PARIS (Reuters) - Power merchants often find their wheels slipping on clay, preferring the solid feel of hard courts, yet Victoria Azarenka is revelling in getting down and dirty on the red dust as she targets a maiden French Open crown.
The former world number one and twice Australian Open champion has never gone past the last eight in the singles at Roland Garros but the Belarussian is confident she is making steady progress on the slippery surface.
Like fellow baseliner Maria Sharapova, who once described herself as a “cow on ice” on clay before adjusting so well she won the French Open, Azarenka is more at ease on quick surfaces, on which her best results have come.
Pete Sampras won 14 major titles, although he reached the French Open semi-final only once.
Andy Murray, the U.S. Open champion, has never won a title on clay while even 15-times grand slam champion Serena Williams has to go back to 2002 to recall her only French title.
“Because the movement changes a lot, the game changes a lot,” Azarenka, who won only one of her 16 titles on clay, told Reuters after defeating German Annika Beck 6-4 6-3 in the second round on Thursday.
“You don’t have a steady ground, you have to slide and that can throw you off balance, while on hard court or grass you don’t have that same ground,”
Azarenka, however, is determined to break the secret of clay. If Sharapova won the French Open last year, why couldn’t she?
“I feel that every year I improve, there is still a lot of room for me to improve but I’m getting really excited by this challenge,” she said, before detailing the changes a player needs to make to play on clay.
What makes the difference between clay and the other surfaces - hard, grass - is that to perform on the slowest surface, you need to change your game.
“You need to really adapt to the surface,” added Azarenka, who will face France’s Alize Cornet for a place in the last 16.
“You don’t just have to work on your movement speed wise, you also need to make the small adjustments, the footwork, the little steps.”
To play on clay and manage the sometimes lung-burning rallies, one needs a different mindset.
“These adjustments, details are very important. You have to understand that and work on it,” said Azarenka, who reached the final of the Italian Open, a big pre-French Open claycourt event, after beating claycourt specialists and former French Open runners up Samantha Stosur of Australia and Italian Sara Errani.
“Sometimes it’s a bit difficult because you need to change your game but I’m really willing to do that,” she said.
Just like the play on clay, adapting to the surface is a slow process.
“I try to take the best out of what happened the previous years and put them together to develop a better strategy, a better movement to become a better athlete on this surface,” said Azarenka, who gained confidence from the Italian Open despite losing the final to Serena Williams.
“It was a great feeling to come back and to compete at this level, it gives you definitely a boost. It shows I can play good here,” said Azarenka.
“I understand (the surface) better this year, I’m always curious as an athlete, it’s a process that’s not going to end after this tournament.”
Editing by Tony Goodson