What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Portugal Open Preview
Sandwiched between busy weeks in Stuttgart and Madrid is a lovely smaller event between Lisbon and the ocean. Formerly known as the Estoril tournament, the Portugal Open has moved to nearby Oeiras and a location more convenient for those traveling from the capital. It lacks top-ten entrants or other names familiar to the casual fan, but the tennis aficionado will appreciate the mixture of clay specialists and rising stars on display.
Top half: Least comfortable on clay among all surfaces, the top-seeded Marion Bartoli seems ripe for an upset in view of her recent struggles. Bartoli fell in her first match at each of her last two tournaments and has lost five of her last six matches on clay. Opening against fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, she could face a compelling in the quarterfinals against the winner of an intriguing first-round encounter. Varvara Lepchenko, the sixth seed, achieved her breakthrough on clay last year with a Madrid quarterfinal and an upset over Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros. Continuing that trend for her in an otherwise poor 2013 were victories in Fed Cup over both Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, two of the WTA’s leading clay specialists. But Lepchenko faces the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw to start the week in 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Although she has cooled over her last few events, Kuznetsova signaled a resurgence with an outstanding start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal. She also reached the second week of Roland Garros in her last tournament on the terre battue.
Less intriguing is a second quarter stacked with three qualifiers, grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek, and two inconsistent Russian seeds. A champion in Monterrey and a finalist in Brisbane, the third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has wobbled through five first-round losses as well. This former Roland Garros quarterfinalist has lost two of three on clay this year. Perhaps buoyed by Russia’s Fed Cup comeback, to which Pavlyuchenkova did not contribute, compatriot and fellow seed Elena Vesnina looks to exploit this soft section. Vesnina raced to a 10-1 start this year, including her first career title, but she won just four games in her first-round Stuttgart loss and has struggled overall since that initial spurt. Also winning her first career title this year, Romanian junkballer Monica Niculescu rounds out this section.
Semifinal: Kuznetsova vs. Pavlyuchenkova
Bottom half: Scoring a mini-upset over Caroline Wozniacki in Stuttgart, Carla Suarez Navarro started her favorite span of the year with modest success. With a ranking near its career high, the fourth seed will showcase her elegant one-handed backhand and agile defense against a group of heavier hitters. Foremost among them is Julia Goerges, who has proved that she can win on clay with a Stuttgart title two years ago. Those two years feel like an eternity ago sometimes, but Goerges did stir to life with a strong effort at that tournament against Petra Kvitova. She faces a challenging second-round match against one of the two Marrakech finalists. Having faced each other on Sunday, Francesca Schiavone and Lourdes Dominguez Lino will meet again on Tuesday or Wednesday. The 2010 Roland Garros champion and 2011 finalist, Schiavone seemed to hover near the verge of retirement when she struggled to win a match earlier this year. One wonders whether her week in Marrakech will have boosted her confidence a bit.
Initially projected as the top seed in that Moroccan event, Dominika Cibulkova withdrew from it in the wake of Slovakia’s Fed Cup catastrophe. Her team became the first in Fed Cup history to lose a World Group semifinal after leading 2-0, a collapse that began with her loss to Maria Kirilenko. Cibulkova owns the best clay skills of anyone in her immediate vicinity, for she upset Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros last year en route to the quarterfinals and also reached the semifinals there four years ago. A pair of young players, Urszula Radwanska and Laura Robson, hope to gain traction at a small event without any notable names. Robson in particular could use an injection of morale after dropping six three-setters since the Australian Open, having won the first set in three. Elsewhere in this section, another 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist in Kaia Kanepi aims to accelerate a comeback in its third tournament. She might face the fifth-seeded Sorana Cirstea in the second round, or ageless Spanish clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues. Cirstea has trended upward recently and benefits from the extra time on the surface to prepare her savage forehand.
Semifinal: Suarez Navarro vs. Cirstea
Final: Kuznetsova vs. Suarez Navarro
Since Madrid starts on Saturday, May 4, my Friday article will preview the two draws rather than offering a viewpoint on a current issue. I might write that type of article for the following Monday, depending on whether something arises. Apologies for any confusion caused by the scheduling switch.