WTA Stuttgart 2018 – World’s best arrive to kick off their clay court season

WTA Stuttgart is always a much watch on the calendar. Following a weekend of Fed Cup tennis players will arrive in Germany as the preparations begin for Roland Garros begin here but who is here?

World number one Simona Halep leads a field which includes Muguruza, Ostapenko and Svitolina as four of the worlds top 5 with no Caroline Wozniacki on site this week. Kvitova, Kerber and Pliskova are also in the field as well as former champion Maria Sharapova.

More pressure for some?

I’d 100% say I think there is pressure on others to perform over the next month especially here to begin with. I feel like the questions will be asked every major about Halep and Svitolina winning a major especially the world number one!

Both players are very good clay court players so there is a pressure to perform. I want to see Elina do well over the next few weeks and go far and Halep knows what she needs but since Melbourne bringing it all together has been tough.

No easy matches

There are no easy matches in Stuttgart. This shows in R1 where we have Sharapova v Garcia, Kerber v Kvitova, Mladenovic v Kontaveit and Vandeweghe v Stephens are just a few to mention.

1 year on from the return…

The return of Sharapova in Stuttgart was 1 year ago and well to be ranked 42 in the world coming in is disappointing on her part and will likely go into Roland Garros without a seeding. Sharapova hasn’t really wowed since the comeback and Caroline Garcia will provide a test for a former champion who’s tennis needs improving.

Ones to watch!

Julia Georges goes in as the German number one. Unseeded and potentially up against Svitolina in R2 the German could cause some issues. Another German who could cause some problems is Laura Siegemund who always turns up on clay, a horrid time with injury has meant her ranking has taken a hit but I wouldn’t rule much out.

Finally Kiki Bertens. The Swede doesn’t give you much time to breath and Pliskova will need to be on it otherwise she could fall early.

Who do I think will win?

Tough one to predict, first few rounds will be very interesting but I do feel it will be either Kerber or Halep. If Kerber wins it she pulls her name into Roland Garros contender!

Kerber

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Monte Carlo Title No.11… was it ever in doubt?

Sometimes you can’t describe you just need to admire. Rafael Nadal’s tennis this week in Monte Carlo has laid down a marker showing everyone if they want to upset the odds on route to Roland Garros then game’s need to be up’d.

I can only admire Nadal. I was sceptical of his decision to play Davis Cup but then played brilliant but didn’t look like a man who just sat out 2 1/2 months injured and then to return to the competitive tour environment and has now won 36 continuous sets of tennis on clay with straight forward victories against Bedene, Kachanov, Thiem, Dimitrov and Nishikori is amazing.

Players must have been thinking maybe he isn’t at 100% and if that isn’t 100% I’d be bloody scared of what will come next. His game is so complete on this surface the way he serves, moves the ball around and use his ability, experience and skill teaches us a lesson never to just settle but he said the other day he’s had to learn and adapt to the times.

An 11th title was whispered but as the week progressed the question went from will he win it to who will stop him and no one has taken him close. In those 36 consecutive sets of tennis he has won on clay he hasn’t lost more than 4 games in a set.

11 titles in Monte Carlo, you wouldn’t rule out another in Barcelona, Madrid or Rome before the big one!

RAFA

Rafa’s in the mood…

Well, world number one Rafael Nadal is playing some simply beautiful tennis right now. On a clay court there is no one better to watch. The way he strokes the ball around the court is like poetry. There isn’t a better sight in tennis.

I was listening to Henri Leconte on Sky Sports and he said on a clay court he’s looking better than ever. His game has never looked so solid and this is a man who has won multiple titles and is on a 32 winning streak on the clay and his demolition of Thiem was outstanding.

If I had to put a list of players who I believe are challengers to Nadal on clay it would be Thiem, Dimitrov, Goffin, Nishikori and Djokovic but he’s in some stunning form that is incredibly tough to break down on this surface.

It is almost impossible to come up with a game plan to beat him. He redirects the forehand unbelievable well and with the top spin he doesn’t need to  hit it with loads of power and he can just taunt you with it and always has more than one option.

A weakness of his use to be the backhand but it’s so strong and he uses the two handed backhand so well to redirect the ball and pull off winners if anything it’s as strong it’s like playing against a wall.

I watched him in Davis Cup a few weeks ago and was shocked at how good he played but this is on another level. He has Dimitrov next, the Bulgarian can cause problems but I don’t see a consistent challenge coming for him.

Rafa N

Novak Djokovic – A good week, focus areas, Vajda to stay on & Barcelona wildcard

From the usual Novak Djokovic standards a third round exit at a Masters 1000 event is not great but in his return to the tour and trying to find form and following his horror show at Miami and Indian Wells I’d take a lot from it if I were Novak.

Everyone wants to play Monte-Carlo and there are no easy matches. First up for Novak was Borna Coric who has been in very good form this year. The Croat put up a good fight but struggled to break down Novak when it mattered with the Serbian taking the match 7-6 7-5.

