TTI Talks: State of the WTA (Roland Garros 2016 Edition)
After dissecting the ATP Roland Garros draw earlier today, the TTI crew got together to discuss a women’s draw full of streaks, storylines and surprises. Without further ado….
Of the WTA, who is/has:
1. Who is the biggest dark horse?
If you don’t pick Irina-Camelia Begu as your dark horse for the 2016 French Open, or rather if you don’t consider her, you’re doing it wrong.
The Romanian has looked in great shape in Madrid and Rome, only like to eventual champions Simona Halep and Serena Williams. After struggling with a knee injury at the beginning of the year, the Romanian has found her feet on the clay, playing solid, albeit sometimes unspectacular tennis to get some of her career best results. The 25-year-old has been handed a draw that presents a massive opportunity for her to capitalize on recent form — her opening round against Bethanie Mattek-Sands might not be easy, but with Roberta Vinci and Petra Kvitova spearheading this section, the chance for a dark horse to run free is looming — and who, if not Begu?
Watch out for Sam Stosur this week. For the first time in three years, the Aussie isn’t drawn in the same section as her frequent conqueror, Maria Sharapova (who, to be fair, isn’t in anyone’s section). Despite a minor injury concern in Strasbourg this past week, Stosur has always played some of her best tennis at the French Open and the heavy conditions suit her game. She’s in a tricky section with Simona Halep as a potential round of 16 opponent, but if she plays her Grand Slam winning tennis, she has the potential to be this year’s second surprise champion at the majors.
Irina-Camelia Begu is one of the hottest players on tour right now, having made the quarterfinals of Rome and the semifinals of Madrid. In Madrid, Begu took down Bouchard and Muguruza and in Rome, the Romanian disposed of Victoria Azarenka. Roberta Vinci is Begu’s potential third round match up, one that she will view favorably considering Vinci has never made it past the fourth of the French and has only seen that stage of the tournament once before. Petra Kvitova, Begu’s potential fourth round opponent, has made the fourth round of Roland Garros four times — only advancing past the first match of the second week once.
The hype around Daria Kasatkina has faded a bit as the results slowed down (even if only slightly), but let’s not forget how much she loves the red dirt. The young Russian looked great in Rome — beating Karolina Pliskova and Mariana Duque-Marino handily — before losing to a very in-form Begu. A third round match-up with Angelique Kerber looms—and I like Kasatkina’s odds.
I think there are only a selected few who’d want to face Dominika Cibulkova should the Slovak make a run to the business end of the tournament.
The No. 22 seed most assuredly found her form in Madrid — spring-boarded by, of all things, a title on hard courts in Katowice — but the streak is decidedly Cibulkovian. Just when you think you can write her off, she puts together a string like she did for that fortnight.
She’s in a great section of the draw — she’s 3-1 against her third round seed, Carla Suarez Navarro, although the two have never played on clay — and who’s to say where the 2009 semifinalist will go from there?
2. Who will suffer an early exit?
This is not easy — mainly because there are a couple of very realistic early exits…
At least half of them to be perfectly fair…
All seeds in the bottom half….
In fact, some in the top half, too….
I will go with Agnieszka Radwanska here even if it would be nice to see the Pole post another good result on the red dirt — only to show herself that she can be good on the surface. While she should be able to cruise through her opener over the recently-returned Bojana Jovanovski, all of Lesia Tsurenko, Caroline Garcia and Barbora Strycova could upset the World No. 2 early. If it happens, she’ll probably be in good company though.
Although her run to the semifinals in Rome was an impressive display of power tennis, I can’t say I’m completely convinced that Garbiñe Muguruza‘s form is here to stay. One match she can look like the World No.1 and the next… she’s a mess. Like most of the top seeds, her first round opponent shouldn’t be too much of a hassle — but the fiery Spaniard has been known to make her own life difficult against lesser opponents.
