Next week should be an entertaining, as well as edifying, one for fans of women’s tennis. The WTA kicks into high clay gear in Madrid, where it will stage one of its handful of top-level mandatory events. Even better, it will be the first time since February that the tour’s version of the Big 3, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka, will be in a draw together.
There have been some intriguing, if sporadic, developments between them in 2013. In Doha, Serena passed Vika for No. 1 the day before Vika recorded her first win over Serena in four years. In Indian Wells, Sharapova returned to the winner’s circle, and, with Azarenka sidelined by an ankle injury, continued her good run by taking a set from Serena in Miami and winning a clay title in Stuttgart. As Madrid approaches, Serena remains the queen, and retains the No. 1 ranking, but her two rivals have been closing the gap. Can they close it all the way by the time the year’s next Grand Slam, at Roland Garros, gets here?
We’ll see what answers we find to that and a few other questions in our breakdown of the draw below. The Top 16 seeds are the Top 16 players in the world. Calling that a "loaded field" would be redundant.
Serena Williams is No. 1 and the defending champion, and she has won her last two events, in Miami and Charleston. She would like to win her second French Open, and this is the place for her to start building toward that goal. Her pre-emptive style worked well on the quicker blue clay in Madrid in 2012; we'll find out if that's true on re-instated red stuff time around.
So we ask, not for the first or the last time: Can Serena be stopped? This being a packed draw, her quarter was never going to be soft. Li Na, the fifth seed and no clay slouch, is her potential quarterfinal opponent. Though Serena might not mind that matchup: She’s 7-1 against Li, and if she doesn’t face her, she could face her sister Venus, who is also in this quarter.
Outside of those bold-faced names, there are some interesting first-round matchups here:
—Kirilenko vs. Zackopalova
—Wozniacki, who has been slumping, vs. Shvedova, who hasn’t lived up to the potential she showed last season.
—Barthel vs. Flipkens: Crash vs. carve.
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Where would No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka land? That was the question. Now we have our answer: On Serena’s side. But Vika won’t want to get ahead of herself: She opens with a tough one, against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who at No. 19 just missed being seeded. Two of their three previous matches have gone three sets. It shouldn’t take long for Vika to find out exactly where her game and her ankle are. However it turns out, it will be good to have Azarenka back—as my friend Matt Cronin says, the WTA has missed her fire.
Sara Errani is on the other side here. Last year’s Roland Garros runner-up likes clay, and she should be happy that the blue kind has disappeared. Errani suffered her most ignominious defeat of 2012 on it, 0 and 1 to Aga Radwanska. The Italian will get a chance at some measure of revenge in her opener, when she plays Aga’s sister, Ula.
First-round match to watch: Vinci vs. Lepchenko. They had an epic on clay in Fed Cup earlier this year. If she wins, Vinci could play her doubles partner, Errani, in the fourth round.
It isn’t often that we spend more than a month without an Agnieszka Radwanska sighting; the prolific Pole would probably enter two tournaments in the same week if she could. But the last time we saw Aga—unless you count a recent pic of her as a blonde that made the social media rounds—was in Miami, where she given a rude send-off from the States by Serena.
Clay Aga remains something of a conundrum: She’s a retriever and a wallboard, but she’s had better results on faster surfaces, where her shots quicken up and her good hands are more useful. Thus Radwanska is one of the few players who might miss the faster blue clay; she reached the semis in Madrid last year. This time she’ll start against Tsvetana Pironkova.
Angelique Kerber heads up the other side of this section. After an early-year back injury, she found some of her 2012 form with a semifinal run in Stuttgart last week. Does she have another semi in her here? Kerber lost her last match to Radwanska, in Tokyo last fall, 1 and 1.
Potential second-round match to watch: Ivanovic vs. Jankovic
Media darling who could use a win: Laura Robson. It won’t come easily against Magdalena Rybarikova.
Last year Maria Sharapova won three of the four spring clay-court events she entered. Her one defeat came in Madrid, in the quarterfinals, 6-1, 6-3, to Serena Williams. This time Sharapova should like her chances a little more. The clay is red, instead of blue—she was undefeated on the red stuff last season. She’s the second seed, so she can’t meet Serena (or Vika) until the final. The last time she played Williams, she won a set for the first time since 2008. And she's coming off a hard-earned title in Stuttgart.
Maria has to get to the final first, of course. On the other side of her section is Petra Kvitova; Sharapova beat the Czech twice during the clay season last year, but Kvitova won the title in Madrid the last time it was played on red clay, in 2011. This time Kvitova opens against a no-slouch, Yanina Wickmayer.
First-round match to watch: Sam Stosur vs. Carla Suarez Navarro
Media darling who could use a win: Sloane Stephens. She starts against Daniela Hantuchova.
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Azarenka; Sharapova d. Kerber
Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova