If the men’s field looks relatively predictable, the women’s field features a legion of contenders for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Having produced a first-time champion in each of the last four years, Roland Garros may well continue that pattern in 2012. But our seven leading ladies to watch include two women who have held this trophy before and one who could hold it in two different decades.
1. Serena: A Roland Garros champion a decade ago, she brings an undefeated clay record into the season’s second major with titles at Charleston and Madrid. Although neither green clay nor blue clay much resembles the terre battue in Paris, Serena advanced to the semifinals on Rome’s very slow court before a precautionary withdrawal. Perhaps less impressive than her two titles themselves were the players whom she defeated there, including resounding triumphs over her leading rivals Sharapova and Azarenka. Often disinterested and easily frustrated at Roland Garros, Serena may approach it with greater resolve in the wake of embarrassing defeats at the last two majors. On the other hand, Serena shone just as brightly during the US Open Series last year as she did on clay this year, and yet she failed to capture the title in New York. The aging American no longer can extricate herself from every predicament with a last-ditch surge. Nor can she rely upon her diminishing aura of invincibility to intimidate the younger generation, as Makarova proved in Melbourne.
2. Maria: With a game as flaming as her outfit, Sharapova sizzled through the two most significant tournaments on red clay this spring while defeating four of the seven other players who will hold top-eight seeds at Roland Garros. Saving a match point at both Stuttgart and Rome, she rallied to overcome Stosur, Kvitova, and Azarenka in succession at the former tournament. Against the other reigning major champion, Li Na, Maria mounted a titanic comeback in the Rome final by imposing her fast-court brand of tennis on one of the Tour’s slowest surfaces, cold and rainy weather notwithstanding. Banishing recent doubts about her resilience in finals, that signature performance displayed the grittiness that Sharapova shares with the clay and that she will need to compete the career Slam. Uncharacteristically edgy in her Paris semifinal last year, she sometimes projects so much intensity in her quest to win this last elusive major that her game crumbles under the self-inflicted pressure. And the specter of Serena will cloud her hopes until and unless someone else dispatches her nemesis.
3. Vika: Ending her Rome campaign on a discordant note, the world #1 translated her hard-court prowess to clay with consecutive finals in Stuttgart and Madrid. There, she continued her mastery over the third-ranked Radwanska while competing tenaciously in outlasting Barthel and Li Na, both players who had won sets from her this year. In those two finals, however, Azarenka won seven total games against the two players looming above her on this list. Allegedly deflated by a shoulder injury, her never impressive serve proved her undoing as Serena and Sharapova never let her settle into rallies. If she can settle into them and stay patient, Vika can showcase her superior consistency on a surface that should reward her fluid transitions from defense to offense. Hoping to avoid the horrific fates suffered recently by first-time WTA major champions at their next major, she must master her emotions under adversity rather than allowing the infamous Roland Garros crowd to fluster her. Animosity can bring out the best in Azarenka, but it also can bring out the worst.
4. “Nails”: Against all expectations, she has compiled some of the steadiest results in the WTA with quarterfinals or better at every tournament since Indian Wells. Nevertheless, Li probably would not have appeared on this list had she not broken a four-quarterfinal skid with a finals appearance in Rome, where she probably should have won the title. Reminiscent of her seamless movement and penetrating ball-striking at Roland Garros last year, the defending champion excelled in every facet of a game so balanced that it lacks any clear weakness—until everything imploded, as it does so often. When Li’s mind does not betray her, she can trade blows with any type of opponent, and she responded to the potentially devastating Rome loss with impressive optimism. The unfamiliar pressure of defending her first major title may weigh heavily upon the Chinese champion, although fellow veteran Schiavone answered the same challenge brilliantly a year ago. Since defeating four consecutive top-10 opponents to reach that career-defining pinnacle, Li has defeated just two since then and just one (Kvitova) in 2012.
5. Sam: Especially effective on clay are her kick serve and heavy forehand, which propelled her to a Roland Garros semifinal in 2009 and a final in 2010. Much less muscular in mind than in body, Stosur fell well short of expectations when defending that performance in 2011, while her US Open title so far has proved less of a psychological breakthrough than one might have hoped. Although she did not dazzle in losses to Hradecka in Madrid and Venus in Rome, she played the best women’s match of the season against Sharapova in Stuttgart. Even on her two-handed backhand, a notoriously weak stroke, Stosur swung with a confidence and accuracy that could make her lethal in Paris. Defeating both Henin and Serena in tense three-setters two years ago, she knows that she can defeat the game’s greatest champions here. Stosur will hope to avoid the top two women, though, against whom she has a woeful 1-16 record. And Serena knows to take her seriously this time, usually bad news for an opponent.
