Queens of Paris: French Open ladies preview

The French Open begins in less than 48 hours. The red clay of Paris is ready to provide interesting and stunningly beautiful setting for the second major of the year. I am breaking down the ladies draw first. Like I did for the Australian Open, I will split the draw into quarters. Let’s dive in.

First quarter- Stumbling blocks for Serena?

Like every other major, world number 1 Serena Williams is the favorite. However, she is not the overwhelming favorite here. She had a so-so lead up to the French Open. Losing to big hitting Czech lefty Petra Kvitova in the Madrid semis and withdrawing after a single match in Rome with elbow issues. The draw here has done Serena no favors. A 3rd round meeting with 27th seed Victoria Azarenka could be in the offing. Azarenka has the right mix of offense and defense in her game to trouble Serena on any surface. Azarenka is a two-time major champion and possesses wins over Serena. Injuries are the only reason for her low seed. Should Serena survive that possible hurdle, a 4th round meeting with big sister Venus is a possibility. It is quite rare to get 3 huge names like Serena, Venus, and Azarenka in the first 16 lines of a grand slam draw. The early rounds in the top half of this quarter will be very interesting. A very convincing argument can be made that the biggest obstacles between Serena and her 20th major can be found before the quarterfinals.

The bottom half of this quarter is a bit calmer. The 2 seeds projected to meet in round 4 are (10) Andrea Petkovic and (5) Caroline Wozniacki. However, Petkovic is not healthy, having only played 2 complete matches since March, and Wozniacki always struggles on clay, as the slow conditions take even more sting away from her already average groundstrokes. She makes her money by being a human wall and getting every ball back. Clay does not make this easy. However, she has shown recent improvement, and that may be enough for her to grind through a few rounds.

Also here- (17) Sara Errani- a finalist here 3 years ago, who should not be overlooked. And 25th seed Jelena Jankovic,

Sleeper- Young American Christina Mchale is comfortable on clay and could make a run to the 2nd week.

First round match to watch- (15) Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens- An all-American battle and tough draw for both. Venus has only been beyond the quarters here once in her storied career.

Semifinalist- S. Williams (d. Wozniacki in QFs)

Second quarter- Can Kvitova keep it together?

4th seed Petra Kvitova heads this quarter. As we saw in her title run in Madrid, her best may even be better than Serena’s best. However, when her big hitting game is off, she can lose to anyone. It is difficult for me to trust her to make a deep run at any major other than on the lightning quick grass courts of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time champion. I do not see anyone who can trouble the lefty before the quarters. 16th seeded American Madison Keys shocked Kvitova in Australia. They could meet again here in the early rounds, but Keys has been struggling. If Kvitova plays to her capability, she should be unbothered early on. However, that is a sizable if.

The bottom half of this quarter is where I think we will see a fresh name emerge. (12) Karolina Pliskova has shot up the rankings quite rapidly in the last 6 months. The only thing missing from her ascendancy is a deep run at a major. She does not have a prototypical clay court game. Her shots are flat, but big enough to hit through the grit of a clay court. The biggest reason I like Plskova’s arrival to come here is a great draw. 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova may await in round 3. Kuznetsova had a shocking run to the final in Madrid. However, she has struggled to recover from deep runs in tournaments in the late stages of her career. The other high seed in this section is last year’s semifinalist 6 seed Genie Bouchard. However, 6 losses in her last 7 matches makes it hard for me to see anything other than an early exit for the young Canadian.

Sleeper: Look for talented youngster Anna Karolina Schmiedlová to take advantage of Bouchard’s woes and reach the 4th round.

Semifinalist: Pliskova (d. Kvitova in QFs)

Third quarter- Halep’s to lose

For me, this is a fairly straightforward section. I’m not even going to separate it into halves. The 4 high seeds are as follows (3) Simona Halep- a great mover who reached the final here last year and has 3 tournament wins in 2015. (7) Ana Ivanovic- the 2008 Roland Garros champion is under .500 on the year and struggling with injuries, but may make a decent run based on her draw. (14) Aggie Radwanska- the crafty Pole has had a similar year to Ivanovic, but lacks the confidence on clay to make any kind of run here. (9) Ekaterina Makarova- the Russian lefty struggles with the sliding movements necessary to navigate a clay court. If we were not playing in France, I may peg hometown girls Alize Cornet or Caroline Garcia for a deep run. However, I do not see playing on home soil as an advantage for these two emotional players. If Halep does not reach the semis from this quarter, I will be shocked.

Semifinalist- Halep (d. Ivanovic in QFs)

Fourth quarter- Queen Maria defends her crown

Maria Sharapova is the defending champion and 2nd seed here. In fact, the woman who once called herself a “cow on ice” on clay has won 2 of the 3 three French Opens, as well as every other clay court event of significance at least once since 2011. Her transformation on this surface has been remarkable. It begins and ends with her footwork and ability to slide into shots. I truly believe the only women capable of taking her title from her is Serena. Maria’s 3rd round opponent if form holds is Aussie Sam Stosur, who was my pre draw sleeper to go deep. So, that could be a real test. However, Maria to play the final weekend in Paris for a 4th straight year. My men’s preview is coming tomorrow.

One to watch here- 21 seed Garbine Muguruza

Semifinalist: Sharapova (d. 9 seed Carla Suarez Navarro in QFs)

Semifinals: S. Williams d. Pliskova Sharapova d. Halep

Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova for a 17th straight time