In 2011, Li Na defeated defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6(0) to win her first Grand Slam title.
Last year, Li Na stormed through the women’s field, losing only two sets en route to the title, and became the first Asian and Chinese Grand Slam champion in singles. The win catapulted her to star status in her home nation, and a flood of endorsement deals followed. Li struggled with her new status for the rest of 2011, but has been rounding into form of late – at the just right time.
This year, the two women in the spotlight are very comfortable in that role: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. Sharapova and Williams split the major clay-court warmup events, with the American winning in Charleston (d. Safarova) and Madrid (d. Azarenka), and the Russian taking the crowns in Stuttgart (d. Azarenka) and Rome (d. Li). Williams has one French Open crown, which came in 2002 (d. V. Williams), but Sharapova is still searching for her first title in Paris to complete the career Grand Slam.
Breaking it All Down
First Quarter: (1) Victoria Azarenka (BLR), (6) Samantha Stosur (AUS), (12) Sabine Lisicki (GER), (15) Dominika Cibulkova (SVK), (20) Lucie Safarova (CZE), (24) Petra Cetkovska (CZE), (27) Nadia Petrova (RUS), (31) Jie Zheng (CHN)
World #1 Victoria Azarenka is playing her first Grand Slam as the top seed, and is the recipient of a kind draw. Azarenka has not been as dominant on clay as she was on the early season hard courts, having been handily defeated by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams in the Stuttgart and Madrid finals and causing controversy with her withdrawal from Rome. Despite being the top seed, there is less pressure on Azarenka coming into this event, as most pundits are talking about Williams, Sharapova and Li as the favorites. Azarenka opens against Alberta Brianti, and her first challenge could come against either Dominika Cibulkova or Lucie Safarova. Cibulkova will no doubt be looking to challenge Azarenka in a projected fourth round match, after letting a 62 *51 lead slip away in the fourth round of Indian Wells, she was the beneficiary of Azarenka’s withdrawal in Rome. 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur anchors the bottom of this quarter, and she opens her campaign against Great Britain’s Elena Baltacha.
Unseeded threats in this section include Ekaterina Makarova, who not only made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route) but also made the fourth round here in 2011. She opens against American teenager Sloane Stephens, who has cited clay as her favorite surface, and is coming off her first WTA semifinal appearance in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). Simona Halep, who opens against Cetkovska, is another dangerous floater in this section. Halep, in her young career, has shown her skill on clay courts; she finished runner-up in this week in Brussels (l. to Radwanska), has reached three career finals on the surface, and her best chance of a Grand Slam breakthrough will no doubt be at this event. Local hopes in this section are on the shoulders of Alize Cornet. Cornet, who reached a career high of #11 in 2009, has slipped down to #83 in the rankings, but is coming off a runner-up finish in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). She’ll play Zheng in the opening round. Also looming in this section is 2010 Rome champion Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.
Sabine Lisicki is the big name in this section who could crash out early. The German, who is 10-11 on the year, has struggled after re-aggravating an ankle injury in Charleston. She opens against American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who despite coming off injury is comfortable on clay, and could face Ekaterina Makarova or Sloane Stephens in the second round. She would be drawn to play Stosur in the fourth round.
Second Quarter: (3) Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), (8) Marion Bartoli (FRA), (10) Angelique Kerber (GER), (13) Ana Ivanovic (SRB), (18) Flavia Pennetta (ITA), (21) Sara Errani (ITA), (26) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS), (29) Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP)
Agnieszka Radwanska goes into the French Open in good form, having just won her third title of the year this week in Brussels (d. Halep). Radwanska, who has never reached a Grand Slam semifinal, has a tough draw. She opens against streaky Serbian Bojana Jovanovski, and Venus Williams potentially looms in the second round; Williams opens against rising Argentine Paula Ormaechea. That match would be a rematch of their quarterfinal match in Miami when Radwanska triumphed in straight sets. The winner of that match could potentially face 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova; 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and three-time clay court titlist Sara Errani loom in the fourth round. Eighth-seeded and 2011 semifinalist Marion Bartoli and 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and they are in opposing forms. Bartoli, the French favorite who often struggles on clay, has only won one match on European clay this year. Kerber, who broke into the top 10 for the first time this week, reached the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. 18th-seeded Italian Flavia Pennetta could play spolier in this section, provided a recurring wrist injury which forced her to retire against Serena Williams in Rome proves to not be an issue.
Other unseeded players to watch in this section include former top 15 player Shahar Peer and Johanna Larsson, who despite having a poor year, has shown prowess on clay in the past, upsetting Ivanovic in the first round here and reaching the final in Bastad last year. She opens against Melanie Oudin, the beneficiary of the USTA wildcard. Oudin, whose struggles have been well documented since her breakthrough run to the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2009, is playing in her first Grand Slam main draw since last year’s US Open, and has never won a match in Paris.
Third Quarter: (4) Petra Kvitova, (7) Na Li (CHN), (11) Vera Zvonareva (RUS), (14) Francesca Schiavone (ITA), (17) Roberta Vinci (ITA), (19) Jelena Jankovic (SRB), (30) Mona Barthel (GER), (32) Monica Niculescu (ROU)
At this time last year, Petra Kvitova was in the midst of her breakthrough. Having stormed to the title in Madrid, she play Li tough in the fourth round, being up a break in the final set before succumbing. A few months later, she went on to win Wimbledon, and blasted through the field at the WTA Championships. Most expected her to dominate the field this year, but it just hasn’t happened. Kvitova has struggled with injury and illness, and comes into the event with question marks after suffering an abdominal injury in Rome. She opens against 15-year-old Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty. Li Na has her work cut out for her early, with a tricky opening match against Sorana Cirstea, and a potential third round encounter with Christina McHale or breakthrough player of the year Mona Barthel.
This quarter is heavy with unseeded players who can spoil the party. McHale is in good form this season, having defeated Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells, and has reached back-to-back third rounds in Grand Slams. Romania’s Sorana Cirstea and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro have proven they have what it takes to perform on the big stages, particularly at Roland Garros. Cirstea made the quarterfinals in 2009, and Suarez Navarro accomplished the same feat in 2008. Cirstea has shown no aversion to playing reigning Grand Slam champions, having defeated Samantha Stosur in the first round at the Australian Open.
Seeds primed for an early exit in this section are Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic. Zvonareva, who was seeded #3 at Roland Garros in 2011, has been plagued by hip and shoulder problems this season, and is a pedestrian 7-7 on the year. She opens against rising teenager Timea Babos, and could face Suarez Navarro in the second round. Jankovic dropped out of the top 20 this week for the first time since 2006, and has lost in the opening round in seven of her last eight events. The former World #1 faces Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in the opening round, with Ksenia Pervak, Varvara Lepchenko, Tsvetana Pironkova, Yanina Wickmayer and/or Francesca Schiavone looming on the horizon.
Fourth Quarter: (2) Maria Sharapova (RUS), (5) Serena Williams (USA), (9) Caroline Wozniacki (DEN), (16) Maria Kirilenko (RUS), (22) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS), (23) Kaia Kanepi (EST), (25) Julia Goerges (GER), (28) Shuai Peng (CHN)
What a difference a year makes. Last year at Roland Garros, Caroline Wozniacki was World #1 and the top seed, but crashed out in the third round to Daniela Hantuchova. This year, she is not only drawn to meet Serena Williams in the fourth round, but could face Jarmila Gajdosova in the second round or Kaia Kanepi in the third; both are capable of taking the match completely out of Wozniacki’s hands. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could face off in the quarterfinals, a matchup Williams has dominated since 2005.
Dangerous unseeded players in this section include Lucie Hradecka, who made the semifinals in Madrid as a qualifier, posting wins over Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur before falling to Williams. She and Julia Goerges will face off in a hard-hitting opening round, with the winner likely going on to face Williams in round three. Clay court specialists Irina-Camelia Begu and Polona Hercog are also looming in this section, with Hercog potentially drawn to face Sharapova in the second round, where Begu could face Kanepi.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Shuai Peng are the seeded players who will most likely fall early here. Peng has not won a match since Miami, and faces Tamira Paszek in the first round, while Pavlyuchenkova has struggled mightily this season, posting a 5-14 record on the year. The Russian is defending a quarterfinal here in Paris, and opens against veteran Greta Arn.
In 2011, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer for his sixth French Open crown and 10th Grand Slam title, 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1.
There are only three things certain in this world: death, taxes and Rafa in Paris. A six-time champion in Paris, Nadal has an almost spotless 45-1 record at Roland Garros, with that loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He will be gunning for a record breaking seventh title in Paris, and comes in having won in Monte Carlo and Madrid.
Last season, the story was Novak Djokovic. The Serb was undefeated heading into Roland Garros, having defeated Nadal in the finals of all the major clay-court warmup events. He fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals and returns this year with a different sort of pressure. This year, he will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam, having triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open last season. The World #1 has not been as dominant these season, having accumulated five losses already, including in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome (l. to Nadal).
Breaking It All Down
First Quarter: (1) Novak Djokovic (SRB), (5) Jo-Wilifred Tsonga (FRA), (11) Gilles Simon (FRA), (14) Fernando Verdasco (ESP), (18) Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI), (22) Andreas Seppi (ITA), (28) Viktor Troicki (SRB), (30) Jurgen Melzer (AUT)
Novak Djokovic is playing his third Grand Slam event as the top seed. His shadow looms large over this section, and he opens his campaign for a fourth straight Grand Slam title against Italian Potito Starace. The first hurdle for Djokovic could come in the third round against Jurgen Melzer; Melzer has a history against Djokovic at this event, having defeated the Serb in five sets in the quarterfinals in 2010. Frenchmen Jo-Wilifred Tsonga and Gilles Simon anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and a fourth round clash between the countrymen is projected.
