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What a Difference a Year Makes: Madrid in Blue vs. Madrid in Red

After the outcry caused by the audacious rhapsody in blue last year, the ATP essentially twisted the arm of the Madrid tournament into returning to its red roots.  But did the traditional surface really make a difference in the results of either the men’s or the women’s draw?  An analysis could use multiple angles, of which this article chooses just two.  First, it looks at the upsets of seeds by unseeded players in the first two rounds of Madrid over the last two years, the first on blue clay and the second on red clay.  Second, it looks at who ultimately reached the semifinals in both draws over those years.  This comparison between 2012 and 2013 aims to explore whether the change in surface correlates to significant differences in result patterns.

Of course, any single year can produce a skewed sample, so one could argue that singling out the current edition of Madrid does not fairly represent the overall trends of the event’s history on red clay.  That history remains quite young, however, for this year marks only its fourth on the surface.  And the blue-clay experiment lasted only a single year, so it seems appropriate to compare equal sample sizes highlighted by a comparable group of elite players.

 

Let’s start with the upsets angle, and with the WTA.  (Numbers refer to seeds.)

2012:

Lucie Hradecka d. 3 Petra Kvitova

Sorana Cirstea d. 7 Marion Bartoli

Petra Cetkovska d. 10 Vera Zvonareva

Varvara Lepchenko d. 11 Francesca Schiavone

Roberta Vinci d. 14 Dominika Cibulkova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 15 Jelena Jankovic

Ekaterina Makarova d. 16 Maria Kirilenko

Almost half of the seeds (seven of sixteen) lost in the first or second round, a high number for an event of this quality.  On the other hand, five of the seven came from the 9-16 bracket, and Cirstea knocking off Bartoli on clay does not come as a huge surprise.  The latter has struggled regularly on the surface outside that single Roland Garros semifinal run in 2011, while the former earned her best result of any major with a quarterfinal there in 2009.  Another result that jumps out from this group, the Hradecka-Kvitova match, seems less startling in retrospect with the wild oscillations in Kvitova’s form over the last two years.  Kvitova also has made a habit of faltering against lower-ranked countrywomen, but this match still should raise an eyebrow because she was the defending champion in Madrid and fell to a heavy server, not a clay specialist.

Of the 9-16 upsets, Lepchenko defeating Schiavone surprises the most, and in fact the American ultimately reached the quarterfinals at this event.  That said, Madrid has witnessed other such unexpected results on red clay before, for which one need look no further than Aravane Rezai’s title in 2010.  Lepchenko also went back to work on the Italian battalions here this year, as you’ll see below.  Like Schiavone, Jankovic floundered through much of last season, so one should not read too much into her loss to rising clay talent Suarez Navarro.  Russians Zvonareva and Kirilenko usually have not enjoyed their clay seasons, and Vinci’s victory over Cibulkova looks merely like one clay specialist ousting another.  On the other hand, hindsight may dilute the magnitude of this upset, now that the Italian has risen above the Slovak in the rankings a year later. 

2013:

Ekaterina Makarova d. 3 Victoria Azarenka

Laura Robson d. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska

Madison Keys d. 5 Li Na

Daniela Hantuchova d. 8 Petra Kvitova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 9 Sam Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova d. 10 Caroline Wozniacki

Svetlana Kuznetsova d. 11 Nadia Petrova

Varvara Lepchenko d. 12 Roberta Vinci

Sabine Lisicki d. 15 Dominika Cibulkova

What comes around goes around for Vinci, it seems, an upset-maker in 2012 and the victim of an upset in 2012.  Kvitova also has found the Magic Box a house of horrors since winning the title here two years ago, her first career loss to Hantuchova this year adding some context to the Hradecka debacle last year.  And there’s just no curbing Lepchenko’s appetite for Italian cuisine in Madrid, while Cibulkova doesn’t seem to enjoy her time here in any color.  The heavy-hitting Lisicki’s upset of her in two tiebreaks suggests the impact of the Madrid altitude on amplifying serves, relevant no matter the surface.

