ROLAND GARROS: French Open week one in review – WTA version

GARBIII
Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki, both into the French Open fourth round.

For once, the French women are outperforming their male counterparts at the season’s only clay-court Grand Slam – and the pre-selected title contenders are proving relatively stable, after all. Here is my round-up of the opening seven days of Roland Garros action.

If a notable player is not mentioned, I likely have not seen enough of them to comment.

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LEADING WTA CONTENDERS OF THE WEEK

VENUS WILLIAMS [10] may never have won the French Open, but people would do well to remember that she is twice a finalist at the event, and that her flat, lethal shots and defiant net play can do damage on dirt. She has come through her first three matches without dropping a set – and after her last two matches, especially, the 36-year-old is looking primed to do some damage. Both victories were achieved 6-3 6-1: the first over Japan’s Kurumi Nara, and the latter over in-form Elise Mertens. Perhaps the latter was the most impressive. The conditions – overcast and heavy – were not Venus’ favourite to compete in by any means, but the American took it all in her stride. She has been by no means perfect, but the regularity with which she produced vintage groundstrokes on Thursday – in the same playing conditions in which she fell to Timea Bacsinszky last year – signalled something to the crowds.

Now comes a rematch of the clash that ended her campaign last season – against a woman who has been doing well under the radar. (See WTA Dark Horse.)

GARBINE MUGURUZA [4] may have entered the tournament on uncertain ground, but so did the entirety of the tour. Actually, the Spaniard showed more promise than most heading into Paris – reaching the semifinals in Rome – and seems to be recovering some of her old form. Against 2016 quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva in round three, she had dips and rises – the Kazakhstani moving her around the court relentlessly, and pushing her backwards with high-flying balls. Nevertheless, Muguruza dialled in and began to crack down on these shots from the top of the bounce – sustaining precision in the second set in a manner unexpected from most top WTA players of the present. She needed to serve for the first set twice, but that 7-5 6-2 victory was one of the best of her season to date. And it comes at the perfect time, as she prepares to square off with another leading title contender…

KRISTINA MLADENOVIC [13] can make a strong case for Most Improved Player Of The Year thus far, but entered the event with a back injury. Advised not to play by her doctor, the Frenchwoman claims that she is only competing because this is her home Grand Slam – and indeed, her form has not been spectacular. Nevertheless, the variety that doubles matches have instilled in her has been on regular display, and the mentality that betters the majority of the tour has been her biggest asset. Often tearful and highly emotional, the 23-year-old has still held her game together to emerge unscathed from a 3-6 6-3 9-7 opener against Jennifer Brady and a 7-5 4-6 8-6 third round showdown with Shelby Rogers.

Only Serena Williams stopped her last season. Would it be that surprising if nobody managed to do so in her absence? Frankly, nothing would surprise me on this tour right now.

SIMONA HALEP [3] has made little fuss in progressing to the last 16. In fact, the Romanian – who fell at this stage last season, after being forced to compete in the pouring rain – has dropped less games in total that Venus Williams. Jana Cepelova has several notable upsets to her name – including a win over Serena Williams on clay – but Halep sent her packing for the loss of five games. The experienced Tatjana Maria also succumbed to her in straight sets. And Daria Kasatkina, one of the tour’s most promising youngsters and the 26th seed, did not hold a candle to the Romanian for much of their encounter. The Russian is essentially a lesser-developed version of Halep herself – a determined counter-puncher with an intensity about her that commands attention – and the former finalist assured the world that she is still the owner of this department of play. The world no. may be concerned by the fact that she faced set points after a swift 6-0 opener, but she should also take confidence from the fact that she staved them off and quickly finished off the victory.

(And players I have not seen enough of…)

SAMANTHA STOSUR [23] could be referenced as a dark horse in Paris, but her 2016 semifinal appearance and status as a Grand Slam champion makes it only right that she should be named as a title contender. The powerful Aussie has not had the easiest early road since defeating Kristina Kucova 7-5 6-1, but wins over Kirsten Flipkens and Bethanie Mattek-Sands have also come without dropping a set. That can only be confidence-boosting, and that can only mean good things for her tennis.

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA [8] also has a decent shot at the title, but has scraped through her last two matches in three sets – the latest win a 7-5 in-the-third defeat 32nd seed Shuai Zhang. A former champion at the event, the 8th seed

WTA DARK HORSE OF THE WEEK

TIMEA BACSINSZKY [30] was the feel-good comeback story of 2015 – a year in which she embarked on a 15 match winning streak, reached her maiden French Open semifinal and pushed Serena Williams. She may be ranked even outside the top 20 now, but the Swiss hope managed a quarterfinal run last season, and has dropped less games than any other woman in Paris so far: A mere nine. Spain’s Sara Sorribes-Tormo, fellow 2015 star Madison Brengle and young Tunisian Ons Jabeur have all bit the dust thanks to her unique, craft-oriented game. Nevertheless, she will face her first real test in Venus Williams on Sunday, and that will be the truest test of where her form is truly at.

WTA SHOCK OF THE WEEK

Is it possible for a result on the current women’s tour to be shocking? I would be among the many to argue that no, it is not. Jabeur’s unexpected second round dismissal of 6th seed Dominika Cibulkova – in straight sets – came close. But for the sake of commenting on the result, Angelique Kerber’s slump to Ekaterina Makarova must be selected. And for the sake of it actually being a shock, we shall call it: “Top seed out to nonseeder on Day One.”

It should never be this easy to predict the first round exit of the world no. 1. But rarely do you come across a top seed (unless you hop over to observe the current ATP world no. 1) in as poor form as Kerber. The German truly deserved to top the rankings after her sudden and stunning 2016 successes – which included two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic silver medal – but her current year continues to worsen with alarming pace. In her last two matches before entering Paris, Kerber retired to avoid the embarrassment of losing 6-3 6-0 to the also-flailing Eugenie Bouchard, before suffering a 6-4 6-0 beating at the hands of qualifier Anett Kontaveit in Rome.

Ekaterina Makarova – Kerber’s victor – was one of the toughest first round opponents going, the Russian lefty having been a fairly recent presence in the world’s top ten. That said, she has never made waves on clay, and would go on to lose in the last 64 after a 6-2 6-2 dismissal of a world no. 1 who lacked any appearance of belief.

This is the Angelique Kerber we knew for so long, before unprecedented eliteness met her path. The trouble is, that Angelique Kerber was not sat at the peak of tennis. Past success is now turning to bite her.

 

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Thanks for reading! Who has stood out to you from the first week of the women’s event? Anyone that I should be watching more carefully? Let me know in the comments section!

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