Bob Larson's Roland Garros Look Forward
Women's Preview: Week of May 22 (Exclusive) Women's Look Forward: Roland Garros
At the place where the Russian Hegemony began, could we see it end?
We have all sorts of interesting possibilities this week. Maria Sharapova could move up to #1 -- or fall to #3. Anastasia Myskina could get her game, and her life, in order -- or she could find herself barely clinging to the Top Ten. Elena Dementieva could easily fall out of the Top Five.
And then there is Lindsay Davenport. She could cement her top spot -- or lose it.
And what about Amelie Mauresmo? She actually does have a chance at #1 -- but she has to get out of her "slunk" (no that's not how she leaves Roland Garros every year -- it stands for "Slam Funk").
It's interesting, looking at all of our top contenders here and trying to figure out their chances. With Jennifer Capriati out, and Serena Williams having withdrawn just before the draw was made, we have only three past champions -- Anastasia Myskina, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Mary Pierce -- and all seeded below the Top Four. Nor are Capriati and Serena the only players to have withdrawn; Alicia Molik is also out, and Kim Clijsters is doubtful. Even the players who remain generally have problems. Lindsay Davenport is our #1 seed -- but this is the only Slam she hasn't won, and that's not coincidence; clay is her worst surface. She has never won anything bigger than a Tier II on the stuff, and she's never won anything better than a Tier III on red clay, and this year, she didn't even bother playing a single match on red clay. If that's not writing off her chances, what is?
Maria Sharapova certainly didn't write herself off -- but she did manage to blow two chances to become #1 this spring, and still hasn't won a WTA event on clay, red, green, or polka dot. If she is to break that streak here, she'll have to play much better clay tennis than she's done.
As for #3 Amelie Mauresmo, there is no question: She has the game to win this Slam. But the head? She's never shown it before, and the more she's lost, the more it has to weigh on her.
#4 seed Elena Dementieva's infamous serve is less of a handicap here than elsewhere, but her nerves are another matter. Remember how she played in the final last year! And she played only one red clay match this year, and lost that.
Defending champion and #5 seed Anastasia Myskina used to be stronger mentally than most of the other Russians, but she's having some sort of personal problems, plus she has a bad shoulder that's done a Dementieva on her serve. She needs to get at least a few things together if she is to repeat, and there are no signs of that happening. And she and Dementieva are drawn to meet in the quarterfinal, so at least one of them is going to suffer.
#6 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova has the best all-around package of stuff of any of the Russians, but that's not quite as helpful on clay as on the other surfaces, and she hasn't been playing well this year.
#7 seed Nadia Petrova has plenty of game. But she has perhaps the worst case of Russian nerves of any of their players. Which is saying a lot.
#8 Patty Schnyder is off to the best first half of her career. Her game is made for clay. With real luck -- say, facing Dementieva and Mauresmo late in the tournament -- she is good enough to win here. But is she tough enough? She has clearly improved in that department this year -- but it's hard to feel confident she will stay that way.
#9 Vera Zvonareva is nuts, she's never won anything above a Tier III, and she's been in bad form this year.
In the face of all that, #10 Justine Henin-Hardenne may actually be our favorite. She's won before. She's been brilliant on clay -- undefeated, with three titles. But her low seeding is an obvious handicap.
#11 Venus Williams has turned into a pretty good clay player in recent years; it's been more than two years since she won a title on any other surface. But she just seems too likely to zone out somewhere along the line.
The whole draw has a certain air of "rematch," with players who met in big matches this year drawn to face each other in the earliest possible round this year. We mentioned Dementieva and Myskina. Sharapova would face Paola Suarez, who beat her last year, in the third round -- though Suarez hurt herself last week. Not a rematch from last year, but a rematch of a contest we've already seen three times this year, is the meeting in the third round between Ana Ivanovic and Amelie Mauresmo. And then, too, we have quite a few...
Noteworthy First Round Matches
We start at the very top: (1) Davenport vs. Srebotnik. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be no contest. But clay is Davenport's worst surface, and Srebotnik's best, and they're both pretty erratic anyway. If Srebotnik has one of her better days, and Davenport isn't ready for clay, it might be interesting.