This season may perhaps be the swan song for Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt, who has fought through numerous hip and foot surgeries in recent years, was the recipient of the Australian wildcard. Hewitt, the former World #1 and two-time Grand Slam champion could face Djokovic in the second round. Djokovic and Hewitt also squared off in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Djokovic triumphed 61 63 46 64. Pablo Andujar, who just missed out on being seeded here, is another player looming in this section.
Thomaz Bellucci, an accomplished clay court player in his own right, can provide a stern test to Viktor Troicki in the opening round. Seppi is another seeded player in danger in this section, as his opening round opponent is former World #3 and two-time Roland Garros semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko.
Perhaps the most intriguing story in this section is that of 27-year-old American wildcard Brian Baker. Baker, who defeated among others Djokovic, Berdych, Tsonga and Murray as a junior, endured five surgeries throughout the past seven years. Baker has made his return to competitive tennis this season, and is fresh off a stunning run in Nice, where he qualified and eventually reached the final (l. to Almagro). He opens against Belgian Xavier Malisse.
Second Quarter: (3) Roger Federer (SUI), (7) Tomas Berdych (CZE), (9) Juan Martin del Potro (ARG), (15) Feliciano Lopez (ESP), (21) Marin Cilic (CRO), (23) Radek Stepanek (CZE), (26) Andy Roddick (USA), (31) Kevin Anderson (RSA)
Roger Federer has been drawn in Djokovic’s half for the 15th time in the past 19 Grand Slam events. He opens his campaign against German Tobias Kamke, and could potentially face David Nalbandian in the second round. Nalbandian, a former World #3 has reached the semifinals of Roland Garros twice, and has given Federer numerous tough matches in the past. Federer has had varying degrees of success against his projected quarterfinal opponents, as he has an 11-2 head-to-head record against del Potro and 11-4 against Berdych. Federer recently defeated Berdych in a tight three-set affair in Madrid.
The unseeded threats in this section also include, Albert Montanes and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Montanes, who reached a career high ranking of 22 in 2010, made the fourth round here last season and is the opening round opponent for Juan Martin del Potro. Ferrero, a former World #1 and champion at Roland Garros in 2003 looms in the middle of this section.
The biggest seed in danger in this section, as it always has been throughout his career is Andy Roddick. The American has never had success at Roland Garros, only reaching the fourth round once, and many question marks surround the American coming into this year’s event. He played only one warmup event due to injury, and lost all three of his matches at the round-robin event in Dusseldorf. He opens against local favorite Nicolas Mahut, perhaps best known for his exploits against Roddick’s countryman John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010. Marin Cilic, who also is not known for his clay court prowess, could potentially face Ferrero in the second round.
Third Quarter: (4) Andy Murray (GBR), (6) David Ferrer (ESP), (10) John Isner (USA), (16) Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR), (17) Richard Gasquet (FRA), (20) Marcel Granollers (ESP), (25) Bernard Tomic (AUS), (27) Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)
Andy Murray and David Ferrer are the clear favorites in this section of the draw on paper. However, Ferrer is the player in the best form and the player with the best chance of fighting through this section. Murray has had an underwhelming clay court campaign, losing to Berdych in Monte Carlo, withdrawing from Madrid with a back injury and falling to Gasquet in the third round in Rome. Isner, who was anointed by many as a dark horse for Roland Garros after defeating Federer and Tsonga on clay in Davis Cup, suffered losses to Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic and Adreas Seppi in the warmup events.
Aging veterans are prominent as unseeded players of note in this section. Wildcard Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu has made the third round of his home Grand Slam four times, and the fourth round twice. He opens against German Bjorn Phau, and could potentially await Isner in round two. German Tommy Haas, although far from the form that took him to a career high of #2 in the world rankings, has a decent track record at Roland Garros, having made the fourth round twice in his career. Haas, a qualifier, faces Filippo Volandri in the opening round, and is a potential second round opponent for Dolgopolov. American Jame Blake, who was rarely a threat on clay even in his prime, is the first round opponent for Youzhny.
Fourth Quarter: (2) Rafael Nadal (ESP), (8) Janko Tipsarevic (SRB), (12) Nicholas Almagro (ESP), (13) Juan Monaco (ARG), (19) Milos Raonic (CAN), (24) Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER), (29) Julien Benneteau (FRA), (32) Florian Mayer (GER)
Much analysis really isn’t required here, as it’s hard to bet against Nadal coming out of this section; he has an overwhelming head-to-head record against all the seeded players here. In fact, Nadal is 27-3 against the other seeds, with the only losses coming to Benneteau in 2004, via retirement to Monaco in 2007 and to Mayer in 2011. It’s worth noting that none of these matches took place on clay.
Potential unseeded threats in this section include the always dangerous Croatian Ivo Karlovic and 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis. Karlovic is a potential third round opponent for Nadal, and the Croatian’s massive serve is difficult for any player to deal with on any surface.
In terms of seeds in danger, Monaco and Benneteau are both coming off serious injuries they sustained in Monte Carlo. Monaco suffered an ankle injury and Benneteau suffered both an ankle injury and fractured elbow in the first clay court Masters Series event. Tipsarevic also has a potentially tricky opening round, against former top 20 player Sam Querrey.