Saturday, May 26, 2012

Roland Garros Preview: The Remains of the Clay


Suddenly, as Roland Garros is about to begin, there are all sorts of questions bouncing around the WTA landscape. Why am I not surprised?

What was foreshadowed last summer at Wimbledon seemed to finally become a reality in January. As Victoria Azarenka confidently stepped her game up to the level of a grand slam champion, after a few years of flux, the tour seemed to be ready to revolve around players about whom the discussion was about "why." Why they were champions. Why they would continue to be champions. Why players who weren't yet champions should follow the example of not only Azarenka, but Petra Kvitova, as well. But, as everyone gathers in Paris for what remains of the clay season, it's now easier to recount "why not." As in, all the reasons why certain players probably WON'T be winning Roland Garros two weeks from now.

Azarenka hasn't looked like a slam champ in recent weeks. Kvitova hasn't looked like one all season. Ditto for Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone. Save for Rome, the came can be said of '11 RG champ Li Na. Meanwhile, former #1 Caroline Wozniacki's ranking has been sinking like a stone lately. She might have to scramble during the hard court season to avoid dropping from the Top 10. Agnieszka Radwanska has beaten pretty much everyone but Azarenka (0-6) in '12, but has never been able to put together a good slam run.

Maria Sharapova is (once again) the Rome champion, but was the grit she displayed in sticking things out and winning that title more important than the crazy inconsistency she showed in the very same match? It's precisely that sort of display that has jumped up and taken her down before she could win seven straight slam matches so many times over the last four years. Serena Williams has looked spectacular on the clay this spring, but withdrew with a lower back injury in Rome (a precautionary move, or a hint that she won't be taking too many risks in Paris so that she doesn't jeopardize her two trips to Wimbledon later this summer?), and hasn't been able to keeps things together for seven straight matches in Paris since 2002. Something always goes wrong.

At the very least, as has been the case in pretty much every post-La Petit Taureau version of Roland Garros, the WTA field is full of "reasonable doubt." In the post-LPT era, no player other than Schiavone has seemed truly "at home" at Roland Garros. Because of that, unpredictability has become the norm. Three out of the four RG champions crowned since Justine Henin's first retirement have been first-time slam winners. Will a similar result occur this time?

With the seeming clarity of London and Melbourne thrown out the window, at least temporarily, it certainly wouldn't be a shocking development.

Here's a quick overview of the draw, quarter-by-quarter:

=AZARENKA QUARTER=
*POWER RANKINGS*
1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR...no killer draw, but "26 the Hard Way" runner-up Cibulkova (after missing a rematch in Rome due to Vika's walkover) lurks in the Round of 16
2. Samantha Stosur, AUS...less than impressive EuroClay build-up, but has found great success in Paris two (SF in '09, RU in '10) of the last three years
3. Dominika Cibulkova, SVK...a RG semifinalist in '09
4. Petra Cetkovska, CZE...the rare player not named Vika to get a win over The Radwanska in '12
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Cibulkova, SVK... if the Slovak outlasts Azarenka in the draw, the top quarter opens wide as Stosur suddenly becomes the only former slam winner/finalist in the section (which would probably mean the odds of a first-time slam finalist emerging in the top half would shorten considerably).
THE WILD CARD: Nadia Petrova/RUS or Chanelle Scheepers/RSA... they might face each other in the 2nd Round. I'd have said Lucie Safarova, but her slam results are actually TOO wild to even consider her a wild card.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Sabine Lisicki, GER... she has very bad memories of Paris, and she's done nothing lately to make anyone think that's going to change this time out
THE POOR SOUL: the Sloane Stephens/USA vs. Ekaterina Makarova/RUS 1st Round loser... because the winner would probably get Lisicki in the 2nd. If the German even gets past Mattek-Sands in the 1st Round, that is.
=In the End...=
It's Azarenka's quarter to lose. But she just might. She hasn't been as comfortable on the clay as she was hard courts, is nursing a shoulder injury (or not, depending on which Top 2 player you talk to), and first-time #1 slam seeds don't exactly have a great history of walking off with big trophies (see below). Stosur is a good "second choice," but she wasn't able to gather an eleventh-hour push of momentum, ala Schiavone in Strasbourg. If Vika goes out, things could get really crazy in this joint.

