Not so long ago, the introductions to my women’s Grand Slam previews all had two words in common: “wide open.” As late as the end of 2011, that’s how the WTA draws always felt. Things have changed in a hurry. Coming into Roland Garros in 2013, the top women are vying with the top men to see who can put a tighter stranglehold on their respective tour. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka have collectively split the last five majors between them, and they’re the women to beat in Paris as well.
Actually, only one of them qualifies as a woman to beat this time around. Serena will enter this major with the rest of the draw fading fast in her rearview mirror, and that includes Maria and Vika—Serena dominated Sharapova in the Madrid final, and Azarenka this past weekend in Rome. Should the rest of the WTA even show up in Paris? Now that the brackets have been filled, let’s see if anyone stands a chance of tripping Serena up on her way to the coronation. (Draws are here.)
Williams will open against 83rd-ranked Anna Tatishvili. The two have never played, and there’s no reason to expect a repeat of Serena’s first-round loss here last year Virginie Razzano—except that Razzano was ranked No. 111 at the time. Serena will be, needless to say, determined not to let that happen again. More interesting is a possible second-round match against France’s Caroline Garcia, who nearly upset Maria Sharapova in Paris in 2011. If that gets at all tight, the French crowd could become a factor, as they were in the Razzano match last year.
The closest seed to Serena is Roberta Vinci, an Italian slice queen who would at least give her a different look. A bigger-hitting threat could come from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the Russian turned Parisian who has shown some progress since hiring Martina Hingis as her coach this year.
If her Grand Slam history is a guide, Williams will have a scare at some point over the next two weeks, a day when she won't be moving well or hitting crisply, when she'll be furious at herself for not playing her best. If and when that happens, her opponent will have a shot; we'll see if anyone can take it. Serena is obviously the best everywhere else, but she hasn't reached the semifinals in Paris since her infamous loss to Justine Henin, and her equally infamous hand, at Roland Garros in 2003.
Angelique Kerber is the top seed on the other side, though she’ll have her hands full in her opener, against fellow German Mona Barthel, the best unseeded player in the field. Kerber has had a see-saw year, but she likes clay, reached the quarters here in 2012, and does have a win over Serena, who was less than fully into their match in Cincinnati last summer. She’ll be fully into it if they play at Roland Garros.
Americans in Paris: Christina McHale, who starts against Jana Cepelova; Grace Min, who qualified and will face Galina Voskoboeva; Varvara Lepchencko, who play Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
First-round match to watch: Laura Robson vs. Caroline Wozniacki
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Agnieszka Radwanska is the top seed in this section, but she’s hardly an intimidating presence at the moment. Aga comes to Paris having lost in the first round in Madrid and Rome, and fighting lingering shoulder pain. Radwanska will start her longshot campaign off against Shahar Peer, and will play the winner between Mallory Burdette and Donna Vekic after that.
That means, for everyone else, this is the quarter to be in. Who can take advantage of the opportunity to make the semis? Sara Errani, the fifth seed, is the first choice. She reached the final here last year and was a semifinalist in Rome last week. On paper, her first test could come against Sabine Lisicki in the third round.
But there are other candidates. Carla Suarez Navarro is seeded 20th but loves clay and has done some damage this spring. Ana Ivanovic made the semis in Madrid and has won this tournament before. Venus Williams remains dangerous on any given day, but perhaps not for five of them; she plays the younger Radwanska, Urzsula, in the first round.
First-round match to watch: Suarez Navarro vs. Rome semifinalist Simona Halep
Americans in Paris: Madison Keys, who plays Misaki Doi; Shelby Rogers, who faces Irena Pavlovic
Also here: Virginie Razzano, currently ranked No. 178.
As if Serena Williams needed any more good news, she found out today that she’ll only to have to beat one of her fellow members of the Top 3 to win the title. That’s because No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has landed in Maria Sharapova’s half.
That’s good news for Vika as well, and it only gets better when you look at who is with her in this quarter. Azarenka starts against Elena Vesnina—they’ve played four times and Vika has yet to drop a set—and the three seeds on her side are Cornet, Flipkens, and Bartoli. Azarenka is a heavy favorite to make the quarters.
If she does gets there, the seedings say that she’ll meet 2011 champion Li Na, though Li’s road may be a little more complicated. She opens against Anabel Medina Garrigues, who nearly beat Serena Williams two weeks ago in Madrid. In the second round, Li could face Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has played well this spring. Li hasn’t been at her best lately; she was upset by Jelena Jankovic in Rome and run off the court by Keys in Madrid. It feels like a long time ago that Li reached the final of the last Grand Slam, in Australia. Yet she remains a threat.
Americans in Paris: Mattek-Sands, who plays Dominguez-Lino in the first round; Coco Vandeweghe, who plays Shvedova.
And what about Maria? She’s the defending champion, yet few would give her much of a chance of succeeding in that defense.
But even when she hasn’t won Grand Slams in recent years, Sharapova has been reliable through the early rounds. She’s made the semis or better at four of the last five majors, and was an Olympic silver medalist. Her opener, against the eccentric, off-pace game of Taiwan’s Su-Wei Hsieh, could be tricky. After that, though, the closest seed to Sharapova is No. 28 Tamira Paszek.
The highest-ranked player on the other side is No. 7 Petra Kvitova. She lost to Sharapova in the semis here last year, but her up-and-down game has mostly been down of late—the Czech went out early in Madrid and Rome. Kvitova starts against France’s Aravane Rezai.
Of more interest may be two potential dark horses that have landed in this section: No. 9 Sam Stosur and No. 18 Jelena Jankovic. Stosur reached the final in Paris in 2010, Jankovic is a three-time semifinalist, and each has shown signs of life on dirt this spring. But each also opens against a talented veteran: Stosur gets Kimiko Date-Krumm, while Jankovic plays Daniela Hantuchova.
Sleeper: 2012 quarterfinalist Dominika Cibulkova. She could play Sharapova in the fourth round, and has beaten Maria twice in the past.
Americans in Paris: Sloane Stephens (she plays Karin Knapp first); Jamie Hampton (vs. Safarova); Lauren Davis (vs. Mladenovic); Melanie Oudin (vs. Paszek); and Vania King (vs. Cadantu).
Williams d. Errani: Serena is 5-0 against the Italian, and that shouldn’t change, even on clay.
Sharapova d. Azarenka: This one would be tough to call. Sharapova won their last match-up, in Istanbul last fall, and has won their two matches on clay. But Azarenka has won four of their last six overall, three of them with ease. I’ll take Maria to continue her good vibes in Paris, at least for one more day.
Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova