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2012 French Open Women's Preview: When Veterans Attack

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Serena Williams from the U.S. celebrates after winning the Madrid Open tennis tournament semifinal match against Czech Republic's Lucie Hradecka, in Madrid, Saturday, May 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
Serena Williams from the U.S. celebrates after winning the Madrid Open tennis tournament semifinal match against Czech Republic's Lucie Hradecka, in Madrid, Saturday, May 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

By STEVE TIGNOR, Tennis.com

PARIS—Old guard vs. new, that’s been the theme of 2012 on the women’s side. The kids got off to a good start when 22-year-old Victoria Azarenka throttled Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open and Indian Wells finals, but the veterans staged a surprising counterattack on clay this spring. Serena Williams and Sharapova turned the tables on Azarenka in two finals, and split four French Open tune-up events between them.

“Wide open” is traditionally how we describe the women’s tournament at Roland Garros each year. This time it doesn’t feel as difficult to foresee who will, or at least should, be contending two weeks from today. Azarenka, Serena, and Sharapova are the players to beat, with Li Na coming up from the outside.

That said, Serena is still ranked and seeded below what she should be. That couldn’t throw a wrench into things, could it…?

Only the draw will tell.

*****

First Quarter

As with Novak Djokovic on the men’s side, old signs of vulnerability have been showing up recently with Azarenka. She lost control of her serve and her cool against Williams in Madrid, and the injury/pullout bug that has plagued her in the past returned in Rome, where she withdrew with an arm problem despite winning her first match.

Azarenka opens with Alberta Brianti, then could get talented but slumping French teen Caroline Garcia, who nearly knocked Sharapova out a year ago. The second-highest seed in this section is Sam Stosur, a runner-up at Roland Garros two years ago. Not that Sam’s presence should worry Vika too much: Azarenka hasn’t lost a set in their six matches.

Also here: No. 15 Cibulkova, No. 12 Lisicki, mildly surging No. 24 Cetkovska, No. 27 and former Roland Garros semifinalist Petrova, and No. 31 Jie Zheng.

First-round match to watch: Ekaterina Makarova vs. Sloane Stephens

Semifinalist: Azarenka

*****

Second Quarter

Here we have a section for the taking, and one that Azarenka, if she dares to think that far ahead, must love to see. The top seed is Agnieszka Radwanska, who has never been to the semis at Roland Garros, doesn’t love clay, has a played a ton of tennis (including a trip to the Brussels final this weekend), and may have already peaked for the moment. The second seed is Marion Bartoli.

Who can take advantage of this opportunity? High on the list is Venus Williams, who could get Radwanska, a woman she has lost to just once, in the second round. How about Sara Errani? The Italian won her first 15 matches on clay this year (before getting stomped by Aga). Svetlana Kuznetsova is here and has won this tournament before (for what it’s worth). Ditto for 13th seed Ana Ivanovic.

The best bet may be Angelique Kerber of Germany. The 10th seed and Rome semifinalist has, on paper at least, a cushy-looking path to the quarters, and perhaps beyond.

Back with us: Melanie Oudin, who faces Sweden’s Johanna Larsson in her opener.

Semifinalist: Kerber

*****

Third Quarter

This section is bracketed by two erratic powerhouses, Li Na and Petra Kvitova. The former, who won Roland Garros last year, says she’s hitting the ball well but struggling to finish matches. You don’t say: Li was up 6-4, 4-0 on Maria Sharapova in Rome before losing. She begins with a potentially testy first-rounder against Sorana Cirstea.

As for Kvitova, she had an abdominal strain last week and hasn’t come to life the way I thought she would in Europe this spring. She was especially streaky in her three-set loss to Kerber at the Foro. But unpredictability runs both ways—no one expected Kvitova to suddenly go all the way at Wimbledon last year. She also put together a solid run to the quarters at Roland Garros in 2011. Kvitova’s draw looks exceptionally manageable: The three seeds on her side are the faltering Schiavone, the sliding Jankovic, and Monica Niculescu. Of course, if Petra is off, it doesn't take a seed to take her out of the tournament. If she and Li do get to the quarters, it will be a shootout. Li has won their last two matches, both times in three sets.

Old school: Schiavone vs. Date-Krumm

Sleepers who could face off in the second round: Mona Barthel and Christina McHale

Marginally interesting first-round match to watch: Wickmayer vs. Pironkova

Semifinalist: Li

*****

Fourth Quarter

Well, now we know where everyone has been hiding. Or at least we know where Serena, Maria, and Caroline Wozniacki have been hiding. They’re all crammed into the bottom section.

Is you’re Sharapova, this is about as bad as the news can get. Williams is, until proven otherwise, the one woman she can’t beat, the one woman she had to hope was as far as from her as possible. Otherwise, the Stuttgart and Rome champ’s draw looks OK, if not perfect. The other seeds on her side are Pavlyuchenkova, Peng (who beat Maria in 2009), and Kirilenko (who beat her at the Aussie Open in 2010).

As for Serena herself, she’ll start with Razzano, get the winner of Jamie Hampton and Arantxa Rus, and possibly face Julia Goerges after that. Potentially waiting in the quarterfinals will be Wozniacki, who beat Williams in Miami and took a set from her in Madrid, but who retired with respitory problems in Rome. If she’s fit and recovered from that, Wozniacki could trouble Williams on Paris’s slower red dirt. First, though, she has an interesting opener with 29-year-old Greek veteran Eleni Daniilidou.

Serena is the woman to beat, both here and in the tournament. But as we’ve seen many times, even her Slam wins often come with surprises and great escapes and hurdles of her own making. Who could force her into one this time? Goerges? Lucie Hradecka, Jamie Hampton? As with her loss to Makarova in Oz, it’s often someone you wouldn’t expect. Serena, stunningly, didn’t show much fight in that match, but she has seemed much more motivated with the Olympics looming. This tournament, one that she hasn’t reached the semis of since 2003, will she how us much that motivation means and how far it can take her.

First-round match to watch: Poor Woman’s Fraulein Forehand Julia Goerges vs. Czech bomb-thrower Lucie Hradecka

Overdue: Pavlyuchenkova. She actually did something here last year.

Wild Card: Wozniacki

Semifinalist: S. Williams

*****

Semifinals: Azarenka d. Kerber; S. Williams d. Li

Final: Serena Williams d. Azarenka

 
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