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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pre-French Open: Championship Preview

You've heard it before: "This year's French Open is more wide open than ever on the women's side." To be honest, it's true. Without Serena, Venus and Henin (and with the questionable health of big names like Clijsters and Azarenka) there's a good chance for a new slam champion. You'd think this would give the best chance to hard hitters like Sharapova or high ranked players like Zvonareva and Wozniacki, but inconsistency and nerves have plagued the WTA. Can Vera make a final and put up a fight? Can Caroline win and back up her no. 1 ranking? Or will a in-form and on-fire low seed make the most of a messy draw?

Here's the ITB picks for Roland Garros 2011.

First Quarter:
The top half of the bracket is by far the most difficult to predict. Wozniacki sits at the top with a not-so-simple draw pitting her against Date Krumm and a likely 3rd round fight with Hantuchova. Her fourth round could see former champion (and current fail) Kuznetsova, Peer, or even clay-loving Martinez Sanchez. Keep in mind Wozniacki just won Brussels and had 2 and half hour struggle with China's Peng.

This quarter also features Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur and the fire-cracking Julia Goerges, the German who seems to have Wozniacki pegged. Though Bartoli made (and retired from) the final at Strasbourg, clay has never been her most successful surface, and Stosur has a lot to prove after last year's final flop. The Australian will be hungry for a second chance, but she has a record for crumbling under pressure.

Quarterfinalists: Wozniacki v. Goerges.

Possible Bracket Busters: Hantuchova and Martinez Sanchez.

Second Quarter:
Talk about messy. The second quarter features players that, though highly ranked, you feel awkward advancing too far in the tournament. Zvonareva is seeded to be your best pick, but a loss to Peng in the Brussels semifinal is an awkward exit to give you too much trust. Still, she's earned a reputation for picking up the pace in grand slams and will probably do so again. She's due for a run in with Petrova in the third round but the most interesting match up will be against a confident and title-hungry Pavlyuchenkova.

We also have the growingly inconsistent Jankovic, an out of form Pennetta, a tired Peng and last year's surprise champion, Schiavone. What to do? Though I have special place in my heart for the Serb, she has done little to give me hope, and even with a fantastic record at Roland Garros I don't expect much from her this year. She will probably fall to Schiavone, though I'd love to be proved wrong.

Quarterfinalists: Zvonareva v. Schiavone

Possible Bracket Busters: Pavyluchenkova and Mattek-Sands (kudos to Steve Tignor)

Third Quarter:
Australian Open finalist, Li Na, is going to want to show she's still got punch since tapering off this Spring. Her draw will likely cross paths with Dulgheru in the 3rd round, but keep in mind players like Cirstea and Schnyder will want a say (though I don't see them saying much at all...) More interestingly though is the 3rd round collision between Madrid champion Kvitova and the always feisty Cibulkova. The last time these ladies faced off, Petra narrowly won in a 7-5 third set. Look out for some serious clay court combat between these two.

The highest seed in this quarter is Vicoria Azarenka, "The Brave One" who, in healthy condition, has a tremendous chance at taking the French title. She has what I would consider a cupcake draw, meeting her first challenge (?) in the 4th round. Her contest there is likely to be Kaia Kanepi if Ana Ivanovic is actually as injured as she seems to suggest. Let's just hope Victoria's elbow is feeling better since retiring in Rome.

Quarterfinalists: Kvitova and Azarenka.

Possible Bracket Buster: Cibulkova

Fourth Quarter:
The lowest quarter of the draw packs a serious punch. Lucky for lightweights like Wozniacki, Schiavone and Jankovic, all the WTA's cannon launchers fall in the lower half, and the 4th quarter holds the majority of them. Maria Sharapova will be looking to carry her win streak from Rome into Roland Garros, eyes locked on a possible, though unlikely, career slam. The "cow on ice" seems to have found a game for clay and will likely face Radwanska in the round of 16. If she can man handle Aggie's superb defense the way she did Caroline's in Rome, she could have a breakthrough into the quarters.

The big question mark of the tournament is Kim Clijsters. The four-time slam champion has been to the French finals twice before, but she hasn't played a match on clay in years. With her recent injuries (yes the ankle, but don't forget that shoulder) she may not be in top form. If Petkovic can find her feet on the Paris dirt, she could meet Kim in the fourth round. And if that happens, I don't see the Belgian's body coping with Andrea's heavy shots—that is assuming she keeps them in.

Quarterfinalists: Sharapova v. Petkovic

Possible Bracket Buster: Medina Garriguez

Quarterfinal 1: Goerges d. Wozniacki
Wozniacki is going to want to change up her push-game and attack Goerges, seeking revenge on her two last defeats. Julia, however, will enter the match confident. If she stays in form and keeps her head, she'll earn the threepeat.

Quarterfinal 2: Zvonareva d. Schiavone
If Zvonareva settles into her rhythm in her first few matches, I don't see Schiavone having much of a chance. The defending champ has a lot on the line and hasn't been as finely tuned in the warmups as she might have liked.

Quarterfinal 3: Azarenka d. Kvitova
Looking for revenge, Azarenka will come into this match with all gears in full motion. Kvitova played the best match of her life in Madrid and at times it seemed as though she couldn't miss. If she's not as precise, Azarenka will find a way.

Quarterfinal 4: Sharapova d. Petkovic
Petkovic will be lucky to overcome Clijsters in the round of 16 and a second miracle against Sharapova doesn't look to be in the cards. If Maria has truly found her range on clay, there will be few that can match her.

Semifinal 1: Zvonareva d. Goerges
The rookie might not be ready to take her first step into the grand slam spotlight. Someone has to make it, and Zvonareva looks to be in the right place at the right time.

Semifinal 2: Azarenka d. Sharapova
The screaming will be top notch in this basher battle. The only thing scarier than the sounds coming from the court will be the pace of the winners flying off it. If Azarenka's body holds up, she has the advantage as the better mover. But beware, Sharapova is hard to beat when a title is in sight.

Championship: Azarenka d. Zvonareva

Unless Vera can prove us wrong, Azarenka will finally win her much deserved first grand slam. Zvonareva hasn't brought much to her other grand slam final appearances and it's not unlikely that she'll do the same here. Azarenka will need to keep good depth, not that she doesn't always. If she wins the tight points too Zvonareva will revert to her classic head-case flailing. Who knows, though. The Russian has the game—the question is whether or not she'll bring it. Good luck, Victoria.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor


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