Of the top eight seeds, Timea Bacsinzsky has the toughest possible opponent through the first two rounds in Eugenie Bouchard. So depending on how one wants to define early, Bacsinnzky is the the Top 8 seed that I would expect to see hit the exits first.
I’m going to go with Angelique Kerber. Her clay season fizzled after defending her Stuttgart title, and the draw did her no favors. Kiki Bertens is coming off a title in Nuremberg, Camila Giorgi is capable of anything, and Kasatkina seems ripe for a big run. That’s a pretty tough potential stretch of matches to start off a major tournament.
I’m picking Roberta Vinci as the Top 8 seed to go down early — as early as the first round, in fact. The Italian was handed a dangerous unseeded player in the form of Kateryna Bondarenko — who has the pedigree to make it to the second week in this state of flux in women’s tennis — and her draw hardly gets easier from there.
Should Vinci get past Bondarenko, she could face Annika Beck and Begu — and that’s just to get to a projected fourth round with Petra Kvitova. Living up to her seeding will be a tall task.
3. The Toughest Road?
Just like with the previous question, there’s no shortage of possible choices. A lot of them are tough because you can see a lot of the Top 8 seeds falls ahead of the quarterfinals or the Round of 16 even.
Angelique Kerber‘s draw feels quite unenviable, having to open against an in-form Bertens who was on her way to beating the Australian Open champion in Miami until illness kicked in and with players like Kasatkina being just around the corner, it won’t be an easy task for the German to make the second week. In Madrid and Rome the 27-year-old was tired, not happy with her practices and said she didn’t have any rhythm — then pulled out of Nuremberg with a shoulder issue. And for all of Kerber’s insistance that she’s “refound” her rhythm — we won’t know for sure until she’s on court for her first round match.
Angelique Kerber defied many odds when she won the Australian Open at the start of this year, even though her first week draw was extremely light before heading into her more difficult encounters. It’s the opposite here in Paris, where her first few rounds could be quite tricky. She faces Kiki Bertens first, who is just coming off a title in Nurnberg and caused all sorts of troubles for the German in Miami. After that it could be the unpredictable Camila Giorgi in the second round, and possibly 2016 sensation Daria Kasatkina — whose loopy clay court game could unsettle Kerber. Rome runner-up Madison Keys is her possible round of 16 opponent too; if Kerber can make it to the quarterfinals this fortnight, no one can say she won’t have deserved it.
Agnieszka Radwanska will have her hands full with potential second and third round matches with Caroline Garcia and Barbora Strycova, respectively. Garcia just won the title in Strasbourg this week and Strycova has recent/commanding victories over Kerber and Bouchard. Radwanska lost in the opening round of Roland Garros last year and has failed to reach the second week in Paris in three out of the last four years. Additionally, the Pole recently admitted that clay is not her favorite surface, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Simona Halep’s road to the quarterfinals seems manageable, but there are several potential foils who are more than capable of hitting her off the court on a bad day, Sam Stosur and Lucie Safarova chief among them as potential fourth round opponents.
And then, of course, there’s Halep’s old arch-nemesis Mirjana Lucic-Baroni looming in the third round — and oh, she’s quite in-form too, making the final in Strasbourg this week.
Agnieszka Radwanska‘s path is pretty tough, especially when you consider the supposed draw benefits of being the No. 2 seed — on paper, at least. While Caroline Garcia, Lesia Tsurenko, Barbora Strycova, Lucie Hradecka, Polona Hercog all have the pedigree and/or clay-court prowess to cause an upset, a handful of this group have been struggling with injuries or poor form in recent weeks — or in Garcia’s case, the case of Roland Garros-itis that seems to hit her each May.
4. The Most Exciting R1?
There are a couple of genuine cherry picks, such as Laura Siegemund vs. Eugenie Bouchard and Margarita Gasparyan vs. Sloane Stephens but I’ll go with the opening round between good friends Alizé Cornet and Kirsten Flipkens, which will hopefully provide fireworks.
