For the second time in three weeks, all of the top eight women convene at the same clay tournament. Joined this time by the Williams sisters, the WTA’s leading ladies set foot on the outdoor blue clay of Madrid after shining on the indoor red clay of Stuttgart. Will the hierarchy hold as firmly as it did there?
First quarter: Rarely does a world #1 face a first-round foe who has won more titles than she has, but such is the situation confronting 2011 finalist Azarenka. A runner-up at Stuttgart, she incurred an apparent wrist injury there that will merit monitoring as Madrid progresses. For her part, though, Kuznetsova withdrew from Fez that week with a leg injury, and she mustered little resistance to Azarenka when they met at Indian Wells. Perhaps the draw’s most challenging section, this quarter features no fewer than five major champions overall. Only the second round will fail to challenge Vika, who then could face Ivanovic in the third round and Venus Williams or Li Na in the quarterfinals. Contrary to what one might imagine, the 2008 Roland Garros champion defeated the reigning Australian Open champion in their last two meetings, although Azarenka emphatically ended the former’s title defense in Paris three years ago. In her last appearance here, Venus surprised first by reaching the final and surprised again by losing it to Aravane Rezai, a player who made no serious impact before or since. Aided by the altitude and the relatively slick surface, the seven-time major champion could serve her way past Kerber to a tantalizing third-round collision with Li Na. But her energy level remains permanently uncertain, while a brush with disaster against Halep inspired little confidence. Reasonably confident herself at the moment, Li Na has established a pattern of consistent quarterfinal appearances—and quarterfinal losses. She conquered Azarenka in that round en route to the Roland Garros title last year, so Vika would relish the opportunity to turn the tables.
Second quarter: Before we even penned this preview, the second-highest seed in the quarter already toppled to former Roland Garros quarterfinalist Sorana Cirstea. Nevertheless, Bartoli likely would have harbored scant hope anyway with a looming clash against her recurrent nemesis, Radwanska. The nemesis of everyone whom she has faced this year except Azarenka, the Pole finds herself tasked with challenges perhaps more formidable than they seem at first glance. On a hard court, rivals like Errani (a three-time titlist in 2012), Vinci, and Cibulkova hardly would threaten Radwanska, who could outmaneuver them without fearing their power or shot-making. Colliding with these habitual grinders on clay, by contrast, her own discomfort on the surface could disrupt her usually exquisite timing. With yet another lopsided loss to Azarenka behind her, moreover, the world #4 (perhaps soon #3) may struggle to summon the initiative to arrange their sixth meeting of the season. Deserving credit for persevering as long as she has, she has shown impressive positivity so far in subduing the rest of the WTA and securing whatever opportunities the world #1 permits her. A former Roland Garros semifinalist, Cibulkova has won just five matches this year outside Barcelona and Fed Cup but somehow has remained inside the top 20. Also saddled with a losing 2012 record, Schiavone has lost six of her last seven matches and nine of her last eleven. The charismatic Italian’s fans hope that the time to bid her farewell has not yet arrived, but one senses that her continued viability hinges on the next four or five weeks, after which her ranking could plunge.
Third quarter: Like the previous section, this neighborhood already has witnessed the exit of a top-10 player who looked unlikely to emerge from it notwithstanding: Zvonareva. Told by Tarpischev that only an impressive clay season would clinch her berth in the Olympics, the Beijing bronze medalist did not start such a mission auspiciously by winning just four games from Cetkovska. Or perhaps Zvonareva simply saw Stosur lurking to intercept her in the third round, a sight that has signaled the end of her tournament as inevitable as the sight of another Russian has for the Aussie. Even after she triumphed at the US Open, its reigning champion remains susceptible to setbacks after encouraging results. Falling shortest by the narrowest of margins to Sharapova in Stuttgart, she still should have gained confidence from having excelled in nearly every facet of the game during the best women’s match of the year. But Stosur did not soar through the first round of Madrid on the wings of that performance, instead barely escaping Petra Martic in a third-set tiebreak. Awaiting her is an intriguing clash with Christina McHale, who never lacks for self-belief against the elite. In the quarterfinals, defending champion Kvitova would aim to extend her undefeated record against the Aussie, which includes just one clash on clay. A disastrous spring campaign behind her, the Czech perhaps could empathize with Stosur in Stuttgart, for she likewise unleashed more impressive tennis there than she had shown for months before bowing to Sharapova. Since most other players around her struggle on clay, Kvitova eyes a comfortable route to the quarterfinals—or so one would think. Madrid marks her first opportunity to defend a title of this magnitude, and many with their minds on Wimbledon will watch curiously to see how she responds.
Fourth quarter: Only once in her last seven matches has Sharapova played an opponent outside the top eight, and only once in five tournaments this year has she lost before the final. One of those streaks will end when she faces Romanian clay specialist Irina-Camelia Begu in her opener, and the other might well end should she meet Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Plowing past the quintet of Li, Wozniacki, Stosur, Kvitova, and Azarenka in Miami and Stuttgart, Sharapova accelerated her momentum when hard courts shifted to clay and will have benefited psychologically from winning her first 2012 title a week ago. In her lair also lie three Czechs and the enigmatic Jankovic, whom she has dominated historically but never has faced on her rival’s favorite surface and (theoretically) her own least favorite. The Serbian former #1 proclaimed her intention to win this prestigious title when she arrived, an ambition that sounds a little preposterous considering that she has lost her last five matches at Premier events. On the opposite side of this section, Serena might fancy the prospect of avenging her deflating Miami defeat to Wozniacki. Perhaps motivated to erase that setback from her memory, she found her most formidable tennis of 2012 by demolishing an admittedly overmatched field on the green clay of Charleston. The opportunity for revenge might not arrive for Serena, though, since recent sensation Mona Barthel will take aim at Wozniacki in the second round. Upsetting Bartoli in Stuttgart for her first victory over a top-10 opponent, this latest German prodigy also defeated Ivanovic and nearly Azarenka in proving that her game could translate to all surfaces. If reports about the surface’s susceptibility to serving brilliance prove true, however, little would stand in the way of the first meeting between Sharapova and Serena on red…er, “European”…clay.
Final: Azarenka vs. Serena
Champion: Serena Williams