MADRID, Spain - Maria Sharapova's three-year reign in Stuttgart came to an abrupt end last week, but the Russian is certainly keen on reverting to winning ways at the Madrid Open. Sharapova is the defending champ, and her training at the Magic Box is well underway.
Also at the tournament, of course, is Serena Williams, who truly begins her clay court campaign. Can anyone scupper the World No.1's 20-match winning streak to begin 2015? Oh, and she's won 15 in a row in Madrid, too, only undone last year by a thigh injury.
Here goes with an analysis of Friday's draw, which produced a blockbuster first round match involving Sharapova...
First Quarter: An All-Williams Clash?
After Williams topped Italy's Sara Errani in the Fed Cup on clay in the middle of April, she called it an "eye opener." Why? Despite the victory, Williams committed a hefty 61 unforced errors. Disappointed with her performance, she duly vowed to train even harder for the clay court swing.
The altitude and thin air should make her serve even more potent in Madrid, bad news for Williams' opponents.
Her opener comes against fellow American Madison Brengle, one of the breakthrough players of 2015 who happened to reach the semis in Stuttgart.
Venus Williams could be Serena's third round foe, but we can safely say that Venus won't be looking that far ahead since she tangles with Victoria Azarenka in the first round. Venus owns a 4-1 record against Azarenka, conceding a mere two sets. Mind you, those two sets came in their last match in Doha this year, when Azarenka prevailed 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.
If an all-Williams match does develop, it would mark just their second clay court tussle in more than a decade.
What a special tournament this must be for Carla Suárez Navarro, playing on home soil as a Top 10 player. At the bottom of the quarter, Suárez Navarro has a seemingly nice path to yet another quarterfinal this year. The seeds suggest she'll play Ana Ivanovic in the third round, yet Ivanovic hasn't taken off in 2015 and faces a rejuvenated first opponent in wildcard Alexandra Dulgheru.
Prediction: Serena def. Suárez Navarro
Second Quarter: A Turnaround For Bouchard?
The dissection of Eugenie Bouchard's slump persists. Is it a temporary blip or something more sinister? Bouchard's physical issues have no doubt played a part. The Montréaler enters Madrid on the back of five straight defeats - taking two sets.
She begins against Barbora Strycova, who, despite struggling herself recently, probably won't complain about 2015 results. Strycova reached the quarterfinals in Prague this week.
Varvara Lepchenko, returning from injury, could be the one who confronts Bouchard or Strycova in the second round. The flat-hitting American has fond memories of Madrid, advancing to the quarterfinals as a qualifier in 2012. Lepchenko extended Petra Kvitova to three sets last year in Madrid.
Kvitova, at No.4, is the highest seed in the quarter. The Fed Cup, once again, proved to be successful for Kvitova, but then came a loss in her opener in Stuttgart to Brengle.
Talk about mixed fortunes for Sabine Lisicki, Kvitova's potential second round opponent. She flourished in Indian Wells and Miami, but subsequently lost a Fed Cup heartbreaker and lost 6-0, 6-0 to Zarina Diyas in Stuttgart. The aforementioned conditions in Madrid, however, would appear to suit her game.
Is Petkovic re-energized?
Prediction: Lisicki def. Lepchenko
Third Quarter: Sharapova's Tough Start
The matter-of-fact character that she is, Sharapova won't be lamenting her draw. But it sure is tricky.
Straight away Sharapova must do battle with Timea Bacsinszky. Bacsinszky came into this week 12th in the Road to Singapore standings and it would have been higher had the Swiss played in Miami and/or Stuttgart. Sharapova is no stranger to success in third sets in her career and Bacsinszky is following suit. She's 10-2 in those third sets in 2015, sustaining a rare setback Thursday to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in Marrakech.
Sharapova - who has lost three in a row for the first time since 2003 (not including matches at the year-end championships) - could later meet Caroline Garcia or Karolina Pliskova in the third round. An encounter with Garcia would inevitably bring back memories of the 2011 French Open, when Sharapova needed to rally from a set and break down to progress. But Pliskova versus Garcia in a likely contest of WTA Rising Stars in the second round would be one to watch also.
Caroline Wozniacki, at the top of the section, needed a good week in Stuttgart - and got it. A few points here or there and she'd have walked away as the champion, not Angelique Kerber. If Wozniacki can overcome the big-serving Jarmila Gajdosova in the first round, she could cruise to the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Wozniacki def. Sharapova
Fourth Quarter: Simona And The In-Form Angie
A stretch of four losses in five matches was a turning point for Kerber. She competed in Charleston, and after edging Russian Evgeniya Rodina in the first round, picked up her game. Kerber would go on to win the title and hasn't looked back, coming up big for Germany in the Fed Cup and triumphing in Stuttgart to extend her winning streak to 11 matches. If she keeps this up, it won't be long before Kerber re-enters the Top 10.
Garbiñe Muguruza - Kerber's possible third round opponent - is often mentioned in the same breath as Keys, players with promising futures. But Muguruza finds herself having lost six of 10. Could playing at home be the tonic?
Simona Halep contested a competitive final against Sharapova in last year's Madrid final - so is looking to go one better this year. Halep and Lucie Safarova are on a collision course in the third round; Safarova tallies one win in their four head-to-heads while the other three have been close.
Prediction: Halep def. Kerber
Semifinals: Serena def. Lisicki, Halep def. Wozniacki