Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

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Serena didn’t feel blue on the blue last year. Will she see red on the red?

Rare is the non-major that features every woman in the WTA top 10, but Madrid can lay claim to that honor this year.  In another rare quirk, all of the top three women arrive there on winning streaks.  Only one of those streaks can survive Madrid.  Whose will it be?  Or none of the above?  We take a look at each quarter of the draw.

First quarter:  Clearly the best women’s player of the last decade, Serena Williams won this title on blue clay last year but has not reached a final on red clay since she completed the career Grand Slam in 2002.  With her world No. 1 ranking somewhat at stake, Serena has landed in the more challenging half of the draw.  Her first two rounds should allow her to find some rhythm on the surface, for the green clay of Charleston offers only partial preparation for the European terre battue.  Seeking her third straight title, Serena could meet Maria Kirilenko in the third round, or perhaps Klara Zakopalova.  Both of those counterpunchers have troubled her on clay before, each extending her to three sets at Roland Garros.  Stiffer competition will arrive in the quarterfinals, though, where the draw has projected her to meet Stuttgart finalist and 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.

The fifth seed must overcome a few notable obstacles of her own to reach that stage, such as a second-round match with Serena’s sister.  Not at her best on clay, Venus Williams still should have plenty of energy at that stage, but she has lost all three of her career meetings with Li.  Surrounding world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki are heavy hitters Yaroslava Shvedova and Mona Barthel.  If neither of those knocks off the Dane, who lost her Stuttgart opener, she could attempt to build on her victory over Li last fall.   While Serena has dominated her head-to-head meetings with both Wozniacki and Li overall, she often has found them foes worthy of her steel.  On red clay, Li’s counterpunching talents and ability to transition from defense to offense could prove especially dangerous.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:   Returning from yet another of her injury absences, Victoria Azarenka barely has played since winning the Doha title from Serena in a memorable three-set final.  That February achievement preceded a shaky effort at Indian Wells curtailed by a sore ankle, so Vika enters Madrid with less match play than most other contenders.  Her bid for a third straight final here will take her through the teeth of some formidable early tests, including Portugal Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her opener.  The Russian took sets from Azarenka in two of their three previous meetings, while second-round opponent Lucie Safarova took her the distance here two years ago and impressed in a three-hour loss to Sharapova at Stuttgart.  Twice a finalist and once a champion at Roland Garros, Francesca Schiavone should pose less resistance to the third seed as her consistency has dwindled.  Nevertheless, an unexpected title in Marrakech might carry Schiavone to their projected clash in the fourth round, for the higher-ranked Marion Bartoli tends to struggle on clay.

Relatively open is the lower area of this quarter, where Sara Errani looks to rebound from an early Stuttgart exit.  Last year’s Roland Garros finalist will appreciate the absence of a powerful shot-maker in her vicinity, allowing her to slowly grind down opponents vulnerable to erratic stretches.  Rising stars Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea fit in that category, as does enigmatic German Julia Goerges.  Eranni has faced doubles partner Roberta Vinci in two key matches over the past several months, a US Open quarterfinal and a Dubai semifinal, emerging victories both times on those hard courts.  Clay could prove a different story, especially with Vinci’s recent fine form.  But Errani’s veteran compatriot will meet last year’s Madrid quarterfinalist Varvara Lepchenko in the first round a few months after losing to her in Fed Cup.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  In the section without any of the WTA’s three leading ladies, the eye pauses on two unseeded figures who could produce deep runs.  One of them, 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, submitted indifferent results in Portugal last week and has played little since a strong start to the year.  This Russian has collected many of her best victories on clay, including Roland Garros upsets of Serena and Radwanska, building on the affinity of her athletic, forehand-centered game for the surface.  Less impressive is Kuznetsova’s focus, which undermined her in a fourth-round match in Paris against Errani last year and could cost her in a third-round meeting with Angelique Kerber.  While the indoor clay of Stuttgart differs significantly from outdoor clay conditions, the world No. 6 still may have gained confidence from nearly reaching a final on her worst surface.  The eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova has generated few headlines of late, and slow-court specialist Alize Cornet rarely makes a statement in a draw of this magnitude.

The other unseeded player of note here, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, burst back into prominence when she reached the Miami semifinals this spring and backed it up with a finals appearance in Charleston.  Jankovic defeated no opponent of note there or in her Bogota title run a month before, but she did win a set from Serena and generally looked at ease on her favorite surface.  Looming for her is yet another clash with her compatriot and fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who also showed encouraging recent form by defeating Kerber in Fed Cup and testing Sharapova in a Stuttgart quarterfinal.  The Serbs have split their two meetings on red clay, both of which lasted three sets, but Ivanovic prevailed comfortably in their only encounter from the past two years.  Scant reward awaits the winner, aligned to face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in a matchup that has befuddled both of them through long losing streaks to the Pole.  Like Kerber, Radwanska would consider clay her worst surface, so a quarterfinal between them could tilt either way.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  The majors, Premier Mandatory tournaments, Premier Five tournaments, and year-end championships form a group of fourteen elite events that overshadow the WTA calendar.  Accustomed to (literally) overshadowing her opponents, Maria Sharapova has reached the final at thirteen of those—all but Madrid.  This year’s draw offers the world No. 2 some assistance in correcting that omission, for only one player who has defeated her in the last twelve months appears in her half.  And that player, grass specialist Sabine Lisicki, hardly poses a formidable threat on clay.  By contrast, potential third-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova has defeated Sharapova on this surface before and seems a more plausible candidate to end her red-clay streak.  Injuries have troubled Cibulkova during her most productive time of the year, however, whereas Sharapova has evolved into a far more dangerous clay threat since that 2009 loss.