=RADWANSKA QUARTER=
*POWER RANKINGS*
1. Agnieszka Radwanska, POL...that scream of "are-you-f***ing-kidding-me?" -- or the Polish equivalent -- you heard on Friday was A-Rad (in Brussels) after learning she'd been drawn to possibly face Vika (again) in a semifinal
2. Angelique Kerber, GER...maybe she's about to shock the world? She's already won one title in Paris this season.
3. Sara Errani, ITA...if A-Rad stumbles, which is possible in a slam, good fortune might fall into the little Italian's lap four months after she slipped into the Australian Open QF
4. Marion Bartoli, FRA...she rode a wave of mo' into the semis in '11, and a few months ago was a "pet pick" (by a certain Backspinner) for an even better run for this RG. But her 2012 season, so far, has sort of made that seem pretty unlikely.
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Venus Williams, USA... she's no threat to win this title, but she COULD send A-Rad out in a blaze of gory power in the 2nd Round.
THE WILD CARD: Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS... the Enigma looms, possibly for the A-Rad/Venus winner in the 3rd Round. The Round of 16 could see a match between the '09 RG champ (Sveta) and the '08 winner (AnaIvo).
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Radwanska, POL... she's never been seeded this high (#3), and has never reached the QF in Paris. And she played all this week in Brussels, not traditionally the best way to rest up in preparation for a deep run in a slam.
THE POOR SOUL: Bojana Jovanovski, SRB... she's not named Vika or Petra, and she plays The Radwanska in the 1st Round.
=In the End...=
Where, even with the questions in Azarenka's quarter, it's a good bet to go with the top seed there to reach the SF, I'm just not getting the same vibe in this quarter. Until Radwanska proves herself in a slam (reaching at least a semi), she'll remain a question mark no matter how many times she defeats nearly every single person who lines up across the net from her in every other tournament on her schedule. Kerber, on the other hand, has already reached a slam Final Four, and has only gotten better since then. She may prove me wrong, but I just don't think A-Rad can run the gauntlet. On the bright side, she wouldn't have to worry about going 0-7 this season against Azarenka.

=KVITOVA QUARTER=
*POWER RANKINGS*
1. Li Na, CHN...did Rome re-light her fire? If so, she very well could repeat (but only Henin has done that, winning from 2005-07, since Graf defended her title in '96).
2. Francesca Schiavone, ITA...she seemed almost irrelevant a week ago. But, after Strasbourg, maybe all that has changed. She couldn't, you know, do it again... right?
3. Petra Kvitova, CZE...her entire slam season is looking like it'll hinge on her SW19 defense attempt
4. ??????...hard to pick. Certainly not Zvonareva or JJ. Barthel? CSN? Wickmayer?
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Mona Barthel, GER... her early exit in Strasbourg might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. With extra time to settle into Paris, she could be ready to challenge Li in a potential 3rd Rounder.
THE WILD CARD: Kiki Bertens, NED... the Dutch (new) star won in Fes a month ago, then made it through qualifying this week. She enters the main draw riding an eleven-match winning streak. She faces a tough potential row of opponents that might include McHale, Barthel and Li, though.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Kvitova, CZE... I'm not going crazy about her chances in Paris, even though she blew a huge opportunity (up 3-0 in the 3rd set) against eventual champ Li in the Round of 16 a year ago. Still, her draw isn't all that imposing. Well, unless Francesca has turned "Schiavo" -- "It's clobbering time!!!" -- by the time they could meet in the 4th Round.
THE POOR SOUL: Jelena Jankovic, SRB... she's yet to win since pushing Serbia into the FC final. It's time for the hangover to end. It might not yet, though. Hopefully, we'll get a JJ/Schiavone 3rd Rounder, at least (so, Ms. Wickmayer... don't mess things up in the 2nd Round against Francesca, all right?).
=In the End...=
If Li can carry over her Rome momentum -- the feel-good winning aspects, not the crazy streakiness of the final -- she's a good bet to return to the semis. Kvitova is never to be overlooked, but she just hasn't been able to string wins together this season. Seriously, no one could have guessed back in January that by this time of the season Sara Errani would have won more tour singles titles than either Kvitova or Wozniacki -- combined! Of course, everything could get thrown out the window if Francesca, fresh off a great week in Strasbourg, arrives in Paris talking about how much she loves Roland Garros and how it infuses joy into her blood and all that. We've already seen what can happen -- in back-to-back years -- when that occurs.

=SHARAPOVA QUARTER=
*POWER RANKINGS*
co-1. Maria Sharapova, RUS...she has a decent -- better than #1 Vika's -- draw. Well, if you don't count that Serena woman in the QF.
co-1. Serena Williams, USA...but there's a reason why she hasn't won on the clay in Paris in a decade, or reached the semis in nine years.
3. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN...after the Big 2, things really thin out. Ill and slipping, she seems to be playing on fumes this spring. But she's still fairly easily the #3 player in the quarter.
4. vacant
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Lucie Hradecka, CZE... she showed (for a set, at least) a few weeks ago that her big serve allowed her to compete with Serena. She might get another chance to prove it in the 3rd Round.
THE WILD CARD: Wozniacki, DEN... speaking of good recent outings against Williams. The Dane was the last player -- 17 matches ago, in Madrid -- to actually defeat Serena, and one of only two women (Petrova was the other) to get a set off her in Williams' last 32 completed stanzas. They're lined up to play again in the Round of 16. If Serena plays "20%" again, Wozniacki would win. In a slam, though, Serena's been known to play -- and win -- with very odd percentage-of-capacity numbers.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Julia Goerges, GER... she finally reached her first slam Round of 16 in Melbourne, but might have difficulty getting past Hradecka in the 1st Round in Paris.
THE POOR SOUL: Virginie Razzano, FRA... a year ago, she played in Paris with a heavy heart (her fiance has passed away). This year, she gets Serena (46-0 in slam 1st Rounders matches) in her opening match.
=In the End...=
It would appear that this one will come down to the expected Sharapova/Serena quarterfinal. If it's neither of those two women reaching the semis, it'd be a shock. That said, Caro is probably saying "I like those odds"... but even she's probably not crazy enough to bet on herself. Plus, she'll probably be looking to spend some time in Paris comforting Rory McIlroy, whose atrocious performance this week in an event in England means he's likely about to lose his #1 golf ranking.




