Drawn and Quartered: Olympics Edition (WTA)
Having discussed the men’s draw at the 2012 Olympics yesterday, we progress to analyzing the women’s draw today.
First quarter: Back in the WTA penthouse, where she has stayed for most of 2012, Azarenka eyes an apparently tranquil draw in the early stages. Somewhat intriguing is the first-round duel between Zheng and Petrova, both accomplished on grass in different senses. Whereas the former Wimbledon semifinalist from China relies on her crisp footwork and low-bouncing groundstrokes, the Russian showcases the more traditional grass weapons of a heavy serve and biting volleys. Perhaps more impressive on paper than in reality, the opening encounter between Venus and Errani pits the greatest grass-court champion of the decade against the breakthrough player of the first half. The breakthrough player of the last twelve months, the seventh-seeded Kerber faces a challenging test herself against Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon in 2011. At Madrid, the German lefty dispatched Venus, and her efficient defense could trouble the American should they meet in the third round. During her comeback, Venus has garnered mixed results against the rising stars of the next generation, defeating Kvitova and falling to Radwanska in Miami, for example. Although she has dominated Azarenka before, much time has passed since their last meaningful meeting, and Venus did not impress at Wimbledon a few weeks ago.
Second quarter: When the draw first appeared, some observers felt that Serena had drawn an unfortunate assignment against fellow former #1 Jankovic. But the Serb, on her worst surface, seems no match for the reigning Wimbledon champion on arguably her best. The free-swinging German Mona Barthel and the charismatic Schiavone should add entertainment to Serena’s route, although probably not great drama. On the other hand, the early rounds of Wimbledon featured two notable, unexpected wobbles from the younger Williams, which may inspire hope in her rivals here. In the quarterfinals, she could meet the woman who ended her sister’s campaign at the last Olympics and fell one victory short of a medal. Sometimes invigorated and sometimes intimidated by the prospect of competing for her nation, Li can waste little time in finding her form as she opens against talented grass-court stylist Hantuchova. Should she earn the right to play Serena, however, one can expect a steely effort from a woman who has stood toe to toe with the Williams sisters before. Overshadowed by the veterans around her, former #1 Wozniacki displayed a better grass-court form than her early exit from Wimbledon suggested. She has struggled overall against both Li and Serena, especially on fast courts, and probably lacks the first-strike explosiveness to defuse them at their best.
Third quarter: Perhaps the most varied section in the draw features players at virtually every stage of a career, ranging from relative newcomers McHale and Martic to seasoned veterans Stosur and Clijsters. Headlining the section is Russian flag-bearer Sharapova, who could avenge her Wimbledon loss to Lisicki on the same court in the third round. Even before then, the lefty serve of Safarova would test the third seed’s return as it darts away from her. For her part, Lisicki might need to navigate past fellow Wimbledon sensation Yaroslava Shvedova, whose ranking has soared nearly 100 places into the top 50 on the heels of a Roland Garros quarterfinal appearance and a Golden Set against Errani at the All England Club. Suffice it to say that a formidable server should advance to meet Clijsters in the quarterfinals, should the Belgian overcome less imposing obstacles like Stosur or Ivanovic. Although she prefers hard courts to grass, the four-time major champion long has identified this event as a key motivating factor in her comeback from retirement and repeated injuries. Unlikely to depart without a struggle, Clijsters starts against the clever Italian veteran Vinci, a former champion on the Birmingham grass. Although the grass has not proved especially kind to her, it has not witnessed the greatest achievements of the players around her either, such as Ivanovic or Stosur. Whoever advances to the quarterfinal from that group should enter that match as an underdog against Sharapova or Lisicki, who have accumulated greater momentum this year and have achieved superior results on this surface.
Fourth quarter: Rising to #2 for the first time after reaching her first major final at Wimbledon, Radwanska will hope to repeat her overwhelming Australian Open victory over Julia Goerges in the first round. Home hope Heather Watson could collect a victory or two in the wake of a strong summer that included two victories at Wimbledon, one on Centre Court. A three-set quarterfinal with sparkling net play and rallies far longer than normal than grass, the Wimbledon collision of Kirilenko and Radwanska will have triggered high expectations for the projected sequel at the same venue. The only premier heavy hitter in this quarter, Kvitova has maintained far greater consistency at majors this year than at other tournaments, a trend that she will aim to extend at the Olympics. Other than the tenacious double-fister Peng, no significant dark horse looms to disrupt her at her most fallible early in the tournament. By the third round, however, Kvitova will need to have found her range when she could meet either 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Pironkova or newly crowned Carlsbad champion Cibulkova, who joined Pironkova in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year. Either of those women might fluster the Czech powerhitter by disrupting her rhythm from the baseline and varying the pace of their groundstrokes. By far the best server in her quarter, Kvitova should lean on that strength at decisive moments against opponents who can win fewer free points.
Gold medal: Serena
Silver medal: Sharapova
Bronze medal: Kvitova