Seeds and Spoilers

Friday, May 04, 2012 /by

PkRed, white, or blue—and hopefully not black and blue—we’re almost ready to go in Madrid. As I write this, player complaints about the new surface appear to be on the rise. The two top men, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, both had trouble judging the bounce on it in practice and have mentioned that the clay is softer and slipperier than normal. In light of the serious injuries sustained by Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, and Andrea Petkovic on dirt this spring, that’s a worry.

But it’s too late, and too early, to worry about that at the moment. The latest development from Madrid is the release of the women’s draw. As Richard Pagliaro and I discussed here yesterday, it’s a good one, with strong names in bold in virtually all of the seed spots, and pesky spoilers popping up where you don’t expect them. There are even some first-round tests for the big names. That’s a rarity in these days of many seeds.

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First Quarter
One of those tests comes right at the top of the draw, where top seed Victoria Azarenka faces former French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round. Like the shot of coffee she needs in the morning, that should get Vika’s eyes open right away. There aren’t many soft spots after that, either. Two other Roland Garros winners are here, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na, as well as Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber. The returning American and the surging German could play in the second round. Vika made the final here last year, and I think the slightly quicker pace of play in Madrid will help her flat shots penetrate. We’ll see how her wrist is after she hurt it in Stuttgart.

First Sleeper: Li Na. She made the semis here in 2011.

Second Sleeper: Vania King. Can this California girl play on clay? She says she likes the blue stuff so far; maybe it will make her believe it’s a hard court from back home.

Semifinalist: Azarenka

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Second Quarter
At first glance, you might think that Aga Radwanska has the easiest draw of the top four, and on balance she does. Bartoli, Cibulkova, and Schiavone are the other three seeds in her section. But that doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods. Sara Errani, an Italian wallboard who hasn’t lost a match on clay this year, and who is currently in the final in Budapest, is Aga’s second-round opponent (Radwanska won their only match, 3 and 1, on grass two years ago).

This is the type of draw that the world’s new No. 4 should be able to handle, if she’s going to continue in that rarefied air. Clay may not be her favorite surface, but a quicker bounce could help her counterpunching style.

Question: Is it time for Schiavone to begin awakening for her yearly Roland Garros run, or can she do it all in Paris once again?

Semifinalist: Errani

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Third Quarter
The heaviest hitters are in the bottom half, starting with Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova, who are scheduled to face off in the quarters. Each was a victim of Maria Sharapova last week in Stuttgart, but each should be in their element in Madrid. Kvitova’s flat hitting is a natural fit, and she won the whole thing last year. As for Stosur, she played well enough to hold a match point last week against her nemesis, Maria.

There’s not a whole lot between these two players that looks worrisome. Zvonareva and Kirilenko are the other two seeds, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai are also here, and Christina McHale could get Stosur in the second round. This would seem, after her hard training in Turkey and near miss against Sharapova in Stuttgart, the time for Kvitova to be rounding into the serious form we began to see from her at this stage in 2011.

Fiesty first-round match to watch: Zheng Jie vs. Maria Kirilenko

Semifinalist: Kvitova

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Fourth Quarter
Two more heavy hitters, and three former No. 1s, have found their way into this jam-packed section. Sharapova is the top seed, followed by Caroline Wozniacki, followed by Serena Williams, who seems sanguine about the tournament's color controversy: “Blue clay is fine,” Serena says. “I could play on ice if necessary.” But her first round probably won’t be a free skate: Serena faces Elena Vesnina, who played well enough this week to reach the Budapest final. Otherwise, this isn’t a bad quarter for Serena. She’ll want to get back at Wozniacki for beating her in Miami, and she generally owns Sharapova.

That’s not the end of the intrigue in this quarter. Germans Mona Barthel and Julia Goerges face each other in the first round; the winner will likely get Wozniacki, if she gets past Ksenia Pervak, which is no cinch. Also here: Jankovic, Pavlyuchenkova, Safarova, and Kanepi.

Questions, questions: How long will Sharapova’s much-improved serve last after Stuttgart? Was Serena’s consistent dominance in Charleston sustainable over the long run in Europe? Can Wozniacki bounce back from a bad loss to Kerber and find her way through a tough draw, as she did in Miami? We’ll find it all out in this section; it’s like a tournament unto itself.

First-round match to watch: Barthel vs. Goerges

Semifinalist: S. Williams

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Semifinals: Azarenka d. Errani; Kvitova d. S. Williams

Final: Kvitova d. Azarenka

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