It’s slam time again, and tennis writers and fans have been poring over drawsheets in anticipation. While many focus on which top-seeded player falls in which other seed’s quarter, I prefer to focus first on the early rounds, where fans can see unique matchups between players who have never faced each other before, and where upsets always shape the way the later rounds unfold. Here’s my preview of each eighth of the women’s draw, listing the seeded players and a few others who might upset them. For each player, I list a form score that shows whether her recent results exceed expectations at her level in the rankings (values greater than 5) or have been a disappointment (less than 4). See this post for an explanation of how the scores are calculated.
(This post is now complete, covering both the top and bottom halves of the draw. On Sunday, I was right about 10 of 12 first-round matches for which I made specific predictions. I failed to predict Monica Puig’s upset of Nadia Petrova and Yulia Putintseva’s victory over Ayumi Morita, although I did anticipate their possibility.)
At the end I make predictions for the later rounds.
Serena Williams has done what I didn’t expect, making an even more dominant run through the pre-Roland Garros clay-court tournaments than she did last year. She defended her titles in Charleston and Madrid, and then added another title in Rome (where she withdrew after the quarterfinals last year). She’s on a 24-match winning streak, with 16 of those victories coming on clay, a surface on which she has lost just two sets so far this year. Yet her similarly impressive clay-court run last year couldn’t propel her past Virginie Razzano in the first round, and for all her victories she has shown some signs of vulnerability this year as well. Her mind and backhand checked out to surrender a 0-6 set to Anabel Medina Garrigues in the quarterfinals of Madrid, and her errors and lack of rhythm gave (unseized) opportunities to Simona Halep in the first set in the semifinals of Rome.
As is often the case with Williams, she’s more likely to lose in the early rounds of the tournament than in the semifinals or beyond, by which time she is likely to have fully tuned up her game and will be facing opponents whose games she knows well and respects. Fortunately for Serena, she’ll have a comfortable opportunity to settle in. Her first opponent Anna Tatishvili is unlikely to present a meaningful threat, and her most likely second-round opponent, the talented but inconsistent French 19-year-old Caroline Garcia, probably won’t be much tougher.
Williams’ third round could be a real test if she faces sometime giant-killer Sorana Cirstea in the third round. But Cirstea hasn’t had a
very good clay season, and could well fall to the young and powerful Kiki Bertens in the first round or clay-court specialist Johanna Larsson in the second. Serena’s movement and versatility outclass Bertens, and her power would overwhelm Larsson.
Roberta Vinci is a crafty veteran, at home on clay, who like her friend and doubles partner Sara Errani has added surprising levels of power and aggression to her game. Vinci has shown streaks of outstanding form, most recently in April when she beat Petra Kvitova for the Katowice title, and then did so again, taking the leading role for Italy in beating the defending champions Czech Republic in Fed Cup. Since injuring her shoulder in Fed Cup, Vinci has been less impressive. But the greatest threat she’ll face in her first two matches is likely to be from qualifier Galina Voskoboeva. Voskoboeva has a tricky game and is experiencing a bit of a resurgence, but will have to take another step toward the form that put her into the top-50 early last year in order to threaten Vinci.
Vinci is likely to face a much more serious threat in the third round from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Pavlyuchenkova’s performances this season have been streaky, and it’s still early to tell whether she’ll benefit from her new coaching relationship with Martina Hingis. Pavlyuchenkova’s first round opponent, Andrea Hlavackova, can be dangerous, but has shown little sign of that form since her run to the fourth round of last year’s US Open. And the powerful Pavlyuchenkova has a 5-1 record against Vinci (2-0 on clay), with Vinci’s only win counterintuitively coming on grass.
Finally, it’s worth celebrating the return of Petra Cetkovska, who missed most of the last 10 months with foot and ankle injuries. An all-court player with a broad repertoire including both power and touch, she should have a good chance to score her first win of the season in the first round against Olga Puchkova, who has a 2-4 record on clay this year. In her first match of the year last week in Strasbourg, Cetkovska played a close and entertaining match against Larsson but faded late in the third set, so her match fitness may not be strong enough to threaten seeded players like Pavlyuchenkova yet.
Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Pavlyuchenkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Vinci
Not to be counted out: Cirstea
Many are anticipating a close first-round match between Angelique Kerber and Mona Barthel, who grew up playing against each other in northern Germany. Barthel leads the professional head-to-head 2-1, but they’ve never played on clay, a surface on which Barthel has a 1-4 record this season. Kerber has had her own ups and downs this year, but if she has recovered from the abdominal injury that kept her out of Rome, she should advance without major difficulty on a surface that suits her safer style of play. Kerber’s likely second-round opponent Christina McHale is back to playing solid tennis again and has game better suited to clay, but hasn’t proven yet this year she’s ready to upset a player on Kerber’s level.
Kerber may face a serious threat in the third round from Varvara Lepchenko, who has a powerful and underrated game on clay and was the only player to win a set from resurgent champion Kaia Kanepi last week in Brussels. Lepchenko has never lost to Kerber in four meetings, two of which were on clay. But it’s hard to know how much that means given that the two last played early in 2011, when they were both still ranked outside the top 70. Lepchenko could also struggle to get past Romina Oprandi in the second round. Oprandi has been playing well, but her game seemed to suffer from a back or shoulder injury late in the third set of her Brussels semifinal loss to Peng Shuai.
Caroline Wozniacki has never had her best results on red clay, but her 0-4 record on the surface this year is dismal by any standard. Her father Piotr was quoted in the Danish press yesterday saying the two of them are searching for a new coach, and that he no longer wants to play a leading role in her development as a player. I think this would be a positive step in her growth as a player and as an adult, but he’s made noises in that direction before without any lasting effect. Time will tell.
In the meantime, Caro faces a major threat in the first round from Laura Robson, who has already upset Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams this month, and at the moment seems to have more confidence and a clearer idea what she wants to do on court than the former number one.
The winner of that match most likely faces Bojana Jovanovski, who beat Wozniacki in a messy three-set match in Rome, and who could cause trouble for Robson if Laura is too willing to play Jovanovski’s baseline-centered game. On the other hand, Jovanovski is very likely to be forced off the baseline in the first round by qualifier Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who is methodically rebuilding her ranking after returning from a doping suspension last month.
The winner of that match is likely to face the winner of the all-Russian first-round showdown between Ekaterina Makarova, who upset Victoria Azarenka and Marion Bartoli in Madrid, and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Makarova retired late in the third set from her first-round match in Rome with an Achilles tendon injury, and the slower conditions in Paris should favor Kuznetsova. Then again, you never know with… well, with either of these two players.
Predicted fourth round: Kuznetsova d. Lepchenko
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Robson
Not to be counted out: Kerber, Makarova, Oprandi, Wozniacki
Like her friend Wozniacki, Agnieszka Radwanska isn’t entirely comfortable on clay and has performed poorly on the surface this year. She lost to Robson in the second round of Madrid, and to Halep in her first match in Rome, and then withdrew from Brussels due to a shoulder injury, which has plagued her off and on for a year and a half. However, she matches up well against every player she’s likely to face before the semifinals. She’s unlikely to be troubled much in her first match against Shahar Peer, who has been in a terrible slump for more than a year now. Aga should also be too speedy and consistent for the winner of the intriguing first-round match between still-developing talents Mallory Burdette and Donna Vekic.
Aga’s first real test will be in the third round, likely against the winner of the first-round match between her sister Urszula and Venus Williams. Ula can’t match Aga’s versatility or precision, but can sometimes make up for it with greater aggression, and has been playing well. Ula has upset two top-20 players, Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic, on clay already this year, and clay is a surface on which Venus has always been relatively vulnerable.
Ivanovic is also likely to have an easy first round against Petra Martic, who has suffered multiple injuries over the last two years and has a 2-8 match record this season. Her second round could be more interesting, against either Chanelle Scheepers, who has shown signs of life after starting the year poorly, or the powerful but inconsistent Frenchwoman Mathilde Johansson, who somehow achieves her best results on clay. But if Ana plays anywhere near her potential, she should have little trouble.
By seeding, Ivanovic’s third-round opponent should be Julia Goerges. Like Ivanovic, Goerges is a powerful player arguably at her best on clay, who can be overly dependent on her big forehand and sometimes overemphasizes the physical side of her game at the expense of the mental side. Goerges retired from her second-round match in Brussels last week with a wrist injury. If she plays at all, she is likely to be vulnerable—even to Razzano, who may lurk in the second round.
Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Ivanovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: U. Radwanska
Not to be counted out: V. Williams
Last year’s finalist Sara Errani has done an excellent job backing up that break-out top-10 season so far. She should have an easy first-round match against Arantxa Rus, who has never matched up well against counterpunchers and has won only one of 13 matches this year. In the second round, Errani could be tested by Ayumi Morita, who has vastly improved her clay-court game this year with four victories over higher-ranked players. The match is likely to be an interesting contest to see who can move forward and dictate points, and Errani’s better volleying skills and clay-court experience should give her the edge. Morita could also have trouble with the brash but talented 18-year-old Yulia Putintseva in the first round.
Errani’s most likely third-round opponent is Sabine Lisicki, who has found unprecedented red-clay form this year, beating top-20 players Jankovic and Cibulkova in straight sets. If Lisicki is patient enough to keep her shots inside the court, she could hit through Errani. If she isn’t, she could lose to the young and increasingly solid clay-court specialist Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor in the second round.
Nadia Petrova hasn’t beaten a top-40 player since Indian Wells, and could have her hands full in the first round with cocky and aggressive 19-year-old Monica Puig, who upset Georges and Francesca Schiavone in Oeiras, Portugal last month. If Petrova wins that match, her draw gets no easier. In the second round she potentially faces Madison Keys, and in the third round could meet Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat her in the first round of Rome. On the other hand, Suarez Navarro could fall in her own first-round match, if Halep brings her own form from Rome.
Predicted fourth round: Errani d. Suarez Navarro
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Lisicki
Not to be counted out: Halep, Keys, Morita
Li Na started her clay season well, reaching the final in Stuttgart without losing a set. Since then her game has been shaky, with erratic straight-sets losses to Keys in the first round of Madrid and Jelena Jankovic in the third round of Rome. In the first round in Paris, Li faces clay-court veteran Medina Garrigues, who has beaten her in all four completed matches they’ve played. The last of those was in 2008, however, and Li’s game and comfort level on clay have improved a great deal since then. Li should win unless Medina Garrigues finds a way to disrupt her rhythm—perhaps by the kind of unsporting tactic she used to slow down the balls against Serena Williams in Madrid.
Li’s next opponent would be the winner of an interesting first-round match between Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Better known as a doubles player, Dominguez Lino has put together solid singles results over the last two years, especially on clay, to become the second-highest ranked Spanish woman behind Suarez Navarro. Dominguez Lino has beaten top-50 players Robson, Bertens, and Yanina Wickmayer on clay this year. Mattek-Sands has a naturally aggressive game—sometimes to a fault—and has had most of her past success on fast surfaces. But she has adapted her game to clay surprisingly well this year, most significantly in her run to the semifinals in Stuttgart, beating Wickmayer, Errani, and Lisicki on the way. Dominguez Lino and Mattek-Sands are both happy to come to the net, but Bethanie’s approach shots will have a lot more heat on them, and she’s the one likely to pose a greater threat to Li. Li, however, has a 2-0 head-to-head against both, and will prevail unless she has a bad day.
The winner of that match is most likely to face Yaroslava Shvedova, who beat Li in three sets at Roland Garros last year. However, Shvedova’s current form and fitness are hard to assess. She started the season poorly, then scored victories over top-30 players Vinci, Suarez Navarro, Wozniacki, and Kirsten Flipkens in Stuttgart and Madrid. Then she withdrew from Madrid with an arm injury, and hasn’t played since. If her fitness or timing are off, she could be vulnerable in the early rounds, especially to the increasingly solid clay-court specialist qualifier Paula Ormaechea, a possible second-round opponent.
Maria Kirilenko played up to her career-high ranking of #12 in Madrid and Rome, beating the players she was supposed to beat and reaching the third round in both events. She should have little trouble with Nina Bratchikova in the first round. In her second match, she could have considerably more trouble against powerful Strasbourg finalist Lucie Hradecka. However, Hradecka is not known for staying in form for extended periods of time, and might not be able to replicate the precision with which she played last week.
Kirilenko’s most likely third-round opponent is Brussels champion Kaia Kanepi, who has returned to top form in less than two months after foot injuries kept her off the tour for most of a year. Kirilenko has a 3-0 record against Kanepi, but they last played in 2010 when Kanepi was ranked outside the top 50. They’ve never played on clay, a surface that arguably suits Kanepi better.