Next up for Novak was Dominic Thiem who is just on route back from an ankle injury. During this match we learnt a lot about where both players are right now. Focus areas for Novak will be on his movement, transition from the back of the court bringing the backhand into play and competitiveness from the baseline is something that needs improving but will come with game time building that movement and strength.

During one of the sets Thiem won 15 points from the baseline and Novak 4, The Austrian brought that power and dominance with the hard hitting which put Novak on the back foot and he didn’t have time to redirect the ball.

Novak has announced following his exit from Monte Carlo that former coach Marian Vajda who joined the former world number one for the week in Monte Carlo will be there for the rest of the clay court season.

Novak in the last 24 hours as well has accepted a wildcard in the ATP 500 event in Barcelona next week and will also participate in Madrid and Rome before taking a trip to Paris.

ND

Rublev‘ game is solid but he needs to let the second serve go a little

Andrey Rublev was one of the stars of the show in Milan last year at the inaugural NextGen Finals and in my opinion has potential to go far on the tour but does need to tune up his game.

Andrey’s game is built on being aggressive and we did see this against Dominic Thiem in Monte Carlo. Nine times out of ten he wants to go for the forehand and step inside the baseline and there is nothing wrong with that.

You can see he is looking for the cross court most of time and if he can’t grind you down with the cross court he will just go down into the open where Them thought he was going.

The one aspect of his game which needs improving is the second serve. It does trouble a number of players but is undervalued and easy to pick off. I was quite critical of Dominic Thiem’s approach to retuning this in a previous piece, the Austrian figured it out and then didn’t use it and became careless.

When the second serve is being thrown in at 77mph you can’t sit three metres behind the baseline.

Rublev did lose the match but got let off the hook.

Thiem’s slice return was bizarre, I didn’t get it. I think it was more out of frustration than anything else! However the serve didn’t do much it was a free hit for Thiem and maybe Rublev needs to go for it a little bit more. Of course you don’t want to double fault but he didn’t go near the line and it will get eaten up!

Thiem steps it up just in time to stay in at Monte Carlo!

Dominic Thiem is one of the big challengers to Rafael Nadal on a clay court however the Austrian hasn’t been involved in the action as much as he would like over the last month or so with this ankle injury that forced him to miss Miami.

No one should expect miracles from Thiem over the week as this is his first tournament back but there were some things that impressed, improved throughout the match and will naturally come with game time.

Improvement throughout the match is something I like to see as it’s easier to continue to do the same thing which necessarily might not be working but credit to Thiem to switched up his service return which is a big reason to why he has moved into the next round.

You can see Thiem is 3.5 metres behind the baseline returning serve as he and Nadal do on clay as they are so good at defending on this surface they can afford an extra look at it.

thiem return

However if you are playing against someone like Rublev who isn’t the strongest server and is dropping his second serve in at 75mph if you are returning this deep with a backhand as Thiem does it isn’t getting any depth and Rublev could come in and dictate.

During set two we did see a slight change in a few games. Thiem went from using the one-handed backhand return which was dropping short with power allowing Rublev to pounce and take control but swapped it for the chip return, no power and depth on the court forcing Rublev to work harder.

IMG_0225

Now you can see above in set two Thiem created more chances using this chip return and standing closer to the baseline forcing the Russian back.

I was confused to why Thiem wasn’t using the chip return more often despite it being effective and generating break point opportunities.

He figured it out and then went back and did the same in set three, he took a 4-1 lead and then found himself 5-4 down with Rublev serving for the match. It was bizarre. Rublev was broken serving for it and then double faulted on match point with Thiem winning in three.

It took the Austrian a while to adapt to the conditions, his condition and the way Rublev was playing but once he stepped up he found what he needed to do. He did backtrack but he knew whether he would sit deep which wasn’t working or stand a little closer which he did more in set three as the match progressed staying aggressive would give him a better chance giving Rublev less time to line up the forehand he likes to use out wide and down the line.

Novak Djokovic – 1 game dropped, looked sharp, but let’s not get too carried away!

I don’t like to be the one to ruin the party but in any sport it is very easy to get carried away. Now I will be fair and say the former champion did look good but this is one match against the world number 93 he won 6-0 6-1, we can’t read too much into it.

Watching Djokovic there is no doubt in my mind it was a better performance than what we saw at Indian Wells and Miami where he wasn’t ready.

This week Marian Vajda is back in his corner a year after they split and sometimes even the greatest need that back to basics implementation into their game and we saw that with the forehand, it had more top spin on it making it more difficult to return.

The elbow is where all the focus has been on with this injury having changed his serve and it has affected his forehand and his backhand which has been a bit stiff this season.

Novak however declared after his win against his fellow Serb that;

“Today, finally after two years I am pain free”

ND

That is quite a statement to make, two weeks he was playing awful in Miami…

Like I said let’s not get carried away. Next up for Novak is a rejuvenated Borna Coric who has been in fine form this season climbing the rankings and seems to have his game where he wants it now! Hard to remember he only turned 21 years old 5 months ago!

Coric was very impressive in his first round match and we can say Novak looked sharp but bigger tests and question will follow.