=QUALIFYING ROUNDS=
TOP PLAYER: Kiki Bertens/NED
...the was the #1 qualifying seed. After surving a tough opening match, she breezed into the main draw.
RISERS: Heather Watson/GBR & Chan Yung-Jan/TPE
SURPRISE: Dinah Pfizenmaier/GER
VETERANS: Eva Birnerova/CZE & Heidi El Tabakh/CAN
COMEBACKS: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ & Alexa Glatch/USA
FRESH FACES: Lauren Davis/USA & Karolina Pliskova/CZE
DOWN: #17 Gisela Dulko/ARG (1q) & #2 Andrea Hlavackova/CZE (2q)
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Zhang Shuai/CHN & Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino/ESP
WILD CARDS: Ashleigh Barty/AUS, Claire Feuerstein/FRA, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Victoria Larriere/FRA, Kristina Mladenovic/FRA, Melanie Oudin/USA, Irena Pavlovic/FRA, Aravane Rezai/FRA
LUCKY LOSERS: none so far

=QUALIFYING MATCHES=
Q1: #1 Kiki Bertens/NED d. Annika Beck/GER 6-1/4-6/9-7
...in Melbourne, Bertens defeated top-seeded Vesna Dolonc (nee "Manasieva," formerly spelled "Dolonts" and representing "RUS," but now spelled "Dolonc" and representing "SRB"... got all that?) in the opening round of qualifying. In Paris, as the #1 seed herself, the Dutch woman narrowly avoided a similar fate.
Q2: #5 Heather Watson/GBR d. (WC) Ons Jabeur/TUN 7-6/6-3
...the '09 U.S. Open Girls champ defeats the '11 Roland Garros Girls winner.
Q3: Lauren Davis/USA d. Julia Cohen 1-6/6-4/6-2
...it's Davis' second successful qualifying run (after also doing so in Strasbourg) in the past week.


Q1: Dinah Pfizenmaier/GER d. Kristyna Pliskova/CZE 2-6/6-2/6-1
...one Pliskova down, one to go.
Q2: #6 Eva Birnerova/CZE d. Yurika Sema/JPN 6-2/6-1
...one Sema down, one to go.
Q2: Heidi El Tabakh/CAN d. #20 Erika Sema/JPN 6-1/6-1
...two Semas down, none to go.
Q3: #11 Karolina Pliskova/CZE d. #15 Laura Robson/GBR 4-6/7-5/6-4
...and one sister -- a Pliskova -- remains standing at the end of qualifying.

*RG "Q-PLAYER OF THE WEEK" WINNERS*
2006 Julia Vakulenko/UKR
2007 Timea Bacsinszky/SUI & Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2008 Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP & Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
2009 Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
2010 Kaia Kanepi/EST
2011 Sloane Stephens/USA
2012 Kiki Bertens/NED

*SLAM QUALIFYING STREAKS*
=CONSECUTIVE SLAMS=
none (Laura Robson, a qualifier at the U.S. Open and Australian Open, lost in the RG Q3.)
=CONSECUTIVE RG's=
Chan Yung-Jan, TPE (2011-12)
Heather Watson, GBR (2011-12)



*PREVIEW NOTES*
...this Roland Garros will mark the first time that '12 Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka has been the top-seeded woman at a slam, ending Caroline Wozniacki six-slam run as a top seed. Of course, it's nothing new for a different face to appear atop the draw in Paris. Eight different women has been the #1 seed at Roland Garros over the last eight years, and ten have filled the spot over the last twelve.

**ROLAND GARROS #1 SEEDS SINCE 2001**
2001 Martina Hingis, SUI (RU)
2002 Jennifer Capriati (SF)
2003 Serena Williams (SF)
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne (2nd Rd.)
2005 Lindsay Davenport (QF)
2006 Amelie Mauresmo (4th Rd.)
2007 Justine Henin (W)
2008 Maria Sharapova (4th Rd.)
2009 Dinara Safina (RU)
2010 Serena Williams (QF)
2011 Caroline Wozniacki (3rd Rd.)
2012 Victoria Azarenka

Of course, newbie #1 slam seeds haven't exactly been all that adept at lifting the trophy in their first appearance as the top seed. Since Steffi Graf broke the Navratilova/Evert stranglehold on the top seed at the slams (26 consecutive, and 29-of-30 starting in '80) at the U.S. Open in 1987, sixteen different women have been seeded #1 at a major. Only four of them won the title at the slam at which they first were a #1 seed.

**WON TITLE AT FIRST SLAM SEEDED #1**
[since end of Evert/Navratilova era]
1991 Monica Seles (Roland Garros)
2002 Jennifer Capriati (Australian Open)
2002 Serena Williams (U.S. Open)
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne (Australian Open)

All four of those women had already won two slam crowns (except for Serena, who'd claimed three) before getting their first as a #1 seed. Azarenka, of course, still has only her AO title from January in her career slam column. Needless to say, a title run by the Belarusian in Paris would be a direct challenge to much WTA history. Of note, neither Evert nor Navratilova won the title at the first slam event at which they were a #1 seed, either. Oh, and one more potential strike against Vika's chances: only one #1 seeded woman has claimed the RG crown over the last fifteen years (Henin in '07).

...meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is the men's top seed at his third straight slam. He, like the four women mentioned in the previous list, won the title at the first slam at which he was a #1 seed ('11 U.S. Open), but only after he'd already won three slam titles beforehand.

...the last five slams have been won by five different women (4 consecutive first-timers), and seven have won the last eight. Eleven women -- all but one, to-retire-after-the-U.S.-Open Kim Clijsters, are in the draw in Paris -- have claimed slams since 2008. But things couldn't be any more different on the men's side.

**RECENT WOMEN'S SLAM WINNERS**
2011 AO: Kim Clijsters, BEL
2011 RG: Li Na, CHN
2011 WI: Petra Kvitova, CZE
2011 US: Samantha Stosur, AUS
2012 AO: Victoria Azarenka, BLR

There, the three-headed monster -- Djokovic, Nadal & Federer -- at the top of the ATP has cornered the slam market. They've won 27 of 28 slams, and 29 of 31. And while the legendary Nadal/Federer combo once combined to take a men's record eleven consecutive slam crowns, the Djokovic/Nadal twosome now isn't far behind. The two men have shared the last eight slams, the second-longest men's streak for a pair of players.

=LONG ATP SLAM TITLES STREAKS - TWO PLAYERS=
11 - Federer/Nadal, 2005-07
8 - DJOKOVIC/NADAL, 2010-12
6 - Sampras/Bruguera, 1993-94
5 - Borg/Connors, 1974-75

Djokovic and Nadal, of course, are on opposites sides of the draw, so they could meet in the final. If they do, it'd be their fifth meeting in a slam final, tied for second behind Federer/Nadal on the all-time men's list.

=MOST SLAM FINAL MATCH-UPS - MEN=
8 - Federer/Nadal
5 - Agassi/Sampras
5 - Lendl/Wilander
4 - DJOKOVIC/NADAL
4 - Borg/Connors
4 - Borg/McEnroe
4 - Federer/Roddick

Djokovic has met (and defeated) Nadal in the final of the last three slams, already an ATP record for consecutive slam final meetings in the Oper era. So, he'll be going for not only a Career Grand Slam in Paris, but also a "DjokerSlam" of four straight major wins over a two-season span.

...the only player on the women's side with a Career Grand Slam is Serena Williams, but there IS a woman in the draw with a shot to add her name to the list of players who've won all four slams during their careers -- Maria Sharapova. A semifinalist at Roland Garros in '11, and a two-time slam finalist over the last year, Sharapova just defended her title in Rome and comes to Paris as the #2 seed behind Azarenka.

*COMPLETED CAREER "GRAND SLAM" - WOMEN*
[AO-RG-WI-US; where/when completed; age]
Doris Hart, USA [1-2-1-2, 1949 AO, 24]
Maureen Connolly, USA [1-2-3-3, 1953 AO, 20]
Shirley Fry, USA [1-1-1-1, 1952 AO, 30]
Margaret Smith-Court, AUS [11-5-3-5, 1963 WI, 20]
Billie Jean King, USA [1-1-6-4, 1972 RG, 28]
Chris Evert, USA [2-7-3-6, 1982 AO, 27]
Martina Navratilova, USA [3-2-9-4, 1983 US, 26]
Steffi Graf, GER [4-6-7-5, 1988 US, 19]
Serena Williams, USA [5-1-4-3, 2003 AO, 21]
[needs RG title]
Maria Sharapova, RUS [1-0-1-1, currently age 25]

Seven men and nine woman have won Career Slams throughout modern tennis history. Three of those players will be in action in Paris: Serena (who completed her CGS at the AO in '03), Federer ('09 RG) and Nadal ('10 U.S.). For their part, both Williams and Federer once again have a shot to complete a SECOND CGS by winning a second RG title, meaning they would have won all four slams at least twice. Only six players have accomplished that feat.

*TWO-OR-MORE TITLES AT ALL 4 SLAMS - M/W*
[AO-RG-WI-US, years]
Margaret Smith Court [11-5-3-5, 1960-73]
Roy Emerson [6-2-2-2, 1961-67]
Chris Evert [2-7-3-6, 1974-86]
Steffi Graf [4-6-7-5, 1987-99]
Rod Laver [3-2-4-2, 1960-69]
Martina Navratilova [3-2-9-4, 1978-90]
--
ACTIVE, NEED 2nd RG TITLE: Roger Federer [4-1-6-5, 2003-10], Serena Williams [5-1-4-3, 1999-10]

At the very least, Federer seems assured to finally surpass Jimmy Connors as the all-time slam match winner in men's tennis history. Federer needed five wins in Melbourne to pass the American, but came up just short when he lost in the semifinals (he'd had a walkover earlier in the tournament, "robbing" him of the one victory he ended up needing). Tied at 232 wins, he'll only need to take his 1st Round match in Paris to climb to the top of the heap.

