Matt Zemek

The week of WTA coverage at Tennis With An Accent began with an attempt to capture the meaning of Maria Sharapova’s loss to Caroline Garcia on Tuesday in Stuttgart. Sharapova has used indoor clay — a different beast compared to the outdoor stuff in Rome and Paris — to kick-start a monster clay season multiple times. She won Stuttgart in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In each of those clay seasons, she then made the Roland Garros final. For Sharapova, the good start of Stuttgart was an essential ingredient in a clay victory buffet.

Then came 2015, 2016 and 2017.

In each of those years, a German rode momentum and adrenaline to a title in front of an appreciative home-nation crowd. Angelique Kerber won the title in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, when Kerber fell off the map, Laura Siegemund was able to keep the Stuttgart trophy in Germany by winning the tournament. Siegemund lost to Kerber in the 2016 final. 

Despite Sharapova’s three-year run in which Stuttgart success began a path to Parisian prominence a few months later, Stuttgart finals have not been strong indicators of future clay form for both finalists. The last Stuttgart final in which both players made the quarterfinals or better at Roland Garros was 2009, when Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina previewed the French Open final. In 2010 and 2012, one of the two Stuttgart finalists made the Roland Garros final while the other reached the fourth round, but this decade has not yet produced a Stuttgart final in which both women reached the round of eight in Paris.

For Sharapova, Stuttgart can reasonably be viewed as an indicator of where she is on clay. For others, the same assertion is harder to back up. This is why Sunday’s final between CoCo Vandeweghe and Karolina Pliskova is far more likely to represent an aberration than a first step in a natural progression through the month of May and the lead-up to Roland Garros. 

Vandeweghe — a person known for speaking bluntly and without subtlety — made no secret of the exhausting nature of clay-court tennis according to her own perspective. Stuttgart has given her an indoor oasis in which she doesn’t have to fight the sun on the ball toss on her serve. The tournament’s quick conditions have enabled her to hit through the court and not get roped into long, overwhelming rallies. 

For Pliskova — who made the semifinal round of the WTA Finals in Singapore last autumn — indoor tennis also represents a welcome departure from tougher (hotter) outdoor conditions. On Saturday in the semifinals, Pliskova’s indoor comfort zone was enhanced by the fact that her opponent, Anett Kontaveit, had played roughly seven hours of tennis in her previous three matches, and just under three hours in a Friday quarterfinal win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Pliskova has played the right players at the right times in the right conditions this week. It is therefore easy to discount her Stuttgart run relative to Rome and Paris.

Yet, the common threads between Vandeweghe and Pliskova — which seem so obvious on the surface — do not mean these are identical clay-court players. If CoCo has little appetite for extended combat on crushed red brick, Pliskova is the opposite. No, Pliskova is not a track star who will suddenly become a taller version of Simona Halep or Elina Svitolina on terre battue, but she showed last year that if weather conditions are not too hot, she is happy to put in long hours. She rarely played her best tennis but won a pile of three-setters to make the French Open semifinals. The weather in Paris was mild and at times cool before the championship match (between Halep and Jelena Ostapenko) became a broiling, sun-drenched duel. Pliskova’s loss in the semis to Halep prevented her from playing in that match, but as long as the Parisian sun wasn’t intense, Pliskova showed she could solve problems on a slower surface.

Amazingly, that French Open gave Pliskova her only major semifinal of the year. The fact that Pliskova made only one major semi in 2017 isn’t the mind-blowing component of that statement; the fact that the only major semifinal came on clay last year is the plot twist. 

Vandeweghe and Pliskova therefore are not carbon copies of each other. They do have a lot in common, and the first set of their 2017 U.S. Open quarterfinal (won by CoCo) was razor-close. Pliskova had a set point, but Vandeweghe saved it and won a tiebreaker, 7-4. Yet, their similarities contain limits. Pliskova has shown more of a capacity for handling the contentious components of clay-court combat. If one wishes to compare these players strictly in terms of resolve, Pliskova would merit a noticeable advantage.

Yet, Stuttgart’s quick indoor conditions might turn this match into a first-strike bonanza, such that Vandeweghe’s best tennis attributes will continue to be rewarded, as they have all week. The advantages Pliskova has in this matchup are real… but Stuttgart might not allow them to show up.

It is fascinating purely from a tennis connoisseur’s perspective: One player (Pliskova) has reached a major final and a Roland Garros semifinal. The other (CoCo) made two major semifinals in 2017 and came within one win of making a third (at Wimbledon). Why, then, does this Stuttgart final feel like such a surprise?

The difficulty of being able to weigh the value of indoor clay is one Weghe to answer that question. We will see how much these weights and measures carry during Sunday’s championship match.


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