Women's Look Forward: Berlin, Casablanca (someone should tell him its Rabat )
This seems to be a week of miraculous survival stories. Chances are, if you live in the United States at least, that you have heard of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which every rational birder thought had been extinct for fifty years.
hadn't been on the endangered list nearly as long, but it's still a nice survival story. With the decline in German tennis that has caused the loss of the women's event at Hamburg, and the Munich year-end championships, and the men's Masters at Stuttgart, the rumor was that Berlin was gone, or at least would be sliding down the tier scale. Not yet; it's still here, and still a Tier I.
And, with Maria Sharapova here and Lindsay Davenport not, that means we have a showdown for #1. And if ever there were a Tier I on red clay where the Russian should have a chance to win, this is it.
Below that we had "A Tale of Two Injuries." Word was that Amelie Mauresmo wouldn't be able to play. She is, however, in the draw as the #2 seed (behind Sharapova). Serena Williams, though, is not here; her ankle is still bothering her. Elena Dementieva is out, but Anastasia Myskina, who skipped Fed Cup with a bad shoulder, will be trying it out again as #3. Our third Russian in the draw is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who takes the #4 seed. The fifth seed is also Russian, slumping Vera Zvonareva. And, yes, so is the sixth seed, Nadia Petrova. Patty Schnyder gives the rest of the world a representative as the #7 seed, but rounding out the top eight is Elena Bovina. Those eight, of course, all get first round byes.
Below that, things are a little more international: Nathalie Dechy is #9, Elena Likhovtseva comes back from her wrist problem as #10 (OK, another Russian, but she's the last for a while; there are no other Russian seeds, though there are plenty of unseeded Russians: Evgenia Linetskaya, who still looks like their top prospect, Dinara Safina, Anna Chakvetadze, veteran Alina Jidkova, Maria Kirilenko, and Vera Douchevina -- grand total: Seven seeds and six unseeded players out of 45 players with direct entry not counting wildcards Anca Barna, Sandra Kloesel, and Julia Schruff). The #11 seed is Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne takes the #12 spot, Jelena Jankovic is back in action at #13, Ai Sugiyama is also coming back at #14, Daniela Hantuchova, seeded #15, rounds out the Top 25 players in the field, and Karolina Sprem will return to her favorite surface as #16.
There are several noteworthy unseeded players as well: Anna-Lena Groenefeld, who likes clay, is Germany's closest thing to a threat, though she was hurt last week. Linetskaya is even more dangerous, though she too has been out. Fabiola Zuluaga is always a threat on clay. Magdalena Maleeva perhaps isn't, but she knows it well. Conchita Martinez will be trying to rebuild her ranking after falling out of the Top 50. Gisela Dulko is another solid clay player. Ana Ivanovic will be making another run for a Roland Garros seed, starting against Safina. Eleni Daniilidou used to like clay a lot, back when she liked any surfaces at all. Dally Randriantefy still loves the stuff. Meghann Shaughnessy at least practiced on it a lot in the past, though she comes in with back problems. Mary Pierce just missed being seeded. And Anna Smashnova is always dangerous on clay.
Against that field, Casablanca
must feel rather neglected. Only one player in the field -- #1 seed Li Na -- is Top 50. Only about five others -- #2 Nuria Llagostera Vives, #3 Maria Elena Camerin, #4 Tathiana Garbin, #5 Tamarine Tanasugarn, and #6 Zheng Jie -- could even have gotten into Berlin, and several of them probably weren't sure at the time they signed up. Rounding out the seeds are two players in bad-to-awful slumps: Arantxa Parra Santonja is #7, and #8 Claudine Schaul has two more weeks to earn some points before Strasbourg comes off and she falls out of the Top 100. About the only noteworthy unseeded players are defending champion Emilie Loit -- though those points are off, and she is in pretty bad shape these days -- and Anne Kremer, who can't seem to win on anything except grass any more.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
Casablanca is rather weak in this regard, of course, The one match that really looks interesting is Sanda Mamic versus Barbora Strycova, two young players trying somehow to find a way to take that next step. Also mildly promising is #4 seed Tathiana Garbin's contest with Ludmilla Cervanova, given the latter's clay expertise.
Berlin naturally has more to offer, starting with the first match down the draw, Groenefeld vs. Linetskaya. A few weeks ago, Linetskaya looked like a very good bet for a Roland Garros seed, but she got hurt. Groenefeld also has been hurting. If they're well, it could be a fair contest.
The next young Russian down the draw, Maria Kirilenko, has an even tougher assignment in clay veteran Fabiola Zuluaga. And, yes, our next match also involves a young Russian, Vera Douchevina, against another veteran, Magdalena Maleeva. Those should be quite the battles.
Daniela Hantuchova has been much more effective this year than the last two, but her game isn't exactly built for clay. And Gisela Dulko knows dirt very well; there is a real chance for upset there.
Ana Ivanovic just gave Justine Henin-Hardenne all she wanted at Warsaw. Can she maintain that level against Dinara Safina? If so, Safina (and Kim Clijsters, who is next in line) had better watch out.
#9 seed Dechy will open against the very steady Dally Randriantefy. And Dechy suddenly finds her Top 16 Roland Garros seed in doubt; that's hardly the opener she was hoping for.
Only one more Russian match, we promise, but it's another very interesting one: Anna Chakvetadve, who is yet another good-looking prospect, will take on another well-known veteran, Mary Pierce. Pierce of course has a tremendous edge in clay experience.
If you want to see touch, the match of the first round will probably be Anna Smashnova versus Jelena Kostanic. Smashnova spends her life running, and Kostanic spends hers shotmaking, and both like clay a lot, and both are defending a fair number of points.
A few days ago, someone asked us, in effect, "Given that Lindsay Davenport has points coming off from Strasbourg, isn't Maria Sharapova sure to become #1 before Roland Garros?"
Not quite. (And it doesn't matter if she's #1 after Strasbourg anyway; that won't get her the #1 Roland Garros seed. What she needs is to be #1 after Rome.)
Davenport has 136 points to defend at Strasbourg, but she also has 72 points in her eighteenth event, so she gets some of those points back. And Sharapova has some points of her own to worry about -- 72 at Berlin, 89 at Rome. (Plus 250 at Roland Garros, as compared to 122 for Davenport, so there is no assurance, if Sharapova gets to #1, that she'll stay there.) Still, the possibility is real -- if Sharapova can win either Tier I event, she should take the top spot, and if she fails but reaches both finals, that should still do it. Or, at least, assure that she would make #1 after Strasbourg, which at least would get her in the record books. Of course, the cautious part of us notes that Sharapova has no clay titles at the WTA level; can she really be expected to win her first at a Tier I?
With Serena Williams out, Amelie Mauresmo is safe at #3 for the moment, but half her lead over Serena could vanish with a bad result at Berlin,and the rest will be on the line next week; the Frenchwoman would like to build up some cushion. Serena herself is safe at #4, given that Elena Dementieva is not playing. Dementieva isn't quite secure at #5, but it's going to take a title and a lot
of quality points for Myskina or Kuznetsova to overtake her; we can probably discount it in practice. As between the two Russians, it's almost a draw; if one does significantly better than the other, she's #6, with the other #7, with ties definitely going to Myskina, who starts with more points and has less to defend. Alicia Molik will stay #8. Jennifer Capriati, though, will see 210 points come off and will be dropping out of the Top Ten. With Venus Williams losing 286 points, that assures Vera Zvonareva will be in; it's not quite so clear who will be the tenth player, though Nadia Petrova is certainly the best bet.
Of course, what really matters are the magic Roland Garros seeding numbers: #4, #8, #12, #16, #24, #32. The top four will be Davenport, Sharapova, and probably Mauresmo and Serena, though Dementieva might be able to pass one of the latter two with a very good result at Rome. It appears certain that those five plus Myskina, Kuznetsova, and Molik will be the Top Eight. Since Capriati seems unlikely to play, Zvonareva and Petrova look good for #9-#12, with two other player still to be determined (chances are one will be Schnyder; Venus might be the other). The #16 spot, though, is wildly contested, especially if Capriati manages to play; otherwise, Bovina, Dechy, Clijsters, and Henin-Hardenne currently looking best. All four of them are in action this week, as is Elena Likhovtseva, the next player down the rankings. We'll watch that throughout the week. As for the #24 and #32 dividing lines, it's really too early even to venture a guess.
Other than Mauresmo, Venus, and Capriati, the player with the most on the line this week is Karolina Sprem, with 172 points. A bad result could leave her barely clinging to the Top 30. Fabiola Zuluaga has 154 points on the line, and is likely to lose her Top 30 spot. Paola Suarez loses 134 points, and she's not playing.
Since our most important contests are for the #16 spot or so, it's worth looking at what those players face. Bovina, who currently has the lead in points, also has a nice draw: A bye, then probably Eleni Daniilidou. Then she would face #9 seed Dechy, who opens against Dally Randriantefy, then Shaughnessy or a qualifier. A win for Bovina in that Round of Sixteen match would just about clinch her Top 16 seed; a win for Dechy wouldn't guarantee it, but it would sure help.
Elena Likhovtseva is seeded #10, but she's at the bottom of the list now, and her draw is not particularly good -- a nice opener against wildcard Sandra Kloesel, but then Mary Pierce or Anna Chakvetadze, and then Petrova.
#11 seed Clijsters actually has 46 points to defend this week, which means that she needs to win a couple of matches to stay where she is. The first one, against a qualifier, shouldn't be too bad. But then comes the Safina/Ivanovic winner, and then Patty Schnyder.
Justine Henin-Hardenne is seeded rather too low, based on her current ranking. Her draw is mixed. First round opponent Iveta Benesova is in a slump. Zuluaga or Kirilenko in the second is a lot tougher. But Vera Zvonareva, her potential Round of Sixteen opponent, is in horrid shape. Then -- Sharapova.
And while we're at it, let's look at Sharapova's path to -- potentially -- the #1 ranking. Her first match, against Linetskaya, could well be tough. Ai Sugiyama is a crafty veteran, but she's struggling this year, and clay is not her surface. So the first real challenge for Sharapova is the match with Henin-Hardenne. Then she would face Kuznetsova or Clijsters or Schnyder. And then Mauresmo or whoever. If she makes #1 this week, it looks like she'll earn it.
Mauresmo looks fortunate in her draw as she seeks to shake off her injury: First she would face the Kostanic/Smashnova winner, then the slumping Sprem (who will be under a lot of pressure in that match, given what she has to defend), and then the flighty Petrova.
The other match we'd keep our eyes on is the Round of Sixteen between Jankovic and Myskina. Myskina is a mess and is running out of chances to get back in form before Roland Garros; Jankovic is a good clay player but has been out for some weeks. Your guess is at least as good as ours as to how that will come out.