Is it Petra Kvitova's time to shine on a Grand Slam stage? Or is it Maria Sharapova's turn to take the power back?
I haven't taken out my crystal ball in a while, but seeing how it is the eve of the first day of play of the 2011 French Open, I figured there is no time like the present.
Just How Wide Open Is It? As far as I see it, the field isn't really as wide open as everybody seems to think it is. Yes, Serena and Venus are amiss, and yes, Justine Henin has retired. Elena Dementieva, who would probably have a good shot to win this thing if she got on a plane and showed up in her pajamas, has also retired. But that doesn't mean that a qualifier or wildcard is going to take the title. There are a handful of players who either are in good form, have proven pedigrees, or both. I think that the title will rest in the hands of one of these players in two weeks and a day.
In Good Form: It's always easy to look at the last Premier tournament before the French and declare the winner of that tournament a favourite. But is that really a smart move? Francesca Schiavone lost in the third round at Madrid last year, but that didn't stop her from going all the way in Paris. Ana Ivanovic lost her first match at Rome to Tsvetana Pironkova in 2008 just two weeks before she would run to her one and only French Open title.
With that said, Maria Sharapova, who defeated Sam Stosur in the Rome final, is definitely a favourite. Why? Because Maria has really taken to the clay in her post-shoulder surgery career. She was ousted by Justine Henin in the third round last year, but not before putting up a titanic effort. And she seems to enjoy the fact that the clay gives her extra time to react to her opponents shots. Not only does she have the power — unlike many of her contemporaries — to hit through her adversaries on the clay, she also can relax on serve and focus on placement rather than power.
So, whether winning a tournament on clay prior to the French is important or not, the more important fact here is that Sharapova is playing very well at the moment, is actually well-suited for the surface, and has all the intangibles (the will to fight, the experience, and the support of the crowds).
Also in good form is Petra Kvitova, who has a power game that is practically unbeatable when it is clicking. Kvitova has proven in the past that she's a big match player (she's got a Grand Slam semi and a Grand Slam quarterfinal in her last three), and, while inconsistent, if she can get by the first few rounds -- WATCH OUT.
Make no mistake about it, Sam Stosur is lethal on clay. Like Sharapova, who benefits from the extra time she gets on the surface, Stosur just seems more confident and more athletic on the surface. Her big kick serve gives her lots of short balls that she can come in and obliterate and the slower surface lets her hit more of her favorite shot, the inside-out forehand.
Caroline Wozniacki is fresh off another title, but it's hard to tell if she's in form or out of form at the moment. She's been hammered by Julia Goerges of Germany twice, and she also gave up some ground to Maria Sharapova when she lost to her in Rome. Still, Wozniacki is the world's No. 1, she's maddeningly consistent, and she's hungry as heck to have a break through at a Slam.
Finally, though she may not be in dancing form, Kim Clijsters seems to have the magic touch in her second career. Clijsters hasn't played since Miami, and she really wasn't playing well back then, but it's hard to ignore the fact that she has won three Grand Slams since her return and she seems to have a full store of confidence no matter how much time she's had to practice. So what if she's playing with a taped ankle because of a barefoot-at-a-wedding dancing injury? The fact that Clijsters is back on court and feeling up to playing means that she's got a very good chance to win this thing.
Wozniacki (17-3 on clay) should put forth her usual wall of defense and advance to the fourth round, where a possible match up with 2009 Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova looms. This would appear, at first glance, to be a very stern test for Wozniacki, but is there any guarantee that the mercurial Kuznetsova will even win a match? Kuznetsova is an incredible talent, and she has the two Grand Slams to prove it, but good luck trying to figure out when she's going to play well and when she's going to miss like hell.
The real challenge for Wozniacki awaits in the quarterfinals. There she may find herself across from last year's runner-up, Samantha Stosur. If so, it would be a classic encounter of the hunter and the hunted with Stosur doing the hunting with her forehand and serve, and Wozniacki hoping to wait Stosur out, attack with the backhand, and entice her into going for too much.
Marion Bartoli and Julia Goerges (16-5 on clay with 2 wins over Wozniacki!) are also in this quarter of the draw, and could cause some damage.
Is this Vera Zvonareva's quarter or Francesca Schiavone's quarter? Well, the good news is, they can share it for a while and perhaps decide on ownership with a quarterfinal tilt. But let's not overlook the up-and-coming Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic, or red-hot Shuai Peng.
Schiavone has not been in the best form since Australia (only 17-12 on the year), and she will need another shot of that Paris adrenaline that she rode to her first Grand Slam title last year. The same can be said of Zvonareva (25-9), who parted ways with her coach a month ago and didn't have the greatest clay court season.
Azarenka has been very strong in 2011 (12-3 clay), but she still finds it very difficult to stay healthy on a consistent basis. She's a tremendous baseline player who can get in a zone and tear the fuzz off the ball, but she has yet to really prove herself on the Grand Slam stage. At this point, it's hard not to wonder if the goddesses of tennis have put some kind of hex on her. She's had some major setbacks in the majors, but she did reach a quarterfinal at Roland Garros in '09, so maybe the Terre Battue is the place where she'll finally have the breakthrough that everybody has been expecting for years.
Her path to the fourth round looks placid (former champ Ana Ivanovic is there, but her Grand Slam resume has been less than stellar of late), but in the top half of her quarter, Na Li and Petra Kvitova await.
Kvitova has the game to steamroll the field if she can stay away from her nemesis: the inexplicably flat match. Li, too, has the game to go deep in the draw. She may not be the best mover on clay, but her saucy groundstrokes can often make up for any deficiency there.
No offense to Andrea Petkovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, or Maria Kirilenko, but the two behemoths at opposite sides of this quarter are what really make it sizzle: Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters. As mentioned before, Clijsters hasn't played in a while and may or may not be hindered by ankle and shoulder problems. But this might work in Clijster's favor when you think about it. Very few players have seen what she can do on clay since her return. Clijsters is not easy to play against when you've had tons of practice, but playing her with none could be even more difficult.
If she advances to the quarters (Kirilenko and the rising Petkovic --13-3 on clay -- will certainly try to stop her) and meets Sharapova (Wickmayer and Radwanska will look to upset) it could be a very interesting match up. Their last meeting in Cincinnati was a real hummdinger. If it's anywhere near as dramatic as that Clijster's three-set victory, we're in for a good one.
Semis: Stosur over Schiavone, Kvitova over Sharapova
Finals: Stosur over Kvitova