Women's Look Forward: Paris, Hyderabad
We tend to think of French players as liking clay, and some of them (notably Amelie Mauresmo) do. But if you lined up every French player, male and female, and told them to pick one surface on which to play as many matches as possible, they probably wouldn't pick clay. They'd pick carpet.
France, after all, does experience winter, though it's fairly mild; they have to go indoors sometimes. Paris, lucky city that it is, has three tournaments -- Paris (women's), Roland Garros, and the men's Paris Masters. And two of the three are indoors.
Indoors, and popular. Last week's Pan Pacific was a Tier I, but the cutoff for qualifying was well below #100. At Paris, Vera Douchevina -- #44 at the time the draw was made -- was in qualifying. Of course, Douchevina's ranking shot up at the Australian Open, but the cutoff when entries closed was around #50. And this is only a Tier II.
A Tier II, in fact, with three of the world's Top Four. And two of them former champions. Top seed Serena Williams, in fact, won her first-ever title here six years ago. #2 seed Amelie Mauresmo didn't win her first at this event, but her 2001 title was the first of four titles she won that year; it marked her real coming of age. Maria Sharapova hasn't earned a title here, but she has earned quite a few in the last year, and is the new-minted #3. Of course, she's also flying in from Tokyo to play.
Below those three, we see a bit of a fade; there are no other Top Ten players. The #4 seed is Nadia Petrova (who likes indoors a lot, so the gap between #3 and #4 isn't as big as it looks). Nathalie Dechy is #5, meaning that France has two of the top five seeds. Karolina Sprem, who hates indoors, is a rather weaker #6, Silvia Farina Elia is #7, and Magdalena Maleeva -- who missed the Pan Pacific due to injury -- is #8.
Which still leaves us with three unseeded Top 30 players: Tatiana Golovin (who is next in line if Sharapova or someone withdraws), Jelena Jankovic, and Mary Pierce. Iveta Benesova and Anna Smashnova fall just short of that level, though Smashnova in particular is no fan of greenset. Dinara Safina is certainly a threat if her body is healthy and her head is having one of its better days.
Hyderabad isn't nearly as strong, even though it was in position to pick off players from both the Pan Pacific and Pattaya City as they headed west. Most of them didn't bother -- only three players from Tokyo (Kirilenko, Mikaelian, Panova) came to India. More came from Pattaya, but only one of the eight seeds in Thailand (Groenefeld). The cutoff for Hyderabad qualifying was around #150; the top qualifying seed was Li Ting. The one really interesting name in qualifying was Iroda Tulyaganova -- and she again withdrew with injury.
The main draw wasn't much better -- the only Top 50 player in the field is #2 seed Anna-Lena Groenefeld, and she just made the Top 50 this week. The #1 seed -- who seems bound for the Top 50 herself, but perhaps not just yet -- is Li Na. Tatiana Panova, who just saw her ranking fall through the floor, is #3. Zheng Jie is #4, meaning that both high seeds in the top half are Chinese. Marta Domachowska was supposed to be #5, but -- despite making the Pattaya City doubles final -- has a bum shoulder, and withdrew. Tamarine Tanasugarn is #6, Lubomira Kurhajcova #7, Maria Kirilenko #8, and Domachowska's withdrawal made Alyona Bondarenko, who isn't even Top 100, the #9 seed.
Naturally there aren't too many unseeded big names. Jelena Dokic is probably the most significant. Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian is a former Top 40 player. Shahar Peer is climbing steadily. Other than that, there isn't much except India's own Sania Mirza (last year's doubles champion) and Shikha Uberoi, who is in the process of changing her tennis nationality to Indian.
Nicole Pratt, last year's champion who would have been the #7 seed this year, is unable to play.
The doubles may actually get more attention, as Anna-Lena Groenefeld, just off her first doubles title, teams with Martina Navratilova to take the #1 seed. But it's a field without much depth. The #2 seeds are the regular pairing of Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian; China also supplies the #3 seeds in the form of Yan Zi and Zheng Jie. They are the only teams with combined rankings above #100; the #4 seeds, Maria Kirilenko and Tamarine Tanasugarn, were a combined #130 last week. Last year's doubles champion Liezel Huber isn't back; Mirza, who played with her in 2004, has teamed up with Uberoi, and they needed a wildcard to get into even this feeble draw.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
At Hyderabad, there really isn't much. #1 seed Li Na will face Mikaelian, but Mikaelian still seems to be way off her game. #3 seed Panova will take on Peer; that might be the one really good match of the opening round.
