By Ros Satar at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, Stuttgart
- The unique indoor clay in Stuttgart poses challenges for everyone – the power hitters and the clay courters
- Just who can solve the puzzle of the Stuttgart clay?
STUTTGART, GERMANY – With six of the World’s top eight players in Stuttgart the playing pedigree boasts Slam champions galore – but even the best on clay have trouble finding their feet on the clay.
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All herald the start of the European clay court season
For many of the WTA elite, it is not just the sublime hospitality of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix that has seen this tournament receive Best Tournament accolades repeatedly. It is the gateway to the gruelling 13-week clay and grass court swing, that technically starts in Europe the week prior with a WTA International in Lugano.
Indoors, on a slick clay surface that plays fast, you could be forgiven for thinking that the surface suits plenty of clay courters. Then again you can look at the past winners and conclude that with defending champion Karolina Pliskova in the mix, it should also suit those who better ply their trade on hard courts.
We take a look at how the top seeds view this surface as the WTA elite start their preparations proper on the road to Roland Garros.
 Naomi Osaka
Apart from a smattering of ITF events in 2013, Osaka has not exactly packed in the hours on the dirt. The reigning US Open and Australian Open champion has not had the greatest of memories here in particular as she explained.
“I have nothing to compare it to because this is my first clay tournament and I’m not a clay expert. So, it’s not like I can pick it up and like test it in my fingers and know. For me it feels fine. I do slip a little bit but I thought it was because I was clumsy, but you are giving me an excuse now.
“I feel like every other court or season I have a lot more experience than on clay because honestly every time I come here I get injured (laughs). I’m hoping that won’t happen this year but the last two times it’s been rough. I mean I’ve had to… every clay season I missed out on at least one tournament. Honestly, my main goal is not to get injured, to sort of ride it up until French Open.
“The bounces are different, and you have to swing on the ball different. For me, it’s a little bit difficult because I can’t hit as flat and then you have to sort of change the way that you spin the ball. It’s a little bit annoying but I’ve been practicing so hopefully the practice shows in my results.”
 Simona Halep
Sadly after the heroic efforts of Halep did not quite get Romania into their first Fed Cup final, the injury she picked up in the thriller of the match against Caroline Garcia saw her withdraw before the start of the tournament.
Halep is a two-time semi-finalist here, and now has her eyes firmly on enjoying as much of this part of the season as she can, even though it means giving a popular stopping point a miss, this time around.
“I love playing on clay, this is the most important thing. I think I have the right game for this surface. So, I’m going with confidence to this season but it’s always tough. So, I don’t want to say anything for sure. Just wait and see.
“I’m disappointed I cannot play here because it is a great tournament actually and it’s good for my clay court season, but I played three matches on clay already and I saw that my level is high. So, I think the level of play of those matches was really really high and I’m confident. So, it’s not going to put me down this week that I had to retire from this tournament. I’m just looking forward to the next tournaments.
“I have a better feeling because I am Roland Garros champion (laughs) and I can’t wait to get there to enjoy all the things that I have to do. I said yes to everything (laughs), just to make sure I will never forget the moment. But to go back to Paris I think will be the best feeling and I don’t have pressure, anything will happen, it’s just the moment. So, I will not be upset even if I will lose quicker in the tournament, even if I don’t do anything on clay, for me it’s the best period of the year.”
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 Petra Kvitova
A two-time Slam champion on her much-loved surface of grass, Kvitova has found success in the Madrid clay where the altitude sends the balls fizzing, and also won on her home tournament of Prague last year. She has even reached the semi-final here twice so this is not an alien surface to the hard-hitting leftie.
Yet she knows that starting her clay court season here presents some challenges, as she explained.
“It’s my first tournament on clay. I didn’t play the match before. So, it’s always tricky for me to start on the clay. But I had two great weeks of practicing on the clay and I feel good. I’m not injured, that’s important as well. The clay is different here compared to other clays what we know. But this is indoor which I like. Hopefully it will be fine. We’ll see. In the previous years I played good and bad. So, hopefully it will be a better year.
“It is pretty fast. I hit on the Centre Court and I felt that it was pretty quick which is good but it’s weird for the clay as well, so it’s kind of hard court tennis here. The moving is just a little bit difficult on that clay.”
The defending champion also grew up in an environment where red clay was prevalent, but of course has proved her worth primarily on hard courts, and was a US Open finalist in 2016. But her clean hitting power-game propelled her into the driving seat (of a car she cannot yet drive!).
However, defending her title might be more of a challenge as she is still dealing with a lingering lurgy which saw her struggle in the Miami final, and two weeks of antibiotics and she still is not feeling quite right.
“I was a couple of days in Prague, I was in Monaco for one week of practice. I did one week in Barcelona with Conchita. So, things were quite ok. I felt a little bit tired after the long few weeks in America. I don’t feel a hundred percent either now. I’m just trying to be ready to play.
“I just had too much tennis, I was sick, I had antibiotics for two weeks now. I’m just doing everything. I’m here, so that’s good. And I’m doing everything possible to play but my body is not a hundred percent of course now. But I did hit almost every day on clay which is good. So, I just got used to the surface a little bit and hopefully it’s going to get better.
“Here I think it’s a little bit still more specific although it’s clay but it’s indoor and it’s a little bit faster than all the outside tournaments on the clay. So, I think actually this is the fastest clay from all those maybe five, six weeks pretty much. I think Madrid, Paris, it depends on the weather, too, because on clay it can have a big influence on the game.
“I like clay. I’ve been playing better and better every year on the clay. So, I don’t feel like clay is not good for me now.”
 Angelique Kerber
Two-time champion Kerber occupies Halep’s spot in the draw after her withdrawal, and joked with press when she won the Wimbledon title that all that was missing from her collection was the ‘clay one’ but her apparent disdain for clay caused some amusement, given her record here.
Like Pliskova, her preparations have been marred a little by illness, but she could still find the funny side of considering the start of this part of the season.
“You know clay and me, you know the story (laughs). Of course, here I always try to do my best. I’m trying to do the best with the situation and I already practiced twice here. I’m feeling good. I need a little bit more time to feel the clay, to get ready again, to feel the ball. But I think I’m on a good way and that I can at least play good tennis for my first round.
“It is not so easy because here we play indoor, then we are on outdoor, then the clay in Madrid and Rome is a little bit different. But you know for me I just need one, two days then I’m getting used to the situation like with the wind, with the outdoor. Of course, the clay is different but for me it doesn’t matter (laughs), it’s just like trying to survive somewhere on the clay.
“I understand a little bit now how to play on clay. I think what is important for me is the mind set when I go on court that I’m a little bit more positive with the clay and that I have a little bit more patience and everything. So, I think that I know already how to play, how is the best way to play but of course doing this on the court then is a different story. That’s why it’s good to have a lot of matches to get used to the game plan, what I want to play on clay.
Could a career Grand Slam be on the cards for the German?
“[Winning Roland Garros is] a tough challenge but I mean I will not put too much pressure on my side because I know how it is with the pressure. I will right now focus on the tournaments ahead and then when I’m in Paris I will think about the Paris situation.”
Play continues at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, which takes place between 22-28 April.
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