6. Petra: Like Sharapova, she has more than enough raw power to hammer winners through even the slowest courts. Not only explosive but dependable, her lefty serve should set up points efficiently for her first groundstroke strike. Kvitova proved at Wimbledon that no situation or opponent intimidates her, and her week in Istanbul confirmed her ability to tear through an elite draw when she ignites into one of her torrid streaks. Not quite catching fire this year, she still has not reached a final in 2012 as others have surged past her. The Czech can fall in love with her weapons on serve and return so much that she aims for too much with those shots, which can lose their range for games at a time. Losing a rollercoaster three-setter to Li at Roland Garros last year, Kvitova revealed her best, her worst, and the fact that not much lies between them—not the best recipe for surviving a fortnight on an especially slow surface, even assuming that her stomach injury heals.
7. Aga (Isia): Not the world #3 without a reason, she has carried her outwardly unassuming to three significant titles since the US Open at Tokyo, Beijing, and Miami. Defeating Sharapova on the last occasion, Radwanska has suffered only one loss all year to an opponent other than Azarenka but has lost all six of her meetings with the world #1, most in ignominious fashion. If she lands in a section of the draw far from her nemesis, therefore, she might harbor hope for a first major semifinal. Having lost all five of her major quarterfinals to date, Radwanska has found that her guile, variety, and stingy defense do not compensate for her lack of power against the Tour’s elite aggressors. To navigate through an entire fortnight, she needs assistance from the draw and a more positive attitude toward the clay, which she understandably labeled her least favorite surface. Sooner or later, the Pole will run afoul of a heavy hitter who doesn’t miss when it matters most, much like Murray in the men’s draw.
Beyond these seven leading ladies, a trio of former champions hopes to stir memories of their former exploits. Although she has compiled a losing record in 2012, Schiavone also did not distinguish herself in early 2011 before charging implausibly to a second straight final. With retirement surely on the horizon, she will not want to leave without one last wriggle of ecstasy on the terre battue. A less flamboyant figure, Ivanovic has reasserted herself with quiet steadiness this season and will hope for a gentler draw than she received in Madrid (third round vs. Azarenka) or in Rome (third round vs. Sharapova). The smiling Serb has evolved into a player more effective on hard courts than clay, still searching for her first final on the terre battue since winning her only major at Roland Garros four years ago. Feckless on virtually every surface of late, Kuznetsova rarely reminds audiences that she held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2009. Drawing Azarenka in her Madrid opener and Ivanovic in Rome opener, she earned no opportunity to establish her footing on clay. But Sveta continues to summon some of her most convincing tennis at majors, including an indelible epic lost to Schiavone at Melbourne last year and a near-quarterfinal appearance in New York.
Perhaps more credible threats than that trio is a quartet of Germans, who have followed the absent Petkovic in vaulting their nation towards tennis prominence long after the era of Graf. Foremost among them, world #10 Kerber established herself as the Tour’s second highest-ranked lefty within months of a thoroughly unexpected breakthrough at the US Open. Since reaching the semifinals there, Kerber won her first two career titles in 2012 while defeating opponents as prominent as Sharapova and Kvitova, although the Russian dismantled her with ease in the Rome semifinals. The chronically injured Lisicki has played scarcely a match on clay this year, and her massive serve should earn her fewer free points here than at Wimbledon. A semifinalist at the All England Club last year, she likely will focus upon rediscovering her rhythm before defending the accomplishments of a strong 2011 summer. Although she has recorded just one memorable result this year in reaching the Dubai final, Julia Goerges won her home tournament in Stuttgart last spring and rode that momentum to sturdy efforts elsewhere on clay. She continues to struggle with focus and discipline, however, two traits essential to maintaining her elevated status. Seeking a similarly elevated status is the latest arrival from her nation, Mona Barthel, who twice has extended Azarenka beyond 5-5 in the third set this year. An all-or-nothing player without much margin for error, she sometimes will climb into double digits for aces and double faults in the same match. On a surface that rewards consistency and patience, Barthel should gain insights on how to refine her rough-hewn game as she consolidates her progress.
After the draws appear on Thursday, we will discuss each of them in separate articles on Thursday and Friday using a quarter-by-quarter format. Saturday will bring the first daily preview of Paris action.