Yet again, the eve of a Grand Slam event (the French Open) is dominated by one question: who can stop Serena Williams? The fact that the American has little left to achieve in the sport has not diluted her legendary zeal; in fact, Serena has never looked more focussed and businesslike on court. Clay might not be her best surface, but that hasn’t mattered much over the last couple of years. If Serena is healthy and playing well, it’s almost impossible to see anyone but her walking away with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
Check out the Full Draw Here: Roland Garros Women’s 2014 Draw
World number 143 Alize Lim might be on good terms with Serena off the court, but we’re unlikely to witness any of that friendliness during their first round encounter. One of Serena’s most impressive improvements over recent season has been her ability to judge the environment, the occasion and – very important in Paris – the mood of the crowd. The Virginie Razzano debacle taught her that it’s a mistake to show too much emotion against a home player at Roland Garros. As a result, we can expect the world number one to get her 2014 campaign off the ground with a cool, calm and clinical performance.
The good news for Serena is that she won’t have to face any French favourites in rounds two or three. The bad news is that she could face players with the ability to challenge her in different ways. Garbine Muguruza has been one of the tour’s fastest-rising young players this season. She qualified in Hobart and duly won the title, reached the last 16 of the Australian Open and finished runner-up in Florianopolis. Although her aggressive game is perhaps better suited to hard courts than clay, there’s no denying that the 20-year-old Spaniard is a player no top seed, even Serena, would wish to meet this early.
And if that second round contest is a must-see, Serena’s third round match could be even more of a treat. Newcomer Belinda Bencic, veteran Venus Williams or the ever-tricky Jie Zheng could lie in wait at that stage, and while Serena will obviously be the favourite to overcome any one of them, she’s unlikely to coast into round four. Bencic she dismissed in Madrid a few weeks ago, but the Swiss is improving so quickly that she’ll relish the chance to play Serena on the biggest of stages with nothing to lose. Zheng famously pushed her to a 9-7 final set at Wimbledon in 2012, and although she’s never lost a set to Venus on clay, Serena never enjoys lugging the emotional baggage that comes with playing her big sister.
Once the first three hurdles have been cleared, however, it’s hard to see Serena struggling in the last 16. The next section of the draw is populated by plenty of decent players, but none of them is coming into the French Open with any momentum, especially the seeds. Roberta Vinci has lost twice as many matches as she’s won this year, and 16th-ranked Sabine Lisicki has done nothing of note since Wimbledon. It’s easier to see one of Karin Knapp, Mona Barthel or Lauren Davis making it to the fourth round, but it’s difficult to see them bothering Serena.
Maria Sharapova knew that her relatively low seeding this year put her at risk of meeting Serena earlier than expected, and sure enough that’s what will happen if the two superstars win their first four matches. Losses on clay to anyone but Williams have been rare for Sharapova ever since she morphed into a top class dirtballer, and many had her picked as the second favourite for the Roland Garros 2014 title. She’ll certainly be favoured to come through her section with few scars. A first round date with Ksenia Pervak is less than intimidating, and neither Tsvetana Pironkova nor Annika Beck look solid enough at the moment to cause her problems in round two.
Kaia Kanepi, Sam Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova are the other seeds in the Russian’s vicinity and all of them know their way around a clay court, but do they currently have the confidence to upset a bigger name? Kanepi has won back-to-back matches only twice this year, and the ever-erratic Stosur faces a nightmare first round opponent in Strasbourg champion Monica Puig. Cibulkova began the year with a bang and motored into the top ten, but she left Madrid and Rome without a win. A feisty fourth round showdown between Sharapova and Puig seems the most likely outcome here.
So could this be the tournament at which Maria finally solves the Serena riddle and lodges her first win over the 17-time Grand Slam champion since 2004? Serena has been more injury-prone of late, while Maria has regained her poise after a difficult start to the season. Serena’s power is slightly neutered by the clay, whereas Sharapova loves having extra time to line up and execute her shots. The forecast in Paris is for slow, heavy conditions, another factor in the seventh seed’s favour. Yet it’s still true that too much has to go right for Sharapova to win. Serena has her off days, but rarely against a big name opponent and, since 2005, never against Sharapova.
Predicted quarter-final: Serena def. Sharapova
The second quarter of the women’s draw is comparatively lacking in star power, if not personality. It’s headed by Agnieszka Radwanska, who is aiming to reach the semis in Paris for the first time. She should have few problems reaching the second week this year, as her section is devoid of the power players who usually tie her in knots. Nurnberg finalist Karolina Pliskova might offer some resistance in round two, and the in-form Christina McHale would be a worthy third round opponent, provided the young American can upset 32nd seed Elena Vesnina in her opening match.
In the last 16, Radwanska is likely to face the winner of a potentially popcorn round three encounter between home favourite Alize Cornet and 14th seed Carla Suarez Navarro. The Frenchwoman leads this pair’s head-to-head 3-2, and was the bruised victor in their most recent dust-up, a three-and-a-half hour marathon in Indian Wells. Should she win again, she could meet Radwanska for the first time since upsetting her on the way to the Katowice title last month. Should Navarro prevail, she would be aiming for a first ever win over the Pole. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see the steady Spaniard upset Radwanska, especially on a slow clay court. She won her maiden title in Oeiras earlier this month, and almost got past Ana Ivanovic in Rome in one of that tournament’s standout matches. But we’ll tip Radwanska, at her bamboozling best, to come through an entertaining fourth round clash.
Predicting Radwanska’s quarter-final foe is a much more difficult task. Angelique Kerber is the highest seed in an intriguing section, but the German has been off her game of late and could fall to either the unpredictable Petra Cetkovska or the solid Varvara Lepchenko in round two.