=ALL-TIME MEN'S SLAM MATCH WINS - OPEN ERA=
232...Jimmy Connors
232...ROGER FEDERER
224...Andre Agassi
222...Ivan Lendl
203...Pete Sampras

=ALL-TIME RG MATCH WINS - MEN=
56...Guillermo Vilas
53...Ivan Lendl
51...Andre Agassi
49...ROGER FEDERER
49...Bjorn Borg
--
NOTE: Nadal has 45

Meanwhile, Nadal heads to Paris looking to maintain his Roland Garros dominance. 45-1 there in his career, he's a six-time champion. One more title and he'll pass Bjorn Borg to become the tournament's all-time leader in men's singles titles.

*MOST RG TITLES - SINCE 1925*
6...Bjorn Borg (1974-75,1978-81)
6...RAFAEL NADAL (2005-08,2010-11)
4...Henri Cochet (1926,28,30,32)

*CAREER RG FINALS*
6...Bjorn Borg
6...RAFAEL NADAL
5...Henri Cochet
5...Jaroslav Drobny
5...ROGER FEDERER
5...Rene Lacoste
5...Ivan Lendl
5...Mats Wilander

...Federer, for his part, is appearing in his 50th consecutive slam, and is closing in on Wayne Ferreira's record of 56. Francesca Schiavone will appear in her 47th straight, the longest such run on the women's tour. But she's still quite a few behind the WTA's all-time leader -- Ai Sugiyama, who had 62.

...Serena Williams is the #5 seed in Paris. Only three women seeded #5 has emerged as champions at the last eighty-one slams, going back to 1992. The last was Maria Sharapova in Melbourne in 2008. Only two #5-seeded women have won in Paris during the Open era -- Nancy Richey (1968) and Justine Henin-Hardenne (2006). Additionally, a title run by 30-year old Serena would be a rarity, as well. Since the start of the 1988 season, only one woman aged 30-plus has lifted a slam singles trophy -- a 33-year old Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1990.

...at least one Russian woman has reached the semifinals at twenty-eight of the last thirty-two slams, and at every Roland Garros since 2003.

*RUSSIAN RG SEMIFINALISTS, since 2003*
2003 Nadia Petrova
2004 Elena Dementieva (RU), Anastasia Myskina (W)
2005 Elena Likhovtseva, Nadia Petrova
2006 Svetlana Kuznetsova (RU)
2007 Maria Sharapova
2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina (RU)
2009 Svetlana Kuznetsova (W), Dinara Safina (RU)
2010 Elena Dementieva
2011 Maria Sharapova

...meanwhile, women's wheelchair champ Esther Vergeer is back for more. The 20-time slam singles champion Dutch woman's winning streak is nearly at 500 consecutive matches now. She last lost a singles match in January 2003.




=ROUND OF 16 PREDICTIONS=
#1 Azarenka d. #15 Cibulkova
#6 Stosur d. Stephens
#3 A.Radwanska d. #21 Errani
#10 Kerber d. #8 Bartoli
#7 Li d. Suarez-Navarro
#14 Schiavone d. #4 Kvitova
#5 S.Williams d. #9 Wozniacki
#2 Sharapova d. Zakopalova


=QUARTERFINAL PREDICTIONS=
#1 Azarenka d. #6 Stosur
#10 Kerber d. #3 A.Radwanska
#7 Li d. #14 Schiavone
#2 Sharapova d. #5 S.Williams


=SEMIFINAL PREDICTIONS=
#10 Kerber d. #1 Azarenka
#2 Sharapova d. #7 Li


=FINAL PREDICTION=
#2 Sharapova d. #10 Kerber

...it's been a long wait, but maybe the time is finally right for a Supernovic rebirth. When Sharapova won her first slam eight (!!!) years ago, I paraphrased a definition for "supernova" to fit the occasion. It read:

su*per*no*va - n. - "a rare celestial phenomenon in which a star explodes,
resulting in an extremely bright object"


It seemed to fit. Supernovae were, after all, "the most powerful forces in the universe." Of course, if one were to dig a bit deeper, there WAS another, darker side of the coin when it came to a TRUE definition of the astrological term:

su*per*no*va - n. - "a cataclysmic explosion caused when a star exhausts its fuel and ends its life."

Every star eventually runs its course. Over the last four years, after rotator cuff surgery put her entire career in jeopardy, Sharapova's time on the WTA stage -- or at least the grand slam-winning stage, really the only one that truly matters to her when you get right down to it -- surely seemed at times to be THIS CLOSE to ending, for all intents and purposes.

supernova remnant: An expanding shell of gas ejected at high speeds by a supernova explosion. Supernova remnants are often visible as diffuse gaseous nebulae usually with a shell-like structure. Many resemble "bubbles" in space.

Yet, over the last twelve months, remnants of the old "Supernova" have shown up at grand slam time. At least year's Roland Garros, Sharapova seemed to be on her way to completing the Career Grand Slam, only to be tripped up in the semifinals. She followed up the result by reaching the Wimbledon final. She lost to Kvitova. She reached the Australian Open final, as well. She lost there, too, to Azarenka. She hasn't given up. The thought here is that she WILL be able to stay ahead of the WTA's young twentysomething pack and get her first slam win since 2008. In not in Paris in two weeks, then soon.

At recent slams, considering the oh-so-thorough nature of her dominance from Day 1 during her three previous slam title runs, I've always been on the lookout for the slight cracks in Sharapova's game -- namely, her serve -- that would seem to rule out title #4. I never really fully bought into her Paris attempt a year ago because of this and, as it turned out, the pattern held. It seemed as if the old Supernova would never return. But after watching -- and listening to -- Sharapova over the last few months, maybe she doesn't need to anymore.

A win by the Russian in Paris wouldn't qualify as another slam claimed by a "first-timer," but is that NECESSARILY the case? This isn't really the "same old Maria."

Maybe Nova 2.0, as we saw in the Rome final, has learned how to win big matches and titles even while NOT always playing at her best. Serena has perfected the act over the years, but Sharapova has had a much harder time learning to overcome sometimes mediocre-or-worse serving, some of it attributed to the shoulder surgery, but also with much of the blame resting on her growing nervousness in such situations. But maybe on the clay Sharapova doesn't need the serve. It's not as effective a weapon there for her as it might be on other surfaces anyway, and, knowing that, it's quite possible that double-digit double-fault days on clay don't necessarily mean that her ENTIRE game will hopelessly fall apart in short order, as well. Where the clay used to slow down her game and give other players a better shot against her, it now slows down her game and gives her a better chance to stop the slide on a not-great day before it gets out of control.

Plus, Sharapova's been pretty chesty lately. She's always been like an elephant, never forgetting a slight sent in her direction. She's been more forward about that aspect of her personality in 2012, though. Radwanska mouths off about her on-court noise? Sharapova makes a point to note, essentially, how the Pole hasn't REALLY (0 slam titles, finals or semifinals) won anything yet. Just last week, the Russian openly questioned the seriousness of Azarenka's injuries, and disagreed with the world #1's assertions that WTA zero-point rules "forced" her to play last week in Rome. Sometimes, Sharapova said, a player has to bite the bullet and take a zero on her points ledger in order to keep an eye on the long-term aspect of maintaining good health during a career.

No longer the shock-and-awe 17-year old who toppled Serena at Wimbledon, Sharapova speaks from experience.

It's time for it to serve her well. No pun intended.



...meanwhile, on the men's side, it's a race to see whether Nadal can win a 7th Roland Garros title, or if Djokovic can complete his DjokerSlam with a fourth consecutive major title. Oh, and of course there's that Federer fellow. Outside of those three, though, there's really nothing worthy of discussion, at least in my opinion.


=QUARTERFINAL PREDICTIONS=
#1 Djokovic d. #11 Simon
#3 Federer d. #7 Berdych
#6 Ferrer d. #4 Murray
#2 Nadal d. #12 Almagro


=SEMIFINAL PREDICTIONS=
#1 Djokovic d. #3 Federer
#2 Nadal d. #6 Ferrer


=FINAL PREDICTION=
#2 Nadal d. #1 Djokovic



Carl back!! Pay no attention to Todd picks. He no match for Carl. Did Todd pick Vika to win in Melbourne? No. Carl did. Carl play by Todd rules -- even if just thought of doing so make Carl want to squish!!! -- and let pick first... and Carl still beat Todd.

Carl like Maria. Carl pick her to win Rome. No surprise, she did. But Todd pick Maria for Paris, so Carl now see Maria as enemy for two weeks. So, naturally, Carl pick for Roland Garros now easy.



=QF=
6 stosur d. 1 azarenka
3 radwanska d. 8 bartoli
7 li d. 4 kvitova
5 s.williams d. 2 sharapova
=SF=
3 radwanska d. 6 stosur
7 li d. 5 s.williams
=FINAL=
3 radwanska d. 7 li

Carl and The Radwanska go good together. Carla no worry, though.



**MOST SLAM #1 SEEDS - ACTIVE PLAYERS**
8...Serena Williams, USA
6...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3...Maria Sharapova, RUS
3...Dinara Safina, RUS
2...Ana Ivanovic, SRB
1...VICTORIA AZARENKA, BLR
1...Kim Clijsters, BEL
1...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
1...Venus Williams, USA

*ROLAND GARROS FINALS - IN 2012 DRAW*
2...Ana Ivanovic (1-1)
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova (1-1)
2...Francesca Schiavone (1-1)
1...Li Na (1-0)
1...Serena Williams (1-0)
1...Samantha Stosur (0-1)
1...Venus Williams (0-1)

*RECENT RG SEMIFINALISTS*
2006: Henin-Hardenne (W) - Kuznetsova (RU) - Clijsters/Vaidisova
2007: Henin (W) - Ivanovic (RU) - Jankovic/Sharapova
2008: Ivanovic (W) - Safina (RU) - Jankovic/Kuznetsova
2009: Kuznetsova (W) - Safina (RU) - Stosur/Cibulkova
2010: Schiavone (W) - Stosur (RU) - Dementieva/Jankovic
2011: Li (W) - Schiavone (RU) - Bartoli/Sharapova

