Agnieszka Radwanska

When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on Tuesday’s Quarterfinal Action

Plenty of fascinating events unfolded on the first day of quarterfinal action in Paris.  Here are my thoughts on what happened.

ATP:

Major breakthrough:  Not since 2011 had Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeated a member of the ATP top eight, much less one of the Big Four.  He had lost a five-set heartbreaker in the same round here last year to Novak Djokovic, and he had lost a five-setter in the same round at the Australian Open to the man whom he faced today.  When Tsonga fell behind early in the first set, the narrative looked all too familiar.  But the flamboyant French shot-maker has shown far more resilience this fortnight than he has in years, and he stormed back from early adversity to dominate Roger Federer as few men ever have at a major.  Give the Paris crowd credit for abandoning their usual adulation of Federer and relentlessly exhorting their home hero to knock him off.

Pumpkin time for Cinderella Tommy:  All of those grueling comebacks finally caught up with Tommy Robredo, who won just four games from David Ferrer in a listless quarterfinal.  When he looks back at this tournament, though, Robredo will remember it as one of the highlights of his career.  Normally a reserved, unassuming character, he stole the spotlight for several days on a grand stage for the first time.  Nobody would have expected it of him a few months ago.

Crossroads for Federer:  Despite the 36-quarterfinal streak at majors, one would have to rate the first half of 2013 a serious disappointment for the Swiss.  Federer has no titles, one final, and one victory over a top-eight opponent (Tsonga at the Australian Open).  Now, Federer must seek to defend his Wimbledon title or possibly face the prospect of dropping outside the top four.  His occasional flickers of brilliance this spring simply will not suffice unless the draw implodes, which rarely happens at a major.

When David becomes Goliath:  The fourth seed reached his second straight Roland Garros semifinal and fourth semifinal in five majors by losing just nine games in his last six sets.  Tsonga cannot overlook the small Spaniard on the eve of a possible final against Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.  Granted a fine  draw that placed him in the opposite half from both of those nemeses, Ferrer has made the most of it.  He could reach his first major final without facing any of the Big Four, a golden opportunity.

All eyes on the top half:  With Federer gone, the winner of the projected Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal semifinal blockbuster will be heavily favored against whomever he faces in the final.  That match looms larger than ever, assuming that both men can take care of business tomorrow.

No time like the first time:  Neither Tsonga nor Ferrer ever has reached the final here.  Neither man even has lost a set in reaching this stage, a first for both.  Who will handle the pressure better on Friday?

WTA:

Forza Italia:  For the fourth straight year, an Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros semifinals.  Sara Errani hit neither an ace nor a double fault in a characteristically gritty win over Agnieszka Radwanska, concluding with a 67-minute second set.  Defeating Radwanska in a WTA main-draw match for the first time, she exploited her much greater comfort on the surface but also beat the world No. 4 at her own game.  A leisurely 11-break contest with long points and relatively few winners normally plays into Radwanska’s hands.  Not this time.

No déjà vu, thank you:  Facing Svetlana Kuznetsova on the same court where she lost to her in this round four years ago, Serena Williams seized control with an emphatic first set that extended her usual pattern this tournament.  History then threatened to repeat itself when Kuznetsova rallied to take the second set and claimed an early break in the third.  Struggling with both her serve and her groundstroke technique, Serena looked much less like the dominant contender of the early rounds than the woman who had not reached a Roland Garros semifinal for a decade.  Sheer willpower finally ended that drought and a four-match losing streak in quarterfinals here as the world No. 1 forced herself to find her range in an unexpectedly hard-fought victory.

Crossroads for Radwanska:  In some respects, the newly blonde world No. 4 has enjoyed a strong year, matching her best result ever at the Australian Open (quarterfinal) and achieving a new best result at Roland Garros (also quarterfinal).  A few other results have impressed as well, including a Miami semifinal.  But Radwanska has shown little real evolution this year that would encourage one to believe in her as anything more than a serial quarterfinalist at majors.  She will defend finals points at Wimbledon, the only major where she has gone past that round.  Like Federer, her top-four status might crumble if she falls well short there.

No eyes on the bottom half:  With Serena still in the draw, the matches down there offer an entertaining diversion but lack real title implications.  The top seed has bageled or breadsticked all four of the bottom-half quarterfinalists on clay this year and holds a 32-4 career record against the three not named Jelena Jankovic.  When JJ holds your best hope for a competitive final, avert your eyes.

Rewind to Madrid:  Nudged within two points of defeat by Anabel Medina Garrigues in a quarterfinal there, Serena escaped and then rocketed past her last two opponents to the title.  She will face Errani in the semifinals here, as she did there.  Will the parallels continue?

 

 

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Radwanska, Serena, Ferrer Highlight Tuesday’s Quarterfinals

The first four Roland Garros quarterfinals unfold on Tuesday, featuring Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Serena Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska.  Colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg will break down Federer’s marquee bout with home hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in plenty of detail.  You can find succinct previews of the other three quarterfinals here.

Tommy Robredo vs. David Ferrer:  Classic clay specialist Robredo radiated with elation after he rallied from multiple deficits to upset compatriot Nicolas Almagro for his first quarterfinal here in four years.  Two days later, he will need all of the energy that remains in his legs to defeat the second-ranked Spaniard.  The clay specialist par excellence in the ATP, Ferrer has cruised through five matches without dropping a set and befuddled a wide range of opponents.  Robredo does nothing that the fourth seed cannot do, and do better, so the matchup presents serious problems unless the favorite’s forum tumbles down an elevator shaft.

To leave any impact on the match at all, the underdog must start more effectively than he has in previous matches.  Masked by the heroism of his record-setting comeback trilogy was the uninspired play that required the heroism.  Ferrer is no Almagro or Gael Monfils, instead an excellent front-runner against lower-ranked opponents who rarely lets an advantage slip away once he sinks his teeth into a match.  Robredo last defeated him in 2008, when they stood much closer in the rankings, and Ferrer has won six of seven overall since losing their first meeting.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal at Roland Garros always produces a welcome display of vintage clay tennis.  But this quarterfinal should not produce much drama.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sara Errani:  The only quarterfinal in either draw between two top-five players features two women who prefer the counterpuncher’s role.  The winner can count on occupying that role in the semifinals, no matter who she faces there, but it will be intriguing to see whether Radwanska or Errani steps out of her comfort zone to take the initiative. Both have displayed sparkling form here, suggesting that a high-quality match should lie ahead.  Radwanska faced the single most challenging test of their eight opponents in Ana Ivanovic, while Errani’s victories came against a higher level of opponent on average.  The Italian labored through a difficult three-setter against Carla Suarez Navarro, a heavier burden than any placed on Radwanska this fortnight.  She overcame breathing issues in that match too, showing her underrated toughness.

