WTA Madrid Preview: How will this year's jam-packed draw play out?

WTA Madrid Preview: How will this year's jam-packed draw play out?

With the WTA’s elite gathered in one place, the Mutua Madrid Open gives us a chance to see the tour’s depth in action. Will Ash Barty keep rolling? What will Naomi Osaka's 2021 clay debut look like? And who's walking away with the trophy?

The depth of the WTA Tour has been a regular topic of discussion in recent years. But only at the four Grand Slam events and the tour’s four mandatory tournaments—now called WTA 1000s—do we get to see it laid out before us, bracket by bracket. The Mutua Madrid Open is one of those mandatory tournaments, and scanning its 64-player, no-bye draw gives us a sense of the tour’s quality and variety right now. Even better, it gives us a chance to what happens when virtually all of the top women—Serena Williams is the highest-profile absence—go head to head. Here’s a look at how that might play out at the Caja Magica over the next two weeks.

First Quarter

No. 1 players on both tours often parachute in for the big ones, but that’s not how Ashleigh Barty has approached this pandemic season. Over the last month, she has played Miami, Charleston, and Stuttgart, and come away a winner in two of them. Now we’ll see whether her labor-intensive style pays off at a 1000. To start, she’ll face a familiar and potentially difficult opponent in Shelby Rogers. The Australian and the American have already played three times in 2021; in their last meeting, Barty won 6-4 in the third set.

In a field like this, of course, your road isn’t going to get easier as it goes. Barty could play 14th seed and Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek in the third round, and, potentially, either three-time Madrid winner Petra Kvitova or defending champion Kiki Bertens—yes, Bertens won this event the last time it was played, in 2019—in the quarters.

Getty Images

Returning: Elena Vesnina, who will start against Veronika Kudermetova

First-round matches to watch:

Barty vs. Rogers

Swiatek vs. Alison Riske

Kvitova vs. Marie Bouzkova (Bouzkova won their only previous meeting)

Angelique Kerber vs. Marketa Vondrousova

Semifinalist: Kvitova

Second Quarter

Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic are the top two seeds in this section, but the most intriguing performer to follow may be Garbiñe Muguruza. She’s Spain’s best hope, and she’s having a good season, but she has never been to the final in Madrid. She’ll also be playing for the first time since she was forced to retire with an injury in Charleston. Muguruza will restart her 2021 against a fellow Grand Slam champ in Sloane Stephens, and could play Ons Jabeur after that.

Returning: Yaroslava Shvedova. She’ll begin against Jabeur

First-round match to watch: Svitolina vs. Jil Teichmann

Semifinalist: Muguruza

Getty Images

Third Quarter

Two-time Madrid winner Simona Halep is the top seed here, followed by the woman who just beat her in Stuttgart, Aryna Sabalenka. In between them are Victoria Azarenka and Elise Mertens. While Halep loves the Caja Magica courts—she’s also a two-time runner-up in Madrid—former doubles partners Sabalenka and Mertens may be the players to watch. Each made a final last week, and each seems due for a deep run at a 1000.

First-round matches to watch:

Jessica Pegula vs. Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea

Azarenka vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova

Halep vs. Sara Torribes Tormo

Semifinalist: Sabalenka

Getty Images

Fourth Quarter

We’ve saved the headline for last: Naomi Osaka is back, for the first time since Miami. That means the start of a slew of stories musing on whether she can make a smoother and more successful transition to clay than she has in the past. Osaka has won four majors on hard courts, but hasn’t been past the third round at Roland Garros. She wants to change that in 2021, and Madrid, with its quicker clay and thinner air, isn’t a bad place for this power player to start. Osaka will open against a qualifier, and then play either Wang Qiang or Karolina Muchova.

As far as first-round matches to watch, this quarter is chock full of them:

Karolina Pliskova vs. Coco Gauff

Madison Keys vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Jelena Ostapenko vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova

Jen Brady vs. Venus Williams

Maria Sakkari vs. Amanda Anisimova

Semifinalist: Sakkari

Getty Images

Semifinals: Kvitova d. Muguruza; Sabalenka d. Sakkari

Final: Kvitova d. Sabalenka