Imagine if you could gather together the best women’s tennis players in the world, drop them into a single, charged venue – and in the spicy span of a week or so see who shakes out as the very best? And then, after taking a quick breath, turn around and do it all over again?
Typically, most professional sports consist of a long regular-season run up to the playoffs. Here, with the Mutua Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL d’Italia that swiftly follows, it’s a best-case scenario of back-to-back Hologic WTA Tour 1000 tournaments – the riveting cut to the chase, if you will.
Seventeen days of mayhem on European red clay leading up to the fortnight at Roland Garros that culminates the clay season. It’s the second spectacular two-act play of three following Indian Wells-Miami and preceding Toronto-Cincinnati.
A year ago, Aryna Sabalenka beat top-ranked Ashleigh Barty in the Madrid final (in a taut third set), a victory that preceded her run to the first two major semifinals of her career.
In Rome, Iga Swiatek, who lost to top-ranked Ashleigh Barty in Madrid’s Round of 16, won the title, her first 1000.
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Main-draw play at the Caja Mágica in Madrid begins Thursday – two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza faces Ajla Tomljanovic and Maria Sakkari meets Madison Keys, among a number of marquee first-round matches. Fourteen of the WTA’s Top 16 players are in the field – without the aid of a first-round bye – and the absorbing storylines are virtually endless.
Emma Raducanu on the cusp of top 10
In the wake of the teenager’s marvelous breakthrough at last year’s US Open, the skeptics wondered if it was an anomaly. Raducanu won two of five matches over the balance of 2021 and started the new year 2-5. Facing her first professional matches on clay, it was probably a reasonable question.
Representing Great Britain in the Billie Jean King Cup, Raducanu defeated veteran Tereza Martincova earlier this month. The next day she lost to Marketa Vondrousova but arrived in Stuttgart in a positive state of mind. There she won two matches and reached the quarterfinals, where she gave Swiatek a good go, losing 6-4, 6-4.
Raducanu is ranked a career-high No.11 and, with few points to defend until Wimbledon (she reached the Round of 16 a year ago in her first big splash), has a good chance to record another milestone.
Bianca Andreescu’s return
Andreescu might represent the most intriguing questions of all. Three years ago, as a teenager, she won the titles at Indian Wells and Toronto before winning the 2019 US Open. That marked her as a major threat going forward, but the past two years have been a struggle for the 21-year-old now ranked No.111.
Andreescu, overcoming injuries and personal doubts, played a week ago for the first time in six months in Stuttgart, defeating Jule Niemeier in the first round before extending Aryna Sabalenka to three sets in the second.
“Wow,” she said in an Instagram post, “what a joy to be back competing again.”
Naomi Osaka looking to build momentum
The four-time Grand Slam singles champion looked sharp in Miami, putting together a run to the finals, where she fell to Iga Swiatek. That was her last outing – until now.
Osaka faces a qualifier in Madrid and, if successful, the winner of Sara Sorribes Tormo and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Osaka’s ranking is back up to No.36 and she’s 11-3 for the season. This is her fifth campaign in Madrid. Don’t forget that she was a quarterfinalist here in 2019, including a win against Sorribes Tormo.
Monica Puig is back
After a series of debilitating injuries – elbow, labrum, biceps – and two surgeries, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist has played only three matches since 2019. Now she faces No.6 seed Danielle Collins in a first-round match.
Puig, playing on a wildcard, is grateful to be in this position.
“Sometimes, they say, things happen for a reason,” Puig said recently. “I really didn’t understand the reason behind my injuries, and I was having a tough time coming to terms with what happened. But it really has given me a new motivation in coming back into the sport.
“If I can just get out on the court at a Grand Slam and win some matches – or at any tournament, for that matter – that would be a bigger win for me than I could ever say.”