Taking stock of the larger view, the carnage this week was staggering and becomes even more staggering considering the relative consistency that has developed at the top of the WTA over the last eighteen months or so.  Granted, Azarenka just returned from an injury absence and never plays her best on clay, nor does Radwanska.  But one would have expected the latter to win more than four games from a raw Laura Robson, even amid her recent slump, and Makarova did not topple Azarenka based on her superior clay-court expertise.  Madison Keys shares Robson’s and Makarova’s preference for faster surfaces, so her first-round rout of Li Na may have registered the greatest shock of all.  Just two years removed from her Roland Garros title, Li has continued to shine on clay with marquee finals in Rome last year and Stuttgart this year.  Any of those three upsets, though, came as a greater surprise than any of those in 2012.

The remaining upsets of top-10 players, those over Stosur and Wozniacki, spoke more to the recent struggles of both women and came at the hands of two players accomplished on clay.  They don’t add much to the overall picture.

The VerdictBoth years featured plenty of upsets, nearly half of the seeds falling in 2012 and over half of the seeds falling in 2013.  Three of the top ten fell last year and a ghastly six of the top ten this year in an even larger implosion.  Since most of the top women prefer somewhat faster surfaces to red clay anyway, that difference might actually demonstrate a point that the blue clay’s detractors cited:  the blue played more like other blue courts (e.g., hard courts) than like other clay courts.  Even so, seeing the best in the game play their best may matter more than any other goal, and last year offered more in that regard than this year did.

Let’s next see how the men fared in the upset category.

2012:

Marin Cilic d. 8 John Isner

Jurgen Melzer d. 13 Feliciano Lopez

Not much to see here, just two upsets before the final sixteen and both of men whom one would expect to exit early on clay.  In fact, these results counter perceptions of the blue clay as a much faster surface than the red, which the tournament’s later rounds would encourage.  Losses by Isner and Lopez, players built around explosive serves and short points, surprised much less than the upsets in the WTA draw in the same year.  I found the dearth of upsets by non-seeds in the ATP draw quite surprising, in retrospect, for it seemed amid the general tumult at the time that many more fell in the early rounds.

 2013:

Grigor Dimitrov d. 1 Novak Djokovic

Daniel Gimeno-Traver d. 8 Richard Gasquet

Juan Monaco d. 9 Janko Tipsarevic

Pablo Andujar d. 10 Marin Cilic

Mikhail Youzhny d. 11 Nicolas Almagro

Fernando Verdasco d. 12 Milos Raonic

In contrast to the previous year, the 2013 draw harvested a plentiful crop of upsets, including three members of the top ten.  The name looming above the list, of course, belongs to one of the two superstars who criticized the blue clay so vociferously.  We never will know how much a lingering ankle injury or the consequent lack of practice contributed to Djokovic’s opening-round loss.  Note, however, that he brought the injury and minimal practice to Monte Carlo two weeks before—and, surviving two early three-setters, ultimately won the title from Nadal.  While his slips, stumbles, and mishits on blue clay showed his discomfort with that surface, Djokovic slipped, stumbled, and mishit plenty of balls across three ragged hours of tennis.  Those parallels supported what some have observed over the last few years:  Madrid’s problems come not from the surface’s color but from its hasty, uneven preparation.

The second-most surprising result in my view came from Youzhny’s victory over Almagro, in which a seeded clay specialist near the top 10 fell to a rapidly fading fast-court specialist twenty slots below him.  That’s exactly the type of result that one might have expected on the blue clay, so its occurrence on the red reminds us that these counterintuitive results can happen there too.  Gasquet’s early loss also stands out (to a lesser extent) because of his past successes on clay and overall consistency in 2012-13.  All the same, Gimeno-Traver became the seventh player outside the top 30 to defeat the Frenchman since the US Open, showing that Gasquet remains more vulnerable to upsets than most of the top ten.

