The women’s game is in an absolute state of flux heading into the French Open, with many of its top draws absent or ailing or slumping. Nobody seems to have that killer instinct that would have her grab the sport by the ears and pull it up to her level of play. Even the #1 player in the world still carries the stigma of earning her top-dog status without even a single Grand Slam to her name.
The two sisters that have redefined women’s tennis over the past decade continue their tour of withdrawals. The holder of the last two Slams contested is only six weeks removed from damaging her ankle. And after coming out of nowhere last season to win at Roland Garros, the defending French Open champ still suffers through questions about whether she is a one-Slam aberration.
The lead-up to the second Grand Slam of the 2011 season yields plenty of questions. We can only hope some of them will be answered over the next fortnight as the draw winnows its way down from a glut of first-round matches to the championship in early June. The reality is that somebody is destined to leave Paris a Grand Slam champion, though who that might be is anybody’s guess given the fluctuations in form throughout the field. Unlike the men, no real pecking order exists.
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So we are guaranteed to see some surprises as one emerges from 128 to claim her spot in contemporary tennis history. Will we see a former champion show her mettle and fly through the draw? Will a new name emerge from the shadowy recesses of the bracket to steal the show? Will the veterans or the rising stars prove more successful?
The action begins in the signature clay-court tournament on Sunday, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher for the women who will be in the main draw hoping to win seven straight matches and claim the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. To give you my nickel’s worth on things and get you ready for the second Grand Slam of the 2011 tennis season, here are the five big questions I see on the women’s side:
1. Can Wozniacki finally win herself a Slam?
She has sat at the top of the world rankings for thirty straight weeks now, but every one that passes without the Dane winning her maiden Grand Slam title leaves more and more tennis fans wondering when she will “validate” her ranking. Still only 20 years old, time seems to be ticking when it comes to her legitimacy as the best player in the world.
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The world rankings are simple and finite, each player awarded points for their results in a rolling 52-week window. And the simple truth is that Wozniacki has been the most consistent player on the WTA Tour over the past twelve months. Sure, Kim Clijsters has won the past two Slams… but she has also been sidelined for long stretches. Serena won Wimbledon last summer… but hasn’t been seen on a tennis court since. Maybe Wozniacki hasn’t been the most earth-shattering presence at #1, but she has earned the results to sit there ahead of her more illustrious peers.
All of which means little if she can’t advance to the finals and get the monkey of Slam-lessness off her back. With Serena gone, with Venus gone — with so many threats missing from the draw — the time is now for Wozniacki to conquer that last hurdle and turn her tenuous grip on #1 into a stranglehold. She gets Kimiko Date-Krumm in the opening round, a wily veteran who has slashed the draw to pieces early in tournaments before and could easily do it again if Wozniacki isn’t on her game. Daniela Hantuchova would be a likely third-round opponent, and if she were to get past the Slovakian she would be staring at a date with 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. The quarterfinals could yield any number of ladies who are hot on clay at the moment, including Samantha Stosur and Julia Goerges — the latter of which has defeated Wozniacki each of the past two tournaments.
The road won’t be easy, by any means, but it is never a cakewalk strolling through a Slam no matter what your name and record might be. And if she can will her way to the latter stages as she’s proven imminently capable of doing, the lack of some major names will help her cause… but also make it that much more damning if she cannot survive and conquer. It is a Catch-22 for the young Dane, whose career arc seems to have reached its zenith too quickly and is due to reenter the stratosphere if she can’t fire the boosters and reach that next level soon.
2. Will Clijsters take third Slam in a row?
When Kim Clijsters — defending champion at the U.S. Open and Australian Open — injured her ankle dancing at a wedding in April it looked like she was going to have to miss the clay-court season and hope that her body would heal in time for a shot at Wimbledon. But here she is, recovering early to at least make it into the draw at Roland Garros. With a dearth of match fitness, it seems foolish at first glance to label the Belgian amongst the favorites…
… but we’ve seen this story before from the woman who has won each of the past two Grand Slams. Two summers ago Clijsters returned from a two-year hiatus that masqueraded as retirement. Marriage and motherhood hadn’t tempered her competitive side nor diminished her skills, yet it was still a shocker when she stole away the 2009 U.S. Open on a month’s practice.
She has only been gone six weeks to nurse her injury, after all, and is one of just a few women in the draw this year who have won multiple Grand Slams in her career. If that ankle is at or near 100% and she doesn’t exacerbate the injury on the clay, we might see Clijsters take her third straight Slam and put even more pressure on Wozniacki’s #1 status.
