Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Victoria Azarenka finally break through on clay

USA TODAY Sports

Two talented players who have historically struggled on the surface are a win away from a Grand Slam final.

Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer and clay's greatest master, Rafael Nadal, have all made it to the 2013 French Open semifinals. Sara Errani, a veteran Italian who has always performed her best on clay, is also in the final four on the women's side.

Two players tennis fans have long been familiar with -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Victoria Azarenka -- round out the tournament's semifinal field, but their presence is more of a surprise, more because of the surface on which they're playing than the obvious talent they carry onto the court with them.

Tsonga's place in the semis is probably most shocking considering this year's Monte Carlo tournament was the first time he had reached the semis in any clay court tournament in his pro career. That he did it against the second-best clay court player of this generation, Roger Federer -- in straight sets, no less -- was truly remarkable.

Tsonga has always done well on hard and grass courts in his career, but until last year, he had never made it to the quarterfinals in his home country at Roland Garros. He played Djokovic tough in the quarters last year, falling in five sets.

It's not hard to see why Tsonga, now 28, has historically struggled on clay, and why he has to be considered an underdog for Friday's semifinal against Ferrer. Big dudes always struggle on clay. How he's managed to consistently improve to the point where he's pounding Federer all over the court is a testament to the way he's worked on his game for the last decade, but it's still a surprise.

Tsonga is as of yet not a Slam champion, and he's only been to the finals of one once, in 2008 as an unseeded player, but Azarenka is, having won the last two Australian Opens. This is also her first Roland Garros semifinal, and in her post-match press conference after an impressive quarterfinal win over Maria Kirilenko, she gave an amusing remark about the red surface.

"I still don't have any ring on my finger," she said when asked about "her relationship" with clay, according to the AP. "But I feel like we made a step forward. We are moving in together. Kind of that type of a relationship is moving forward and see what happens after."

Azarenka has actually made the French Open final once in her career; she did it in 2009 on a mixed doubles team with Bob Bryan. As a singles player, like Tsonga, she's simply struggled from playing her hard court game in a clay court world.

The talented Belarusian does have a model to follow in her ascent to clay court competitiveness, and it comes in the form of her semifinal foe: Maria Sharapova. Sharapova had overpowered opponents on her way to Wimbledon, U.S. and Aussie Open titles, but had never been remarkable on clay. Last year, on her way to the title and completing the career slam, she was able to mix in more finesse, opening up her own movement and forcing her opponents to do more. She benefited from a diluted field after Serena was bounced in the first round, but she had to put together seven wins; no easy feat for any pro, and on arguably her worst surface.

Azarenka has done almost precisely what Sharapova did last year. Her power is still the key to her game, but she's keeping her opponents off-balance with looking for more precise shots, rather than trying to blow people away with every swing. The result is more effective power shots when she decides to uncork them, and a game that looked like it had no flaws against Kirilenko.

It would surprise no one if Tsonga and Azarenka both fell in the semis to superior clay opponents in Ferrer and Sharapova, respectively. But that the two have come this far is pleasant enough a surprise to fans tired of seeing their favorite hard court personalities exit Roland Garros early. Tsonga and Azarenka are too much fun to watch to not enjoy them for the full two weeks in Paris.

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