The upsets of Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Raonic registered little surprise because all three fell to players with much greater aptitude on clay.  By conquering the latter two, Andujar and Verdasco showed that the altitude perhaps does not offer massive servers as much of an advantage as some had thought.  Despite his top-ten ranking, Tipsarevic has lost to virtually every opponent imaginable this year as his dismal form has dogged him across all surfaces.

The Verdict:  In both quantity and quality, the Madrid men’s draw produced more notable upsets early in the week this year than last year, as did the women’s draw.  However you choose to interpret that difference, it certainly does not suggest that the traditional surface caused a return to normalcy—but quite the opposite.  Nevertheless, some more subtle thinkers might argue that rankings, and thus seedings, reflect a player’s performance on faster surfaces disproportionately compared with performance on clay.  Since the ATP still has plenty of clay specialists who make their living on the surface, the lack of upsets in 2012 ironically may suggest that the blue clay played more like a hard court, as many complained, since the seedings based predominantly on hard-court results dictated outcomes.  Food for thought…

Now let’s switch to the other angle of comparison and compare who reached the semifinals of Madrid in 2012 and 2013, ladies first.

2012:

1 Victoria Azarenka (d. 8 Li Na)

4 Agnieszka Radwanska (d. Varvara Lepchenko)

Lucie Hradecka (d. 5 Samantha Stosur)

9 Serena Williams (d. 2 Maria Sharapova)

To state the obvious, the top half played exactly according to form.  In fact, the only top-eight seed who did not reach the quarterfinals in that half was the aforementioned Bartoli, usually expected to underperform on any sort of clay.  Despite her ninth seed, Serena should be favored over Sharapova on any surface and merely extended her dominance in that rivalry.  Few would have been surprised to see her eliminate the higher-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in a three-setter a round before.  Having lost to Wozniacki in Miami earlier that spring, Serena was not going to let the Dane down her twice.

The only odd name in this lineup does pop the eyeballs a bit, even after we became acquainted with her in the upsets section.  Hradecka delivered the biggest shock there, and she built upon that run with another upset of the then-healthy and somewhat dangerous Stosur in two tense tiebreaks.  The serve-a-thon semifinal in which she battled Serena certainly departed from expectations for a clay match.  On the other hand, a single unseeded semifinalist has burst through the bracket into an otherwise studded lineup at many WTA tournaments over the past few years.  It’s unexpected but no more astonishing than Rezai two years before.

2013:

1 Serena Williams (d. Anabel Medina Garrigues)

8 Sara Errani (d. Ekaterina Makarova)

16 Ana Ivanovic (d. 6 Angelique Kerber)

2 Maria Sharapova (d. Kaia Kanepi)

This lineup makes considerably more sense for a clay tournament than what we saw at the same stage in 2012.  All four of these WTA semifinalists have reached Roland Garros finals, three of them winning the title, so their talents on the surface rise beyond doubt.  The only constant between the two years, Serena, has not shone in Paris for several years but still has accomplished far more there than fellow 2012 semifinalists Azarenka, Radwanska, and Hradecka.  And the narrowness of her victory over Medina Garrigues captured the ability of an unheralded clay specialist to challenge someone of far greater talent here.  The only quarterfinal upset, Ivanovic over Kerber, plays into the theme of surface expertise with a woman whose greatest exploits have come on clay toppling a higher-ranked woman who has built her career on hard courts.

The Verdict:  While the 2012 semifinalists comprised arguably a more accomplished group overall, the 2013 semifinalists more accurately align with expectations for clay.  The transition back to the red thus coincided with arguably more desirable results later in the week after the implosions earlier in the week.  What was lost at the beginning may have been gained at the end.

And now for the ATP comparison. 

2012:

7 Janko Tipsarevic (d. 1 Novak Djokovic)

3 Roger Federer (d. 5 David Ferrer)

10 Juan Martin Del Potro (d. 16 Alexander Dolgopolov)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 15 Fernando Verdasco)

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the massive Mallorcan elephant in the room.  Barring injury or its aftereffects, Rafael Nadal never will fail to reach the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 tournament on clay during his prime without raising questions about the tournament.  It felt especially awkward because Madrid is the most important Spanish tournament, the place where Nadal should have the opportunity to bask in the adulation of his compatriots.  A petulant side less attractive than his usual sportsmanlike self emerged there last year, but one could understand his frustration at the opportunity denied him.