One of two one-time major champions stands poised to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but their uneven form this year opens this section for one of its several unseeded talents.  A champion here two years, eighth seed Petra Kvitova could meet ninth seed and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round.  Troubled by a leg injury in recent weeks, though, the latter faces a difficult opening assignment in rising Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.  This clay specialist with an Henin-esque one-handed backhand will bring momentum from reaching the Portugal Open final, while Stosur fell to Jankovic in her Stuttgart opener.  Mounting a comeback from injury is 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who also produced solid results last week.  Flavia Pennetta’s comeback has progressed less promisingly, but she too has plenty of clay skills.  Meanwhile, can Sloane Stephens rediscover some of the form that took her to the second week in Paris last year?  Many questions arise from this section that only matches can answer.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Final:  Li vs. Sharapova

Champion:  Li Na

Check back tomorrow for a preview of the ATP draw in Madrid.

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7 Responses to Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

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  • Fitzpatrick says:

    you’re always very very wrong on your predictions not gonna bother reading this anymore, too whacky & based on uneducated gases about player forms.

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  • Ken says:

    It will be a pleasure to see Serena prove you wrong, what is it with you folk who insist on biting the dust in betting against her. I can’t see how you could have Li in the fnals with Serena and Azarenka in the mix, especially after LI’s lame performance against Sharapova in the recent finals in Stuttgart.

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  • Chris Skelton says:

    Hi Ken,

    I’m pretty sure that I picked Serena to win both Miami and Charleston, although I haven’t looked at those articles lately. (I also picked her to win the Australian Open, incorrectly.) It wouldn’t surprise me if she won here too, and it took me a long time to reflect on what is a very strong top half of the draw. In the end, I decided against choosing her partly because she has not reached a red-clay final since 2002 and partly because, well, it gets dull picking the same champion every time.

    It’s not so much about right and wrong with the picks for me as about coming up with something intriguing for people to discuss. They’re probably the least important part of the preview for me. I intend the previews mostly to give people an overall flavor of the players and matchups that could unfold in each section. Hope that you enjoy the tennis this week.

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  • Curtis Doubt says:

    But you have to admit that they do have points. On every occasion…especially lately where there was huge reason to believe that Li would beat Serena, she hasn’t even won a set.

    And then you put admitted, and visible claycourt non-fans, aka Azarenka and Radwanska, in the semifinals? Nothing more needs to be said about that.

    I’m also not so sold on Sharapova, since the Madrid courts whether red, blue, pink, or black are always the fastest outdoor European clay courts…which Kvitova, Stosur, and many others prefer.

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  • Chris Skelton says:

    Hi Curtis,

    Thank you for taking the time to raise these points, which (like Ken’s points) are very well-taken. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the top half of the draw, such as how well Azarenka can rebound from her injury. I would note that she has reached the final here the last two years, including on red clay in 2011, so she has a better history here than at most other events on this surface. Radwanska is a strange choice, I admit, and I nearly chose one of the Serbs instead. In the end, I felt that I could not ignore Radwanska’s consistent dominance against most of the notable players in her quarter, no matter the surface.

    Sharapova’s results here are not very good, certainly, but all three of her losses had clear explanations. In 2010, she had just returned from injury. In 2011, she played extremely late at night (midnight or so), which normally brings out poor form from her. In 2012, she ran into Serena relatively early. But you are right that it is important to consider how fast the surface usually plays here, and to remind readers about Kvitova’s success in 2011.

    Each and every one of my picks, not just this week but every week, can and should be challenged. I’m glad that these have sparked such an animated discussion, which shows me that they’ve served their purpose. My explanations above are designed to show only that the choices are plausible, not that they’re right. Thanks again for sharing your own thoughts.

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  • Curtis Doubt says:

    No problem…but I couldn’t help but bring up the almost simultaneous exits of Azarenka and Radwanska. It made me remember this!

    But Li losing to Keys that badly on clay? Didn’t see that one coming…I just knew she wasn’t going to beat Serena, and I left it at that.

    And yes you probably should have went with Ivanovic coming for Sharapova…not sure how that’s going to turn out for her, but she she’s coming nonetheless.

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  • Chris Skelton says:

    Haha, yes, Madrid left me with egg on my face for sure. I can’t remember the last time that both of my projected champions for a joint event lost their openers. After crowing over my success the last few weeks, I get to eat crow this week.

    But, as you point out, the scale of those early exits was astonishing. I’m really curious to see what Rome brings. It had seemed over the last few months that we had witnessed the emergence of a solid WTA elite among the top few players, who consistently seemed to take care of business. Maybe it’s just an aberration here, or maybe it’s not as solid as we thought. Radwanska in particular has struggled over the last few months.

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