The best thing (for Cornet) is that she won’t be able to run out of challenges this time around.
I’m a sucker for a good #WTARisingStar match-up. Naomi Osaka faces off against Jelena Ostapenko in the first round in an exciting clash of two different styles. The recent crop of young players making a name for themselves on the WTA all have vastly unique games and it feels as though Ostapenko’s slick brand of baseline tennis should match up well with Osaka’s powerballing.
Schiavone vs. Mladenovic could be very exciting, but it also might fall flat. Despite this, on paper, this is a very intriguing match-up pitting France’s top ranked player in Mladenovic against the former Roland Garros champion. This match is far from a sure bet in terms of delivering a high quality affair, but it’s one I will certainly be tuning into just for the storylines and the excitement likely to be surrounding this one.
A former champion and a French favorite on Chatrier (I mean, it better be on Chatrier or I’m rioting)? Give me Mladenovic vs. Schiavone as the match of the first round. This one smells like 12-10 in the third.
If I was confident in Lesia Tsurenko’s fitness (which I’m not), I’d say the match between her and Caroline Garcia could be a fun one. There are a handful of women’s matches that’d I love to be courtside in Paris for, but I’ve settled on Elina Svitolina vs. Sorana Cirstea as my choice. Cirstea’s in the midst of a resurgence, and Svitolina’s defending a fair chunk of points in Paris — the Romanian’s offense vs. the Ukrainian’s defense should make for great tennis.
Also, the all-veteran, unseeded meeting between Lucic-Baroni and qualifier (!!!) Daniela Hantuchova is one for the nostalgia-lovers.
5. The Unheralded Opposition?
Varvara Lepchenko has both the draw and the story away from the court to make all sorts of stirs in the first week of the French Open. Keep an eye out.
I went with Genie Bouchard at the Australian Open, but this time I’m going with the Canadian’s first round opponent. Laura Siegemund and her flashy all-court game have been on a tear over the past month and a half. She’s in an interesting section with last year’s semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky (and the oft injured Venus Williams), but Siegemund has shown enough moxie in her tennis to make me think she could possibly post an upset or two in Paris this year.
I’ve always been very high on Eugenie Bouchard and despite some of the setbacks she has suffered in recent time, I believe she will eventually turn things around and catapult herself back into the form that took her to the 2014 Wimbledon final. The Canadian has a tough opening match against Germany’s in form player, Laura Siegemund. Siegemund has won A LOT of matches in the last month and will surely provide Bouchard a tough test, but if Bouchard can get advance past Siegemund, look for her to make a run to the second week.
Misaki Doi grabbed a career-best Premier Mandatory result when she reached the quarterfinals in Rome. She’s yet to close out a big win at a major (though she’s been close more than just about anyone) but Sam Stosur seems like a vulnerable target for a first round upset. After that, the draw opens up a bit with a currently less-than-reliable Lucie Safarova the only seed standing in Doi’s way of the fourth round.
There are so many players in this draw that any seed should be “scared” of, to be quite honest. Cirstea, Siegemund, Kiki Bertens and Louisa Chirico have all had strong clay-court campaigns up until this point and could make some noise.
My pick, however, is Timea Babos. The Hungarian has had a career year thus far in 2016, and looks to be almost an entirely new player — dedicating her offseason to recreating herself. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she busts her mini-bracket and sets up a third round with Serena Williams.
(And this is your annual reminder to tune into Amandine Hesse. You’ll thank me later.)
6. The Semifinalists?
For the top half, I’m going with a rematch of last year’s semifinals and for the bottom half, an all Romanian encounter — the one we’ve already seen in Madrid. Bacsinszky’s draw into the semifinals is tough, but I don’t see why she shouldn’t be able to make her way through a 2nd quarter that could implode here and there. Serena Williams has been handed a favorable draw and although Victoria Azarenka says she’s been hitting pain-free, back issues tend to linger around — so there are some questions where it might flare up again in competition at some point, particularly if the weather in Paris is cold and, well, fairly dodgy.
