Serena returns; Svitolina defends; Osaka still the 1: WTA Rome preview

Serena returns; Svitolina defends; Osaka still the 1: WTA Rome preview

Last week Kiki Bertens put herself on the short list of French Open contenders. Who might join her there this week?

The clay season has reached warp speed. Even as the Madrid finalists were wrapping things up at the Caja Magica on Sunday, first-round action was underway a few hundred miles east at the Foro Italico in Rome.

Last week, Kiki Bertens put herself on the short list of French Open women’s contenders; who, if anyone, might join her there this week? Here’s a look at the WTA draw at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

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First Quarter

Naomi Osaka’s week in Madrid ended in disappointment, with a close loss to a potential future rival, Belinda Bencic. Before that, though, it seemed as if the mostly clay-phobic world No. 1 was starting to find her way on dirt. Can she take a few more steps—or even a slide or two—in Rome? Can she hang on to that top ranking going into Paris? She’ll start against either Aliaksandra Sasnovich or the woman she beat in her Madrid opener, Dominika Cibulkova.

If Osaka took a few small steps last week, Bertens took a quantum leap to the most significant title of her career. If she goes back-to-back with a title in Rome, she’ll vault to the very top of the favorites list at the French Open. To do it, she may have to go through Osaka and a slumping Aryna Sabalenka. Also near her is Carla Suarez Navarro, who reached the final in Rome in 2015.

Semifinalist: Bertens

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Second Quarter

By losing in the Madrid final, Simona Halep came up one match short of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking. But she had to be happy with her performance over the course of the week; it puts her solidly on course to make a strong title defense at Roland Garros. But while she’s in Rome, it might be nice to win the title there as well; Halep has been the runner-up the last two years. Her quarter contains a couple of potential obstacles. Sloane Stephens, who pushed Halep to the limit in Paris last year, is the second seed in this section, and the third is Serena Williams.

Serena won this tournament in 2002, 2013, 2014, and 2016, but so far her 2019 season has been a struggle. This will be her first clay event, and her first appearance since late March, when she was forced to pull out of the Miami Open. Unfortunately, her bad luck seems to have followed her to Europe: If Serena wins her opener, she could face her sister Venus in the second round.

First-round match to watch: V. Williams vs. Elise Mertens

Potential second-round match to watch: V. Williams vs. S. Williams

Semifinalist: Halep

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Third Quarter

Like Alexander Zverev on the men’s side, it’s flip-the-switch time for Elina Svitolina. She’s the two-time defending champion in Rome, but she has been hobbled by a knee injury this spring; in her last two events, Miami and Madrid, Svitolina didn’t make it out of the first round. She could face a test in that round in Rome as well, where she’ll get the winner between Victoria Azarenka and Shuai Zhang.

Also in this section are two players who could be French open contenders, but who could use a little momentum before they get there: No. 4 seed Karolina Pliskova and 2016 Rome runner-up Madison Keys. After a title in Charleston, and an early loss in Madrid, where does Keys’ game stand?

First-round match to watch: Caroline Wozniacki vs. Danielle Collins

Semifinalist: Keys

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Fourth Quarter

When it comes to French Open preparation, is it better to win Madrid and skip Rome, or lose fairly early in Madrid and play on at the Foro Italico? Petra Kvitova will find out the answer this week. She can likely only improve on what happened to her in 2018: After winning Madrid and heading straight to Paris as one of the favorites, she lost in the third round to Anett Kontaveit at Roland Garros. Now Kvitova might get another crack at Kontaveit; they’re slated to play in the third round in Rome. Kvitova has never reached a final at the Foro, but even at 29, her clay game still seems to be improving.

First-round match to watch: Anastasija Sevastova vs. Belinda Bencic

Semifinalist: Kvitova

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Semifinals: Halep d. Bertens; Kvitova d. Keys

Final: Halep d. Kvitova