Women's Look Forward: Rome
Last-Minute Note: For the second straight week, we've seen a last-minute high-level withdrawal. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the #3 seed, is out of Rome; she is experiencing left knee tendonitis. He withdrawal took place after Monday's schedule was released, so the Rome draw has been minimally adjusted: Patty Schnyder becomes the #17 seed and is inserted into Henin-Hardenne's spot in the draw. Schynder will be replaced by a Lucky Loser -- presumably Emilie Loit, but the WTA did not state so officially. This article was complete when the announcement was made; please forgive any patching.
On the men's side, there isn't much doubt: Rome is the biggest clay event after Roland Garros.
It's not so clear on the women's side. Several years of exile in the Eighties rather tarnished it, and Berlin also has ancient lineage. Lindsay Davenport, until recently, preferred to play Berlin (and now prefers not to play either one). The Williams Sisters tend to split the two. If anything, Berlin has had the more distinguished list of champions over the past decade or so.
But one thing is not open to question: Rome is the last major warmup for Roland Garros. Few top players will want to play Strasbourg or Madrid; even if you ignore the fact that they're Tier III events, the women don't want to be tired going into Roland Garros. Rome is the big chance. It is also the last chance to improve one's Roland Garros seed.
And, this year, it's a Bonus Tier I. Not quite as big a bonus as Miami or Indian Wells, but it came up with the extra cash to move up to the 300-round-point level. Rome is now officially the eighth-biggest event on the WTA calendar (following the Slams, the year-end Championships, Miami, and Indian Wells). And, by and large, it has the field to prove it. Prior to Henin-Hardenne's withdrawal, only two Top Ten players were missing: Venus Williams (who had withdrawn even before she hurt herself at Warsaw) and Lindsay Davenport (who has played clay this year, but still tends to avoid it). From the Top 20, we are missing only those three plus Elena Bovina and Elena Dementieva, both hurt. In fact, the draw is very much like Berlin, but with two big additions: Serena Williams is here, for her first red clay event of the year; we also find Monica Seles back in the draw after skipping all things German; she's the #10 seed. Also back after a layoff is Amanda Coetzer. That means that every one of the sixteen seeds is Top 20 (or was, on last week's ranking list; #16 Anna Pistolesi has now fallen out of the Top 20). Which leaves us with several dangerous floaters: Nathalie Dechy. Silvia Farina Elia. Plus the clay experts (Paola Suarez, Clarisa Fernandez, Flavia Pennetta) and a long list of prospects (Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Myriam Casanova, Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian, Svetlana Kuznetsova) and upset artists (Magui Serna, Denisa Chladkova, Virginia Ruano Pascual). There should be a lot of very interesting matches. Let's look at each eighth of the draw to see what we mean.
The seeds in the top eighth are Serena Williams and Amanda Coetzer. Serena shouldn't have much trouble in the early rounds; as one of the top eight seeds, she has a bye. Then she'll face either Anabel Medina Garrigues (who likes slow courts but is still trying to get her game fully together) or a qualifier. Coetzer has a much tougher task: She starts against Iroda Tulyaganova (who beat Jelena Dokic at Berlin), then either Nathalie Dechy or a qualifier. Hardly what the #14 seed wanted for her first match since Amelia Island!
The next eighth is headed by #7 Daniela Hantuchova and #9 Jelena Dokic, and it will be a free-for-all. Hantuchova will start with a bye, which she probably needs to rest and recuperate after Berlin. But then she'll face either Elena Likhovtseva, who is having a surprisingly good clay season, or Magui Serna, who is having a superb clay season and who last week beat Farina Elia and Rubin before losing to -- Likhovtseva. That looks like trouble for Hantuchova already. And Dokic -- who won this title two years ago -- just makes her task harder. Nor can Hantuchova really hope that someone will upset Dokic for her; Dokic opens against Conchita Martinez, who ought to drive Dokic crazy but who just can't seem to be aggressive enough. Then it's Emmanuelle Gagliardi or a qualifier. Still, we could imagine any of five players coming out of this eighth.
The next quarter, headed by #4 Amelie Mauresmo and #16 Anna Pistolesi, is really Mauresmo's to win or lose. But she'd better not treat it casually, because she's going to face a very good clay-courter in the third round. And even in the second, she'll likely have to contend with Lina Krasnoroutskaya, who seems to be hungry for success again. That may be a match to see who is healthiest. The winner will face Pistolesi or whoever replaces her. And someone might. Pistolesi opens against a qualifier, but in the second round faces either Clarisa Fernandez (making one last run at the Top 25 before Roland Garros flattens her ranking) or Flavia Pennetta (a very solid clay player who needed a wildcard to get in but who is Italian). Fernandez, Pennetta, and Pistolesi all have decent chances of facing Mauresmo.
If there is a "glamor" section in the top half, though, it's the eighth headlined by #5 Jennifer Capriati and #10 Monica Seles. There is no question about which one of those two has the better draw: Capriati has a creampuff. She starts with a bye, then either a qualifier or clay-hating Alexandra Stevenson. Frankly, we'd expect the qualifier to come through -- and then lose tamely. But Seles, who is playing her first red clay of the year, will open against solid prospect Myriam Casanova, then either Nadia Petrova or the unpredictable wildcard Tathiana Garbin (who even has a win over Seles on hardcourts, though Seles turned out to he injured in that match). Seles will probably come through. But how much energy will she have to expend before facing Capriati?
