Rising to the Top
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen the rise of the lopsided men’s draw at Grand Slams. Many of the top players’ rankings—including Rafael Nadal’s, Roger Federer’s, and Andy Murray’s—were in flux, which meant their seedings were as well, which meant they could find themselves landing in odd and unfortunate spots in the draw, a little too close for comfort to their closest rivals.
This time it’s the women’s turn to go asymmetrical. Blame Maria Sharapova’s right shoulder, Victoria Azarenka’s left foot, and Venus Williams’ health. Sharapova, the 2012 French champion, and perhaps the second favorite to win the event this year, is seeded No. 7 after spending much of 2013 sidelined by a shoulder injury. Azarenka, the second-best player in the world in recent years, is out of the tournament entirely with a long-running foot injury. Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, is 34 years old and ranked about the same.
These three developments couldn’t possibly have an effect on the draw, could they? Let’s have a look.
One day you’re tweeting selfies with your American BFF at a party, the next day you find out you have to play her in the first round. Whoops. Such is life at the moment for France's Alizé Lim, who drew her friend from the Mouratoglou Academy, Serena Williams, in her opener. I’m guessing Serena’s friendship will extend only so far.
Of greater interest, to Serena as well as the rest of us, is who she might play soon after Lim. In the second round, Williams could face Garbine Muguruza, a Spanish up-and-comer, and in the third she could have the always-unenviable task of playing her sister. Serena hasn’t lost to Venus since 2009, but it’s never an easy ask. There’s also a decent chance it may never happen. Venus hasn’t been past the second round in Paris since 2010, and she could play Jie Zheng in the second round. The woman occasionally known as JZ beat Venus at last year’s U.S. Open.
More threatening is the woman at the other end of this section: The aforementioned Maria Sharapova. This is an unfortunate spot for Maria and the event, but probably not for Serena—of all the players she could have faced in the quarters, she likely has the best record (16-2) against Sharapova. Maria will start against a qualifier, and then play the winner between Annika Beck and Tsvetana Pironkova.
—Dominika Cibulkova: Domi has been a semifinalist in Paris, and she beat Sharapova in Australia this year; she's in Maria's half of this section.
—Sam Stosur: The Aussie reached the French final in 2010.
First-round matches to watch:
—Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic
—Sam Stosur vs. Monica Puig
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Here’s where you feel the lopside: In the top quarter, we could see Serena vs. Maria; in this quarter, if the seeds hold, we’ll see...Radwanska vs. Kerber.
Looking ahead, Aga’s been given a promising path to the semifinals, a place she has never been in Paris. The three highest seeds in her section are Kerber, who has been reeling of late; Carla Suarez Navarro, who is 0-3 against Radwanska; and Eugenie Bouchard, who is still finding her way on clay. The trickiest match for Aga in the early going could come in the first round, where she plays 34th-ranked Shuai Zhang, a quarterfinalist last week in Rome.
—Eugenie Bouchard: She has been a Slam semifinalist already this year, and is in the finals in Nürnberg this weekend. Her draw—Shahar Peer, then Julia Goerges—looks manageable.
—Flavia Pennetta: Her draw is also manageable, though she’s just 14-11 overall at Roland Garros.
—Carla Suarez Navarro: She’s having the best year of her career, and she opens against two qualifiers.
First-round matches to watch:
—Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Shuai Zhang: An eye-opener for the third seed.
—Ajla Tomljanivoc vs. Francesca Schiavone: Contrasts in style, age, and experience.
—Christina McHale vs. Elena Vesnina: McHale seems to have found her game; can she pull off a minor upset over the 32nd seed?
—Daniela Hantuchova vs. Jovana Jaksic: The 20-year-old Serb is on the verge of cracking the Top 100.
Semifinalist: Suarez Navarro
The two biggest question marks in the draw surround Simona Halep:
(1) What is her Grand Slam ceiling? She's already No. 4 in the world, but has yet to reach a major semi.
(2) How will her body hold up over two weeks on clay? Three times this year she’s had a good run at an event, then followed it up with an early withdrawal or a retirement. The last was in Rome two weeks ago.
Halep, who opens against Alisa Kleybanova, has an opportunity to answer those big-stage questions. The highest seed in her half is a teetering Sloane Stephens, and the highest seed on the other side is Petra Kvitova—who, in a way, is always teetering. But the Czech was a semifinalist here two years ago, and this section will be decided on her racquet.
—Ana Ivanovic: The 11th seed, a finalist in Stuttgart and semifinalist in Rome, has a chance to get back to a Slam semi for the first time in six years. But on closer inspection, it's a fairly slim chance: Ana has a tough opener, against Caroline Garcia, a potentially tough second-rounder, against Elina Svitolina, and she lost to her possible fourth-round opponent, Kvitova, 6-0, 6-0 over the last two sets in Miami this year.
—Svetlana Kuznetsova: The 2009 champ gets up for Roland Garros; she nearly knocked Serena out last year. But Kvitova, her likely third-round opponent, is 3-0 against her.
First-round matches to watch:
—Ana Ivanovic vs. Caroline Garcia
—Sloane Stephens vs. Shuai Peng
Li Na—Aussie Open champ, noted comedienne, and IMG meal ticket—is a consistent presence in the media these days; how much do we believe in her consistency on the court? She has certainly improved it with coach Carlos Rodriguez in her corner, but in her last two clay events, she was consistently mediocre. The world No. 2 lost in the quarters in Madrid and Rome.
Li has won in Paris before, of course, and her draw should make her a threat to do it again. She starts against a solid French opponent, Kristina Mladenovic, but the closest seed to her is a slumping Andrea Petkovic. More dangerous are two women on the other side of this section: No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic, who is 2-0 against Li on clay; and Sara Errani, the 2012 French finalist who beat Li last week in Rome.
Sleeper: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She hasn't been past the third round at a major since 2011, but someday she’ll prove her believers right. (Don't quote me on that.)
First-round match to watch: Sara Errani vs. Madison Keys. They’ve never played.
Player of interest: Caroline Wozniacki. She opens against Yanina Wickmayer, and is in Li’s half.
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Suarez Navarro; Li Na d. Halep
Final: S. Williams d. Li Na