Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Identifying an Upset

With an unnerving degree of consistency, the WTA top 4 have all made it through their respective first week match-ups to contest the Roland Garros quarter finals over the next two days.

Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska are still on course to take the final four spots in the competition, mostly untroubled so far. However, some unexpected QF opponents suggest that this round will be decidedly tougher for the top ladies, and there may be one or two upsets over the course of the next two days.

Radwanska, current World #4, was many people's pick to fall early during the draw - struggling as she did last season on the clay, despite solid results in the first half of the season.  This year, she has failed to live up to the reputation of her 2012 spring, so appeared vulnerable in the RG draw.  However, she lucked out with the sorting hat, and fairy blew away her toughest competition to date, Ana Ivanovic in a highly efficient straight sets victory late on Sunday evening.  Yet to drop a set, Radwanska hasn't had to battle for a win yet.  However, her QF is undoubtedly the toughest of all the top 4 - facing last year's beaten finalist Sara Errani.  Errani is most reminiscent of a Wild West handcar - all graft, guts and grit to make her one of the hardest workers on tour.  Small in stature, the pace of the clay has allowed her to negate this to make her a specialist on the surface.  Injuries may have flared in her R16 match, but she should have the edge over Radwanska on the surface.  The Polish player may be the best defender on tour, but Errani has the guile to strategise a victory.

Prediction: Errani in 3

Azarenka - learning to love clay
Azarenka (3) is another player who previously lacked the necessary clay credentials to be considered a viable contender at this year's French Open.  Indeed, a lacklustre Madrid campaign in the run-up to the French Open would have gone some way to suggesting that the Belorussian would be better off waiting for the green of Wimbledon before attempting to regain her #1 ranking from Serena.  However, a final appearance at the following week's Rome tournament, during which she subdued clay specialists Errani and Sam Stosur in subsequent rounds, and her run to the quarter finals this fortnight in Paris have pushed her back up the contender list once again.  Her R16 victory, against the ageing former champion Francesca Schiavone, was as clinically efficient as it was ruthless.  The #3 seed had too much power and consistency to be troubled by Schiavone's tactical spin game.  After an early loss of serve, Azarenka blasted through the next 9 games to take the tie 63 60.

It was a performance that fairly threw Azarenka's name back in the hat, at the very least as a finalist.  Tasked with taking on Vika's renewed confidence are two potential Russian Marias.  The first (Kirilenko) is her QF opponent, and is currently having the best French Open of her career.  Overcoming American underdog, this year's surprise seed-slayer at the French Open - Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Kirilenko makes her first QF at the event, and with the continued struggles of World #9 Stosur, she will leapfrog the Australian to claim a top ten ranking for the first time in her career.  If she backs up this tournament run with some good results on grass (and with her being the beaten gold medallist at London 2012 she could well string together a decent set of results on the surface)  Kirilenko could well be a regular fixture in the WTA top 10.  Today's match though, will probably be beyond her.  Azarenka is peaking in the event at right time, improving round upon round, and shouldn't be troubled by this Russian's baseline game.

Azarenka in 2

Should Azarenka make it through this match-up she will most likely face her second Russian Maria - Sharapova, the #2 seed and defending champion.  With easily the most tricky R16 tie of the top 4, Sharapova dug deep to see off the challenge of young pretender Sloane Stephens.  Stephens, who took advantage of a Serena Williams injury at the Australian Open to stamp herself on the WTA map, has since struggled to back up the hype with real results.  Yesterday's tie against Sharapova again exhibited the distance that the youngster has to make up to compete with the big guns of the WTA.  The talent may be there, but at the moment, the 20-year-old doesn't quite have the mental and physical experience to trouble the seasoned pros on the tour.  Sharapova had to work for her victory, but there was never a point in the match when it seemed like she would lose against Stephens.

Facing her is Serbia's Jelena Jankovic.  A three-time semi-finalist here and a former runner-up at the US Open, Jankovic has, after an 18 month slump, rediscovered the form that took her to the top of the rankings in 2008.  Capturing a title earlier this year in South America, Jankovic has been rejuvenated and is slowly creeping back up the top 20 and should jump her ranking further post Roland Garros.  She came through a tricky third round during which she dumped title hope Stosur out of the competition in three highly competitive sets, before dispatching America's Jamie Hampton for the loss of just two games.  Hardly a competition to judge the Serb upon, but the renewed aggression and accurate backhand she exhibited throughout the tie should give her a solid foundation to attack Sharapova from.  The Russian should have enough reserves to up her game under attack from Jankovic, but should her serve fall apart (as it is wont to do on occasion) the match should go to three.

Sharapova in 3

Kuznetsova - this year's surprise quarter finalist
Finally, rounding out the final 8 are two former champions.  This French Open has had a familiar refrain being echoed around the stands and commentary boxes - that the Serena Williams  competing this year is so head and shoulders above her closest rivals that the only opponent with the capability of beating her is herself.  Makes sense?  Well sort of .... Serena has such a dominant record (in the past and over the first 6 months of the 2013) over Sharapova and Azarenka that she is odds on favourite to claim her second French Open title.

Unfortunately, such sweeping assumptions were based on the current top 10 and top 20.  Serena's QF opponent is an unexpected one - the currnetly-ranked 39th Svetlana Kuznetsova, a former champion from 2009.  The pair have not played each other for nearly four years, the last time being at the year end in 2009. Before that their most significant meeting came during Kuznetsova's '09 French Open championship, the Russian digging deep during three highly competitive sets to defeat Serena at the QF stage.

A quarter final again greets the pair, and Kuznetsova will be something of an unknown quantity for the American.  She has, though, not really been tested at the event, a slew of mid-table journeywomen were defeated in straight sets before she defeated the 8th seed Angelique Kerber in a three-set encounter to set up the Serena showdown.  Today's match could come down to a forehand battle.  Should Serena find her range  and her focus early then Kuznetsova may not be able to find a foothold in the match.  However, should the Russian use her power off both wings to good effect in the opening games of the match she may rattle Serena enough to cause her forehand to stray off radar.  Kuznetsova's challenge should be a tough one, but the nothing that the American has done so far this tournament would suggest that Serena won't come through the match.

Serena in 2

Images from official Roland Garros site (FFT)


Moo_1989 said...

I also think that Jankovic might get a set off Sharapova. Sharapova has always dominated their head-to-head, but they have never played on the clay.

Radwanska-Errani is the toughest one to call for me. I have gone for Radwanska, but would not be surprised at all to see Errani win. I'm more surprised to see this match on Chatrier over Serena-Kuznetsova.

random cloud said...

Hi Moo. Serena Kuznetsova turned out to be a great match for the spectator, as was JJ vs Sharapova. Radwanska fell over a little too easily for my liking.


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