The top eighth of the bottom half is headed by #6 seed Chanda Rubin and #11 Magdalena Maleeva, and they both look vulnerable. Rubin gets a first round bye, but after that she'll face probably Denisa Chladkova. Chladkova is at a career high and hoping to break into the Top 30. Maleeva's problem comes in the first round, when she faces Silvia Farina Elia. Farina Elia has looked pretty weak lately, but she likes clay and is Italian -- and neither of those descriptions fits Maleeva. This is perhaps the section most likely to produce an unseeded quarterfinalist.
The next eighth was to have been headed by #3 seed Justine Henin-Hardenne and #13 Ai Sugiyama. It's now headed by Sugiyama and #17 seed Patty Schnyder. Before Henin-Hardenne withdrew, we thought that the biggest block to her progress might be her own exhaustion. Now it's wide open. Sugiyama (who is very much a creature of hardcourts) is likely to lose her opening match to Paola Suarez, and if she does manage to win that, she'll face another clay-lover in Katarina Srebotnik. Schnyder will face either slumping Barbara Schett (her frequent doubles partner) or weaponless Antonella Serra-Zanetti. If Schnyder plays her best, she should come through. If not -- who knows?
The next section down, headed by #8 Anastasia Myskina and #12 Eleni Daniilidou, is also open. Myskina looked bad last week, and she'll face either Italian Francesca Schiavone or junkballing Maja Matevzic in the second round. An upset is a real possibility. But it's perhaps even more of a possibility for Daniilidou, since (after facing a qualifier in the first round) she'll start against a solid prospect, either Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian or Svetlana Kuznetsova. Kuznetsova is arguably the better player of the two (they're ranked close together, but Kuznetsova earned those points in rather fewer tournaments), but Mikaelian is perhaps more comfortable on clay. If Myskina does face Daniilidou, the Greek certainly likes clay better than the Russian.
#2 seed Kim Clijsters is in a section not overly strong in clay players; the other seed is #15 Meghann Shaughnessy. Also in the section are Laura Granville (still with only one WTA clay win), Virginia Ruano Pascual (good at upsets, but not at upsets this big), and Rita Grande (who had a clay title earlier this year but who is struggling overall). Shaughnessy can probably handle Granville. She can probably handle Grande, too. But Clijsters? It seems most unlikely.
The Rankings. This week's results will determine the Roland Garros seedings, and there are interesting twists all around. We've known for some time that the four top seeds at Roland Garros would be the Williams Sisters, Kim Clijsters, and Justine Henin-Hardenne. We of course know that the Sisters want to be #1 and #2, because that guarantees that they will be on opposite sides of the draw. But Clijsters also was in an interesting situation, because if she had the #3 Roland Garros seed, she would be guaranteed not to have countrywoman Henin-Hardenne in her half, but if she's #2, then she and Henin-Hardenne could be on the same side. In other words, the Clijsters-as-#2 scenario has a 50% chance of producing the two semifinals nobody wants (Serena-versus-Venus and Clijsters-versus-Henin-Hardenne).
Had Clijsters won Berlin, she would have been #2 no matter what the outcome at Rome. But because she lost the Berlin final, that's still unsettled. Clijsters is up to #2 this week, but she has 200 points to defend. That puts her behind Venus Williams in safe points. Serena Williams will of course be the #1 seed even if she fails to defend her Rome title. And Henin-Hardenne is locked in at #4. But Clijsters has to earn almost 200 points to get the #2 Roland Garros seed. A semifinal might do it. A final certainly will.
For the next few spots below that, not much is at stake except prestige. Lindsay Davenport is at #5, and while Amelie Mauresmo might be able to overtake her by winning Rome, there is no actual advantage to being #5 rather than #6. Similarly, #7 Jennifer Capriati has an outside shot at Mauresmo (a final might do it if Mauresmo loses early), but #6 isn't really much better than #7. The real contest is for the #8 seed. Chanda Rubin and Daniela Hantuchova (both of whom lost first round last year) are nearly tied, though Hantuchova has more tournaments, making it harder for her to move up. Still, if one of them goes deep, she could wind up on top. Jelena Dokic is also on the fringes of the race for the #8 seed, and Anastasia Myskina has a theoretical shot (though hardly more than that). Myskina does have a better shot at returning to the Top Ten, but she's about a hundred points behind Dokic in safe points.
The next significant seeding spot is #12, which is currently Seles's. Seles has nothing to defend this week, so she can only more up. And she has almost a 200 point lead over #13 Elena Dementieva, who isn't playing, and more than 250 points on Eleni Daniilidou. Seles looks just about set.
The #16 seed at present belongs to Ai Sugiyama, but she is very vulnerable. Three other players (Amanda Coetzer, Meghann Shaughnessy, and Patty Schnyder) are all within 100 points of Sugiyama, and Sugiyama has more to defend than any of them. It's a wide-open contest. So is the contest for the #24 seed, being fought mostly by Nathalie Dechy and Silvia Farina Elia, but with several others on the fringes of the contest.
The last three seeds currently belongs to Paola Suarez, Francesca Schiavone, and Denisa Chladkova, who is looking at her first Slam seeding. But only 81 points separate #30 Suarez from #36 Serna, meaning that Suarez, Schiavone, Chladkova, Tatiana Panova, Laura Granville, and Serna all have real shots at the ranking. (Tamarine Tanasugarn, the other player within reach of the #32 seed, is not playing and has no prospects on clay anyway.) Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian and Iroda Tulyaganova also have outside shots at the spot. We will, naturally, keep our readers posted.