errani, who has been doing well at the small events. Then there's Lucie Safarova, Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova and Kaia Kanepi, all with talent and experience on the clay. A couple of newer names, like Angelique Kerber, last year's Stuttgart winner Julia Goerges and Petra Cetkowska, also have been posting good results. Kerber, in particular, has had a stellar nine months, and just entered the top 10. Any of the rest of the lower-ranked players could be dangerous first-week opponents for the big names, none of whom are particularly comfortable on clay even when winning on it.
There are some things in life that require little explanation. Yes, Rafael Nadal leads our latest clay rankings.