When the Cat's Away: WTA Rogers Cup Draw Preview
In contrast to the Masters 1000 tournament in Toronto, the Premier Five event in Montreal features all but one of the top women. The void left by that one absence significantly enhances the opportunities available to those remaining, however, for Wimbledon champion and gold medalist Serena Williams would enter any tournament as the favorite this summer. Without her shadow looming over the draw, some of the other players who excelled in London (either Part I or Part II) can harbor more hope about consolidating their own momentum undisturbed.
First quarter: Leaving London with not one but two medals in her luggage, the pride of Belarus hopes to translate that momentum into her first title since Miami. After an opening meeting with Paszek that should trigger flashbacks to Wimbledon, Azarenka might need to conquer Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lisicki, who narrowly lost out on a bronze-medal bid in mixed doubles. Undistinguished for most of the first half, the German surged from oblivion over the grass-court summer for the second straight year, so she will aim to sustain that level of performance more effectively than she has before. Almost equally streaky is a woman who often has excelled on the North American hard courts, reaching the final in Carlsbad this summer. Hobbled recently by an injury and a wayward serve, Bartoli nevertheless will have accumulated more hard-court experience than most of the principal contenders and may burn for retribution after her exclusion from the Olympics. Should she meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, she should bring considerable confidence from her commanding victory this spring that snapped the world #1’s 26-match winning streak. Before she earns that opportunity, Bartoli might need to solve Kvitova for the third straight time. Habitually woeful during the US Open Series, for reasons unclear, the Czech has spent most of 2012 flirting with a significant accomplishment while repeatedly falling short. But she tormented Azarenka last year, defeating her on three notable occasions.
Second quarter: Outside a finals appearance in 2009, Sharapova rarely has branded her presence on the Rogers Cup. Moreover, the outstanding achievement of winning the silver medal may have dulled her desire somewhat for a tournament that starts just a few days later. Typically susceptible to ebbs and flows, though, Sharapova has established her greatest consistency to date this year and does not face an overly intimidating draw. Rising American Christina McHale tested her in Rome but lacked the experience to secure key points, while former #1 Jankovic long since has tottered towards the fringes of relevance. During the last US Open Series, both of these women did rise to the occasion with the teenager upsetting Wozniacki in Cincinnati and the Serb reaching the final there, where she lost to Sharapova yet again. On the opposite side of the quarter stands the Russian’s occasional nemesis, Wozniacki, who enjoyed a more convincing summer on grass than her results indicated and at least seems to have arrested, if not quite reversed, her plunge from the season’s beginning. More often than not frustrated by the Dane’s defense is Cibulkova, fresh from winning her second career title in Carlsbad and not detained long at the Olympics, losing early in each event. The curiously late-blooming Varvara Lepchenko might offer an intriguing undercurrent, although she has yet to conquer a player of Wozniacki’s quality.
Third quarter: As the US Open looms, one wonders how Stosur and Kerber will respond to the challenge of defending those impressive accomplishments. Will Stosur implode spectacularly like Li at Roland Garros, or suffer a creditable but not suspenseful defeat like Kvitova at Wimbledon, or outshine each of those fellow first-time champions at majors? She could face the woman who won a set from her in New York last year at the quarterfinal stage, which looks well within her reach since only Safarova can muster a plausible challenge to her before then. Shedding her underdog status while she extends her WTA-leading victory total in 2012, Kerber has not struggled to adjust to her newfound celebrity as much as the three first-time major champions of 2011 did. An opener against the fiery, all-offense style of Makarova should not trouble her unduly on these medium-speed courts that should reward her more balanced game. Although she never has faced Ivanovic during this sudden burst up the rankings, the Serb has found lefties perplexing challenges even at her best. In fact, the 2006 champion in Montreal might find the tenacious Vinci a serious obstacle, having lost to her at this event’s Siamese twin in Toronto and in two of their last three meetings overall. The idiosyncratic Italian can fluster any rhythmic baseliner of Ivanovic’s species, and she will have drawn strength from a stirring comeback against Wickmayer, saving a match point. But the finalist at last year’s Rogers Cup, Stosur, should forge a path deep into the draw again if she can avoid a hangover from a disappointing Wimbledon and embrace a surface more suited to her weapons.
Fourth quarter: Outside the experience of carrying the Polish flag, a thoroughly deserved honor, Radwanska endured a dreadful Olympics. The Wimbledon runner-up entered all three events for which she was eligible and lost by the second round in all three of them. While some might blame a post-breakthrough hangover for her disaster, fatigue seems a more probable culprit for a woman made of sterner stuff than the usual hangover victims. The victim of her own success this year, Radwanska has played (and won) many more matches than usual without streamlining her schedule to compensate. She can look forward to an opener against a youthful heavy hitter in either Mona Barthel or Timea Babos, the sort of raw, undisciplined ball-striker whom the Pole specializes in exposing. Projected to meet fellow first-time major finalist Errani in the quarterfinals, Radwanska should feel few nerves about confronting a player whom she crushed on clay, her least favorite surface and her opponent’s favorite. Embedded rather unassumingly in the center of this section is the perennially unpredictable Li Na, seeking to revive her fortunes with the impressive, characteristically startling decision to join forces with the architect of Henin’s success, Carlos Rodriguez. While life after Justine may come as a jolt for Carlos, his rigorous work ethic seems an ideal remedy to galvanize the Chinese star late in her career. Still, the confluence of these powerful personalities may need time to settle before it bears fruit.
Final: Azarenka vs. Stosur
Champion: Victoria Azarenka