Begu is my darkhorse pick and I’m willing to back her all the way into the semifinals over Muguruza — and while some people decided to read a lot into Halep’s early loss in Rome, I don’t. The change of conditions came too quickly and she’s had sufficient time in Paris to adjust.
Who knows what Serena Williams is going to do at this year’s second major? Save for a possible meeting with a form-questionable Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, her draw – at least on paper – is quite favorable, so it’s hard not to think she’ll make the semis. Let’s go with Jelena Jankovic for the other semifinalist of the top half because WHY NOT. 2016 in women’s tennis has hardly been predictable.
The bottom section is no less difficult to choose. The Vinci/Muguruza quarter is begging for draw calamity, and I could totally see Irina Camelia-Begu continuing her excellent clay court form and finally break through at a major. Finally, Simona Halep has proven this year that when she has less pressure she finds better results. She’s defending next to nothing at this year’s Roland Garros and if she can navigate through the first week I’d expect her to come through a possible quarterfinal with any one of Radwasnka, Stephens or Errani (who is due for her annual French Open quarterfinal).
Serena Williams vs. Madison Keys; Garbiñe Murguruza vs. Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens lost in the fourth round of the French Open the last four years. Radwanska and Halep, the two highest seeded players in her section have not had particularly successful histories at the French Open — though Halep did of course nearly win the event in 2014. Outside of the 2014 event, Halep has only made it past the first round of the event two other times and those times, she lost in the second round. As far as the other three are concerned, Serena is Serena, Muguruza is by far the strongest player in her section and Keys will be looking to back up her run to the Rome final in Kerber’s section of the draw. Kerber has not won a match since winning Stuttgart — making her prime for the upset.
Dominika Cibulkova is my pick to make it out of the Serena/Vika quarter, which sounds weird. I trust her more on this surface with her draw than either of the other two. Timea Bacsinszky has a few potential tough spots but I think she’ll find a way to get back to the semifinals. In the other half, Garbiñe Muguruza and Simona Halep seem like the easy picks, and both played well enough in the lead-ups for me to stick with them.
At the top of the draw, it’s hard to pick against Serena Williams after the form she showed in Rome — and it’s even harder to predict just what Victoria Azarenka will have to offer on her least favorite surface after struggling with an injury. I think we’re due for a surprise in the second quarter (a Kasatkina-Bacsinszky quarterfinal, anyone?) but I think the Swiss comes through for her second consecutive semifinal.
On the bottom half, opportunity knocks, but walking through the door will be one of Garbiñe Muguruza or Simona Halep.
7. The Champion?
Based on some of this year’s results, it’s a case of damned if you don’t pick Serena Williams but damned if you do. I’ll go with the 21-time Grand Slam champion but this is far from set in stone, mainly because while Williams’ dataset itself for red clay in 2016 is convincing — it’s also a very small sample. Still, it’s good enough for me to pick the American to win the title over Halep in the final.
Serena Williams def. Simona Halep. Serena looked fit in Rome and has looked relaxed on Snapchat in Paris, so as long as she and Halep don’t repeat their 2015 US Open semifinal tragedies — we could have a compelling French Open final that should see the World No. 1 finally make a strong statement in her 2016 campaign.
If you hadn’t notice, I always pick Serena Williams — I find it nearly impossible to pick against her. She will be the likely favorite in every match she enters and while Azarenka dominated the hard court swing, she has been dealing with a back injury and has not played or beaten a Top 30 player during the clay court season. Serena won the only clay court event she played this season in Rome and should come into the event fresh and motivated after losing in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year.
My gut is telling me that Garbiñe Muguruza will lift her first slam trophy next Saturday. I’ll follow my gut just this once.
I think we’ll get a final featuring Williams and Muguruza, with one thing we got at Wimbledon: the American lifting the trophy (and now tying Steffi Graf) and one thing we almost got: three hard-fought sets.
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