Paris, though, has quite a bit to look forward to. #6 seed Sprem, whose career indoor record is only 6-8, a semifinalist last year who has a record of 11-6 indoors. #5 seed Dechy must face Jelena Kostanic, who probably prefers slower surfaces but who can throw all sorts of crazy stuff at you. Slumping Eleni Daniilidou will face Marion Bartoli, who was sick last week and will be just in from Pattaya City. And Jankovic will have to contend with junkballing Emilie Loit.
The results at Hyderabad really aren't going to affect the Top 50 much, though Pratt will fall out of the Top 80 as a result of her failure to defend.
Paris, though, will settle the #2 ranking, and potentially decide who challenges Lindsay Davenport for #1 this spring. In practical terms, Serena, Sharapova, and Mauresmo are all tied in points. None has anything to defend this week, though Sharapova has enough seventeenth tournament points that she comes in at a distinct handicap to the other two. Still, if one of them wins here, she should be #2 in the world -- and they are, in this field, the clear favorites to win (especially given #4 seed Petrova's problems in winning big matches). As between the other two, whoever lasts longest will probably be ranked highest, with ties being broken in the order Serena/Mauresmo/Sharapova (though quality points could affect that).
There won't be much other movement in the Top Ten. Elena Dementieva is the only Top Ten player with points to defend this week, and she doesn't have many; she'll stay at #7. Nadia Petrova could theoretically break into the Top Ten, but she needs either a final with a win over Mauresmo or a title.
We will see some real drops further down. Kim Clijsters won the event last year, and her ranking will take another hit; she'll probably land somewhere around #90. Mary Pierce, with 185 points from last year's final and with only one match (a loss) this year, could fall out of the Top 30. Golovin is defending 154; unless she beats Sharapova in the second round, she's out of the Top 25 and might even fall out of the Top 30. Safina has 182 points to defend (she beat Schnyder and Schiavone here last year); it's going to be very hard for her to stay Top 50.
In light of the above, it will be obvious that there are a lot of matches at Paris that are big for someone. Taking them in round and draw order:
First Round: Safina vs. (6) Sprem. If Safina loses this, she'll fall to around #70. Even if she wins, and beats the (much weaker but rather steadier) Iveta Benesova in the second round, she has to deal with Serena in the quarterfinal -- and if she loses that, she still falls out of the Top 50.
Second Round: (3) Sharapova vs. Golovin. This will be Sharapova's first match after flying in from Tokyo. And she faces an opponent who is Russian by birth, French by residence. Golovin needs the win to stay Top 25. Sharapova probably needs it to stay #3, and certainly needs it to get to #2. This and the match below are probably the two that are most important in the tournament when you count the effects on both players.
Second Round: Pierce vs. (2) Mauresmo. Same story as above: The unseeded player is defending a pile of points, the seed is competing for the #2/#3/#4 ranking. In this case, both players are French, and both have been having physical problems.
Quarterfinal: (5) Dechy vs. (4) Petrova. This will be the first real test for Petrova as she tries for the Top Ten. The two are only one ranking place apart -- though the gap in points is so large that Dechy cannot reasonably hope to move up. (She would have to win Paris beating both Mauresmo and Serena or Sharapova.)
Quarterfinal: (8) Maleeva vs. (2) Mauresmo. Maleeva is in lousy form, but she loves indoors. It might make a difference.
Semifinal: (1) Serena vs. (3) Sharapova. The winner has a chance for #2; the loser will be no better than #3.
Semifinal: (4) Petrova vs. (2) Mauresmo. If Mauresmo wins, she should be at least #3. If she loses, Petrova is perhaps Top Ten and Mauresmo very possibly stays #4. Final: Serena or Sharapova vs. Mauresmo or someone. Winner, if one of the first three named, is #2, and probably within 300 points of #1.