When I contemplated writing the Madrid women’s preview earlier in the week, the theme that jumped out was: “Is it time for Serena Williams to start worrying?” On Friday, Serena pulled out of the Premier Mandatory event citing a debilitating fever, which makes my question both more relevant and harder to answer. Now she’ll have to defend her French Open title having played just one event on clay (assuming she’s entered in Rome next week). And now there’s more room for another player—Victoria Azarenka? Angelique Kerber? Petra Kvitova?—to win a title and build some momentum heading into Paris.
For the next week, though, Serena won’t be the story. Who might be? Let's break down the draw.
In Serena's absence, a player I didn’t mention at all in the introduction, Agnieszka Radwanska, becomes the No. 1 seed. In case you hadn’t noticed, Aga, while she’s won just a single small event this year—in Shenzhen in early January—has been steady enough to climb to No. 2 in the world. But that promotion to the top of the bracket hasn’t earned her an easier path through it. Radwanska begins against Dominika Cibulkova, the woman who beat her in the Australian Open semifinals two years ago. The winner of that isn’t exactly out of the woods: She would face either Johanna Konta or Caroline Garcia in the second round.
Also here: Roberta Vinci, Sara Errani, Jelena Jankovic and last year’s Madrid runner-up, Svetlana Kuznetsova. How real was Kuznetsova’s run to the Miami final earlier this month? We’ll find out more this week; she has a chance to do it again.
First-round matches to watch:
Radwanska vs. Cibulkova
Konta vs. Garcia
Madrid, to a certain degree, has been friendly to Azarenka, but her return this year may bring back more painful memories than pleasant ones. Vika has lost in the final here twice, and in 2015 she held match points on Serena before double faulting her way to defeat. This time Azarenka says she’s determined to show that she can win big on clay, and the quicker courts in Madrid should give her that opportunity.
In theory, Vika should also have been helped by Serena’s withdrawal; it moves her from No. 5 to the seemingly safer No. 4 spot. But it also moves Kvitova from No. 6 to No. 5, and puts her in the same section as Azarenka. Their potential quarterfinal will be the most highly-anticipated match of the week. Vika has lost just one time in 2016, but Kvitova is the defending champion in Madrid, and she beat Azarenka in the final at the Caja Magica in 2011.
Also here: Ana Ivanovic, Elina Svitolina
First-round match to watch: Daria Gavrilova vs. Yulia Putintseva
If Azarenka-Kvitova is the most anticipated quarterfinal in this draw, what does that make a possible quarter between Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza? The most un-anticipated? These two have been the WTA’s biggest disappointments of 2016 so far, though they should both feel like they can turn their seasons around in Madrid. Halep was a finalist here two years ago, while Muguruza, who has shown some signs of improvement this month, should benefit from the faster courts and the home-crowd support. Halep has a potentially difficult opener against Misaki Doi, while Muguruza starts against a quality player in Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, and could face Eugenie Bouchard in the second round.
Also here: Karolina Pliskova, Timea Bacsinszky
First-round match to watch: Bacsinszky vs. Andrea Petkovic
Does faster clay help or hurt Kerber? You might think it would help—she has had some of her best results on grass—but it did the opposite last year in Madrid, where she lost in the first round to Sam Stosur. Now Kerber is a year older and a major-title wiser, but her draw isn’t necessarily easier. She starts against Barbora Strycova, and could face Madison Keys in the second round and Sloane Stephens after that. The explosiveness of the two Americans would seem to be well-suited to these courts.
Also here: Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard reached the quarters in Madrid last year.
Potential second-round match to watch: Stephens vs. Daria Kasatkina. Sloane saved a match point in her win over the teenager in Charleston earlier this month.
Semifinals: Kvitova d. Kuznetsova; Kerber d. Muguruza
Final: Kvitova d. Kerber