The End of the Red Brick Road: WTA Brussels and Strasbourg Previews
One Premier tournament and one International tournament complete the Road to Roland Garros within striking distance of Paris. None of the women involved are in serious contention for the clay season’s ultimate prize, but the absence of those elite names could lead to some tightly contested matches in playing fields without clear favorites. I forwent predictions this time because your guess is as good as mine. (Feel free to opine in the comments, as always.)
Top half: Seven of the Brussels seeds will receive seeds in Paris next week, a strong statement considering the tournament’s placement on the eve of Roland Garros. In need of a strong statement herself is top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who took a wildcard into the tournament following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome. Wozniacki has struggled on clay for most of her career but should aim to halt her skid before dropping outside the top ten. Unfortunately for her, recurrent nemesis Julia Goerges lurks in the quarterfinals. This German notably defeated Wozniacki to win the Stuttgart clay title two years ago, and she has added two more victories over the Dane since then. Since she has impressed hardly more than Wozniacki has recently, though, one can’t entirely discount Swiss clay specialist Romina Oprandi or the qualifiers who litter this section.
None of the women in the second quarter has distinguished herself consistently on clay, although Arantxa Rus does own a Roland Garros victory over Kim Clijsters. Having reached the second week of Roland Garros last year, the fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens looks to build upon her modestly encouraging effort in Rome. There, Stephens won consecutive matches for the first time since defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Her depleted confidence resurfaced in a lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova, but a small tournament like Brussels offers a useful venue to rebuild that strength. With fast-court specialists like Tsvetana Pironkova and Magdalena Rybarikova around her, Stephens might face her stiffest resistance from Peng Shuai. The Chinese double-fister won their only previous meeting, also on clay, but Stephens has improved markedly in the two years since then.
Bottom half: By far the most intriguing first-round match of the draw pits third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova against Kaia Kanepi. This battle of 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalists will feature a contrast of styles between the compact, agile Slovak and the robust, heavy-hitting Estonian. Never have they met on clay, while Kanepi has won two of three matches overall. Of some lesser note is a potential second-round clash between Varvara Lepchenko and Stefanie Voegele. The American upset Schiavone at Roland Garros last year and has continued the clay success atypical among her compatriots this year with two victories over Roberta Vinci. For her part, Voegele reached the semifinals of Charleston on green clay, although she has won only one match on red clay. Kanepi defeated Lepchenko last fall before the injuries that sidelined her for several months, so an upset of Cibulkova could open her draw.
Probably disappointing many Belgian fans, their two leading women would meet as early as the second round in their home tournament. Both have achieved more success on grass and hard courts than on clay, and both open against rising American stars. Having upset Li Na in Madrid as a lucky loser, Madison Keys will aim to snuff out home hope Kirsten Flipkens in a match of baseline first strikes against all-court craft. Belgian No. 2 Yanina Wickmayer faces a somewhat easier assignment in the form of Jamie Hampton, who has not won a match in a clay main draw this year. Awaiting one of the Belgians in the quarterfinals is second-seeded Roberta Vinci, an artisan of traditional clay-court tennis. Vinci has not found her best form for much of the spring but did win a small event in Katowice, Poland.
Top half: Atop the draw is French No. 1 Marion Bartoli, who has emitted the occasional burst of inspiration on home soil. The eccentric double-fister reached the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, although clay usually hampers her style of staccato points and quick strikes. Two rising stars could challenge her in this section, compatriot Caroline Garcia and Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard. The former just won a clay challenger at Cagnes-sur-Mer, while the latter notched a significant victory over Laura Robson on the green clay of Charleston. First-time champions in 2013, Memphis titlist Marina Erakovic and Florianopolis titlist Monica Niculescu will seek to end spring losing streaks when they meet in the first round. Neither can match Bartoli’s talent, but either could befuddle one of the youngsters.
Another Frenchwoman holds the highest seed in the second quarter, and world No. 30 Alize Cornet’s game suits clay more effectively than Bartoli’s style. The mixture of qualifiers and fellow Frenchwomen surrounding her will turn few heads, while Chanelle Scheepers will not overpower Cornet. The latter two women bring similar patterns of results to Strasbourg. Before she fell to Melanie Oudin in Rome qualifying, though, Scheepers did reach a clay semifinal in Marrakech and upset Jelena Jankovic on the surface in Madrid. Last year’s runner-up here, Cornet reached a somewhat more significant clay semifinal in Acapulco this February but suffered a loss to an Italian wildcard in Rome.
Bottom half: Following a mid-career surge, Hsieh Su-Wei has embedded herself within the top 50 and holds the fourth seed here. An opening match against promising German talent Annika Beck intrigues, as does a possible quarterfinal meeting with the elegant Daniela Hantuchova. Handed a wildcard into Madrid, Hantuchova made the most of the opportunity by upsetting Petra Kvitova en route to the final 16. Also in this section is Karolina Pliskova, a heavy server who nearly won her first title this year at Kuala Lumpur and defeated Kanepi on the clay of Portugal.
Perhaps worth more attention than the seeds in the lowest quarter, some of the unseeded entrants could score an upset or two. For the rest of her career, Virginie Razzano will struggle to trump the achievement of defeating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, which probably resulted in her wildcard here. Aligned against Czech doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka in a first-round match to watch, Garbine Muguruza aims to notch her first clay main-draw win in a season when she has reached the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami. In the shadow of compatriots like Stephens and Keys, sixth-seeded Christina McHale continues to seek traction in her comeback from mononucleosis. Second-seeded Tamira Paszek has lost 11 of her last 12 matches and seems unlikely to increase that total suddenly here.
Capsules on the Roland Garros contenders will follow this week before the draws appear on Friday.