ROME — Karolina Pliskova, who won the Italian Open on Sunday, has something in common with Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova, who also claimed titles on clay this spring: it’s their least favorite surface.
The three play fairly similar games, built on first-strike power tennis and minimal movement — a combination that is often ineffective on the slow surface and allows defensive-minded players to scramble and send back more balls.
But with the French Open beginning Sunday, more women known for success on hard courts and grass have begun to crack the code of the clay.
Pliskova, who leads the WTA with 252 aces this season, called her win in Rome a “miracle,” and said her coach, Conchita Martinez, has been helping her adjust.
“She loved clay, so she knows exactly what I should do,” Pliskova said of Martinez. “There were small differences: movement, maybe to put more topspin on the balls, use drop shots — which I never use, but I start little bit — and to mix, also, the serves. There’s more options. There’s more time on clay, of course.”
Martinez, a four-time champion at the Italian Open between 1993 and 1996, said it was important for Pliskova’s game not to drift too far from its base.
“The essence of her game has to remain,” Martinez said. “She has to be a very aggressive player. But we’re working on things like putting topspin, going a little higher over the net, playing deeper, the movement, of course. But still being aggressive, with little changes here and there and improvements here and there.”
Johanna Konta, who was runner-up to Pliskova on Sunday, said the surfaces did not make as big a difference as observers might think.
“I think her serve is equally as effective in a different way,” Konta said of Pliskova. “I think she was obviously using her kick serve more, as well, which kicked quite high today here. Her shots are still flat; they’re still big, quite deep.”
Martinez, a former top-10 player and major champion from Spain, made a career out of frustrating more powerful opponents with changes of pace and spin. She recognized that defensive stalwarts like Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, the defending French Open champion, can still have their say on clay.
“Power, if you have the patience enough, it’s a good thing,” Martinez said. “Sometimes you play against Halep or Wozniacki or some more defensive player, and they play amazing and you don’t see anywhere where you can hurt them, and in the end you end up missing. It’s about playing very aggressive, but with patience. On clay, you need to work the point a little bit more, and physically it’s also more demanding. If you’re up for a challenge, it’s a good thing.”
More offensive players seem to be embracing that challenge. Top-ranked Naomi Osaka, who has won the last two Grand Slam events, both on hard courts, showed promise when healthy on clay this year. She put up a 7-1 record but also withdrew from two tournaments. Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, has harnessed her powerful game more effectively on clay in the later stages of her career. She has a 92.3 winning percentage in her last five Roland Garros appearances, compared with 79.6 in her first 11 appearances.
Petra Kvitova, who won in Stuttgart, Germany, last month, said that players like herself are left with no choice but to adapt.
She said that she did not feel like a clay specialist, but “I think my attitude on the clay is getting better.”
Kvitova, twice a champion at Wimbledon, said she had learned to appreciate the longer point construction required on clay, which now comes easier to her because of improved conditioning.
“I think I like more the game plan of it,” she said. “Sometimes you are playing little bit longer rallies — I think I’m able to do that now.”
Keys, who won her first clay-court title in April on the green clay of Charleston, S.C., has built a steadily stronger résumé on clay, including a runner-up finish at the Italian Open in 2016, and a run to the French Open semifinals last year. She said the best way to learn the surface was simply through more matches.
“Being able to rely on the matches I’ve won — at first they surprised me — but I’ve slowly been able to build confidence,” she said.
The biggest learning curve, she added, was “not getting frustrated because it’s a slower surface, or because the ball bounces higher.”
“Points aren’t going to go as perfectly, and that’s something I’ve had to accept and then figure out how to do my best with my game,” Keys said.
Despite her growing success on clay, Keys is reluctant to declare her affection for the surface.
While filming a WTA promotional video before the Italian Open, Keys was asked to name something she loved about clay, and she stayed silent for several seconds.
“‘Love’ is a big step,” Keys said. “It’s a big word. You have to work your way to it. We’re acquaintances. We’re work friends. We’re working on getting to know each other.”