Seven of Flavia Pennetta’s 10 career singles titles have come on clay, but the Italian has lost some momentum since winning Indian Wells and is 3-3 on the dirt this season. With more experienced rivals floundering, this could be a prime opportunity for Eugenie Bouchard. The 20-year-old Canadian looked to be slumping after going winless in Madrid and Rome, but she has stormed back into relevance this week by winning her first title in Nurnberg. If she can keep that form going in Paris, she can reach her second successive Grand Slam quarter-final.
Predicted quarter-final: Radwanska def. Bouchard
Petra Kvitova has long been a puzzling player, and one of the most confounding aspects of her career at this point is that she is still ranked so highly. Aside from a semi-final showing in Madrid (courtesy of Serena’s withdrawal), the Czech hasn’t contested the latter stages of any major tournaments this year. Interestingly, she could rise higher in the WTA standings with a decent run in Paris, having made an early exit from the 2013 tournament. No top 60 player looms in her section until the third round, where she is seeded to play the equally erratic Svetlana Kuznetsova. The 2009 Roland Garros champion, Kuznetsova pushed Serena hard the quarter-finals last year and is still a force to be reckoned with on clay, as her runner-up finish in Oeiras shows. But she simply cannot be relied upon from one match to the next, and is perhaps not even the favourite to overcome the fast-rising Camila Giorgi in round two.
A couple of Giorgi’s cohorts from WTA Generation Next are also in this section: Elena Svitolina and Caroline Garcia. Both ranked inside the top 50, they are bold players with bright futures. Svitolina made the semis in Nurnberg last week, but Garcia’s recent activity has been even more impressive: she won the title in Bogota and took out Kerber and Sara Errani in Madrid. The Frenchwoman would be a dark horse pick at this year’s event were she not drawn against Ana Ivanovic in round one. The 2008 French Open winner is playing with confidence and clarity again after several seasons dogged by injury, serving woes and inconsistency. Her legions of fans would be disappointed if she didn’t live up to her seeding, and many will expect her to take down Kvitova in the last 16.
Simona Halep has been in irrestiably form since her breakthrough tournament in Rome last year, and the time is right for her to prove that she can compete with the elite on the biggest of stages. The Romanian plays a game that belies her relatively slight stature, with powerful serving, aggressive hitting, astute net play and relentless defending. She has been blessed with an enviable first week draw in Paris, with no top 60 players looming in the first two rounds. Klara Koukalova, the 30th seed, is Halep’s slated third round opponent, but the Russian hasn’t won a match on clay this season and hasn’t beaten a top 10 player all year.
Is Halep likely to run into trouble in round four? She is seeded to meet Sloane Stephens at that stage, but it would be an achievement for the struggling American to get that far. Stephens has won consecutive matches only twice since the Australian Open, and will be under considerable pressure to defend her fourth round points rom 2013. The other seed in this section, Ekaterina Makarova, has been equally starved of success lately, so it seems safe to pencil in Halep for the last eight.
A Halep-Ivanovic quarter-final has the makings of a classic, with the Serb belting brilliant groundstrokes and the fourth seed scrambling to get every one back. Halep leads the head-to-head 2-1 and dismantled Ivanovic in Madrid a few weeks ago, but the stakes in this match would be much higher, with each woman acutely aware of the opportunity it presents. Can Halep maintain her iron composure and clock another milestone, or will Ivanovic produce he kind of form that saw her beat Sharapova in Rome?
Predicted quarter-final: Halep def. Ivanovic
Moving onto the final quarter of the draw, we find Li Na as the second seed. There’s no doubt that the Australian Open champion merits that exalted position, but is she really the second favourite for the title in Paris? Yes, she won the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2011, but her game is at its best on hard courts; the longer the rally goes on, the more opportunities less talented but steadier opponents have to draw the error. Li should breeze past Kristina Mladenovic in round one and either Alison Riske or Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round, but might she struggle thereafter? Andrea Petkovic might not be in the from that took her to the top ten a few seasons ago, but the German is a highly intelligent player and more than capable of capitalising on a Li off-day. The winner of their third round clash could play either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Caroline Wozniacki at the last 16 stage, but the former has been typically inconsistent this season and the latter may well have her mind on other things.
Jelena Jankovic and Sara Errani are the highest seeds in what is possibly the most underwhelming section of the draw. Only Madison Keys, Errani’s first round opponent, has been playing well enough recently to pose a serious threat. (The likes of Donna Vekic, Kirsten Flipkens and Sorana Cristea can be formidable opponents on a good day, but none of them has had a good day on clay this year.) Jankovic-Errani and Jankovic-Keys matches are very different, but equally enticing prospects. Although Errani has been in the better form of late and beat both Jankovic and Li in Rome, we’ll tip the ever-watchable Serb to summon her best tennis and reach a fourth French Open semi-final.
Predicted quarter-final: Jankovic def. Li
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Radwanska; Halep def. Jankovic
Champion: Serena Williams
Last year, Serena Williams was determined, borderline desperate, to do well in Paris. She put herself under immense pressure, not only to banish the painful memories of 2012, but also to end her 11-year Roland Garros trophy drought. This year, she’ll be under no additional pressure. Clearly the best clay courter in the game, she’ll return to the scene of a glorious triumph with nothing to prove.
And that makes it even less likely that she’ll stumble. Of course, she’ll expect nothing but perfection every time she steps on the court, but there will be no question marks over her mental state. Provided her body holds up for the next fortnight, a clear-headed, relaxed Serena Williams will add another remarkable achievement to her titanic legacy.