On the other hand, Kanepi has a tricky path to the third round. First she faces Klara Zakopalova, who is ranked higher and can be a dangerous opponent on any surface. But Zakopalova has gone 1-3 on clay this year amid struggles with asthma that caused her retirement in the first round of Madrid (against Kirilenko) and withdrawal from the Fed Cup semifinals. The winner of that match faces the winner of an interesting contest between two naturally defensive players, Stefanie Voegele and Heather Watson, both of whom can also use their all-court skills to dictate points when they have the necessary confidence. Voegele has been the better player on clay in the past and had a great run to the semifinals in Charleston. But a disappointing 0-2 performance in Fed Cup
at home against Australia derailed her clay season, and she has a 1-4 record since. Watson will be playing her first match after taking more than two months off to recuperate from mononucleosis.
Predicted fourth round: Li d. Kanepi
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kirilenko
Not to be counted out: Shvedova, Mattek-Sands
Victoria Azarenka doesn’t have the easiest first-round opponent in Elena Vesnina, but Azarenka has never lost a set to Vesnina in four meetings and clay is not Vesnina’s best surface. Azarenka second round, most likely against Annika Beck, should be easier. Beck looked impressive in her run to the Katowice semifinals and has been adding more aggression to her game to make herself more competitive at the professional level. But the slower conditions in the outdoor clay tournaments may be interfering with those efforts, and Beck has now lost six straight matches.
Azarenka could face a test in the third round from Alizé Cornet, who made a strong (if sometimes tense) run to the Strasbourg title last week. But Vika’s weaponry, consistency, and confidence on the big stage should outclass Cornet. Cornet could have trouble herself in the second round with the winner of a duel between competent clay-courters Irina-Camelia Begu and Silvia Soler-Espinosa. But Begu has been out since Katowice with a shoulder injury, and Soler-Espinosa’s recent results have been disappointing.
Marion Bartoli has generally struggled on clay and is in a severe slump right now, her serve causing particular trouble. She may have her hands full in the first round against the inconsistent Olga Govortsova, who can be dangerous but may lack confidence herself after losing four straight three-set matches. Whoever wins that match is likely to advance to the third round, over struggling Kristyna Pliskova or qualifier Mariana Duque-Marino.
Whoever waits in the third round will pose a formidable challenge. It could be the winner of the first-round match between skilled all-court players Kirsten Flipkens and Flavia Pennetta. Or it could be 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, who is likely to play Pennetta or Flipkens in the second round. Of the three, Flipkens has the best ranking by far, but her game is not well-suited to clay and she has a 2-4 record on the surface this year. Pennetta is much more at home on clay, and made a big stride in her comeback from wrist surgery by reaching the Strasbourg semifinals as a qualifier last week. There however, her serve and confidence faltered badly in the second and third sets against Hradecka. Schiavone is by no means the same player she was three years ago, but she could be inspired by the Roland Garros crowd.
Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Pennetta
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Schiavone
Petra Kvitova has tallied mixed results on clay this season—much like she did last year before reaching the semifinals, her career-best performance at Roland Garros. She’s unlikely to have much trouble in the first round against Aravane Rezai, who has made progress recently after family problems derailed her career in 2011, but hasn’t beaten a top-80 opponent this year. Kvitova could be well tested in the second round by Brussels finalist Peng Shuai. Kvitova has a 3-0 record against Peng, but two of the matches have been three-setters. They’ve never played on clay. Another potential threat is Camila Giorgi, an inconsistent but dangerous shotmaker who plays Peng in the first round, and who upset Bartoli last week in Strasbourg.
Kvitova’s most likely third-round opponent is her Fed Cup teammate Lucie Safarova. Safarova has not had a great year so far, but instead of playing Rome she won a $100k ITF tournament at home in the Czech Republic. She didn’t face a top-80 player there, but five straight victories on clay could help her confidence. However, Safarova could also be stunned by Jamie Hampton in the first round. Hampton had never had significant tour-level success on clay—until last week, when she battled her way to the Brussels semifinals, upsetting Vinci along the way. Yanina Wickmayer is also a potential threat to the winner of that match in the second round, but clay doesn’t suit her either, and she fell to Hampton in Brussels.