Neither of these stubborn women relaxes her focus when at her best, so we can expect an absorbing battle waged in all areas of the court.  We also can expect plenty of service breaks from these antitheses of Serena’s first-strike power.  Radwanska wins more free points on her serve than she did earlier in her career, but she remains a competitor who makes her living with excellent consistency and inspired finesse.  Those two traits define the core of Errani’s success as well, pitting strength against strength here.  Their history extends back to several meetings in challengers and qualifying draws, which the Pole has dominated in addition to claiming their three WTA main-draw encounters.

Serena Williams vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova:  Other than a few games here or there, the top seed’s opponents have offered little more than glorified batting practice.  Which Kuznetsova decides to show up on Tuesday will decide whether the batting practice continues, or whether the level of competition spikes.  After all, the Russian has won as many Roland Garros titles as Serena has, and hers came more recently.  In the same round here four years ago, she outlasted an edgy, error-prone Serena in three pulsating sets before proceeding more smoothly to her second major title.  Kuznetsova also served for the match when they met at the Australian Open that year, a tournament that the latter eventually won.  Overall, she has won at least one set in five of their eight meetings and taken Serena to a tiebreak in two others.  Few women can boast such a fine record against the greatest player of their generation.

An area in which Kuznetsova can come closer to Serena than most women is her natural athleticism, which enables her to transition smoothly from defense to offense.  Years of training in Spain have honed her clay skills, moreover, leaving her a more natural mover on the surface than even this sensational version of Serena.  An area in which Kuznetsova remains more vulnerable than many women to the world No. 1, meanwhile, is her serve.  This shot contributed to her downward spiral in 2011-12, partly because of shoulder trouble and partly because of a general lack of confidence that emerged through double faults.  To plant a flicker of doubt in Serena’s mind, an opponent cannot sustain relentless pressure on her own serve.  Kuznetsova will bring belief from her three-set upset over world No. 8 Angelique Kerber, but belief alone cannot revive her 2009 form.

Roland Garros Rewind: Serena, Ferrer, Radwanska Thrive; Federer, Errani, Kuznetsova Survive

The schedule of play in singles has shrunk to two courts as the second week starts at Roland Garros.  Categories have started to shrink as well in the latter stages of these recaps.

ATP:

Match of the day:  That pesky Gilles Simon just won’t do the decent thing and retreat respectfully from Roger Federer, bowing every two steps.  Simon has defeated Federer twice and now taken him to a fifth set in both of their major meetings.  Reeling off 10 of 13 games in one stretch, the Frenchman even led the former champion by two sets to one until Federer compiled a seven-game surge of his own and eased through the final set without drama.

Comeback of the day:  Maybe we should rename this category the “Tommy Robredo Comeback of the Day.”  The Spanish veteran became the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive matches at a major after losing the first two sets.  At least Robredo did not need to save match points this time, as he did against Gael Monfils, but he trailed Nicolas Almagro by a break in both the fourth and fifth sets.  Of course, this was Nicolas Almagro.

Gold star:  Assigned the tallest man in the draw, David Ferrer trimmed him down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes.  Serena Williams also would have appreciated Ferrer’s demolition of Kevin Anderson and his massive serve, which ended with consecutive breadsticks.  Alone among the men in his half, he has not dropped a set or played a tiebreak through four matches.

Silver star:  Like Ferrer, Tsonga has not lost a set en route to a second straight quarterfinal here.  His victory over Viktor Troicki produced a routine scoreline like those before it, a departure from his usual trends but good news for his future here.

Stat of the day:  By rallying against Simon, Federer extended his streak of consecutive quarterfinals at majors to 36.  That’s nine years, reaching back to Wimbledon 2004.

Question of the day:  Tsonga threw quite a scare into world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the quarterfinal stage here last year, holding four match points in the fourth set.  He took Federer to a fifth set in the same round at the Australian Open this year.  Does another heart-stopping epic lie in store?

WTA:

Match of the day:  A 48-winner barrage from Svetlana Kuznetsova avenged a loss in Madrid to world No. 8 Angelique Kerber.  Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at both majors this year, something that at least half of the WTA top ten cannot say pending tomorrow’s results.  Unseeded former champions plowing deep into the draw always adds an extra layer of interest to the second week of a major.

Comeback of the day:  Her first three matches had tumbled into the win column almost too easily.  Like Federer, Sara Errani encountered her first serious test of the tournament today against Carla Suarez Navarro and nearly flunked it.  She regrouped to secure her tenth win at Roland Garros in the last two years, having won one match in four previous appearances.  Predictably, neither woman hit an ace.

Gold star:  Never at her best on clay, Agnieszka Radwanska seemed ripe for an early upset when she lost early at the key clay non-majors and withdrew from Brussels last week with a shoulder injury.  Radwanska thus has surprised by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set, comfortably knocking off 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic to set up an intriguing clash with Errani.  All of the top four women are still in the draw.

Silver star:  To Roberta Vinci’s credit, she gave Serena Williams something to ponder in the second set as she stayed level until 3-3 and made inroads toward a break in the seventh game.  Unwilling to throw her opponent a lifeline, Serena snuffed out the threat, broke, and then served out her 28th straight win.  Four matches, ten games lost.

Stat of the day:  In five years and 20 majors since she won her in 2008, Ana Ivanovic has reached one major quarterfinal.

Question of the day:  Four years ago, Serena and Kuznetsova combined on a quarterfinal thriller that the Russian snatched late in the third set.  Could we see a worthy sequel in the same round on Tuesday, or is Serena simply too bulletproof at present?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Federer, Ferrer, Serena, Ivanovic-Radwanska and More on Sunday

Now that the second week has arrived, you can find previews of every match on this site.  This article covers all eight on Sunday.

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Viktor Troicki:  While their head-to-head stands more evenly balanced than you might think, Tsonga has won both of their clay meetings convincingly.  Troicki has sandwiched a tortuous five-set win over a clay specialist between two straight-sets victories, the latter an upset of Marin Cilic.  For a man with a losing record this season headed into the tournament, an appearance in the second week marks an excellent step forward.  The bad news for Troicki is that Tsonga has not lost a set through three matches, showing uncommon discipline and purpose.  With the French crowd behind him on the biggest tennis stadium in his nation, he should make short work of a man who often gets rattled in hostile or tense environments.

Gilles Simon vs. Roger Federer:  When they first started to collide in the second half of 2008, Simon seemed to have Federer’s number.  He rallied from losing the first set to grind past him twice that year on the hard courts of the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships.  Surely chagrined that his stylistic flights of fancy could not trump a mechanical counterpuncher, Federer labored to finish him off at the 2011 Australian Open after squandering a two-set lead.  Rome this month marked the first time that he finally seemed to solve his “Simon problem.”  Displaying his superior clay skills, Federer yielded just three games to a Frenchman who lost his first two sets at his home major and needed to come from behind in the third round as well.  Simon lost 23 games in his last match.  Federer has lost 23 games in the tournament.  Not even the crowd, which adores Federer, will give him a meaningful edge.

Kevin Anderson vs. David Ferrer:  The tallest man in the draw faces the shortest man in the draw.  On clay, though, David Ferrer looms much larger than does Kevin Anderson despite the South African’s appearance in the Casablanca final this spring.  Ferrer has dominated all of his first three opponents without dropping a set, pouncing on a weak draw after Madrid and Rome assigned him quarterfinals against Nadal.  The Spanish veteran has made a living out of defanging huge servers like Anderson, using his deft reflexes and compact swings to blunt their single overwhelming weapon before outmaneuvering them along the baseline. Anderson bounced Ferrer from the second round of Indian Wells in March, but that victory may have owed something to Ferrer’s busy South American clay schedule just before and the deflating loss to Nadal that ended it.

Tommy Robredo vs. Nicolas Almagro:  This all-Spanish battle should feature plenty of traditional clay tennis with extended rallies from behind the baseline.  A former member of the top ten, Robredo launched an impressive comeback from injury this spring by winning the Casablanca title and upsetting Tomas Berdych in Barcelona.  He has emerged from one of the draw’s most star-studded nuggets, which included not only Berdych but Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis.  Saving match points against Monfils in the last round, Robredo has rallied from losing the first two sets in each of his last two matches.  By contrast, Almagro has grown famous for choking away huge leads.  But he has won all five of his meetings with Robredo, all on clay, while losing one total set.  Look for him to control the rallies as Robredo slips into retrieving mode.

WTA:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Angelique Kerber:  Two of their three previous meetings have gone deep into a final set and ended with almost identical scores, the most recent in Madrid this spring.  Kerber’s burst from anonymity into the top 10 occurred near the same time that Kuznetsova plummeted from trendy dark horse to forgotten woman.  True to those trends, the German lefty has won both of their matches this year.  Kuznetsova should hold a clear surface edge, however, and she showed by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals that she still can bring her best tennis to the biggest tournaments.  An upset of Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that Kerber has plenty to fear, although she will bring momentum from gritting through a hard-fought contest with dirt devil Varvara Lepchenko.  This match may hinge on whose forehand does the dictating.

Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci:  Headlines would ripple through the tennis world if somebody merely stands up to Serena, much less defeats her.  A canny veteran with plenty of clay skills, Vinci will resist more tenaciously than most of her previous victims.  Serena will deny her the time to construct her artful combinations, though, and handled her doubles partner Sara Errani with ease.  This match could develop some intrigue if the world No. 1 struggles with her timing on her return, which can happen on clay.  But otherwise Serena should break serve too consistently and land too many punishing punches with her own serve to feel any serious pressure.

Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Sara Errani:  The answer to Robredo vs. Almagro in the men’s draw features a contest between two clay specialists of the sort rarely witnessed in the WTA these days.  Errani routed Suarez Navarro in the Acapulco final, which makes sense.  In no area of her game is the tiny Spaniard better than the small Italian, who even aced her in Acapulco.  On the other hand, Suarez Navarro scored a stunning upset over Errani in the first round of the last major, signaling an appropriate start to the best year of her career.  The two women combined for just a handful of service holds in that match, a pattern that could resurface.  Having conceded only nine games through three matches, barely more than Serena, Errani has looked as dominant as a woman without weapons other than drop shots ever will.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Ana Ivanovic:  To state the obvious, the most important shots of a point are the first and the last.  (If you’re Serena Williams, it’s often the same thing.)  In the language of the WTA, that means penetrating first serves, aggressive returns, and the ability to finish points with clean winners.  Ivanovic has struggled in both of those categories during her current six-match losing streak to Radwanska over the last three years.  Earlier in her career, she controlled her matches with the Pole by excelling in both of them, but the tide turned in 2009 when the Serb let a 4-0 lead slip away in a third set.  The pace of her serve and forehand has dwindled since she won Roland Garros five years ago, although Ivanovic has grown more comfortable in the forecourt with time.  Beyond tactics and technique, though, her main challenge lies in believing that she can defeat a top-five woman at a major.  The last time that Ivanovic did?  Two days before she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Roland Garros Rewind: Federer, Azarenka, Serena Cruise, Monfils Leads French Parade on Day Four

Profiting from more cooperative weather, Roland Garros produced a Day 4 replete with action.  Here’s the review of how it all went down.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Ah, the French in Paris.  Sometimes they dazzle, sometimes they implode, sometimes they puzzle, and sometimes they do all three.  Julien Benneteau achieved the trifecta in a five-set victory over Tobias Kamke, completing his first pair of consecutive victories since February.  En route to the third round, Benneteau a) won a 20-point tiebreak b) blew a two-set lead c) ate a bagel in the fourth set and d) won anyway.  Richard Gasquet, it’s your move.

Worth the wait:  After a 14-game fifth set, the epic between Horacio Zeballos and Vasek Pospisil finally ended a day and two sets after Zeballos could have ended it in a third-set tiebreak.  A young Canadian talent, Pospisil showed grit by rallying from the brink of a straight-sets loss to the brink of a five-set victory.  But Zeballos, who defeated Rafael Nadal to win a South American clay title this spring, relied on his greater experience to get the last word.

Comeback of the day:  Dutch heavy hitter Igor Sijsling looked ready to knock off the lowest men’s seed when he swept two tight sets.  Continuing a surprisingly solid clay campaign, Tommy Robredo surged through the next three sets for the loss of five total games.  The pattern of the scores recalled Roger Federer’s comeback over Juan Martin Del Potro here last year.

Surprise of the day:  Surely elated by his upset over Berdych in a first-round epic, Gael Monfils might have fallen victim to a hangover against the dangerous Ernests Gulbis.  Although he dropped the first set for the second straight match, Monfils outlasted his fellow erratic shot-maker for another quality win that jangled the nerves of his compatriots a bit less.  Up next is a more compelling test of his consistency against Robredo.  Check out the more detailed recap of Gael’s win on this site by colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg.

Gold star:  A few of the less notable home hopes fell today, but all of the leading French men prevailed.  Like Monfils, Benoit Paire completed a comeback from losing the first set to win in four.  Gilles Simon hurled three consecutive breadsticks at clay specialist Pablo Cuevas after he too spotted his opponent a one-set lead.  Jo-Wilfried Tsonga roared through in straight sets for the second consecutive match, as did Jeremy Chardy.  And don’t forget the wacky win by Benneteau explored above.  Plenty of reason remains for French patriots to return as the third round unfolds.

Silver star:  Struggling to win matches this year, Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki both survived potentially tricky encounters.  Tipsarevic cruised past local hero Nicolas Mahut, perhaps helped by the schedule shift away from Court Philippe Chatrier after the rain.  Troicki weathered five taxing sets and two tiebreaks against clay specialist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who had upset 17th seed Juan Monaco.

Marathon man:  For the second straight round, Andreas Seppi prevailed in five sets.  Halfway to defending his fourth-round points from last year, Seppi seemed to have a stranglehold when he bageled Blaz Kavcic in the first set.  He later would allow a two-set lead to escape before regrouping when the match hung in the balance.

Stat of the day:  All 15 men’s seeds in action today advanced, eight in straight sets.

American in Paris:  After winning just one match in his first six Roland Garros appearances, top-ranked man Sam Querrey has won two in his seventh trip here without losing a set.

Question of the day:  Second seed Roger Federer entered this tournament as a distant third favorite for the title after Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.  Looking at least as sharp as either of them, Federer now has lost just 12 games in two matches, albeit against weak competition from two qualifiers.  Should we start taking his title hopes more seriously?

WTA:

Match of the day:  After Victoria Azarenka outlasted her in a long match at the Australian Open, Jamie Hampton secured a happier ending to another three-setter at a major.  Hampton stunned 25th seed Lucie Safarova after winning the first set in a tiebreak, withstanding Safarova’s second-set surge, and closing out a 9-7 final set.  That 16-game affair was the longest set of the women’s tournament so far.

Worth the wait:  Delayed by rain, world No. 3 Azarenka did not start her Roland Garros campaign until Wednesday.  Needing to issue a strong statement, as all of her rivals had, Azarenka delivered with a resounding victory over former doubles partner Elena Vesnina.  None of the top four women has lost more than five games in a match so far.

Comeback of the day:  For the second straight tournament, Svetlana Kuznetsova ate a first-set breadstick from an unseeded opponent.  Whereas the Rome breadstick from Simona Halep preceded another breadstick, the Roland Garros breadstick from Magdalena Rybarikova spurred the 2009 champion into action.  Kuznetsova dropped just four games over the next two sets, responding much more forcefully to adversity.

Surprise of the day:  Surviving a first-round flirtation with disaster boded well for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s chances here.  She almost always has ventured deep into draws this year when passing her first test.  This time, though, Pavlyuchenkova fell short in the second round to Petra Cetkovska in another tight three-setter.  The victim of painful losses here as well, coach Martina Hingis can empathize.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Unseeded 2012 quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi continued her momentum from winning a Premier title in Brussels last week.  Kanepi dispatched 23rd seed Klara Zakopalova in straight sets on a difficult day for Czechs.

Gold star:  Famous forever after what happened last year, Virginie Razzano technically surpassed that performance this year.  Razzano more than justified her wildcard by reaching the third round, perhaps bolstered by the memories of her landmark victory over Serena Williams.

Silver star:  In the first match of her career at Roland Garros, promising Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty made her presence felt.  Barty stunned last week’s Strasbourg runner-up Lucie Hradecka in three sets, overcoming dramatic disparities in power, experience, and clay expertise.

Marathon woman:  Eight of Petra Kvitova’s last nine matches have reached a third set, the latest against the fossilized Aravane Rezai today.  That recent capsule from clay reflects a trend typical for Kvitova overall, for she has played 18 three-setters this year and a staggering 39 in 2012-13.  Whether caused by slow starts or mid-match hiccups, those rollercoasters illustrate her unreliability.

Stat of the day:  Bojana Jovanovski has won three matches since January, two of which have come against Caroline Wozniacki.  The Dane predictably became the first top-ten woman to lose at Roland Garros as Jovanovski accomplished what the more talented Laura Robson could not.

Americans in Paris:  Blasting past Caroline Garcia today, Serena Williams has lost just four games in two matches and 18 games in seven matches since Rome started.  While the top seed continues to look every inch the title favorite, several other American women acquitted themselves well.  Varvara Lepchenko notched a second straight routine victory, while women’s wildcard Shelby Rogers swiped a set from 20th seed Carla Suarez Navarro despite the gap between their relative credentials.  On the other hand, Madison Keys dropped a winnable match to Monica Puig, and Mallory Burdette could not find any answers to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Question of the day:  All of the top four women have roared through their early matches, confirming their elite status.  Outside that group, who has impressed you the most so far?

Roland Garros Rewind: Monfils Stuns, Nadal Survives, Sharapova and Radwanska Cruise

Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Five sets and four hours.  Three tiebreaks and a 7-5 final set.  A two-set lead squandered by the man who eventually won—after saving triple break point midway through the fifth.  A home underdog firing 26 aces and 66 winners on his nation’s biggest stage to upset a top-eight seed who hit 72 winners of his own.  Rarely is the match that looks like the best of the day in the first round actually the best of the day, but Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych put on perhaps the best show of any men’s match that we will see all week.  The section has opened a bit for Monfils if he can defuse the equally dangerous dark horse Ernests Gulbis in the second round.  That match looks like the highlight of Thursday, although it has a hard act to follow.