One could make an almost equally compelling argument that Djokovic should reach the semifinals at every clay Masters 1000 event that he enters, again subject to injury and related matters (see this year’s case above).  Or, at least, he should not lose in that situation to Janko Tipsarevic, nobody’s idea of a clay specialist and someone characteristically content to play second fiddle to Nole.  While I hesitate to ever question someone who won a six-hour major final for lack of effort, I felt strongly that Djokovic held back his best in that quarterfinal.  As with Nadal, that attitude did not reflect especially well on him.  As with Nadal, it tarnished the tournament nonetheless.

 

Federer’s eventual victory offered Madrid the best possible resolution under the circumstances, and its top brass must have felt fortunate that he dodged the opening-round bullet of Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreak.  Without Federer, the weekend designed as the tournament’s climax would have descended into chaos.  Quality players with plenty of accomplishments, Del Potro and Berdych illustrated all too clearly how much faster the blue clay appeared to play than its red cousin.  Their semifinal cost the tournament more of whatever credibility still clung to it, decided as it was by a style of tennis more common on hard courts than clay.  So was the final between Federer and Berdych, despite its entertaining twists and turns.

2013:

15 Stanislas Wawrinka (d. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 3 Andy Murray)

5 Rafael Nadal (d. 4 David Ferrer)

Pablo Andujar (d. 14 Kei Nishikori)

Just looking at the seedings of the survivors, the end of the tournament appears as chaotic as the beginning.  The lower-ranked man won every quarterfinal, and none of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, unusual for a Masters 1000 tournament.  But a closer inspection reveals that each of these results fits with our expectations of how the distinctiveness of red clay affects results.  In all four quarterfinals, the man with superior expertise on the surface prevailed, just as in the 2013 women’s draw.  Granted, Rafa came within two points of defeat against a compatriot whom he long has throttled on this surface, recalling the stunning ambush by Verdasco last year.  Fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar also had struggled to win any matches at all over the last several months, so his sudden semifinal appearance with upsets over two seeded opponents astonishes.

The two non-Spanish semifinalists possess strong credentials on this surface with Wawrinka once coming within a set of the Rome title and Berdych within a set of the Roland Garros final.  Berdych is the only man who reached the Madrid semifinals in both of these years, an intriguing comment on how well his game adapts to various surfaces—or perhaps a comment on how much the altitude assists it.  A slow-court player, Wawrinka showed how the more physical, grinding attributes of a clay specialist’s game can prevail over a mercurial shot-maker like Tsonga.  Last year, that result may well be reversed.

The Verdict:  As with the women’s draw, the men’s draw crystallized late in the week this year into a more characteristic set of semifinalists than what we saw on the blue clay.  Nadal’s appearance in the semifinals backed up his arguments last year about that surface’s flaws, and Wawrinka makes a more credible surprise semifinalist on a slow court than Tipsarevic did.  While the route to this stage earlier in the week was less than ideal, and certainly more volatile than in 2012, the marquee rounds have unfolded along more familiar lines.

***

Two patterns thus emerge from comparisons between the Madrid men’s and women’s draws of the last two years.  The red clay produced more upsets in the first two rounds, and in general upsets of greater significance.  By the semifinals, though, the rubble had settled into a form more recognizable for this season than what the blue clay produced.

As the years unfold, we will observe whether those trends continue, or whether the altitude at this tournament continues to create chaos.  Another possible contributing factor, unrelated to the surface color, will improve in 2014 when the clay becomes permanent in Madrid rather than laid down shortly before the tournament each year.  The slipperiness that has troubled an array of stars during its brief history as a spring event should dwindle after that change, pleasing players and fans alike.