Whoever she meets in the third round, Kvitova’s superior serve, power, and skill at the net should prevail, unless her game is completely out of synch. Which is always a possibility with Petra.
Sam Stosur lost her only previous match against her first-round opponent, Kimiko Date-Krumm, but this time the result should be different. After retiring from her first-round match in Monterrey early last month with a back injury, Date-Krumm chose to return to competition in a hardcourt ITF tournament in Japan a few weeks later rather than acclimating herself to clay. She retired with an injury again in the second round there.
Stosur’s second-round opponent would be the winner of an interesting match between the skilled but diminutive 19-year-old all-court counterpuncher Lauren Davis and the aggressive baseliner Kristina Mladenovic, who just turned 20. Neither has had sustained success this year on clay, though, and they’re unlikely to pose a threat to Stosur unless she has a bad day.
Stosur could face a much more serious threat in the third round from Charleston finalist Jelena Jankovic, her most likely opponent. Then again, Jankovic has to get past Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, with whom she always seems to have a tough battle. The raw but powerful Garbiñe Muguruza could test the winner of that match as well. (A rumor circulated last week on forums and social media that Muguruza has an ankle injury, but I have been unable to find any credible source for it. Muguruza’s first-round loss to Hradecka in Strasbourg no longer looks like a sign of weakness, since Hradecka blasted her way to the final.)
The Stosur-Jankovic head-to-head record on clay is 1-1, with Jankovic having won the last meeting in Stuttgart this year. The result this time will depend on which player is closer to her best form on the day. Both players reached the quarterfinals in Rome, but on the whole Stosur did so against stronger opposition—significantly beating Kvitova for the first time in five career meetings.
Predicted fourth round: Stosur d. Kvitova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Jankovic
Not to be counted out: Hampton
It’s appropriate that defending champion Maria Sharapova, the tournament’s second seed, comes in with an 11-1 record this year on clay, which is also second only to that of Serena Williams. Maria should have little trouble in the first round with Hsieh Su-Wei, who can be a tricky opponent for many players but will have no answer to Sharapova’s first-strike power. Sharapova’s most likely second-round opponent Eugenie Bouchard will come much closer to matching her power, and may be less overwhelmed than she was the last time she met Sharapova in a second round, just two months ago in Miami. That time the 19-year-old won only two games, and despite her break-out performances since then in Charleston and Strasbourg, she still can’t match Sharapova’s fitness or mental resilience.
By seeding, Sharapova should face Tamira Paszek in the third round. But Paszek hasn’t won a match since the Australian Open, and red clay is unlikely to be the setting for her turnaround. I expect Paszek to fall to Melanie Oudin in the first round. More likely Sharapova will be tested by Zheng Jie, a speedy fighter who will try to use Sharapova’s power against her and keep her on the run. This year Zheng hasn’t quite found the consistency or aggressiveness she would need to threaten an upset, however.
Dominika Cibulkova has had a shaky season, struggling to find a balance between patience and aggression, her confidence crumbling easily. Her early-round draw may help. In the first round, she faces Lesia Tsurenko, whom she beat 6-3 6-2 in Madrid for her most straightforward clay-court victory of the year. In the second round she faces either the struggling Marina Erakovic or the aging and injury-plagued Elena Baltacha, neither of whom is at home on clay.
Domi could face a much more serious threat from Sloane Stephens in the third round. Stephens’ topspin-heavy game is well-suited to clay, at least in theory, especially against an opponent as short as Cibulkova. Stephens beat Cibulkova in straight sets in Brisbane this year, their only meeting. However, Stephens hasn’t beaten a top-50 player since the Australian Open, and may still be struggling with confidence herself.
Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Cibulkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Stephens
Not to be counted out: Zheng J.
S. Williams d. Kuznetsova
A. Radwanska d. Errani
Azarenka d. Li
Sharapova d. Stosur
S. Williams d. A. Radwanska
Sharapova d. Azarenka
I can’t shake the feeling that Serena Williams is much more vulnerable at this tournament than her impressive winning streak suggests. But no matter how hard I stare at her draw, I can’t convince myself that any particular player in her path is likely to beat her. Therefore I have to predict that Serena Williams will defeat Maria Sharapova for the 2013 Roland Garros title.