Ubha: Rome Expert Predictions
Published May 11, 2014 12:13
But a leg injury sustained in the first round forced Williams to withdraw in the quarterfinals. Suddenly the complexion of the tournament - and clay court season - changed.
Williams didn't pull out of Rome but won't have it easy if she's to return to the winner's circle in the Eternal City.
Here's a look at the draw.
First Quarter: All Eyes On Serena
Now this is hardly the draw for someone struggling with an injury, is it?
Check out Williams' possible challengers from the second round to the final: Andrea Petkovic, Sloane Stephens, Petra Kvitova or Dominika Cibulkova, and Madrid finalists Simona Halep or Maria Sharapova.
Here's some good news for Williams and her supporters: With a bye in the first round and the leg a concern, organizers probably won't pencil in the World No.1 to play until Wednesday.
And will those dangerous foes in her section progress themselves? Petkovic and the rest of the Germans who made the trip to Australia for the Fed Cup semifinals seemingly haven't recovered; Stephens faces a tricky opener in Bojana Jovanovski and could meet the clay savvy Varvara Lepchenko in the second round.
If Williams lands in the quarterfinals, it would suggest an improvement on the injury front and she's won 27 in a row against the quartet of Sharapova, Kvitova, Cibulkova and Halep.
As the defending champion in Rome, Williams won't want to withdraw - especially since she was ultimately unable to defend her title in Madrid.
Cibulkova lost in the first round in Madrid. On the previous two occasions in 2014 she's exited at that stage, the Slovak rebounded at the Australian Open and in Acapulco.
Second Quarter: No Repeat Of Madrid Final
Halep's results this year have shown us that the Romanian has found it difficult to string together two good tournaments in succession. Time, though, is on Halep's side - let's not forget she's merely 22.
And maybe this week: Halep appears to have two comfortable encounters to earn a berth in the quarterfinals.
Sharapova, meanwhile, is a seasoned competitor accustomed to performing at the highest level in back-to-back weeks. Further, since 2005 she has failed to reach the semifinals in Rome just once - giving Sara Errani a walkover last year.
Mind you, Sharapova's path to a rematch with Halep in the quarterfinals is more arduous, especially if Alizé Cornet, Ana Ivanovic - both enjoying solid campaigns - or wildcard Karin Knapp await in the third round.
Ivanovic stretched Sharapova to three sets in their past two matches, on clay in Stuttgart, with Knapp memorably extending Sharapova to 10-8 in the third set at the Australian Open in January.
How will Sharapova's shoulder cope with the quick turnaround from Madrid?
Third Quarter: JJ's Opportunity?
Count Jelena Jankovic as one of those who probably favor the slower conditions of Rome; the altitude and thinner air of Madrid is a different animal.
While Jankovic posts a 1-4 record in her last five matches in the Spanish capital - never exceeding the quarterfinals in her career - the Serb has twice lifted the trophy in Rome and reached another final as recently as 2010.
Jankovic's renaissance over the past 15 months and her impressive resume in Rome mean she figures to be a threat once again.
Jankovic was ousted by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Madrid and the two might battle in the third round. Agnieszka Radwanska and Eugenie Bouchard are possibly in for another rendez-vous, this time in the third round.
Radwanska and Bouchard have this in common: They prefer hardcourts or grass. The Pole's clay court pedigree and experience should mean two wins in as many weeks over Bouchard if they indeed line up on opposite sides of the net.
Fourth Quarter: Can Li Recover?
It was all going so well for Li Na against Sharapova in the Madrid quarterfinals. She led by a set and held a break deep in the second.
Li is one of the few players who can move the Russian around a clay court and get Sharapova out of her comfort zone, her mix of power and angles making for a potent combination.
But then her forehand went missing and Sharapova predictably pounced.
It's the type of defeat that can linger, and an early loss in Rome isn't out of the question since the Chinese No.1 might tangle with Samantha Stosur in the third round. Stosur leads their head-to-head 6-0 (one set lost) and is a former finalist in Rome, like Li.
Stosur's start promises to be one of the top first round matches of the tournament, the Aussie confronting Sabine Lisicki.
Stosur was one of Lisicki's victims en route to the Wimbledon final last year and the German enters Rome with some momentum: In Madrid, Lisicki won two matches at the same tournament for the first time this year and subsequently pushed Halep to three sets in third round, too.
~ Ravi Ubha (@raviubha) has written for ESPN.com, CNN.com, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is also a tennis broadcaster. He is based in London.