**LOW-SEEDED RG SEMIFINALISTS - since 2000**
unseeded...Clarisa Fernandez, 2002
unseeded...Nadia Petrova, 2003
#30...Samantha Stosur, 2009
#21...Mary Pierce, 2005 (W)
#20...Dominika Cibulkova, 2009
#17...Francesca Schiavone, 2010 (W)
#16...Elena Likhovtseva, 2005
#16...Nicole Vaidisova, 2006
#14...Paola Suarez, 2004
#14...Justine Henin, 2001
#13...Dinara Safina, 2008
#12...Kim Clijsters, 2001
#11...Marion Bartoli, 2011
#10...Justine Henin, 2005 (W)

*ROLAND GARROS GIRLS FINALS - since 1998*
1998 Nadia Petrova/RUS def. Jelena Dokic/AUS
1999 Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP def. Stephanie Foretz/FRA
2000 Virginie Razzano/FRA def. Maria-Emilia Salerni/ARG
2001 Kaia Kanepi/EST def. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2002 Angelique Widjaja/INA def. Ashley Harkleroad/USA
2003 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER def. Vera Dushevina/RUS
2004 Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL def. Madalina Gojnea/ROU
2005 Agnes Szavay/HUN def. Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2006 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
2007 Alize Cornet/FRA def. Mariana Duque-Marino/COL
2008 Simona Halep/ROU def. Elena Bogdan/ROU
2009 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA def. Daria Gavrilova/RUS
2010 Elina Svitolina/UKR def. Ons Jabeur/TUN
2011 Ons Jabeur/TUN def. Monica Puig/PUR

**FIRST-TIME SLAM CHAMPS AT ROLAND GARROS**
[Open Era]
1971 Evonne Goolagong, AUS
1974 Chris Evert, USA
1976 Sue Barker, GBR
1977 Mima Jausovec, SLO
1978 Virginia Ruzici, ROU
1987 Steffi Graf, GER
1989 Arantxa Sanchez, ESP
1990 Monica Seles, YUG
1997 Iva Majoli, CRO
2003 Justine Henin, BEL
2004 Anastasia Myskina, RUS
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2010 Francesca Schiavone, ITA
2011 Li Na, CHN
--
NOTE: Ann Haydon-Jones won first career slam at '61 Roland Garros, before Open era began in '68





All for now. Day 1 awaits... as well as Bare (but-not-Boned) Backspin.

18 Comments:

Blogger jo shum said...

hey todd, i thought serena has a real good chance this time with very good tune up practices. what's the reason that she hasn't won in a decade? :0

so schiavone and a-rad won respectively 1 day before RG starts. don't think there is much to read into this yet. it's interesting how many titles a-rad has won so far, which is only in may still!

i think both li and schiavone will play their hearts out in RG, because they know it's one of their last chances to shine in slams. i am looking for some heroic moments again this time from them.

vika vika, she doesn't seem to like clay at all. though still 2 clay tournaments final, though dismal results...

Sat May 26, 11:39:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Heartbreaking though they are in some (Czech) ways, your predictions, Todd, feel right on target to me.

However, Carl's nod to The Radwanska doesn't feel out of line, either. This actually could be the major in which she makes a big run of some sort. The Radwanska doesn't bring Carl's idea of squishing, for sure, but--in her own way, under the right conditions--she can rather subversively squish.

Sat May 26, 12:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Jo-

Well, haha, for one, Justine happened to Serena in Paris. Twice. And Arantxa. And Jennifer, Svetlana and Samantha. So, it's not as if she gets toppled by any ol' schmo on the block.

Looking back on her RG history, I found something quite interesting. She's played in Paris ten times. She won once (2002), but five times ('98-ASV, '01-Capriati, '03-Henin, '07-Henin, '09-Kuznetsova) she lost to the eventual champion, and two other times the player that beat Serena ('04-Capriati, '10 Stosur) would go on to lose to the eventual champion ('04-Myskina, '10 Schiavone). Only two loses -- MJF in '99 and Srebotnik in '08 -- came and went without any sort of link to the eventual champion. Something to keep an eye on at this slam, I think.

Weird things happen to Serena in Paris. Henin's "wave off" unsettled her nearly a decade a go and, as she showed last year at one point, she STILL manages to bring it up occasionally. She had an incident with MJMS there, too (calling the Spaniard a "cheater" when she didn't admit to a ball grazing her on a point). Lately, though, the U.S. Open has sort of taken RG's place when it comes to on-court oddities and Serena always showing up in the same place.

Plus, clay just has never been her best surface, and she so often has come up against a fellow top player who is more adept on it. Knowing Serena's history in Paris, and that maybe her confidence isn't as great there, they don't cower in the corner. And, often, they win.