 

 

 

 

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.

Her Best Against The Best: Miami Women’s Final Preview

As her records in key rivalries and her stunning semifinal rout of Agnieszka Radwanska illustrated, Serena Williams plays her best against the best.  Never does that trait become more apparent than in her matches against Maria Sharapova, long envisioned by the media as Serena’s most plausible rival.  Since she escaped three match points against the world No. 2 at the 2005 Australian Open, the world No. 1 has dominated her meetings with a rival who defeated her in two key 2004 finals at Wimbledon and the year-end championships.  Most of those matches have featured little or no drama, including routs in an Australian Open, an Olympics gold-medal match, and a 2007 fourth-round encounter here.  From any of those episodes in their history, viewers can discern that the two women play essentially the same fearlessly aggressive game.  Serena simply executes that game more effectively, relying on the best serve in WTA history, superior athleticism, and greater ability to transition between offense and defense as necessary.

While the American’s brilliance has set the tone, Sharapova certainly has done little to help her own cause on these occasions.  A competitor who emanates such fierce confidence against virtually all other opponents tends to retreat into a muted shell of herself at the outset of or a short distance into these encounters, listlessly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Sharapova commits routine errors much more frequently than she does in the average match, and she generally struggles with her serve to a greater extent than one would attribute to the pressure of Serena’s stinging returns.  In short, fans have grown accustomed to seeing a diluted version of her in these matches when only the most intense version would suffice.  On an 11-match winning streak that has carried her within one victory of the rare Indian Wells-Miami double, Sharapova may have accumulated more confidence than usual to insulate her from the memories of previous meetings with Serena.

The Russian must assert herself early in the match to keep her spirits high, however, and the nearly flawless manner in which Serena burst out of the gate against Radwanska would have left anyone in the dust.  Firing an ace of the first point of her semifinal, the legendary champion delivered a much more forceful statement of intent than she had in earlier rounds.  Much ink has been spilled on Serena’s vaunted ability to elevate her form at the climax of tournaments, to which the motivation of facing an elite opponent probably contributes.  Sharapova likewise elevated her form near the end of Indian Wells to soar past the competition, so this final could produce breathtaking quality if both women can soar simultaneously to produce the tennis of which each is capable at her finest.

Recent Miami finals have seen little such tennis but instead have featured a sequence of routs as the energy in the stadium sags.  Realistically speaking, nothing in the recent history between the top two women in the world leads an observer to predict a match more than routine or modestly respectable.  Four times a finalist at the Sony Open, Sharapova likely will find herself holding the smaller trophy for a fifth time.  Her moment in the Miami sun will come, no doubt, for she plows through the draw here each year with a relentless regularity.  For now, Saturday remains Serena’s time to shine and the Sony Open the tournament where she will hold more titles than at any other.

 

Keys to Biscayne: Miami WTA Draw Preview

While the men’s draw has suffered from marquee withdrawals by Federer and Nadal, the women’s draw in Miami witnesses the return of world #1 Serena Williams and Australian Open finalist Li Na to North American hard courts.  They have landed in the same quarter of the Sony Open draw, with which we start our women’s preview.

First quarter:  Since she won Brisbane to start 2013, Serena’s season has not gone as she would have hoped.  Injury and illness have contributed to losses at the Australian Open and Doha, so she will hope to regroup from those setbacks at her home tournament, which she has dominated when healthy.  More successful here than almost anywhere else, Serena should deploy her serve to devastating effect against the meager return games of her first few opponents.  Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta would have wished for a better draw than facing the world #1 in the second round, while potential fourth-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova should find her height and wingspan too limited to cope with this level of first-strike power.  Somewhat more intriguing is the prospect of Lucie Safarova, a lefty more capable of matching Serena hold for hold when at her best, but her results have remained too erratic to depend on her reaching the fourth round.

