While all the talk has been about the colour of the clay in Madrid ahead of this week’s combined Mutua Madrid Open, there is an important tournament to be played on the new surface and there is a long list of title contenders in the women’s draw.
The top half of the draw features World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka who overcame a tough first round hurdle this weekend with a straight sets win over Svetlana Kuznetsova. Despite a flawless start to her season, the Belarussian could use a strong showing at a major clay court event leading into Roland-Garros. Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams and Na Li are all in Azarenka’s quarter and her arch rival, new world no. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska is once again a potential semifinal opponent. Azarenka is the only player to beat the Pole so far in 2012. Radwanska’s section is already void of three seeds, Marion Bartoli, Dominika Cibulkova and a slumping Francesca Schiavone. Despite some of the favourites bowing out early, Radwanska could meet Sara Errani, the hottest clay court player in the world, in the second round. Errani has won 15 straight matches and three consecutive tournaments on the red dirt, including a title win last week in Budapest.
On paper, the bottom half of the Madrid women’s draw is definitely the tougher and deeper side. Leading the way is Stuttgart champion and world no. 2 Maria Sharapova. The rejuvanted Russian continues to make strides on clay and she rolled through her opening match. Fans are looking ahead to a potential blockbuster quarter-final between Sharapova and Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, or even the emerging Mona Barthel. Sharapova and Williams have not played eachother since Stanford last summer and with many labeling them French Open favourites, both would likely relish the opportunity to go head-to-head before Paris. Defending Madrid champion Petra Kvitova and the clay savvy Samantha Stosur could also meet in the quarter-finals. Both could use a big showing on the blue clay courts. As she proved last year with her title run, the Madrid altitude and quicker surface are certainly favourable conditions for Kvitova’s big game.
In keeping with a prevalent WTA trend in 2012, expect the top four players to be still standing in the latter stages of the tournament, but not without being tested along the way. At the same time, upsets will not be uncommon given the uncertainties and concerns about the new clay surface. It will be interesting to see what kind of champion the blue courts will crown.
What promises to be a thrilling spring and summer of tennis for the WTA begins this week for the ladies in Stuttgart for the start of the clay court season.
This much-anticipated segment of the calendar begins with a bang as 17 of the Top 20 players in the world are entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madrid and Rome will also host Premier events during the month of May as preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the year at Roland-Garros.
Over the past few years, the expectations and results on the red dirt for the women have been highly unpredictable and 2012 will be no different. Gone are the days of dominant clay court specialists on the WTA like Justine Henin or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Instead, today’s Tour is all about parity making it anyone’s game, especially on clay. Case and point, the French Open has crowned a different champion each of the last four years. It will be interesting to see if World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka can continue her dominance this season on a different surface or whether Maria Sharapova will finally breakthrough with some titles after finishing as the runner-up at the three biggest tournaments of the year so far. Can Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova kick-start her season after a slow start? Will Caroline Wozniacki claim that elusive Grand Slam crown? Can Na Li repeat in Paris? Will a resurgent Ana Ivanovic be a threat again on a surface that brought her Grand Slam glory in 2008? All of these questions will be answered over the next few weeks with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.
Don’t be surprised if a player outside of the Top 10 makes some noise at the big tournaments and look for Agnieszka Radwanska to make a serious run at her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros. Her all court game is well-suited for clay. Not to mention, she is enjoying the best season of her career.
It’s impossible to discuss a pending Major without throwing the name of Serena Williams into the mix. She played the Australian Open on one ankle, but comes into the clay court season in much better shape especially after rolling through the draw in Charleston a few weeks ago to win her 40th career title. Williams is driven to continually overcome health obstacles for another opportunity to add to her Grand Slam tally. The expectations may be low heading into Roland-Garros considering her recent results at the Majors and the fact clay is her worst surface. However, tennis fans have learned over the years to never discount Serena and it would be very much her style to triumph in Paris when everyone least expects her to.
By Maud Watson
Serbian Turnaround – Over the course of the last year or so, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have experienced varying degrees of a downward spiral in their careers, but signs seem to indicate that they are well on their way to turning things around. Earlier this spring, Jankovic snagged the Indian Wells title, and she showed great mental toughness to defeat both Williams sisters back-to-back in Rome. With a few more big wins under her belt, she may just find the consistency that took her to the top of the game in 2008. My bigger praise, however, has to go to Ana Ivanovic. While she lost early in Madrid to countrywoman Jankovic, she did put together a great run in Rome that included wins over Azarenka, Dementieva, and Petrova. She’s gotten herself a new coach, she’s lost some weight, and most importantly, her mindset couldn’t be better. Ivanovic acknowledges that she’s faced her worst fear in experiencing her playing slump and is ready to begin the climb back up the rankings. Kudos to both, and I hope that they’ll once again strongly factor into the top of the women’s game.
Chaos Reigns – Roland Garros is just over a week away, and with the decimation of the seeds in Madrid, the women’s field couldn’t look more open. After winning Stuttgart, many (myself included) thought that perhaps Justine Henin was worthy to wear one of the heavy favorite tags, but her upset by Aravane Rezai, which included a bagel in the third, might suggest otherwise. Serena Williams has looked decent for a player who hasn’t competed since the Australian Open, but with her failure to twice serve out the match against Jelena Jankovic in Rome and a listless performance against an inspired Nadia Petrova in Madrid, she hasn’t exactly looked solid. Throw in that names like Wozniaki, Sharapova, Safina, Dementieva, Kutznetsova, and last week’s Rome champion Martinez Sanchez have all made an early exit in Madrid, and the time may be ripe for a dark horse to step up and take her first Slam victory at the second major of the year. And yes, I realize that the seeds that have fallen in Madrid haven’t exactly had the greatest past couple of months, but that only sets the stage further for a surprise victor or finalist in Paris. But then again, the champions are champions because they can turn it on when it counts. One thing is for sure…it should be an interesting two weeks at the French Open.
Turning Back the Clock – First there was the return of Kim Clijsters that was then followed by the comeback of Justine Henin. Now there’s another news item that harks back to days gone by. With her three-set victory over Francesca Schiavone this week in Madrid, Venus Williams has guaranteed that she will be the No. 2 player in the world when the new rankings come out on Monday. Younger sister Serena currently holds the No. 1 ranking, and the occasion will mark the first time since May 2003 that the sisters have held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. While the Williams sisters aren’t dominating the game as they once did when they previously held the world’s top rankings, their longevity and ability to come up big on the sport’s grandest stages, which has led to their return to the top, deserve tremendous applause.
Zero Pressure – That’s what American Andy Roddick should be feeling as he goes into Roland Garros. Roddick opted to skip Monte Carlo and Rome and do his Paris preparation in the Spanish capital. A stomach virus has since forced him to alter his plans, however, as the virus resulted in his withdrawal from the Madrid Masters before even playing a single match. Not that Roddick has probably ever held great expectations on the red dirt, given that it is his worst surface, but this year in particular he should really be swinging freely. Who knows? Perhaps possibly mental lower expectations will ultimately lead Roddick to his best finish in Paris.
Off into the Sunset? – A lot of tennis fans, myself included, are wondering when Spaniard Carlos Moya will decide to hang up his racquet. The 33-year-old Moya has rarely played in recent months, and his showing against Benjamin Becker this week was dismal. One wonders if he is able to play Roland Garros, which is currently his plan, if that won’t be the last we see of him. Having won a major, reaching the No. 1 world ranking, and even winning the Davis Cup, Moya has nothing left to prove. And with Moya and his girlfriend Carolina Cerezuela expecting their first child later this year, he may find it the perfect time to call it a career.