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A wider playing field compared to the ATP tour is one of the reasons why women’s tennis has flourished over the years with a sense of the unknown, especially since the retirement of 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.

Aside from the Williams sisters, has any player from recent memory consistently taken the game by the scruff of the neck? The powerful-hitting Naomi Osaka was touted to do just that, and the 26-year-old’s four major titles is evidence that she has lived up to the billing. However, her recent pregnancy has shut the door temporarily on causing future damage to the current top 10.

When Iga Świątek burst onto the scene at the 2020 French Open, many were aware of her immense talent, but perhaps there was a glimmer of underestimation considering she didn’t have the same power as Osaka for instance.

Not only does she have power - the world No.1 possesses a weaponery forehand with spin and placement where at times it seems effortless along with the ability to cover ground.

Clay season is upon us - and that’s music to the ears for Świątek who has won three of the past four Roland-Garros titles and is always at her lethal best.

Clearly there is a startling contrast when the Pole is exposed to other surfaces at majors - with her record since the beginning of last season raising a few eyebrows:

2023 Australian Open - Fourth round exit

2023 French Open - Champion

2023 Wimbledon - Quarter-final exit

2023 US Open - Fourth round exit

2024 Australian Open - Third round exit

After her second round victory of Lesia Tsurenko at last year’s Italian Open, Świątek admitted that evolving her game on all surfaces is an objective and an ongoing process.

“I think if you want to be the best in tennis, you have to play well on all surfaces,” she said. “There are always going to be players who feel more comfortable on clay or on hardcourts, so it’s just a matter of the technique and being used to it.”

Whatever method the 22-year-old is using to practice her technique on clay, its working a treat having won a staggering 54 out of 58 matches on clay since her maiden Grand Slam crown nearly four years ago, dishing out 17 bagels (winning a set 6-0) in the process.

At the peak of her powers, it’s almost virtually impossible to break her down with all the time in the world to defend from deep in the court.

So, is the 2024 clay season on the WTA tour a foregone conclusion already? Well, one player who is capable of causing the most difficulties is Aryna Sabalenka.

Of the four defeats suffered by Świątek on the red dirt since the 2020 French Open, one of those have come from Sabalenka, whilst another was at the hands of Elena Rybakina in Rome last year due to retirement in the deciding set.

Last year, the Belarusian won a tight three-set encounter in the Madrid final as she managed to display one of her best performances on return of serve against Świątek. Perhaps, it was a sign that Sabalenka had matured from her two previous meetings on clay, failing to win more than two games in a set.

“To have this win, especially on clay, that’s something unbelievable,” said Sabalenka after the Madrid victory. “I’m really happy that I’m able to fight against her and I’m able to get these wins.”

Throughout Sabalenka’s career, it’s never been a question of talent. The question has been focused around her mentality in the pressure moments, something that evidently faded away since breaking her Grand Slam duck.

In saying that, there are still lingering mental demons on occasion such as Sabalenka’s semi-final defeat in the semi-final stage of Roland-Garros last year - up 5-2 in the third set before throwing away a match point and losing the match.

Yet, the two-time Australian Open champion is one of the very few who can take time away from Świątek and take the racquet out of her hand on the slower clay courts. Funnily enough, it’s Sabalenka’s least preferred surface in terms of results, but the 25-year-old set the record straight when asked about her game on clay in an on-court interview at last year’s major in Paris.

When I was a kid I practiced a lot more on the clay than I did on hard courts. I don’t know why everyone thought that I’m a hard court specialist,” she explained.

One hopes that the devastating passing of Sabalenka’s ex-boyfriend earlier last month will not deter from the positive vibes that the world No.2 has demonstrated in recent times - a newfound sense of freedom to express her personality has released the shackles somewhat.

To beat Świątek on clay, belief is absolute paramount to stand any chance, or else, forget about it.

The fact that Sabalenka has those Madrid memories to look back on could provide her with the added belief to get the better of her main rival once again in the coming weeks.


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