There's been only one completed week of action in the clay-court season thus far this year and already a lot has happened. The season starts in the United States, where they favor a granular green Har-Tru surface as opposed to the traditional red clay courts elsewhere in the world.
As for the happenings:
Maria Sharapova stepped out of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami to rest her chronic right shoulder injury, but won her first clay-court title last week at the Bausch & Lomb Championships.
Venus Williams cited an undisclosed medical issue (which is speculated to be associated with the anemia condition she had at last year's U.S. Open) to walk away from both the Bausch & Lomb Championships and this week's Family Circle Cup. She is expected to return to action for the Italian Open.
Justine Henin said a sore right knee that required a cortisone shot after the Australian Open was acting up and would cause her to skip play this week as well.
There's also the fact that Lindsay Davenport had to pull out of her Bausch & Lomb Championships semifinal match against Sharapova because of a virus, but since Davenport has indicated that the clay-court season and French Open were likely not to be in her plans (not to mention clay is not her baby), she doesn't factor in big.
There's plenty of more clay-court action to come as the women's tour winds its way toward the French Open at the end of May, so it's worth taking a look at how some of the key names in the game should perform on the dirt.
Jelena Jankovic: She's the defending Family Circle Cup champion and the holder of five WTA Tour titles. She has never successfully defended a title, though. A superbly talented counterpuncher, her backhand down the line is her signature shot. But she has many other advantages that benefit her on a clay court from her endurance and fitness to her unyielding fighting spirit. She also has the knack of not only sliding on clay, but has adept movement on all surfaces. Jankovic's downfall, however, is an unreliable serve, an area she'll need to improve upon in order to further climb the WTA rankings. A logical goal this season will be to try to vault herself into her first Grand Slam final. The Serb has been stuck landing in the semis: 2006 U.S. Open, 2007 French Open and 2008 Australian Open. She won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray and the twosome delighted fans with their passionate performance, but in the big picture, mixed doubles just doesn't count.
Justine Henin: The world No. 1 is nursing a sore knee, which is not ideal as she approaches her favorite season of the year. She has risen to the top of the charts by showing a playing proficiency on every surface, but clay is her oasis. She has won the French Open four times, first in 2003 and will arrive in Paris in May as the three-time queen of Roland Garros. Henin's versatility and aggressive on-court nature, coupled with the purity of strokes, most particularly her exquisite one-handed backhand, serve her well on a clay court. But on clay her stinging forehand and precise footwork tend to dictate matches. Many, including John McEnroe, have described Henin as the "Roger Federer of women's tennis." The diminutive Henin seems a lot larger than she stands once an opponent gets a taste of her power and mental strength. The knee is the big concern; she recently admitted in Miami that she contemplated surgery before a cortisone shot mitigated the problem.
Ana Ivanovic: It's a safe conclusion that Serbians, including Ivanovic, Jankovic and reigning Australian Open men's champion Novak Djokovic, are bound to be present at the more notable tournaments. Ivanovic is the 2007 French Open runner-up, so her talents have been identified on clay. An offensive baseliner, Ivanovic tends to favor flat strokes but can throw in some topspin. She's not as confident on her two-handed backhand, so if time permits, which it often does on clay, she'll choose to do the runaround to execute an inside-out forehand. Her serve is a liability, as was the case against Henin in the French Open final and against Sharapova in the Australian Open final in January. The other area Ivanovic needs to work on is configuring a more varied match strategy.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: The 2004 U.S. Open champion made two other Grand Slam finals, including the 2006 French Open. "Kuzy" or "Sveta," as she's known to friends, has great movement on the court, but tends to mostly show that off by patrolling the baseline instead of attempting to visit the net. Kuznetsova's money shot is her power forehand: She can display a great deal of variety with the shot, which makes it an excellent weapon. The ability to slide into shots, especially her big forehand on clay, is a notable bonus. The biggest issue for Kuznetsova, a former ITF world junior champion, is her confidence often breaks down. This is a serious problem for the Russian: You never know which Kuznetsova is showing up, and as her belief wanes, her unforced errors build up.
Maria Sharapova: There is no secret that Sharapova is not partial to playing on clay courts. Just take a look at her results and it isn't hard to figure out as she's won 19 career titles and just reeled in her first on clay in an undernourished field at the Bausch & Lomb Championships. As for the French Open, in five previous appearances she managed a semifinal finish last year for the first time. For many it could be a surprise she hasn't fared better on clay because her power baseline game should translate to slower surfaces. Although her chronic shoulder injury might affect her mighty serve no matter what surface she's on, it should be a weapon on clay. While Sharapova's offensive game is stellar, it's on the defensive side her vulnerabilities often come to fruition. She also doesn't seem to have the clay-court slide down pat either. A former world No. 1, it is entirely possible that she will end up being a female version of former greats McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors in failing to add a French Open title to her résumé.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter, covering tennis around the world