The Fab Five (WTA): Previewing the Roland Garros Women’s Contenders

Sharapova hopes to reignite a love affair from last summer.

This look ahead at the Roland Garros women’s field mirrors the format used for the men’s companion article yesterday.

The smart money:

1) Serena Williams:  Looking back at last year’s preview of WTA Roland Garros contenders, Serena held exactly this position at the head of the list.  Virginie Razzano saw things differently, of course, scoring a shocking first-round upset that extended Serena’s drought without a final here to ten straight years after winning the 2002 title.  So you might ask why many of us did not learn our lesson in again choosing her as the consensus favorite.  One reason is that Razzanos, like Soderlings, are rare events that do not happen in consecutive years.  Another is that Serena’s clay titles last season, as impressive as they were, came on green and blue clay, whereas she completed the Madrid-Rome double this year on the red dirt featured at Roland Garros.  She also moved as crisply on clay as she ever has when she won the latter tournament, and the chronic injury woes behind her Australian Open exit have subsided for now.

But the main reason to dub Serena the Roland Garros favorite emerged from her dominant efforts against the two women just below her in the rankings and on this list.  The world No. 1 now owns a 25-4 advantage over world No. 2 Sharapova (13-2) and world No. 3 Azarenka (12-2) after she won the Madrid final from the former and the Rome final from the latter.  Outside a slight lull in both second sets, those matches served as brilliant displays of Serena’s talent rather than featuring genuinely competitive tennis.  Serena’s greatest challenges may come early in the draws from the Razzanos of the WTA, players whom she overlooks before dialing up her focus in the second week.

Knocking on the door:

2) Maria Sharapova:  The defending champion will arrive in Paris after a spring strikingly similar to what she produced last year.  Compiling two titles and four finals since the beginning of March, Sharapova lost just one match during the clay preparatory tournaments for the second straight year.  That loss came against Serena in Madrid, as it did in 2012, and the Russian has not lost to any other opponent since the Australian Open.  Although she won a set in their Miami final, Sharapova likely cannot reverse this head-to-head should she face a healthy world No. 1 in Paris.  But she cannot meet Serena until the final because of her No. 2 seed, and much can happen throughout the course of a fortnight.

Sharapova’s own health poses a minor concern, for a viral illness hampered her during Madrid and forced her to withdraw from Rome after two matches.  Assuming that she recovers by the weekend, she should overpower any of the clay specialists whom she can meet early in the draw, for she has evolved into a much smoother, smarter shot-maker under coach Thomas Hogstedt.  Fellow former champion Li Na defeated Sharapova at Roland Garros two years ago and again at this year’s Australian Open, suggesting that she represents the second-most significant obstacle for the Russian behind Serena.  Sharapova has won their last two clay meetings and four of their last five overall, however.  Consistently plowing deep into draws, she has not lost before the quarterfinals in ten months and reached the semifinals at all of her 2013 tournaments until she withdrew from Rome.

3) Victoria Azarenka:  Unlike Sharapova, the two-time Australian Open champion has defeated Serena this year.  That Doha victory in February could provide Azarenka with some belief should they meet again, as could their epic in last year’s US Open final when she came within two points of the title.  More recently, Serena’s rout in Rome laid bare the vulnerability of the younger champion’s serve, constantly under threat as the veteran with the much more imposing serve extended her lead in their matches to 12-2.  When she maneuvered herself into the rallies, however, Azarenka often stood toe to toe with a Serena near her best in an encouraging sign for the future.

Most effective on hard courts, Vika never has advanced past the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and weathered the first week only narrowly last year.  Understandably unimpressive when she returned from an ankle injury in Madrid, she shone more brightly in Rome by defeating two women with strong clay credentials in Stosur and Sara Errani.  Those former Roland Garros finalists should have held a surface edge on Azarenka, but that advantage could not compensate for her balanced weapons and relentless focus.  The world No. 3 holds the recent momentum in her rivalry with Li Na and, on outdoor courts, with Sharapova.  Those trends will make her difficult to stop if she stays healthy and composed—two huge “ifs” at the most physically and emotionally demanding major of all.

With a hope and a prayer:

4) Li Na:  The champion at Roland Garros two years ago, she blitzed four straight top-ten opponents to claim Asia’s first major title.  Enormously talented and enormously unpredictable for most of her career, Li appeared to have found some stability midway through 2012 when coach Carlos Rodriguez joined her staff.  The man partly responsible for Justine Henin’s greatness oversaw Li’s impressive run to the brink of the Australian Open title this year, which included victories over world No. 4 Radwanska and world No. 2 Sharapova.  Through the end of April, her consistency had improved so distinctly that she had not lost a match to a lower-ranked opponent in 2013.

But Li staggered to early losses at both Madrid and Rome, surprising in view of both her recent form and her affinity for the surface.  Her previous success on clay, which had extended outside Paris, stemmed in part from her ability to hit through the slow court while covering it with her crisp movement.  When Li’s weapons misfire even for a short period, though, matches can slip away from her quickly because of her slim margin for error.  And the cauldron of intensity that builds throughout the Roland Garros fortnight may unhinge her, as it did last year when she attempted to defend her title.  Li will not bear that particular burden this year, but her nerves will bear watching as much as her game.

5) Sara Errani:  Somehow, she’s in the top five despite never beating a top-five opponent in her life.  The day of reckoning may arrive for Errani now that she defends the mountain of points that a major final comprises.  Or it may not.  Schiavone backed up her championship performance in 2010 with a runner-up showing a year later, after all, and Errani has matured into a consistent achiever throughout the season.  Her clay results this year include a Premier title in Acapulco and consecutive semifinals at the marquee events in Madrid and Rome.  Both of those ended in similar fashion:  competitive in one set against a top-three opponent, Errani was overwhelmed in the other and never a real threat to win.

Like David Ferrer in the men’s draw, then, she needs more than a little help to go one round further in Roland Garros than she did last year.  The pieces of the puzzle fell neatly together for her countrywoman Schiavone, though, who maneuvered through an upset-riddled draw almost without anyone noticing it.  Such unexpected narratives can unfold more often at Roland Garros than at any other major because most of the WTA elite plays its least convincing tennis there of all the majors.  Not a celebrity or fan favorite like the others on this list, Errani will fly relatively under the radar and should like it that way.

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Compared to the men’s field, the women’s field contains a greater potential for surprises, as Errani herself illustrated last year.  Among them are last year’s semifinalists Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur, capable of producing championship tennis at a moment’s notice.  They’re on the outside looking in after generally disappointing seasons, a Dubai title for Kvitova the exception.  Still, keep an eye on where they fall when the draw appears on Friday.

A panel of Tennis Grandstand contributors will offer thoughts on both Roland Garros singles draws by the end of Saturday, and I will publish my usual full quarter-by-quarter preview of both draws on Friday or Saturday at Tennis View Magazine’s website.  My daily coverage from Sunday onward of the year’s second major will follow on Tennis Grandstand and possibly elsewhere as well.