Diane-

If Agnieszka loses to Venus in the 2nd Round, I wouldn't want to be around Carl for a few days. What am I saying? I NEVER want to be around Carl anyway. :D

Sat May 26, 02:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

i'm always surprised when you throw in references to other sports...like golf... Do you follow? Or do you follow bc it's related to tennis?

i always wonder bc where do you find the time between work and maintaining these stats and posts? I think i need a lesson in time management from you. lol.

also, i think you meant "but only Henin has done that since '06"

i was wondering about Vesna Dolonc. Glad that's been cleared up now. :)

Regarding Sharapova...my view of her has really changed this year as well. She's really grown up and her professionalism is really commendable. Not to mention, i like how she tackles her obstacles -- with no fear and head on. She doesn't care if her legacy is tainted; she doesn't care if she keeps losing; she doesn't care that she keeps double faulting. She just keeps trekking forward and battling away. No fear. If you aren't blessed with all the talents in the world, having that attitude certainly helps in survival and success. And maybe it's all motivated by incentive pay scales, but I think it has to be more than that. Putting yourself out there -- and often in front of thousands of people at a time -- for judgement and criticism is not easy.

I really never thought my opinions about her would change. (And honestly, I'm not wild about her tennis...but I do appreciate the attitude she's displayed recently.)

and what's this? she goes after Vika and Aga...but then sides with Serena?!?!? Times change, apparently...

but about her tennis, I think Roland Garros really is her best bet at getting another slam...like you said, the serve is not as big of a factor and her consistent penetrating/deep groundies suit her well. And now that she's shored up her movement (a bit)...i think it's a good surface for her.

===========

serena performed her slam over sister...is djoko going to complete his over rafa??

and i agree with you...it's just hard to see serena getting through wozniacki, then sharapova, then either li/kvitova/schiavone, and then stosur/azarenka...

and wow, steffi graf has 4 career GSs... she was so good on all surfaces...

Sat May 26, 02:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

oh and thanks again Todd! :)

Sat May 26, 02:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Eric,

Though I'm not the greatest fan of Maria's tennis, either, I've always respected her attitude and her mental strength. She displays the very best of what sporting champions are supposed to display--she never, ever, ever gives up.

Sat May 26, 05:32:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Eric-

On the Henin line, what I had was actually correct, but I thought the wording might be a little wonky (it DOES look like a typo). What I was trying to say was the since Graf defended her '95 crown in '96, only Henin (2005-07) has won in back-to-back years. I changed it a little in the post to make it more clear.

Truthfully, with Tiger Woods not in the running much anymore, I watch very little golf now. I used to. About McIlroy, I heard how poorly he'd played on ESPNEWS (airing in the background as I was putting the Preview together... the same "killing two birds with one stone" way I seem to follow a lot of sports -- sort of like how I "watched" the full Nationals game today while I was putting together the Bare Backspin post). Naturally, I just had to twist on Wozniacki a little with it. She's been losing so early recently, I haven't been able to do it so much of late. (Sorry, Hoergren.) ;)

Sat May 26, 09:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

The picks I did yesterday resulted in a Radwanska-Sharapova, won by Sharapova. I'm not sure whether it's a rational pick or a wish. I like both players, so I wouldn't mind either of them winning. And Radwanska has shown so great tennis since the fall, she's due for a good performance. But she might be tired, and her draw is tough. We'll see.

Two little mistakes: Djokovic had won 3 slams prior to the 2011 US Open (Australian Open 2008, 2011 + Wimbledon 2011). And Federer lost in the semifinals at this year's Australian Open.

Sun May 27, 02:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Maxva said...

Info about Roland Garros Schedule and more here - Roland Garros 2012

Sun May 27, 04:33:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

I am guessing tennis players and folders don't work our well with their respective personal achievements... Like ivanovic and Scott earlier and now woz and Mallory.... Mmm

Sun May 27, 05:58:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Oh I mean 'golfers' not 'folders'. Sometimes iPad has its own mind.

Sun May 27, 11:32:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Zidane-

Hmmm, I see. Federer DID need five wins, but he had a walkover early in the tournament, so he only got four... but still reached the SF. That's why I had that one a bit "off."

I fixed the Djokovic thing. I guess I knew that, but I think I was fixated on the the other first-time #1's winning TWO slams when they won.

Thanks. At least I didn't have any French grammar work for you this time. Haha. ;)


Jo-

And I'll throw in Hingis and Sergio Garcia, too. That didn't work out all that well, either. :)

"Folders." I was wondering what you were getting at. :D

Sun May 27, 12:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I kind of like "folders." McIlroy can relate :)

Sun May 27, 02:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Zing! :D

Sun May 27, 02:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

Haha, don't worry, it's always nice to read some French in your posts, mistakes or not. It's the effort that matters.

Nice Q & A with Kuznet at the French Open. I loved that one. It shows all that I like in her personality:


What was your most embarrassing moment on court?
When I was playing Ana Ivanovic at the Fed Cup, I forgot the score and at the end of the match, I went back to my bench to switch sides. I saw people standing up, I didn’t understand what was going on, everyone was clapping. When I got ready to go back on court, I finally realized that I had won and the match was over. That was pretty embarrassing.

Sun May 27, 02:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

...as well as maybe why Sveta's is always a hit-big-or-miss-big proposition at the slams. ;)

Sun May 27, 06:08:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Maxva said...

Hey folks check out roland garros daily schedule and results updates Roland Garros 2012 Results

Fri Jun 01, 04:33:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Maxva said...

Hey folks check French Open daily schedule and results updates Roland Garros 2012 Schedule

Fri Jun 01, 04:40:00 AM EDT  

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