On the opposite side of the quarter, an intriguing draw would pit Indian Wells runner-up Wozniacki against Australian Open runner-up Li in the fourth round, a rematch of some scintillating three-setters that the two have played on outdoor hard courts.  Neither faces too intimidating a challenge before that stage, although the former might take note of surging Spanish phenom Garbine Muguruza.  That rising star reached the fourth round of Indian Wells as a qualifier and easily could upset the reeling Pavlyuchenkova in the second round to reach Wozniacki in the third.  But the Dane should have taken more confidence from her finals appearance in the desert than from her resounding defeat to Sharapova there.  She should weather the test posed by Muguruza and probably also the challenge presented by Li, who has not played since her outstanding January campaign.  The Chinese star may need some matches to regain her rhythm after so long an absence and so severe an injury.  If Wozniacki does meet Serena in the quarterfinals, the top seed likely would relish the opportunity to avenge a miserable loss to the same opponent at the same stage last year.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska could not have drawn a much more challenging route to a repeat performance in Miami, nor did her performance over the last two weeks inspire much confidence in her.  More impressive on a similar surface at Indian Wells, Mona Barthel will train her huge serve and return weapons against the Pole in the third round.  Perhaps more compelling for local fans is the third-round meeting between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, who personify the past and future of American women’s tennis.  The latter woman has not built upon her Australian Open semifinal in recent weeks, however, struggling with an abdominal injury and exiting Indian Wells in her first match.  Venus, who has not played since Sharapova demolished her in Melbourne, has shared her sister’s history of success at their home tournament but fell to Radwanska here a year ago.

If she can survive the imposing serves in her immediate vicinity, Radwanska can expect little reprieve in the quarterfinals.  The highest-ranked woman who could meet her there, Petra Kvitova, dismantled her with ease last month in Dubai and reached her first Indian Wells quarterfinal last week.  On the other hand, Kvitova never has distinguished herself in Miami and will have some obstacles of her own to surmount before she can reach Radwanska.  Among them is Marion Bartoli, knocking on the door of the top ten again and more successful here than Kvitova.  The double-fister suffered a surprising loss to Errani in the desert, but her competitive tenacity could allow her to exploit the Czech’s inevitable episodes of erratic play.  One of the most intriguing unseeded players in the draw, Andrea Petkovic aims to reawaken the memories of her 2011 semifinal run in Miami.  She faces a stern series of opening tests against Bojana Jovanovski, Bartoli, and Julia Goerges before she even reaches Kvitova.  From this unpredictable section of the draw, an unexpected semifinalist could emerge.

Semifinalist:  Er, Kvitova?

Third quarter:  One match short of the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2006, Maria Sharapova eyes a comfortable route to position herself at least within range of that accomplishment.  She has not lost a set to anyone but Serena in her last two tournaments, cruising to the desert title without any physically or emotionally arduous matches that would have drained her energy.  Many women would suffer a hangover after capturing a title of that magnitude, but the career Grand Slam champion has grown sufficiently accustomed to achievements on that level to avoid such a lapse.  Even if she did, early rounds against Vesnina or an assortment of qualifiers and wildcards should not threaten her.  A rematch of the Indian Wells semifinal might loom in the fourth round, but Kirilenko may struggle to sustain her Indian Wells form.  The only woman to win a set from Sharapova at Roland Garros last year, Klara Zakopalova could inconvenience her on one of her more inconsistent days.

