One could argue that currently there are five real marquee names in the WTA; two are sisters, two are Belgians, and the fifth is mauling a hapless tennis ball above. As it happens, none of the five are participating in Charleston this week (although two were originally entered). While tournament organizers and sponsors may rue their absence, the players in the draw should relish the opportunity to seize a prize of some consequence without conquering an exceptionally forbidding foe. Spectators who enjoy compelling tennis likewise should relish the occasion; the competition often rises a notch among the WTA rank-and-file when no juggernauts are marching towards an inevitable title. There's much to be said for seeing the game's legends, but there's also something to be said for watching a hard-fought three-setter rather than a lackadaisical 6-0, 6-2 clinic that was over before it began. With those thoughts in mind, let's take a look at who might carpe the diem...
Top half: Fresh (or not?) from her triumph in Ponte Vedra Beach, Wozniacki has a rather smooth route to the quarterfinals, although she might need to brace herself for a clash with ferociously competitive Portuguese phenom Larcher de Brito. She should navigate either that test or Schnyder with ease before a Friday meeting with Petrova, who has more than enough firepower to muscle aside her first two potential opponents. The mercurial Russian split two engaging sets with the Dane last month but ate a bagel in the decider. Since both players have developed outstanding skills and resumes on this surface, we should see a very high-quality quarterfinal.
The second quarter looks almost certain to produce another edition of the Vera-Vika Show, already aired twice in 2010. Despite her erratic form this year, Zvonareva won't find any threats to her composure (always the key for her) among her first two opponents. A little less lucky with Oudin in her neighborhood, Azarenka may be hampered by the leg injury that forced her to retire from Marbella. If she is healthy, though, it's hard to imagine that her crisp technique and versatile style will falter against the American, who typically feasts on erratic, one-dimensional shotmakers. This quarterfinal may not offer the most exquisite tennis in a technical sense, but its violent, emotion-laden momentum swings should offer delicious entertainment for those of us who enjoy a dash of melodrama in our martinis.
Semifinal: Zvonareva d. Wozniacki. They've split their two meetings, they're both former finalists, they're both skilled on clay, and they both play relatively conservatively while covering the court brilliantly. What's to choose between them? We think that Wozniacki's mileage will catch up with her against an opponent who is equally tireless.
Bottom half: Since last year's French Open, Stosur has been one of the most consistent players in the WTA and can threaten anyone with her imposing serve-forehand combination. Although her functional style may not inspire the imagination, her brisk, even-tempered demeanor serves (haha) her well in a WTA filled with fragility. Her literal serve should allow her to coast into a quarterfinal with either Bartoli or Ponte Vedra Beach semifinalist Vesnina. Since no real clay demon lurks in this section, one can expect the matches here to play out much as they would on a hard court, which means that Stosur should break serve more often than she loses it.
The bottom quarter has the name of Jelena Jankovic smeared all over it in red lip gloss. Not only did the smiling Serb awaken from a dismal 14-month slump by taking the title in Indian Wells, but she has more clay-court ability than all of her potential opponents here combined. Nearly certain to face JJ in the quarterfinals is the gentle, elegant Hantuchova, who can create angles that would fluster a geometry professor yet moves around the court far less smoothly than one would imagine from her lithe figure. In a sense, the match would oppose a player who makes the court look huge (Hantuchova) against a player who makes it look tiny (Jankovic); the Serb should find a way to retrieve enough balls until she finds a way to transition from defense into offense and take over the rallies from there.
Semifinal: Jankovic d. Stosur. They split their two meetings in Indian Wells and Miami, but Jelena struggled with fatigue and blustery conditions on the latter occasion. The slower surface favors her counterpunching style, and a well-advised rest since Miami (ahem, Caroline?) should restore the spring in her step.
Final: Jankovic d. Zvonareva. Like Zvonareva-Wozniacki, this potential pas de deux is very even, in part because they showcase strikingly similar styles. The Russian prevailed when they met in a semifinal here two years ago and has won their last two meetings, but Jankovic is the better player when all things are equal and has recently demonstrated improvement in her ability to stay focused on the task at hand. We won't be surprised to see this trophy in her well-manicured hands, as it was in 2007:
We'll return to preview the Monte Carlo semifinals on Friday, but in the meantime we'll compile a "Plotlines to Ponder" post on the clay season in general. Happy reading and, more importantly, happy watching! :)