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  1. Tennis

Tennis: Madrid to offer clues towards Paris major

The women's clay-court season gathers pace this week with WTA Madrid getting under way on Thursday, with Aryna Sabalenka the defending champion.

Qualifying is contested over the next couple of days before the first round proper begins on Thursday, with the final of the WTA 1000 event scheduled to take place on Saturday 7th May.

A high-class field is set to gather in the Spanish capital, with 14 of the world's top 16 players involved, as well as former world number ones Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep.

Can anyone stop Swiatek?

Iga Swiatek may have moved to the top of the world rankings by default following the shock retirement of Ashleigh Barty last month, but there is no doubting the Pole's credentials as the world's best player.

The 20-year-old is currently on a 23-match winning streak dating back to mid-February, during which time she has won four events, following up three hard-court successes by completing a smooth transition on to clay with victory at last week's Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

Clay is of course the surface where Swiatek broke on to the scene in 2020 by winning the French Open and she is priced at 5/2 to land another Grand Slam success in Paris this year.

It is now less than a month until the 2022 French Open gets under way and Swiatek will be hoping to hone her skills even further in Madrid, especially as she did not make it beyond the last-16 stage 12 months ago.

The world number one is certainly the one to beat heading into the peak of the clay-court season, as she will also be looking to defend her Italian Open title next month, a tournament that gets under way off the back of the WTA Madrid.

In-form Badosa leads Spanish charge

While Rafael Nadal is a record five-time winner in Madrid on the ATP Tour, no female Spanish player has ever made it to the final of the WTA Madrid, but Paula Badosa will be looking to buck that trend this year.

Badosa has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the rankings since she became the first Spanish female to reach the semi-finals in Madrid 12 months ago - achieving that feat as a wildcard entrant.

Since then the 24-year-old has risen some 60 places up the rankings to number two in the world, winning three WTA titles along the way, including on clay in Belgrade last May.

A career-best run to the quarter-finals of the French Open also came off the back of her impressive showing in Madrid last year and she can be backed at 12/1 to land the top prize in Paris this time around.

Badosa is certainly a picture of consistency, reaching the quarter-finals or better at seven of her last 11 events, a record she will be keen to extend at Caja Magica this week.

Osaka to make clay-court return

Four-time Grand Slam winner Osaka will be competing at her first clay-court event of the season in Madrid and the Japanese star will be hoping to take confidence from her run to the final of the Miami Open earlier this month.

Osaka is without a tournament success on the WTA Tour since she claimed her fourth Grand Slam title at last year's Australian Open and clay has not traditionally been her strongest surface.

The 24-year-old has never been beyond the quarter-finals of the WTA Madrid or the Italian Open, reaching the last eight stage of both events in 2019, while her deepest run at the French Open has been to the third round.

Now ranked 36th in the world, it is difficult to see Osaka challenging for titles during the clay-court season, although she has proven her ability to rise to the big occasion in the past and she is available at 12/1 to win the French Open.

Changes may hinder Raducanu

Just days before the start of the WTA Madrid, British number one Emma Raducanu made the decision to part ways with coach Torben Beltz after just five months working together.

The 19-year-old, who was a shock winner of last year's US Open, is now searching for her fourth coach in less than a year, hardly an ideal start as she continues her first full clay-court season on the WTA Tour.

Raducanu showed her qualities on clay by reaching the quarter-finals of last week's Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and she was certainly not disgraced when eventually being edged out by woman of the moment Swiatek.

That should give the teenager plenty of confidence heading into the business end of the clay-court season, although a lack of coach will hardly make for ideal preparations.

Still unproven at the highest level on clay, nobody will be expecting Raducanu to defy her 20/1 odds to win this year's French Open, but let's not forget how she shocked the sporting world at Flushing Meadows just over seven months ago.

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