For the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, Sara Errani would await Sharapova in the quarterfinals.  Despite the Italian’s ability to reach that stage at Indian Wells, she may find her path more complicated this time.  The massive serve of Sabine Lisicki, always fragile and always dangerous, could produce a stark contrast of styles if she meets Errani in the third round.  But the third-round match below offers more intrigue, for it should pit Ivanovic against either Makarova or former Miami champion Kuznetsova.  Gifted shot-makers all, those three women will look to stay patient on the slow hard court and bounce back from Indian Wells disappointments.  They must stay even more patient against Errani than each other, but each might have a stronger chance than the Italian to trouble Sharapova because of their greater capacity to finish points.  It is hard to imagine the world #2 stumbling early if she sustains her Indian Wells form, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  Will she or won’t she?  The question hovers over the status of Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Miami champion who withdrew from Indian Wells with an ankle injury.  Having glanced at her draw and seen the heavy serve of Madison Keys in her opener, Vika may feel some trepidation about testing that joint in a match where she will need her movement to shine.  Afterwards, she could meet a group of slow-court specialists like Cornet, Vinci, or Suarez Navarro.  Climbing the rankings regularly in recent weeks, the Spaniard showcases the finest one-handed backhand among the seeded women here.  Together with Keys on the list of home hopes, Christina McHale continues to regroup slowly from her mono last year.  She led eventual Indian Wells semifinalist Kirilenko by a set and a break, so she should feel encouraged by her progress.  Young British hope Laura Robson rounds out this section’s crop of rising stars.

Veterans proliferate in the upper half of this section, from Jankovic and Petrova to Zheng and Schiavone.  Indian Wells semifinalist Kerber will need to raise her spirits following a dispiriting loss to Wozniacki in which she seemed firmly in control and battled to the bitter end.  If she can, none of the opponents in this section should match her blend of alert anticipation and lefty shot-making, although Sorana Cirstea flickered into form at Indian Wells by winning a set from Radwanska.  A finalist in Miami during her prime, Jankovic did not bring her momentum from winning the Bogota clay tournament to North America and struggles to string together strong results.  Of greater note is the eleventh-seeded Petrova, remarkable still near the elite in singles and doubles despite her age.  This section remains difficult to predict as long as Azarenka’s status is uncertain, but Kerber looks poised to take advantage of a lapse by the Australian Open champion.

Semifinalist:  Kerber

***

Check back tomorrow for a similar look at the men’s draw in Miami.

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

The Elite Eight: Players Seeking the Indian Wells/Miami Double

More remarkable than any feat in tennis outside the majors, the Indian Wells-Miami double title requires many factors to fall together for those who would complete it:  sustained form across twelve matches, resilient fitness in heat and humidity, efficiency in early rounds, the ability to raise one’s level in later rounds, adjustments to contrasting playing styles, and—perhaps—a bit of luck from fortuitous upsets late in the draw.  Since Federer completed a stunning pair of doubles in 2005-06, only one player on either Tour has matched his accomplishment, but several have come close.  We take a look at each of the leading threats to rampage through March in both the ATP and WTA.

ATP:

Djokovic:  The aforementioned architect of an Indian Wells/Miami double, the Serb demonstrated his improved fitness by sweeping these arduous draws early in his spectacular 2011 campaign.  Even before he became the fearsome member of the big four, moreover, he came within a match of the same feat by finishing runner-up at the first and champion at the latter in 2007.  Last year, Djokovic came within a tiebreak of the Indian Wells final before defending his Miami crown.  The slow courts should favor his more physical style over Federer’s preference for short points, and he currently holds the momentum in his rivalry against Murray with three straight victories.  Entering the Dubai semifinals, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches and 26 of his last 27, opening a massive lead as world #1.

Murray:  Four years ago, he came within a win of the double when he fell to Nadal in the Indian Wells final before sweeping Del Potro and Djokovic to win Miami.  Often at his best on North American hard courts, Murray has won six of his eight Masters 1000 titles there—but has lost three straight matches at Indian Wells, where he has advanced past the quarterfinals just once  That futility in the desert, which should suit a high-percentage game adaptable to variable conditions, has stemmed from emotional hangovers after losses in the Australian Open final.  Although he lost there again this year, Murray seemed less distraught afterward, so he could bounce back sooner.  He might well avoid long-time nemesis Nadal at both events but probably will have to reconquer the Djoker at least once.

Berdych:  A Miami finalist in 2010, he never has reached the final at either of the tournaments in any other year and has won just one Masters 1000 shield.  Nevertheless, Berdych has grown more consistent in the last several months against players outside the elite, and he will take comfort from the knowledge that he may not face either Federer or Nadal.  Securing his fair share of success against Murray over the years, he never has defeated Djokovic on a hard court.  For a player of his size and (limited) mobility, Berdych handles slow courts unusually well because his groundstrokes still can power through them, while he often will have the time to run around his backhand for forehands.

