Earlier this week, I wrote about the calm; starting this weekend, we get the storm in Madrid. That’s where the WTA will stage one of its four top-level Premier Mandatory events, and begin its run-up to Roland Garros in earnest. Of the big names, only Victoria Azarenka’s—she’s still recovering from a foot injury—isn’t on the Caja Magica’s marquee.
Here’s a look at the draw. Mandatory attendance, a relatively small field of 64, and no byes = competitive first-round match-ups. It should also mean an intriguing tournament from start to finish.
Whatever other good things may be happening early, all eyes will also be on Serena Williams. The two-time-defending champion has been untouchable here recently; playing at Madrid’s altitude, where the ball flies a little faster, seems to suit her. But can she make it three in a row? If Rafa can slip on clay, does that mean Serena can, too?
She's come in after nearly a month’s rest, which is what she said she needed. But that also means there will most likely be rust. Serena will begin shaking it off against a qualifier, and then the winner of Peng Shuai vs. Kurumi Nara. Peng, with her flat, two-handed strokes, could be tricky. The closest seed to Serena is Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro. They played twice last year, and Serena lost a total of two games.
Things could get interesting in the quarters, where Serena is scheduled to play Petra Kvitova. The Czech can slug with her, and she can play in altitude as well. Kvitova beat Azarenka for the title in Madrid in 2011.
First-round matches to watch: Flavia Pennetta vs. Lucie Safarova; Kvitova vs. Sorana Cirstea
With Azarenka’s absence, Simona Halep is bumped up to the No. 4 spot. Is the 23-year-old fast-riser ready to command her own quarter? Sidelined by a bad toe, she has played just one match since Indian Wells, and that was an opening-round loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Stuttgart. In Madrid, Halep will start with a qualifier, and then get the winner between Lara Arruabarrena and Tsvetana Pironkova.
Jelena Jankovic is the top seed in the other half. She, of course, has been playing quite a bit; over the last month, JJ, who is back up to No. 7 in the world, has been a semifinalist in Stuttgart, a finalist in Bogota, and a quarterfinalist in Charleston. She’ll have an interesting start in Madrid, against the promising Elina Svitolina.
First-round match to watch: Ana Ivanovic vs. Madison Keys. Ivanovic reached the final in Stuttgart last week; Keys upset Li Na in Madrid last year. Ana and Madison have never played.
Syllable Bowl: Lara Arruabarrena vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
Syllable Bowl II: Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Speaking of popcorn-ready first-rounders: How about No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska vs. 18th-ranked Eugenie Bouchard? That’s what you get when you don’t seed 32 players. Last year Radwanska went out early in Madrid to Laura Robson. We’ll see if Robson’s ex-bestie can repeat the trick.
Overall, you might call this section Grinder’s Corner: Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani, and Caroline Wozniacki are the four seeds. I’ll be interested to see whether Kerber has recovered from her two-win Fed Cup weekend in Australia two weeks ago. She wasn’t ready to make the turnaround in Stuttgart last week, and who can blame her?
First-round matches to watch:
—Radwanska vs. Bouchard: Aga won their only, unofficial, match this year at Hopman Cup in three sets.
—Errani vs. Andrea Petkovic: Petko won their only match, which was here in Madrid in 2010, 7-5 in the third set. The German, champion in Charleston, has had a good spring so far.
—Daniela Hantuchova vs. Roberta Vinci: Two smooth-hitting veterans.
—Alize Cornet vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Your guess is as good as mine. Or theirs. Or anyone's.
Now we come to the most loaded section of this loaded draw. Li Na, world No. 2, is the top seed here. Maria Sharapova, career Grand Slammer and last year’s Madrid finalist, is second. Dominika Cibulkova, Australian Open runner-up, is third. And fourth is...Sloane Stephens. The American, who has won just one tour match since Indian Wells, can thank her old friend Vika for dropping out and giving her the 16th, and last, seed. Instead of possibly facing a top player, Sloane will start with a qualifier.
Li, who went out early, and badly, to Keys here last year, will open against 24th-ranked Kirsten Flipkens. Li will come in as a bit of a clay-court wild card; she hasn’t played in a month, since losing to Serena in the Miami final. Sharapova, though, should be well prepared. Last week she won her third straight title in Stuttgart, and her first with coach Sven Groeneveld. Maria will open against Klara Koukalova (formerly Zakopalova); Sharapova has won their last five matches, but Koukalova does own a victory over her, way back at the 2003 Australian Open, when Maria was 16.
First-round match to watch: Cibulkova vs. Sam Stosur. The Aussie hasn’t dropped a set to Domi in three career meetings.
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Jankovic; Sharapova d. Radwanska
Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova