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.
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.
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.
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.
Formerly riddled with upsets and surprise semifinalists, WTA draws grew relatively predictable in 2012 as a small group of women won virtually every marquee tournament. That trend continued when Azarenka defended her Australian Open crown after several young stars rose and fell. In Doha, more of the familiar suspects look likely to shine. Read a preview of the draw, quarter by quarter.
First quarter: Just as she did in Melbourne, Azarenka may need to defend her title to retain her #1 ranking with the second-ranked Serena Williams anchoring the opposite half of the draw. Also like the Australian Open, the medium-speed hard courts in Doha suit the top seed’s style more than any other surface, and one must feel sanguine about her semifinal hopes in this weak section. Several of the women surrounding her played Fed Cup over the past weekend, when most looked pedestrian at best against modest competition. Although she upset Azarenka once and nearly twice in 2012, Cibulkova extended a discouraging span that started with her double bagel in the Sydney final by retiring on the verge of victory in Fed Cup. Bojana Jovanovski and Daniela Hantuchova collaborated on a hideous comedy of errors this Saturday, while the sixth-seeded Errani faces the challenge of transitioning from the clay of the Italy-USA tie. This section could implode quickly, which might open a door for the rising Laura Robson to build on her Australian upset of Kvitova.
Second quarter: Two women of Polish descent bookend a section that contains two former #1s who have sunk outside the top 10. Having withdrawn from Fed Cup with a shoulder injury, Ivanovic remained in the Doha draw as she hopes to erase the memories of a first-round upset in Pattaya City, where she held the top seed. The Serb likely would collide with Australian Open nemesis Radwanska as early as the third round, however, so she may gain little more from Doha than she did last year. An all-German encounter beckons at the base of the quarter between the last two Paris Indoors champions: the fifth-seeded Kerber and Mona Barthel. Meeting the winner in the same round as the projected Ivanovic-Radwanska clash is world #11 Wozniacki, who fell just short of an Australian Open quarterfinal in a promising end to an otherwise miserable January. Kerber stifled her on multiple surfaces last year, though, while struggling to solve Radwanska’s consistency.
Third quarter: A 2008 champion at this tournament, the third-seeded Sharapova eyes a comfortable start to the tournament against a qualifier or wildcard. Rolling through Melbourne until her competition stiffened suddenly, she may find an opponent worthy of her steel in Sloane Stephens, although her fellow Australian Open semifinalist withdrew from Fed Cup this weekend. Looming on the opposite side is an encore of the 2011 Melbourne marathon between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, separated just by a qualifier and the dormant Bartoli (also a Fed Cup absentee). The Russian returned to relevance with an outstanding January considering the sub-50 ranking with which she started it before reaching quarterfinals at Sydney and the Australian Open. Her athleticism and rising confidence should serve her well against the Schiavone-Bartoli winner and against the eighth-seeded Stosur in the following round. Still struggling to regain her rhythm after ankle surgery during the offseason, the Aussie probably cannot defend her runner-up points in the vicinity of two multiple-major champions from Russia.
Fourth quarter: Among the questions looming over this tournament is the health of Serena Williams, the prohibitive favorite in Melbourne until multiple injuries overtook her. Serena probably would not participate in an event like Doha unless she felt confident in her condition, however, so one should take her entry at face value for now. As she has reminded rivals over the last several months, few can break her serve on a non-clay surface when she is healthy, and she should overpower clay specialists in the early rounds like Medina Garrigues and Vinci. Of greater suspense is the identity of the woman who will emerge from the section occupied by Kvitova, who clings to the seventh seed in a manner far from convincing. Although playing a Fed Cup tie on home soil may have boosted her spirits, she has not strung together victories at a WTA tournament since last August. Often troubled by the task of defeating a compatriot, she could meet Fed Cup teammate Safarova in the third round. Before then, Beijing nemesis Suarez Navarro lurks in a challenge for her consistency. And Russian veteran Nadia Petrova adds an entertaining mixture of power and petulance to a section full of fiery personalities.
Come back on Friday to read a semifinal preview!