Del Potro:  The only active major champion outside the Big Four, he does own a somewhat recent victory over Djokovic and momentum against Federer following two victories last fall.  But Del Potro never has defeated either Djokovic or Murray on an outdoor hard court, at least pending his Dubai semifinal against the former.  Most of his notable successes have come on faster courts like those at the US Open or the year-end championships, where his forehand can break open rallies more quickly.  Although his fitness has proved unreliable in the heat, his four-title surge during the summer of 2008 showed that he can stay torrid for a long time when his game starts to sizzle.

Federer cannot complete the double because he has not entered Miami.  Nadal?  Well, he remains entered in both tournaments as of this writing and thus will have a chance to complete a feat that he never quite has approached.  In the reality of his comeback, however, Nadal surely cannot sweep twelve straight hard-court matches in elite draws and conclude an exhausting four weeks by winning Miami for the first time after losing three finals there.  Nor might he want that accomplishment, for it surely would drain him before the crucial clay season.

WTA:

Sharapova:  Within one win of a 2006 double, when she won Indian Wells and finished runner-up to Kuznetsova in Miami, she has produced outstanding results at each of the March mini-majors in the last two years.  Denied only in the finals of both 2012 tournaments, Sharapova has started this year with a relentlessness similar to what she showed last year despite a surprising loss to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals.  She has not defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009, but she towers above the rest of the Indian Wells field in credentials.  Much more complicated is Miami, where she has lost all four of her finals and must hope for someone else to dispatch Serena.

Azarenka:  Undefeated entering Indian Wells for the second straight year, she often has raced to a fast start early in the season before losing momentum as injuries accumulate.  Last year, she won Indian Wells with ease but arrived significantly depleted in Miami, where she could not survive the quarterfinals.  The world #2 shares Djokovic’s affinity for a surface that showcases her transitions from defense to offense as well as her returning prowess.  Apparent niggles with her fitness already have surfaced this year in every tournament that she has played, however, leaving her durability still in doubt.  Rarely has she won titles in consecutive weeks.

Radwanska:  By contrast, the Pole whom Azarenka ruthlessly has suppressed since the start of 2012 has demonstrated her ability to win key titles in consecutive weeks.  Radwanska swept the Premier Five/Premier Mandatory pair of Tokyo and Beijing in 2011, catalyzing a surge that has not yet ended, and she should welcome the slow courts.  The defending champion in Miami, where she defeated Venus and Sharapova last year, she should approach the pressure of that status with her characteristic tenacity.  But Radwanska has reached a major semifinal only once because of her failure to outlast the WTA’s fiercest aggressors through a seven-round tournament, and the same pattern might undo her in the attempt to win consecutive six-round tournaments against the best in the sport.

Kvitova:  Feckless in North America until last year, she suddenly erupted during the US Open Series with two titles and a semifinal.  Kvitova can tear through a draw or multiple draws without warning, as she showed by emerging from a slump to claim the Premier title in Dubai without dropping a set, including a victory over Radwanska.  She never has defeated Serena and has struggled lately against Sharapova, while she astonishingly has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s rise early last year.  More dangerous with every round that she advances further into a tournament, Kvitova will hope to avoid dark horses early in both draws and find the patience necessary to win rallies on the slow courts.

Among the key reasons why no woman has completed the double lately is the presence of the Williams sisters in Miami but not in Indian Wells.  Their dominance at the former tournament, near their Palm Beach Gardens home, once inevitably forestalled the champion of the desert from repeating in Miami.  While the tottering Venus probably cannot win a title of this magnitude, Serena remains the favorite at any non-clay tournament that she enters when healthy.  Healthy she may not be, considering her injury-hampered hobbles through Melbourne and Doha, but the month of rest since the latter tournament may have allowed the world #1 to recover.