French Open Preview: The Women

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By John Huston

TOP-HEAVY: Congratulations, LI Na and Simona Halep! Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are not only on the other side of the draw, they’re in the same quarter, while you’re paired with the comparatively struggling Serbian sisterhood of Ana and Jelena. Also in the top quarter: Dominika Cibulkova, Sam Stosur, and Kaia Kanepi.

Come to think of it, whoever emerges from the second quarter to reach the semi—whether it be Aga Radwanska (stronger than usual on clay this year), Alize Cornet, Carla Suarez Navarro, Flavia Pennetta, or Eugenie Bouchard—should consider themselves fortunate they didn’t wind up in the top quarter draw of doom.

SERENA AND SHARAPOVA—THE EARLY FORECAST: These days the women’s draws at majors are predictably unpredictable in comparison to the men’s, and lo and behold, the top two contenders, last year’s fnalists Serena and Sharapova, could meet in the quarters. Serena is likely to face Spain’s hard-hitting Garbine Muguruza in the second round. A third-round date with sister Venus is less reliable. Maria’s section is undoubtedly tougher, packed with big hitters like Kaia Kanepi and young Monica Puig, and vets such as Sam Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova (who defeated her this year in Australia, and who beat her soundly here in 2009).

UPSET ALERTS AND FIRST-ROUND SHOWDOWNS:

• Ana Ivanovic vs. Caroline Garcia: Poor Ana. First Chris Evert says she doesn’t “remember her beating anybody” to win her 2008 French Open crown, and then Ivanovic pulls perhaps the toughest non-seeded player in the draw in the first round. Plus Garcia will be playing with the French home crowd behind her—though who knows if that’s really an asset. Winning Jelena Jankovic’s beloved Bogota, and clutch in Fed Cup, Garcia has been in solid form for months—her match against Serena in Miami was one of the year’s best so far, filled with strong rallies and shotmaking. She was sluggish this past week, though.

• Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic: Bencic is transitioning well from juniors to the main tour, almost taking a set from eventual champ Li Na in Australia, and reaching the semis in Charleston. It’s easy to see why—built in part by Martina Hingis’s mom, Melanie Molitor, her game is solid and smart. Venus’ little sis made quick work of Bencic in Madrid, but something tells me it’s not going to be so easy for Vee.

• Sam Stosur vs. Monica Puig: Stosur’s kick serve and topspin groundies have helped her defeat Serena and Justine Henin at Roland Garros, but the patchy Aussie is in for a fight from the start this year. The talented Puerto Rican 20-year-old Puig has suddenly turned her year around after teaming up with coach Ricardo Sanchez. She’ll be dangerous.

• Petra Kvitova vs. Zarina Diyas: Frequently turning what could be easy wins into three-set ordeals or losses, fifth-seeded Kvitova is a loose cannon. She has yet to turn in a tournament performance that matches her ranking this year, and she’s drawn a hand-hitting 20-year-old from Kazakhstan who has beaten her before.

• Madison Keys vs. Sara Errani: The word on Keys is that she needs to improve her shot selection, and she couldn’t find a better player to do that against than the steady but less powerful Errani, who made the finals here in 2011, but who’s looking a bit battle-worn this year. Key for big-hitting Madison to have a fighting chance: successfully attacking Errani’s serve.

A RUDE AWAKENING FOR SLOANE? What is up with Sloane Stephens? That increasingly familiar question has picked up since her quarterfinal run at Indian Wells. She seemed nonchalant about winning only one game against Caroline Wozniacki in Miami, and she’s been weak during the clay warm-up swing, which concluded with her flubbing a top-seeded appearance in the first round in Strasbourg—not a good look for a much-hyped player who has yet to even reach a tour final.

For some time, Sloane has shut down the naysayers by showing up for the Slams, where she’s consistently made it to the second week to be one of the “big girls.” But nothing lasts forever, and Sloane’s draw in Paris doesn’t look easy. She takes on the formidable (though not clay-friendly) Shuai Peng in the first round, and could face the potentially maddening dirt specialist Polona Hercog in the second. The third would likely bring Serena’s sometime nemesis, lefty Ekaterina Makarova. Sloane’s probable reward if she makes it that far? A duel with Simona Halep, who has backed up her WTA Most Improved Player award from last year, while Sloane has seemingly backslid.

MY SIMONA: Speaking of Halep, now is the time for her to deliver the Slam performance worthy of her ranking. This year’s Australian marked her first quarterfinal appearance at a major, but to say her draw in Paris is soft would be an understatement. If she’s solid on the main stage, she really shouldn’t be challenged until the quarters, or even the semis.

MOUTH-WATERING MATCHUP: If only qualifier Yuliya Beygelzeimer had been placed with Yvonne Meusburger in the first round.

GENIE IN A BOTTLE: Was there a wry undercurrent to current It Girl Eugenie Bouchard posing as Marie “Off With Her Head!” Antoinette on Twitter recently? This spring Bouchard didn’t endear herself to some by refusing to shake hands with a lower-ranked opponent during a Fed Cup photo op. The rising Canadian has stumbled a bit on court as well, and clay is not her forte. But her draw in Paris doesn’t look bad.

DARK CAROLINE: The French has never been Caroline Wozniacki’s favorite Slam, and this year she’s heading into it with a bucketload of woes, from a nagging knee injury to the public breakup of her relationship with golfer Rory McIlroy. Will she crumble or come out swinging in the city of young love in the springtime? Yanina Wickmayer is not a routine first opponent.

THE MYSTERY THAT IS KUZZY: How easy it is to forget that Svetlana Kuznetsova is a former champion here. Her career has been more down than up in recent years, but Kuznetsova gave Serena her toughest match in Paris is 2013, and her draw looks like an opportunity.

SERBIA’S OTHER JJ: Jovana Jaksic caused minor ripples earlier this year due to her unorthodox grunt and some spirited victory celebrations on the way to the final at Monterrey. She faces Daniela Hantuchova—whose recent results signal late-career burnout—in the opening round.

TAYLOR MADE IT: Young lefty Taylor Townsend  powered through successive US spring events, winning a lot of matches in not many days, to claim a wild card. All eyes will be on the 18-year-old (who won the girls’ Australian Open in 2012) as she makes her main draw debut in a major. Her first opponent: fellow American Vania King.