What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Stuttgart and Marrakech Previews
After a weekend filled with Fed Cup, the ladies of the WTA dig into the clay for the first time this year with a prestigious event in Stuttgart that features most of the top ten. In North Africa, meanwhile, a smaller International tournament attracts a group of clay specialists and younger stars.
Top half: As Maria Sharapova once said, you never can have too many Porsches. Proving herself right, the Russian will launch a title defense at the tournament that launched her spectacular clay campaign last year, culminating with a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Sharapova has looked just as brilliant—if not more so—during the first few months of 2013 as she did during the same period of 2012, while the indoor conditions reward her precise first strikes. Of a similar mentality are several of her potential early opponents, such as home hope Mona Barthel. The German nearly upset then-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka here last year at a tournament where her compatriots typically have fared well, although she produced mixed results in Fed Cup there this weekend. Sharapova long has throttled the quarter’s other seed, Nadia Petrova, so she might face more compelling competition from fellow Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic at that stage. In her two losses to the Russian last year, Ivanovic produced a set or more of quality tennis. She has enjoyed plenty of clay success against Petrova but little against anyone in Stuttgart, where she will face friend and occasional doubles partner Andrea Petkovic in the first round.
More likely than Barthel or Petkovic to venture deep into the draw, the third-seeded Angelique Kerber will start against one of two flammable Russians in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Ekaterina Makarova. Kerber routinely defeated former Stuttgart finalist Caroline Wozniacki here last year, so she still may feel confident if they meet in the quarterfinals despite her loss to the Dane at Indian Wells in March. In fact, Wozniacki may struggle to survive the first two rounds with the swiftly rising Carla Suarez Navarro and veteran clay specialist Roberta Vinci setting their sights on her. While the former world No. 1 enjoyed an apparent breakthrough by reaching the Indian Wells final, both the Spaniard and the Italian have produced steadier results than she has this year, and the latter stands just two rankings slots behind her at No. 12. On the other hand, Stuttgart’s relatively fast surface can produce results more like hard-court tournaments than those on outdoor red clay. Like the Caja Magica in Madrid, the Porsche Arena somehow retains some vestiges of its origins after transitioning from fall to spring.
Bottom half: Among those who might have preferred a more conventional clay court, Sara Errani must feel relieved to avoid another quarterfinal date with Sharapova, as happened at Indian Wells and Miami. Her projected quarterfinal opponent intimidates much less in Stuttgart, for she not only defeated Samantha Stosur in a memorable three-set semifinal at Roland Garros last year but repeated the feat at the year-end championships in Istanbul. Delayed to a Sunday/Monday Fed Cup schedule, the Australian No. 1 may arrive a bit weary at a tournament that she came within a set of winning three years ago. The draw also has handed her what could prove a stiff opening test in Jelena Jankovic, who has shown signs of a revival by reaching the semifinals in Miami and the final in Charleston. Nobody other than Serena has defeated Jankovic on clay this year, and even Serena needed a third set.
Arguably the least formidable quarter of this formidable draw, the lowest section includes 2011 champion Julia Goerges. Nothing for over a year has suggested that the German can reel off a similar string of victories again, nor has Miami quarterfinalist Kirsten Flipkens honed a game suited to clay. Thus, this section may not produce much action of interest until the quarterfinal between its two seeds, both scintillating shot-makers who have claimed notable clay titles. Able to spring back into action at Miami after a long injury hiatus, former Roland Garros champion Li Na has lost only to top-five opponents this season while nearly notching her second major title in Melbourne. She has split her two clay meetings and her four overall meetings with former Madrid champion Petra Kvitova, the last three of which have reached a third set. In general, one would guess that Li’s game will ebb and flow less than the Czech whose major breakthrough came in the same summer.
Semifinals: Sharapova vs. Kerber, Errani vs. Li
Final: Sharapova vs. Li
Top half: The successor of a tournament in Fes, Marrakech would not have featured any woman in the top 25 had not Dominika Cibulkova accepted a wildcard to become the top seed. The fifteenth-ranked Slovak looks to move past the disappointment of letting a 2-0 lead slip away against Russia in a Fed Cup semifinal. A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, and a quarterfinalist there last year with a victory over Azarenka, Cibulkova finds herself in the same section as 2012 Fes champion Kiki Bertens. The Dutchwoman won this tournament’s ancestor as a qualifier last year, and she looks to rekindle memories of that Cinderella run by overcoming veterans like Flavia Pennetta. Bertens defeated Cibulkova at the Paris Indoors this February, although that indoor hard court differs dramatically from outdoor clay.
Accompanying Cibulkova to the brink of glory in Moscow this weekend was her compatriot Daniela Hantuchova, stopped just a few key points short of the clinching victory there. Always a streaky player who veered wildly between dramatic highs and lows, Hantuchova opens against Florianopolis runner-up Olga Puchkova, who defeated Venus Williams at that International event this year. Either of them might fancy her chances against Romina Oprandi, delayed by the same Switzerland-Australia tie that detained Stosur, but the fourth-seeded Kaia Kanepi seems a more ominous threat. Returning from injury at Katowice last week, where she won one match, Kanepi will use events like these to rediscover her rhythm ahead of Roland Garros. She has reached two quarterfinals there, and she will grow more dangerous with every win here.
Bottom half: After going winless all season, promising youngster Petra Martic finally awakened to post two victories in Katowice. She opens here against a veteran almost equally moribund this year but with a far more imposing resume, 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone. In this quarter also are found the two Moroccan wildcards, one of whom faces the third-seeded Alize Cornet. Nearly a surprise quarterfinalist in Miami, Cornet has lost her last seven meetings with Schiavone as the Italian’s versatile, crafty game has wreaked havoc on her fragile emotions. She will hope that someone like Simona Halep halts her nemesis before then.
Anchored by the second-seeded Sorana Cirstea, who defeated Kerber in Miami, the lowest quarter showcases some notable young talent. Former junior No. 1 Yulia Putintseva will accumulate more main-draw experience after winning one main-draw match each at the Australian Open and Dubai. While she probably is not at her best on clay, neither are most of the women around her other than Cirstea. French fans will look forward to seeing more of Kristina Mladenovic, who reached the quarterfinals or better at three straight February tournaments. Having cooled off in March, Mladenovic could edge inside the top 50 by stringing together a few victories here.
Final: Bertens vs. Cornet