Will Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal Be Ready for the Clay-Court Season?

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The main clay-court season is officially underway, and this time around it is particularly unclear how the dust might settle.

If Rafael Nadal is truly healthy after aggravating a right knee injury three weeks ago — he has been training at home to prepare for the Monte Carlo Open — he remains the man to beat on the game’s grittiest surface. No one else has won 11 French Open singles titles, and the rational assumption is that no one else ever will.

But the women’s game is in a wondrous state of flux, with 14 different champions in the season’s first 14 tournaments. And none of them was named Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep.

“It’s by far the most wide-open field as far as I can remember,” Chris Evert, the former No. 1 and a seven-time French Open champion, said in an interview Tuesday. “No one seems to have obvious momentum above the other. It’s not only the closeness in talent and skills. Attitudes, emotions and fitness and injuries enter into it as well. I have no clue.”

“A healthy Serena is a dangerous Serena; she hasn’t been healthy all year,” Evert said. “She still has an edge in power and experience.”

Williams also has the most impressive career record on clay of any active player: 170-34. Her career winning percentage of 83.3 puts her ahead of Sharapova, who is at 81.5 percent with plenty of doubt swirling about her form and her tennis future at age 31.

Happy off the court but vulnerable on it, she has not competed since January because of injuries and has not reached a tour final since winning the Tianjin Open in October 2017.

Halep has the best clay-court numbers over the last few seasons and leads the WTA Tour’s clay-court power rankings, which give more weight to recent results.

But even as she again closes in on being No. 1, Halep, 27, has hardly been dominant. Oui, she won last year’s French Open, her first Grand Slam singles title. But she has not won another clay-court title since Madrid in May 2017 and has not won a tournament on any surface since the Rogers Cup in Canada in August.

Without Darren Cahill as her coach this season, Halep has not looked like the same resolute and selectively aggressive force, although her run to the semifinals of the Miami Open last week was encouraging.

The biggest prizes in 2019 have gone to younger women, all under age 23.

Naomi Osaka, 21, won the year’s first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and remains No. 1 by a whisker. Belinda Bencic, 22, won the Premier 5 event in Dubai. Most surprisingly, Bianca Andreescu, 18, won the Premier Mandatory event in Indian Wells, and then Ashleigh Barty, 22, confirmed her steady rise by winning in Miami.

Andreescu and Barty have the skills to thrive on clay — their strong topspin forehands, quick feet and ability to hit sliced backhands, well-disguised drop shots and heavy first and second serves.

But the big-hitting Osaka has a losing record on clay (9-11) and likes to call herself “a hardcourt player.”

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