Friday, June 1, 2012

French Open Women: Second & Third Rounds

I think someone, somewhere said that it was tough to figure women out, no? Let me acknowledge that I obviously haven’t had any more luck than whoever said that. No.5 Serena Williams gone in the first round! Are you kidding me? It’s a good thing I don’t have cash to bet, or it would be gone anyway. So history was made (first time Serena has lost in first round of a Grand Slam) and the proof was delivered that the “Niles Curse” remains fully in effect.

If there were windscreens up at Roland Garros after Virginie Razzano, the 111th-ranked player in the world, ousted Serena, they would probably all have been torn down by the collective inhalation and sigh of relief by all other players in the Women’s Draw. Today, another of the top women fell by the wayside.

No.3 Agnieszka Radwanska, who had just one on-court loss to anyone other than No.1 Victoria Azarenka all season, lost to No.26 Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2, 1. What! Two and one? Go figure. Of course Kuznetsova is a two-time Grand Slam Champion (2009 French, 2007 U. S. Open), and had beaten Radwanska the last five times they had played, but still…two and one? Kuznetsova hadn’t gotten past the second round of an event since February!

Yet, when Kuznetsova is playing up to her ability, she can beat anyone on the planet. She’s athletic, can play the entire court, and hits the ball a ton. In Round 3, she will face No.21 Sara Errani, who took down Ana Ivanovic in her previous match in three sets. I can’t imagine that Kuznetsova will play to potential twice in a row, but she has beaten Errani all five times they have played, though never on clay. I think I have to lean toward Erani on the red stuff.

The smart money has to be on Azarenka or No.2 Sharapova, who has lost a total of two games in four sets thus far. Uh, can we say, “dominant!” Sharapova has lost just twice this season to someone who isn’t a Grand Slam Champion, once to Radwanska, and the other to No.10 Angelique Kerber. The other three losses on her 29-5 record were to Azarenka (twice) and Serena (once).

Azarenka and Sharapova stand 5-4 in their head to head, with Sharapova taking the last meeting in Stuttgart last month. But Azarenka took the previous two this year. Since their third meeting back in 2009, the two have traded straight-set victories, with Azarenka taking four and Sharapova two. If both reach the Final, let’s hope for a return to the competitive battles they had early on.

As I write, Azarenka just took out Aleksandria Wozniak in straight sets to move into the fourth round against No.15 Dominika Cibulkova. Contrary to the matches Azarenka has had with Sharapova, the last five against Cibulkova have gone three sets. This one is likely to be no different, as Cibulkova appears to be on her game, losing three games or fewer per match thus far.

No.4 Petra Kvitova, defending Wimbledon Champion, marched through her first two opponents in straight sets, and should do the same to her third round opponent, Nina Bratchikova, the 109-ranked player in the world. Kvitova’s best finishes this year have been three semifinals, two of which she lost to Sharapova and one to No.7 Na Li.

Kvitova’s huge groundstrokes should be good enough to get her through most players outside of the top ten, but she has a potential match up with no.14 Francesca Schiavone if they both win their next matches, and that should be challenging for Kvitova. Schiavone’s a heady player and that may trump big strokes on the slow red clay.

No.6 Sam Stosur is silently making her way toward another French Final…she hopes. Despite being a Finalist at Roland Garros in 2010 and the defending U. S. Open Champion, no one, including me, is giving her much of a chance to win the French. I suspect she likes it that way, but she will be under pressure in her next match against Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old American who will have to hold up under the media crush.

Stosur should have enough game and experience to get by Stephens, but Sam has shown mental fragility at times, and this situation has the potential for psychological collapse. Stephens has talent, but this is the biggest match of her career, so it will be interesting to see if she can control her nerves against one of the top players in the world. I’ll go with Stosur here.

Last month in Rome, Na Li, the defending French Open Champion, got to her first final since January. In that final, she lost to Sharapova in three tough sets, despite winning the first set and being up in the third. Li doesn’t appear to be fully comfortable with her game, and I wonder if facing another young American, 20-year-old Christina McHale, will make her even more uncomfortable. I suspect Li may be too consistent for the McHale, the highest-ranked American behind Serena, but McHale is feisty and could trouble Li.

As I mentioned in my first piece on this year’s French, no one is talking about No.9 Caroline Wozniacki, and based upon her record this year, there’s good reason. She didn’t drop a set in her two matches, but has the hard-hitting Kanepi up next. Wozniacki has a 3-1 lead head-to-head but the two have never played on clay. I suspect it’ll be 4-1 when the match is over.

A newcomer to the top ten, No.10 Angelique Kerber has wins this year over Sharapova, Bartoli, Wozniacki, and Kvitova, so she belongs. She dropped the first set today against No.18 Flavia Pennetta, but fought back to take the final two sets. Does she have enough to really challenge for the Championship? I just don’t see it.

But then again, this is women’s tennis where the most dominant player over the past decade-plus, fell in the first round to the 111th-ranked player, so anything goes. Until next, game, set, match…T. A.

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