Comeback of the day:  Last week’s Dusseldorf champion Juan Monaco looked well on his way to a routine victory when he won the first two sets by single-break margins and reached a tiebreak in the third.  Perhaps aided by his opponent’s fatigue, Daniel Gimeno-Traver thrust himself back into the match by snatching that tiebreak and stormed all the way back to an upset over the seventeenth seed.

Surprise of the day:  It was not an upset in the end,  but Daniel Brands surely turned more heads than anyone when he came within a tiebreak of leading Rafael Nadal by two sets to love.  The master of Roland Garros had not lost the first set in a first-week match there since 2006, although he once  survived a five-setter against John Isner.  Brands channeled his inner Soderling in explosive serving and bullet forehands that thrust Nadal on his heels for far longer than anyone could have expected.

Gold star:  Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios gave his nation something to cheer amid the latest Bernard Tomic controversy.  Kyrgios defeated veteran Radek Stepanek in three tiebreaks, saving several set points in each of the last two.  The 53 total tiebreak points played might survive as a tournament record.

Silver star:  Allez les bleus.  While Nadal battled with Brands on Philippe Chatrier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rolled through in straight sets on Suzanne Lenglen.  Later in the day, second-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasquet did the same, and even Julien Benneteau won a match on clay for just the second time this year.  Combined with the Monfils upset, these victories added up to an excellent day for the hosts.

Wooden spoon:  When Andy Murray withdrew, Marcel Granollers moved up from unseeded to seeded position.  That promotion served him no benefit as he lost his first match to countryman Feliciano Lopez in five sets and two days.  By contrast, Tommy Robredo profited from the seed that he received with Juan Martin Del Potro’s withdrawal by advancing further into the section vacated by Berdych.

Americans in Paris:  John Isner and Ryan Harrison, both of whom have struggled for most of the year, each notched comfortable straight-sets victories.  Assigned Nice champion Albert Montanes, Steve Johnson battled gallantly into a fifth set as he had against Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.  American men have no reason to feel shame so far at historically their worst major.

Question of the day:  Who comes out of Berdych’s section of the draw to reach the quarterfinals?

Question of the day, II:  Does Nadal’s first-round frailty reduce your confidence in him as a title threat?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None could compete with Berdych-Monfils or with Urszula-Venus the day before.  This award goes to a battle between two clay-courters who have produced outstanding recent results.  Rome semifinalist Simona Halep won the first set from world No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the Spaniard rallied with the form that brought her to two clay finals this year.  A pity that the draw forced them to meet in the first round, and a pity that the match was not scheduled on a televised court.

Comeback of the day:  Channeling a little of her inner Monfils, Garbine Muguruza scorched 46 winners and dropped serve just twice in three sets to ambush fellow power-hitter Karolina Pliskova.  The Venezuelan-born citizen of Spain recorded her first career win at Roland Garros barely a year after her first appearance in a WTA main draw.

Statements of the day:  Although they fell a bit short of Serena’s suffocating brilliance, top-four seeds Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska started the tournament in emphatic style.  Defending champion Sharapova conceded just three games to top-50 opponent Hsieh Su-wei, while Radwanska yielded just two games to former top-15 player Shahar Peer.  The latter result came as a mild surprise because of the newly blonde Pole’s struggles on clay this year.

Gold star:  Everyone thought that Laura Robson would knock off world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round, and everyone thought very wrong.  Wozniacki ended a five-match losing streak by dominating the British teenager from start to finish.  Perhaps a movie night with Rory McIlroy the day before (they saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained) allowed her to forget her recent futility.

Silver star:  The most unsurprising surprise of the day came when the 2009 Roland Garros champion dispatched compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.  In Serena’s quarter, Kuznetsova could meet Wozniacki in a rematch of their Australian Open three-set thriller.  Sveta bounced back impressively from one of the worst losses of her career in Rome.

Wooden spoon:  Outstanding performances on grass last year meant that Tamira Paszek received a seed at Roland Garros despite winning only one match in 2013.  When the slightly less moribund Melanie Oudin dispatched her with ease, Paszek will head to the grass season with the vast majority of points at stake.  Early losses at Eastbourne and Wimbledon will push her ranking down an elevator shaft.

Americans in Paris:  In addition to the aforementioned Oudin, several other women from the United States fared well on Day 2.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands set up a second-round meeting with Li Na, while newer talents Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys cruised.  Vania King also advanced in straight sets to complete a perfect record today for the USA.

Question of the day:  Which American woman of those who won day will go furthest?

Question of the day, II:  Should we feel more impressed by Wozniacki or more disappointed by Robson?

WTA Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

(May 25, 2013) With Roland Garros officially kicking off on Sunday, the team at Tennis Grandstand has once again come together to provide you a one-stop comprehensive preview of the women’s draw of the season’s second Slam. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the women’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the WTA draw, with further detailed analysis below by Melissa Boyd, Victoria Chiesa, David Kane, Chris Skelton, and Maud Watson.

Dark Horse

Melissa Boyd: (14) Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has played well this clay court season and appears to be most comfortable on the red dirt. Roland Garros is her best chance to win another Slam and the draw was kind to the Serbian. She avoids the Top 3 until the semifinals and finds herself in the same section as the struggling Agnieszka Radwanska and last year’s finalist, Sara Errani.

Victoria Chiesa(20) Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard knows what it takes to be successful in Paris, as she reached the quarterfinals in her debut in 2008 as a qualifier. Since then, however, she has not advanced further than the third round. After reaching the final in Oeiras, she also reached the quarterfinals in Rome before losing to Serena Williams. She opens against another potential dark horse in Simona Halep. Should she find a way past the Romanian, the 20th seed is in by far the most open quarter of the draw to make a run at the second week; a potential third round against Nadia Petrova (11) is in the cards, but the Spaniard already scored a clay-court win against the Russian in Rome.

David KaneSimona HalepHave you ever seen a player and thought, “why do I know you?” You don’t remember them winning a title or causing a noteworthy upset. Yet when Simona Halep clubbed her way into the semifinals of Rome, few among the tennis cognoscenti were completely left scratching their heads. The young Romanian won the French Open girl’s title at 16, but despite being a mainstay of the top 100 for the last few years, had yet to make a big breakthrough on the senior tour. That all changed at the Foro Italico when, as a qualifier, she upset a host of current and former top 4 players including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before running out of gas against an inspired Serena Williams. Halep only has one third round appearance on her Grand Slam CV, but should she get past fellow darkhorse Carla Suarz Navarro in the first round, her draw may open up with struggling Nadia Petrova anchoring her section.

