>> Sunday, May 27, 2012
For the first time since 2007 when Justine Henin made the clay courts at Roland-Garros her personal playground, this year's French Open 2012 is not as wide as it had been in the past four years or so. In fact, based on the clay court results in the past two months - it is with great certainty that the French Open title will be hoisted by three women at the end of the fortnight. It would be a surprise indeed, a great upset even, if Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova will not be lifting the trophy on June 9. But, with tennis and women's tennis in general, one interesting aspect of the game is the uncertainty of the results.
This year however, there seems to be some order creeping back into the WTA tour. For starters, Azarenka won four titles to start the year, winning her first Grand Slam in Melbourne and taking over the world no. 1 ranking. She went on a 26-match winning spree beating world no. 2 Maria Sharapova in the finals of the Australian and Indian Wells, and dominating the other successful player this season in Agnieszka Radwanska. Azarenka seemed poised to continue her domination of the clay court circuit but things took an interesting twist.
Two former no. 1 players and multi-Grand Slam winners entered the picture. 13-time major titlist Serena Williams overwhelmed a Charleston field and defeated both Azarenka and Sharapova in straight sets to win the Charleston and Madrid clay court events on her way to a perfect 17-0 winning streak on clay so far. Her minor hiccup was a withdrawal against French Open defending champion Na Li prior to their scheduled semifinal in Rome. The reason? A recurring back problem caused Serena to withdraw as not to jeopardize her ability to peak for the second Grand Slam of the season. Serena has always been vocal in her desire to add another French Open trophy to the one she won 10 years ago. This year, she seems to have mastered clay and intimidated opponents in the surface.
So then, with Serena showing her resolve of old, tennis experts from ESPN and CNN Sports Illustrated are predicting a 14th Grand Slam title for the American in her least favorite surface. In his French Open women's seed report, Jon Wertheim of CNN remarked: "Can we pause and acknowledge how remarkable it is that, a full decade after her lone French Open title, Williams is still going this strong? Again and again you'll hear, "When she's motivated and healthy, she is the best in the world." But truth is truth. It says here that Serena gets back in the winners' circle."
His counterparts at ESPN agree. Eight of twelve tennis experts picked her to win her second Roland-Garros trophy. The other four picks were distributed to Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanksa, and Samantha Stosur. Sharapova is actually a good pick being the only other player other than Serena to win two clay court events this spring. The Russian world no. 2 defeated Azarenka convincingly in the Stuttgart finals and also edged out reigning French Open champion Li Na to defend her title in Rome. As for Kvitova, Radwanska and Stosur, it's unclear how the other experts would pick those three considering their results in the tune-up tournaments.
What's strange about the ESPN's tennis experts picks is the absence of someone picking Azarenka. The world no. 1, if healthy, has the tools and confidence to win a second straight slam and the draw has been kind to her. Azarenka is drawn to meet Radwanska in the semifinals, a player she has beaten six times already this year. She however, must get past Stosur, a former French Open finalist, in the quarterfinals. Still, it is no question that Azarenka's draw is easier than that of Serena, who was dealt the toughest draw of all.
Serena could end up playing former world no. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Sharapova, and Li or Kvitova just to reach the finals. She has beaten Wozniacki and Sharapova on clay this year, but hasn't played against Li or Kvitova. The quarterfinal with Sharapova may very turn out to be the de-facto final. Whatever the case may be, a win by Serena, and to a lesser extent, wins by Sharapova and Azarenka, could make the WTA a more exciting product in the months to come.