It is a basic reality of any bracketed tournament: It’s generally best to wait until the draw comes out to make more finite assessments of what’s at stake, who has a profound opportunity to create a lifelong memory, and which performers are uniquely vulnerable.
With this in mind, we don’t yet need to delve into the more granular dimensions of Roland Garros 2015. That will come soon enough, when the draw for the French Open runs its course on Friday in Paris. For now, let’s take a brief and general look at what this tournament will mean to the women of the WTA over the coming two weeks:
Tennis, in the present tense, is such a banquet table of a sport to cover. It’s not as though the men go through automatic progressions of results — who, for instance, could have predicted that Rafael Nadal would be so vulnerable heading into the French Open? — but women’s tennis is deliciously unpredictable right now, at the end of the main portion of the clay season.
In 2013, Serena Williams stopped Maria Sharapova in the Roland Garros final. The specific match result was expected, but the championship was only Serena’s second triumph at Court Philippe Chatrier. Moreover, when Serena hasn’t won the French — a normal outcome for her over the past 15 years — she hasn’t made the semifinals or finals. A typical Roland Garros for the best female tennis player of the 21st century has ended in the quarterfinals or earlier. You could look it up.
That 2013 final against Sharapova feels like a time capsule, even though it’s only two years old. Sharapova has made three straight Roland Garros finals, making this tournament her home in a way no one could have predicted 11 years ago, when she took Wimbledon — the French Open’s true opposite — by storm.
The player Sharapova defeated in that final? Serena herself.
Given the longevity and quality these two women have given to their sport — characteristics abundantly evident in their magnificant Australian Open final earlier this year — it would be very easy for the casual tennis fan to think that with both players seeded 1 (Serena) and 2 (Sharapova), on opposite sides of the draw, another meeting in the final seems inevitable.
That’s where the women’s French Open gets very complicated very quickly.
Sure, Serena’s withdrawal from Rome was a precautionary measure. She withdrew from Indian Wells and quickly silenced any talk of genuine (and prolonged, and worrisome) physical impairment by capturing the Miami title. Therefore, her withdrawal from Rome could mean a transcendent two weeks in Paris.
However, two withdrawals late in tournaments over a two-month span is not exactly typical for an elite tennis player. This is a punishing sport, but two withdrawals in a two-month span should not be idly or reflexively dismissed. Moreover, given that clay is a more punishing surface — not necessarily on feet, but on the whole body, since it requires more patience and doesn’t feature as many bang-bang points — it could be harder for Serena to power herself through a fortnight on red brick. The 2013 title was the exception, not the rule, for Serena in Paris.
Then consider Sharapova. She won Rome, but not without littering the stat sheet with errors in both her semifinal win (over Daria Gavrilova) and her championship-match victory (over Carla Suarez-Navarro). She was the best player at that tournament, but she didn’t play the likes of Serena or last year’s French Open finalist, Simona Halep. Sharapova’s backhand is not a well-oiled, finely-tuned shot right now.
You can say all you want about a Serena-Sharapova final, but current form is not a friend of either player.
This is what gives the women’s French Open a volatile and fragile feel at the moment.
Will Halep, so close to a first major title a year ago in Paris, crash through the door and make history for herself and Romania? Will someone such as Angelique Kerber or the aforementioned Suarez-Navarro be able to make a first major final if either Serena or Sharapova is upset midway through the tournament?
It’s all speculation and the theater of the unknown at this point, but I personally get the sense that a WTA tennis player is going to stand in a new and very unfamiliar spotlight on championship Saturday, June 6, when the women’s final is played.