Chris Skelton: (14) Ana Ivanovic. The champion here five years ago, she showed glimpses of vintage form by reaching the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. Ivanovic extended world No. 2 Sharapova to three tough sets at the former event and demolished top-eight opponent Angelique Kerber at the latter. Ana remains susceptible to the unforeseen clunker, and always will be, but her first-week draw is filled with players whom she normally handles with ease. None of the top three can meet her until the semifinals.

Maud Watson: Can I just say Serb?  I like both (14) Ana Ivanovic and (18) Jelena Jankovic as dark horse candidates.  Both have produced some good tennis in 2013, and this season Jankovic in particular has enjoyed her most success on the dirt.  Still, I’d give the edge to Ivanovic.  She has it easiest in her opening rounds and has actually won a major.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Boyd(4) Agnieszka Radwanska. It would have been easy to go with Caroline Wozniacki here. The Dane has not won a match on red clay in four tournaments this year and has to play the fast-rising Laura Robson in the first round. Radwanska’s clay court record in 2013 is almost as unflattering as her good friend. She has won just one match and has never made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros.

Chiesa(8) Angelique Kerber. For her first round match, Kerber was dealt one of the players on the fringe of a seeding in countrywoman Mona Barthel. Neither player comes into the match on a rich vein of form. Despite reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Kerber withdrew from Rome citing injury; Barthel also withdrew from the Italian Open, and did not win a match in Stuttgart or Madrid. Barthel is a tricky case, as her form can turn on a dime, and she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against her countrywoman. Even if Kerber does pull through this match, she’ll do well to live up to her seeding and set up a quarterfinal date with Serena on her least-preferred surface.

Kane: (6) Li NaThe veteran Chinesewoman has been trending up in 2013, with a run to the Australian Open finals and recovered well from an ankle injury to reach the Stuttgart finals to start the clay court season. But when last we left Li Na, she put on a terrible show to lose to Jelena Jankovic in Rome. So often in tennis, it is rarely about to whom one loses as much as how one plays during that loss. An upset wasn’t improbable, given Li’s resurgent Serbian opponent. But the ridiculously high number of unforced errors (62 in two sets) looks more like foreshadowing than an aberration. Against a steady claycourter in Anabel Medina Garrigues (against whom Li is 0-3 in completed matches) in round one, the 2011 Champion will have to be on song from the get-go, lest she face another surprising Slam exit.

Skelton: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. The obvious choice in this category is Caroline Wozniacki (see below), but that’s too easy when someone much more notable has struggled almost as much. A top-four seed at Roland Garros, Radwanska has won just one clay match this year while absorbing overwhelming losses to Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Clay is her worst surface, and she withdrew from her Brussels title defense last week with a shoulder injury. While Radwanska doesn’t have many giant-killers around her, Halep didn’t seem like a giant-killer until she slew her.

Watson: (10) Caroline WozniackiA couple of names come to mind here, with one of those names being Caroline Wozniacki.  It’s hard to imagine a time when the former No. 1’s confidence and form have been lower than they are right now.  Against an up-and-comer like Robson – who has already enjoyed more than a few big wins in her young career – she’s definitely ripe for the upset.

First Round Match to Watch For

BoydEugenie Bouchard vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. After reaching her first WTA semifinal in Strasbourg thanks to some impressive wins, the 19-year-old Canadian arrives in Paris on a roll. Her game on clay has vastly improved and she’s chalking up experience as she goes along. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the former Wimbledon semifinalist. A win for Bouchard and she will likely play her idol Maria Sharapova for the second time in two months in the second round.

Chiesa(22) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. One of the women’s draw’s most dangerous floaters, one of Kuznetsova’s crowning career achievements came in Paris when she lifted the trophy in 2009. She just missed out on a seeding here and Makarova is coming off of a strong quarterfinal showing in Madrid that included a win over Azarenka, the Belarusian’s first true loss of the year. The two have never played on clay, but Kuznetsova holds a 2-1 head-to-head lead after a 6-4, 6-4 win in Miami this year.

Kane: (7) Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai. If you read my article from last week (or follow me on twitter), you’ll know of my penchant for reality television. What first round match looks more likely to be real than Kvitova/Rezai? Both have flashy games, with the ability to crush any ball seemingly at will. Both have the potential to fly horribly off the rails and rack up triple-digit unforced errors. Playing at home, the already-expressive Rezai will draw on the energy of an upset-hungry crowd. Kvitova has been struggling, and seems as far from her top tier, world beating form as ever. The odds of this being a “pretty” match are low, but this has “Trainwreck of the Year” potential written all over it. And damned if I won’t be there for every second.

Skelton: (18) Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova. This match might not produce the best tennis or most meaningful result on the menu, but the first round is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s a rare opportunity to see two former members of the top five and two major semifinalists meet in the first round. Their last five meetings all have come on clay, they have a relatively close head-to-head with multiple thrillers, and each has shown recent signs of life. Colliding for the first time in two years, Jankovic and Hantuchova will showcase a lovely contrast of styles between the down-the-line groundstrokes of the Serb and the cross-court angles of the Slovak.

Watson: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs Shahar Peer in the first round isn’t a popcorn match.  But the Pole has run a dismal clay court campaign that’s been compounded by shoulder issues.  How she looks in her opening match could be a good indicator as to just how likely she is to live up to her No. 4 seeding.

First Round Upset Special

BoydOlga Govortsova d. (13) Marion Bartoli. Bartoli has struggled this season amidst her coaching changes and has not had great preparation coming into Paris. Last week in Strasbourg, she won only five games in a first round loss to Camila Giorgi. Add to that the pressure of playing your home Slam and Bartoli is a prime candidate for a first round upset.

ChiesaLaura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki comes into Roland Garros on a five match losing streak and is winless on red clay so far in 2013. While Robson too has struggled since the early part of the season, Wozniacki’s plight is different. The former World No. 1 seems lost on court and rarely looks to be enjoying her tennis. Barely hanging on to a spot in the top 10, I’d call it a bigger upset if Wozniacki manages to win this match.

KaneKimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam StosurThis pick has little to do with Stosur; though coming off a calf injury that derailed most of her spring, the top Aussie did have a solid run to the quarterfinals of Rome where she pushed nemesis Victoria Azarenka to three sets. This has more to do with her draw, namely her first round opponent, the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm. No stranger to the first round upset, Date-Krumm beat two-time finalist Dinara Safina in Paris three years ago, and began 2013 with a crushing win over Nadia Petrova in Australia. Her unorthodox groundstrokes are hit with a thudding efficiency, and take time away from her opponents. Even at her best, Stosur is a player who needs the extra couple of seconds that clay courts give her to wind up her topspin forehand. Coming in still lacking sufficient match practice, she could be in for a long day against Date-Krumm, who beat her in their only prior encounter in 2010.

Skelton: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Since reaching the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki has fallen off a cliff. She has not won a match on red clay this year, losing five straight overall starting with Charleston. One of her losses came when she squandered a third-set lead against Bojana Jovanovski, who hasn’t beaten anyone else since the Australian Open. Anyone marginally dangerous will have a chance against Wozniacki right now, and Robson is more than marginally dangerous after she upset Radwanska in Madrid.

Watson: Anabel Medina Garrigues d. (6) Li NaLi Na is another likely prospect for crashing out early, as she takes on Medina Garrigues in her opening match.  Medina Garrigues is a crafty veteran who gave Serena all she could handle in Madrid (albeit with some blatant cheating).  She’s an especially tough customer on the clay, so unless Li can clean up her game, her stay in Paris won’t be a long one.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to fathom Williams not navigating her draw rather easily and Errani is in arguably the softest quarter with Radwanska and Ivanovic. Look for last year’s finalist to make another deep run, especially if the weather makes the playing conditions heavy and difficult. The draw was less kind to Azarenka and the defending champion Sharapova, but I still like both of them to make it through to their much-anticipated match up. Azarenka will get a stiff test from Elena Vesnina in the first round and potentially Na Li in the quarters, but she has played well since returning from injury.

Chiesa: It’s hard to see anyone in Serena’s quarter of the draw giving her much trouble, even if Williams comes out struggling with the demons of her early round upset from a season ago. It’s tough to see her losing a set en route to the semifinals. The second quarter is incredibly open with Agnieszka Radwanska as the highest seed. Lurking at the bottom of this quarter is last year’s finalist Sara Errani, and it would be much less surprising to see the Italian at the late stages of the event this time around. Her best chance to beat Serena would be on clay, but even then, it still doesn’t seem likely. Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Sara Errani.

With Victoria Azarenka and Li Na the two seeds in the third quarter of the draw, a potential quarterfinal match between them could go either way. Although Azarenka has turned around the head-to-head between the two, Li’s greater comfort level on the surface can give her the edge here. I expect Sharapova to navigate the minefield that is her quarter of the draw, even if she experiences some bumps along the way. Semifinal: Li Na d. Maria Sharapova

Kane: Kuznetsova/Errani, Azarenka/Sharapova. “But where’s Serena?” Here me out. Given the form exhibited by the undisputed No. 1 in the world this season (no less on clay), there is no reason to think the American won’t bulldoze the field and collect her second French Open title, and her 16th overall.

However. This is at least the fifth time in ten years that Serena has gone into the French Open as the overwhelming favorite, yet has failed to make it past the quarterfinals since her lone victory in 2002. Beyond the loss to Razzano, Williams has seen a 33-Slam match winning streak snapped in 2003, another shocking loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008, and premature losses to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stosur in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All on the terre battue.  Serena simply has a history of not getting it done in Paris, and though now looks like as good a time as ever to turn things around, I’ll believe it when she invariably proves me wrong in two weeks.

That said, 2009 Champion Kuznetsova has a history in Paris and likely prefers to be the underdog. The other three have had some of the best Slam results in the last 12 months, and while their draws look tough on paper, resistance may be surprisingly low (at least for a WTA tournament).

Skelton: Serena Williams, Sara Errani, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova. Remember the era of anarchy in the WTA when people who you never saw before suddenly became superstars for a week? Well, it’s over. Only one woman outside the top three of Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova has reached a final across the six marquee events this year (majors, Premier Mandatory, Premier Five). Roland Garros usually does have one clay-court specialist for its flavor of the year, so Errani should repeat her results from Madrid and Rome in the draw’s weakest quarter.

Watson: In the top half, Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani. Serena’s tennis the last 12 months speaks for itself, and that includes the dominance she’s shown this year on the dirt with her titles in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent is less certain, but Errani has been very consistent of late. The Italian also reached the final here last year and has been playing better than No. 4 seed A. Radwanska.

In the bottom half, I’ll stick to the seeds and go with Sharapova vs. Azarenka. Sharapova has looked sharp, and lately, it seems Serena is the only one with her number. Azarenka’s star has shined a little less brightly since her win in Melbourne, but she did just reach the finals in Rome and should be feeling confident.

And the Champion is …

Boyd(1) Serena Williams. I think one of the most compelling stories of this fortnight will be watching Williams attempt to conquer her French Open demons after her shocking first round exit in 2012. With the win streak she’s on and the level she’s playing at, the only person who can beat Serena, is Serena herself.

Chiesa(1) Serena Williams. The old saying goes that if you’re going to get them, it’s best to get them early. The World No. 1 is on a mission this year, and if she can navigate her way through the early rounds, it’s hard to see anyone being able to stop her at the business end of the event. While Li has shown she has the game to go toe-to-toe with anyone on tour, it remains to be seen what will happen if she actually gets herself into a winning position. Championship: Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

Kane: (2) Maria Sharapova. Over the years, the French Open women’s event has become known for its predictable unpredictability, and its wackiness tend to happen in twos. Dinara Safina made two runs to the French finals before Errani’s compatriot Francesca Schiavone made two romps of her own (taking the title in 2010). Errani hasn’t had the drop-off in form many had predicted, and looks as capable as ever for another (slightly less) surprising run to a Slam final. Last year’s champion Sharapova must also feel a sense of déjà vu, coming into Paris with the same number of match wins as the year before. She wouldn’t have to play Serena until the final (or at all if you subscribe to my alternate universe), and has proven she can beat everyone else on clay. As the French say, pouquoi pas? Why not?