Her first two matches should be mere warm-up as she eases her way back into competition following her layoff. Maria Kirilenko, who won the doubles title in Madrid with Victoria Azarenka and is playing well right now on clay, is her likely third-round opponent. Andrea Petkovic, who is even more on fire on the surface at the moment, looms in the fourth. And then, if all goes according to the chalk, that would mean a showdown with Maria Sharapova — who between them have a combined seven Grand Slam titles. The victor of that match would undoubtedly be the favorite to advance to the final. She is also gunning for that elusive fifth Grand Slam title, and a first in Paris to diversify her portfolio beyond the hard courts and exorcise the demons of her 1–6 6–4 12–10 defeat to Jennifer Capriati in the 2001 final and subsequent straight-sets drubbing by Henin in 2003.
3. Will Williams’ absences wreak havoc on draw balance?
For a decade we could count on at least one of the Williams sisters to be there at every Grand Slam, a top contender if not the top contender(s) for the championship. Yet for the first time since the 2003 U.S. Open, both sisters will be missing from a Grand Slam draw. At that tournament eight years ago, a Belgian invasion led to Justine Henin’s victory over Kim Clijsters in Flushing Meadows in a draw where upsets were few and far between. One of the protagonists of that championship match will be at Roland Garros, as we just finished discussing.
The problem with neither Williams sister being in the tournament is one of balance. Even just one of them being in a tournament prevents situations where a player gets placed into a more favorable seed than her performance and track record would merit. And when one player’s seed rises, so too do all the ships rise. Basically what you get is seed inflation, a watered-down field, and little in the way of upset potential — by the time the late stages arrive, almost all the favorites have advanced.
Of course, this year they would have come in ranked in the double digits, but it does mean that Kaia Kanepi — a scrappy Estonian who raises her game at Slams — suddenly becomes a top-16 seed and shouldn’t face a real challenge until 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic in the third round. And should she go through, Azarenka awaits in the fourth. It also means that Klara Zakopalova and Tsvetana Pironkova, both good but hardly great players, are now seeded.
This isn’t to say that havoc is a bad thing, mind you… just that the stakes change significantly for all players involved when the two dominant women of the 21st century are nowhere to be found at a Grand Slam event. For those players now nabbing higher seeds, or earning seeds where they otherwise would have had the harder path, the expectations increase all around. It can psychologically be too much for some players. It will be fascinating to watch as we find out which can and which cannot handle the pressure that comes with that rising tide.
4. Can Schiavone prove last year’s title wasn’t a fluke?
Francesca Schiavone came out of everyone’s blind spot to take the French Open as the #17 seed over Samantha Stosur last year. It was a wild tournament, one where three of the top eight players in the draw were knocked out before the quarterfinals. But that just puts the last question into perspective, because looking at last year’s draw we realize that had both Williams sisters been gone she would have been a #15 seed and everything would draw up differently.
Instead of Li Na and Maria Kirilenko her likely opponents in the bottom quadrant of the draw (if seed advancements stayed the same) would have been Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic. Would Schiavone have advanced out of that quadrant to contest the championship?
We’ll find out this year, as a higher seed presents new challenges for the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament. She is a #5 seed after maintaining her good run of form through the end of 2010 and into 2011. And, funny enough, the draw shakes out so that she could very well be facing Jankovic in the fourth round and Zvonareva in the quarters. So we might actually get an answer to the previously posited question on the court if chalk holds.
If Schiavone can maintain her hot streak, and at least hold true to her seed and return to the quarterfinals or better, it will be a successful tournament consolidating the credibility of the one she plucked last season. Here’s guessing she does at least that.
5. Will a new champion emerge from the darkhorses?
With so much uncertainty in the women’s game at the moment, we could very well see a new champion emerge. Several players have been phenomenal on the clay this season, including the aforementioned Goerges (she of the two straight victories over Wozniacki). The 22-year-old German has blossomed this year, reaching the third round at the Australian Open and performing well on clay throughout the spring. On the green clay in Charleston she reached the quarterfinals before scoring her first win over Wozniacki in the Stuttgart final. She then followed it up with a trip to the semifinals in Madrid, beating Kanepi and Dinara Safina before her second slaying of the great Dane. I’ve got her pegged as finals material this year…
Others with potential include Andrea Petkovic, who won the clay tournament in Strasbourg with wins over Maria Kirilenko, Daniela Hantuchova and Marion Bartoli. She reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open in January after reaching the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open. She’s shown steady improvement along the way and should still be in the hunt during the second week.
But honestly you could throw darts at a board with all 128 names and just as easily come up with the winner of this tournament. I have an eerie feeling that things are going to shake out very differently than the seedings would suggest…
Goerges d. Wozniacki
Goerges d. Schiavone
Schiavone d. Petrova
Azarenka d. Goerges
Azarenka d. Kvitova
Azarenka d. Sharapova
Sharapova d. Petkovic