Not one of the most prestigious tournaments on the calendar, the Porsche event in Stuttgart has lured all of the top eight women and compiled a field comprised almost exclusively of the top 30.  Clogged with superstars is the route to a sleek new sports car, then, which resembles a winding mountain road in the Alps more than a Bavarian autobahn.  Proceed at your own risk.

 

Top half:  When her 26-match winning streak ended in Miami, Azarenka suggested that she might not travel to Stuttgart but instead profit from the additional rest.  Deciding to participate after all, she should relish the opportunity to dispatch one of two local favorites in her opener, either Barrois or the returning Petkovic.  The world #1’s vicious streak often lifts her game if not her spirits when playing against both an opponent and a crowd, a trait that she shares with possible quarterfinal foe Bartoli.  Although her style would not seem ideally suited to clay, the Frenchwoman reached the semifinals at her home major last year in a performance better than any yet registered by Azarenka at Roland Garros.  After she had won their first six meetings, Vika has lost three of five since the start of 2011 in a curious momentum shift.  While the opportunity for revenge should motivate her should they meet in the quarterfinals, their first clash on clay, one also wonders whether the quirky Bartoli will begin to lodge herself in Azarenka’s mind.  Nor should one entirely neglect the presence of Ivanovic in this section, although the 2008 Roland Garros champion has won just four of eleven clay matches following her semifinal appearance in Rome two years ago.  Defeating Azarenka at that tournament, she repeated the surprising result a few months later in Cincinnati, and the top-ranked Serb recently quelled Bartoli at Indian Wells.

 

In the second quarter lies another Roland Garros champion, who has played quietly solid tennis for most of 2012.  As she prepares to defend that title in Paris, Li Na will hope to build upon the uncharacteristic consistency that took her to consecutive quarterfinals in Indian Wells and Miami, the second week at the Australian Open, and a final at the heavily attended Sydney event.  This similarly overstuffed draw presents her with an immediate challenge in the form of Safarova, who looked sharp while defeating Schiavone in Fed Cup this weekend (albeit on an entirely different surface).  Somewhat less formidable is the prospect of Cibulkova in the second round, although the former Roland Garros semifinalist appears to have resurrected her season with a scintillating near-upset of Azarenka and a pair of Fed Cup victories.  Meanwhile, the newly crowned Miami champion aims to improve her skills upon her least effective surface.  Unable to compensate with her deftness for her inability to penetrate the court, Radwanska may enjoy greater success on this faster version of clay under a roof.  But a post-Miami hangover looms as a distinct possibility, for she has sagged after most of her notable accomplishments thus far in her career.

 

Finalist:   This choice almost always implodes in our faces, but…Li

 

Bottom half:  Her morale likely boosted by a strong weekend at home, Kvitova could play Schiavone in consecutive matches if the 2010 Roland Garros champion survives Niculescu.  That task does not sound imposing, but recall that the Italian departed in the first round of Barcelona as the top seed and has a losing record this year.  Rather more successful of late is her compatriot Vinci, assigned an intriguing opponent in Kerber.  While the German has risen swiftly since last summer on hard courts, some indoors and some outdoors, she has not answered the question of whether she can shine on other surfaces—not essential but certainly useful.  Losing the final of her home tournament to Kerber in Copenhagen, Wozniacki might earn the chance to reverse that result in the lefty’s home nation should she survive Jankovic in her opener.  After the older counterpuncher won their first four meetings, her successor turned the tide emphatically in 2011 and has won all four encounters since then, most recently a demolition at the Australian Open.  An intriguing contrast of styles might ensue in an all-blonde quarterfinal between Wozniacki and Kvitova, the latter of whom has enjoyed greater success on clay overall but the former of whom has won both of their previous clashes on this surface.  After the Dane returned herself to the conversation in Miami, the Czech should feel eager to do the same here. 

 

In her first tournament as a 25-year-old, Sharapova will hope to remain as effective on clay as in the tournaments that she played as a 24-year-old, which included a title in Rome and a semifinal at Roland Garros.  Often uneasy when she first treads upon the crushed brick, however, she did not start last year’s clay season impressively with an early exit in Madrid.  Heavily favored in an opener against Greta Arn or Kateryna Bondarenko (her Auckland loss to the former notwithstanding), the world #2 should find stiffer competition in the quarterfinals against Stosur.  Despite her still-dismal record against the Russian, the Aussie came within a set of the Stuttgart final in 2010 and nearly duplicated that performance in 2011.  The woman who halted her and everyone else last year, Julia Goerges, could intercept her again in the second round.  Falling to Gajdosova on the court of her former heroics this weekend, she will bring dissonant memories into the first significant title defense of her career.  Winless against Sharapova, she nevertheless challenged the Russian in two tight losses on hard courts last year.

 

Finalist:  Kvitova

 

We will return to Stuttgart later this week with perhaps a detour to Barcelona as well.