"Who IS the Queen of Clay?" "They've done away with the royal system" pic.twitter.com/nYRZZYRTVj— Diane Elayne Dees (@WomenWhoServe) May 15, 2015
Maria Sharapova won the Italian Open for the third time today, making her one of a small group of women who have won big titles since the "official" clay season began last month. Angelique Kerber tops the list with victories in both Charleston and Stuttgart, and Petra Kvitova won the title in Madrid.
And the winner of #ibi15 is.. @MariaSharapova! Let's celebrate with a RT! #tennis #wta #Sharapova #TwitterMirror pic.twitter.com/maKQxUZguC— Internazionali Bnl (@InteBNLdItalia) May 17, 2015
In today's final in Rome, Sharapova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. The Spaniard player had an outstanding run, taking out both 4th seed Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Always a talent on clay, it's only in the last year or so that Suarez Navarro has been able to calm her nerves in big matches. But today, she couldn't take Sharapova down in straight sets, and we all know what result that scenario usually brings.
3rd seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza 6-4, 6-3 in the final. Doubles has become quite a curiosity lately, with Errani and Vinci out of the picture, and several teams playing extremely well.
And now we are only a week away from my favorite major, the French Open. As I see it, there are several major contenders, yet each of them is vulnerable:
Maria Sharapova: She's the defending champion, and also won in Paris in 2012. Sharapova's transformation to clay court expert is no longer news; she is a real force at Roland Garros. Her victory in Rome puts her back into the number 2 ranking spot, which means she'll be on the opposite side of the draw from Serena Williams, which allows for more time for Williams to be knocked off before the final takes place. Sharapova, with her unpredictable serve, can play some sloppy tennis, but she can also take hold of a match and claim it, as she did today in Rome.
Simona Halep: If the 2014 runner-up plays in Paris like she did last year, her chances of winning the whole thing are very big. In her 2014 run, Halep looked scary, she was so good. She took Sharapova to three sets in the final, which was one of the best finals in recent memory. Right now, though--despite having won three titles this year (including Dubai and Indian Wells)--Si-mo-na looks sen-si-tive. She lost to Caroline Wozniacki in Madrid, and to Suarez Navarro in Rome. She's been making a lot of unforced errors and faux-smashing a lot of rackets. Something is wrong, and one (very likely) possibility is that the nerves have reappeared now that Halep is a favorite to win at Roland Garros.
Serena Williams: It generally doesn't matter whether Williams is injured, recovering from injury or not playing at her highest level; she can still be counted on to rise to the occasion if the occasion is a really big one. She did it at the French Open in 2013. However, of all the majors, the French Open is the one at which the world number 1 is least likely to be able to just put on her Believe shoes and win. She's vulnerable there, and can't be considered a sure thing.
Petra Kvitova: Yes, P3tra and all that. But the Barking Czech can win; she has the skills. I never count her out.
Carla Suarez Navarro: She's finally coming into her own, and her clay game is classic and beautiful. Why not?
Angelique Kerber: Anyone who wins both Charleston and Stuttgart gets on this list. Also, the way Kerber won Charleston--fighting like mad all the way through--gets her some extra notice.
There will also be many players at Roland Garros who will be happy to ruin it all for one of the contenders. Players like Andrea Petkovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, Alize Cornet, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, 2012 runner-up Sara Errani, Caroline Garcia, and of course, the Queen of Mexico, aka Timea Bacsinszky. Danger also lurks among the likes of 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Madison Keys, Irina-Camelia Begu, Kiki Mladenovic, and--on the right day--Camila Giorgi. Throw in Mona Barthel, Jelena Jankovic and Elina Svitolina, and there's a trap everywhere a top contender turns (and I haven't even named all of them).
Of course, experience helps a lot, but clay--the great neutralizer--allows classic clay court players a chance to out-maneuver "bigger" players. Clay court play can be a real grind, too, with longer rallies and more breaks of serve, so fitness is key. Sharapova and Williams each hold eleven clay court titles, but they have some worthy opponents. Who will be the last woman standing in the red dust?