Skelton: (1) Serena Williams. She swept the two biggest events on outdoor red clay, moving better than she has on the surface since the last time that she won in Paris. She completely thrashed each of her two leading rivals in the Madrid and Rome finals. She will bring an extraordinary level of motivation to atone for last year’s disappointment, since when she has lost just three matches. Nobody is stopping Serena in Paris unless her body betrays her again.

Watson: (1) Serena WilliamsLogically, Serena is the best choice.  She’s playing the best tennis of anyone in the field, and she’s in one of the weakest quarters.  She’s likely also extra motivated after the humiliation she suffered here last year.

All Roads Lead to Rome: WTA Rome Draw Preview

Starting one day later than the simultaneous ATP tournament, the second WTA Premier Five tournament of 2013 brings all of the top ten women to the Foro Italico.  Many of them will seek a fresh start following weeks in Madrid that ended sooner than they had hoped, although the world No. 1 will aim simply to continue from where she left off.

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Serena Williams arrives in Rome on the heels of clay titles in Charleston and Madrid.  To continue her winning streak, Serena may need to survive some friendly fire from older sister Venus, who would meet her in the second round for the first time.  The all-Williams match might not happen if Laura Robson finds her footing on Monday against Venus, suffering from a back injury recently.   Robson displayed the confidence that she needs to defeat a star of this caliber when she upset Radwanska in Madrid.  Also impressive there was Ekaterina Makarova, the nemesis of Azarenka, who could meet Serena in the third round.  The clay skills of Robson and Makarova do not equal those of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, but the latter has struggled with injuries this spring.  In Miami, though, Cibulkova took a set from a disengaged Serena before fading sharply when the American awakened.

The only blot on Serena’s otherwise spectacular second half of 2012 came against Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in Cincinnati.  This German lefty reached the semifinals of Rome last year, an achievement that she can equal only by repeating her Cincinnati victory.  While those prospects seem slim, Kerber may fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals.  Nadia Petrova, the seed closest to her, has performed well below her ranking for most of 2013.  More threatening to Kerber are two women who have produced sporadically excellent results this year, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  This pair collided in the Portugal Open final, where Pavlyuchenkova prevailed, and they could meet again in the second round with the winner advancing to face Kerber.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  Two top-five women who combined to win one total match in Madrid both look to thrust that disappointment behind them by advancing deeper into the Rome draw.  Sporting a new blonde hairstyle, Agnieszka Radwanska likely will open against a woman who also has experimented with a variety of coiffures in Svetlana Kuznetsova.  More relevant to their meeting, Kuznetsova’s resounding victory over Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that her far superior clay talents could cause an upset.   The thirteenth-seeded Roberta Vinci performed impressively on hard courts this year, reaching the semifinals in Dubai and the quarterfinals in Miami, but strangely she has earned fewer successes on the clay that favors her playing style.  Perhaps the local crowd’s enthusiasm can spur this veteran with a strong Fed Cup resume.

Toppled in the first round of Madrid by a lucky loser, Li Na suffered her first unexpected reverse of an otherwise consistent season.  That shock may have spurred her to raise her vigilance for early tests in Rome, possibly highlighted by Jelena Jankovic.  The Serbian former No. 1 has not faced Li since 2009, when she won both of their meetings, and they have not met on clay for seven years.  After an eye-opening start to the spring, however, Jankovic reverted to her unreliable self when the action shifted to Europe, and she has lost all three of her clay matches against second-round opponent Caroline Wozniacki.  Hardly a dirt devil herself, Wozniacki defeated Li on a hard court last fall but has lost their most important meetings so far.  The Chinese star also has held the upper hand recently against both Radwanska and Kuznetsova, positioning her for another strong week at a tournament where she held championship point last year.

Semifinalist:  Li 

Third quarter:  No clear favorite emerges from a section with three members of the top ten and a former Roland Garros champion.  Again situated in the same eighth with Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova shares the Aussie’s 2013 pattern of stumbling into dismal setbacks just as momentum starts to swing in her favor.  Kvitova has won all four of their meetings, should that third-round match develop, and she also should feel confident in her ability to outshoot the equally erratic Sabine Lisicki.  Many of the matches in this section will feature short points punctuated by ferocious hitting, a contrast to what one normally expects from clay.  This seemingly benign early draw could allow Kvitova to settle into the tournament and find her baseline range, which she has showcased on clay before.

The lanky Czech’s most significant clay win to date, the Madrid title in 2011, came at the expense of the woman whom she could meet in the quarterfinals.  During a string of marquee collisions that year, Kvitova regularly bested Victoria Azarenka on all surfaces, although they have not met since then.   The world No. 3 predictably lacked rhythm in Madrid, the first tournament that she had played since Indian Wells.  But the ankle that sidelined Azarenka seems healthy again, and she will need the mobility that it provides to weather a Serb surging with confidence.  A semifinalist in Madrid, Ana Ivanovic has reached that round in Rome as well, claiming an ailing Azarenka as one of her victims en route.  Vika won their 2012 meetings convincingly, taking command of a matchup that had troubled her before.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  The two-time defending champion in Rome, Maria Sharapova finds herself ideally situated to break Italian hearts.  As early as the third round, the world No. 2 could release her angst from another loss to Serena by pouncing on Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone.  An unfortunate quirk of the draw aligned these aging former Fed Cup teammates to meet in the second round, assuming that Sloane Stephens continues her post-Melbourne swoon.  Heavy hitters Garbine Muguruza (a qualifier, but a notable rising star) and Kiki Bertens round out a section through which Sharapova should cruise unless Pennetta can roll back the clock several years.

The world No. 2 also may look forward to a quarterfinal reunion with Sara Errani, the supporting actress on stage when Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam last year.  More than just the Roland Garros flavor of the year, the top-ranked Italian backed up her surprise fortnight with hard-court achievements yet still plays her best tennis on clay.  Last week, Errani even flustered Serena for a set despite the massive power differential, and she has grown more competitive with Sharapova in their latest meetings.  A quarterfinalist in Madrid and a qualifier in Rome, Anabel Medina Garrigues survived a three-hour epic against Yulia Putintseva to reach the main draw.  This Spaniard opens against Maria Kirilenko, less assured on clay, and could meet surface specialist Varvara Lepchenko afterward.  Throughout this quarter, contrasts of styles could unfold between Sharapova and the counterpunchers set to face her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

 

Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

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.