Razzano vs. (25) Safina. Razzano has been having the best results of her life over the last two months, and Safina is always flaky.
Douchevina vs. (21) Pierce. Douchevina isn't the only talented young Russian in the draw (we already skipped over Maria Kirilenko), but she's the first one to face a seed. Pierce is of course a past champion and a solid clay player -- but she seems more liable to break down these days than in the past.
Mamic vs. Raymond. By the rankings, a mismatch. But Raymond had horrid results at Istanbul.
Camerin vs. Sprem. If the Camerin of 2004, who was having a career year, faced the Sprem of 2005, who is in horrid form, we'd say the odds of upset were very high. This year, they're both slumping. So we've no idea what to expect.
Fedak vs. (16) Likhovtseva. No question that Likhovtseva is the better player. But she also is a player of long good spells and long bad spells -- and she seems to be in the bad spell phase. And Fedak has the speed and stubbornness to make her work.
(11) Venus Williams vs. Marrero. This is a repeat of Venus's opening match at Istanbul, which produced a double bagel. But Marrero is a one-time quarterfinalist here.... Ironically, both won titles at Istanbul last week: Venus the singles, Marrero the doubles.
Frazier (27) vs. Shaughnessy. Two Americans both trying to make something happen on clay. Neither has done anything so far.
Sanchez Lorenzo vs. (5) Myskina. The Spaniard is not playing well this year, but she does know her clay. If Myskina is still messed up, this could well yield the first really big upset.
Peschke vs. Randriantefy. Two veterans having late-career resurgences. It's too bad that no one will see it.
Peer vs. (28) Bartoli. Marion Bartoli has missed most of the spring with injuries. Not a good recipe against a quick player such as Shahar Peer.
(15) Jankovic vs. Smashnova. This really shouldn't be a first round match; on clay at least, Smashnova ought to be seeded, even now. Expect a lot of scrambling. The one who can keep at it longest will probably.
Martinez vs. (10) Henin-Hardenne. Did we say that last match shouldn't have happened in the first round? That goes double (at least) for this one. Talk about a horrid draw for both players!
Llagostera Vives vs. (23) Sugiyama. Llagostera Vives is having the best year of her career, and she likes clay. Sugiyama isn't playing well at all, and she doesn't like clay. There are certainly upset possibilities.
(26) Suarez vs. Chakvetadze. Paola Suarez is turning into an injury machine. She got hurt at Strasbourg. She has semifinalist points to defend, so of course she'll play. But Chakvetadze is a tough young player; this is another first rounder that could produce real problems.
Linetskaya vs. (2) Sharapova. Linetskaya's numbers still say she's the best of the young Russians, though there isn't much evidence of clay skills on her resume. But then, Sharapova's numbers on clay can't compare with her results on fast surfaces. And Sharapova, who was so mentally tough for so long, seems to be turning just a little brittle.
Roland Garros could have even more interesting effects than usual this year. That's because we're seeing Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova nearly tied in the Race. Based on past results, they may well continue to do about equally well on grass and hardcourts and indoors. If one of them can significantly outdistance the other here, it would be a big step toward becoming/staying #1 later this year. On the other hand, if Mauresmo or Henin-Hardenne, our other strong Race performers who are in the field, can earn enough points here, it might allow them to stay in the contest even on surfaces where they are less comfortable.
In the immediate term, it's mostly a contest between Davenport and Sharapova for #1, though Mauresmo has a theoretical chance -- "theoretical" because she almost certainly would need a title and help from the top two. Serena might have had an outside shot had she played, but she isn't playing.
As between Davenport and Sharapova, the advantage is clearly with Davenport, but it isn't an overwhelming advantage. She leads by about 90 points going in, and she has less to defend. So Sharapova has to earn roughly 225 points more than Davenport to take the #1 spot. That means that Sharapova has to reach roughly the quarterfinal to have any shot, and she has to outlast Davenport -- probably by two rounds, though if she wins the whole thing, the top spot is certainly hers.
With Serena out, Mauresmo is guaranteed the #3 spot. But if she wants to move up at all, she probably needs at least a final.
Serena's #4 ranking is under some threat, but not much. Only three players -- Kuznetsova, Dementieva, and Molik -- are within 1400 safe points of her, and Molik isn't playing, and Kuznetsova is about 675 points back, and Dementieva about 800. Kuznetsova needs a final, and Dementieva at least a final and probably a title, to pass her.
Anastasia Myskina comes in at #6, but with over a thousand points to defend; she's #8 in safe points, and less than 200 points ahead of Nadia Petrova and Patty Schnyder. So it looks as if we have two blocks of players below #4: Kuznetsova and Dementieva (about 150 points apart) and then Molik (almost 500 points behind Dementieva), Myskina, Petrova, and Schnyder. Those latter four could end up in just about any order, and Vera Zvonareva and Justine Henin-Hardenne could also get into the act. Venus Williams is less of a candidate to join them; even with her results at Istanbul, she's about 350 points off the pace.
Several players are likely to take big hits. Jennifer Capriati loses 478 points and will be falling out of the Top 20. Paola Suarez has 378 points to defend, and could end up around #60 with a first round loss. Shinobu Asagoe's Top 25 ranking is in danger, since she has 172 points to defend. Magdalena Maleeva could lose 146 points and fall out of the Top 30. Fabiola Zuluaga, unseeded and with 142 points to defend, could end up below #40. Meghann Shaughnessy has 134 points to worry about and is slumping; Zheng Jie has 136 points on the line. And Tathiana Garbin beat Justine Henin-Hardenne last year; that represents more than half her current points, meaning that her Top 100 ranking is in danger.
With the #1 ranking so closely contested, every match is big for Davenport and Sharapova -- the more so since Sharapova really needs to take the top spot now; if she doesn't, she won't have a chance for some weeks (since she has Birmingham to defend the week after Roland Garros, and then Wimbledon). Neither has a great draw: Sharapova opens against Linetskaya, then either Camille Pin or Aravane Rezai, who are both French wildcards, but Rezai just won a pretty good Challenger; after that comes Paola Suarez, who is hurt but who beat Sharapova last year. Sharapova must win those matches, and at least one more, to pass Davenport. Admittedly Sugiyama or Dechy in the fourth round are not formidable obstacles. But then Sharapova must contend with Henin-Hardenne or Kuznetsova.
Davenport's path starts with Srebotnik, then solid young Peng Shuai, then Dinara Safina or Virginie Razzano. If Davenport is sufficiently ready for clay to beat Srebotnik, then she can probably win the next two. If she does, she will potentially have to face Kim Clijsters next, then Patty Schnyder -- but if Davenport gets to the fourth round, then Sharapova has to beat Henin-Hardenne (or Kuznetsova) to reach #1. Anything beyond that just makes it harder for Sharapova.
So call those our key matches for the top two: Davenport versus Clijsters, if Clijsters can play, and Sharapova versus Henin-Hardenne.
Mauresmo has two very easy opening matches, then crosses racquets with Ana Ivanovic. If Mauresmo's nerves have started to act up by then, it could be interesting -- but third round seems a little early for that. Jelena Jankovic or Anna Smashnova or Nicole Vaidisova or Francesca Schiavone seem more likely beneficiaries of the Frenchwoman's twitches. And after that, Mauresmo would face Nadia Petrova, who already beat her on clay once this year.
In terms of who is defending what, no match is more important than the potential Dementieva/Myskina quarterfinal. But Myskina's path there looks tricky: In the third round, she would face Amy Frazier, who beat her at Wimbledon last year, then Venus Williams in the fourth. Dementieva's path looks easier, given that the first seed she would face is slumping Karolina Sprem, but it remains to be seen how healthy she is. Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters both have chances to return to the Top Ten. If Clijsters can beat Davenport, that should do it; if Henin-Hardenne meets Sharapova, that should certainly be sufficient. Of course, Henin-Hardenne has to deal with Kuznetsova first, and Kuznetsova's draw is quite nice.