The women’s singles draw for the 2015 French Open has been announced. What stands out about a bracket that features so many delicious (or perilous, depending on your viewpoint) uncertainties?
You can debate which item is the second most important one on your list, but there should be no discussion about the top story to emerge from the women’s draw in Paris: Serena Williams received a very tough draw, chiefly in the form of a potential third-round meeting with Victoria Azarenka.
It is the huge overarching story of the French Open, combining the women’s and men’s draws: The two biggest blockbuster matchups of the event — one on the women’s side, one on the men’s side — could occur before the semifinals. For the men, it’s the possibility (likelihood) that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will meet in the quarterfinals, on a Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s a violation of Mother Nature in the tennis world, to play a midweek match between two legends. Similarly, having Serena and Azarenka renew a rivalry worthy of major championships (especially at the U.S. Open) in the third round — at the end of the first week — puts their possible clash in a jarringly unfamiliar location on the calendar.
It might also give Azarenka a better chance of winning.
Azarenka and Serena played on a Wednesday in Madrid a few weeks ago, in the early rounds of that particular tournament. Azarenka gained three match points on her serve at 6-5, 40-love in the final set. Serena played two brilliant return points to erase the first two match points, and then Azarenka double-faulted three straight times to hand over the break. Serena then cruised in the subsequent match tiebreaker.
That match in Madrid simultaneously reminded the tennis community how great Azarenka can be, while also noting that the two-time Australian Open champion is still a work in progress as she rebuilds her game and her fitness base after a 2014 season marred by injuries. We have seen — and can now more fully appreciate — the fact that Andy Murray needed a year to regain rhythm and holistic strength after back surgery. He now looks like a complete player once again. Azarenka is in the midst of that same process, and on a surface other than hardcourts, the Belarusian is not entirely comfortable. Yet, Azarenka constantly battled back from various scoreboard deficits to come within an eyelash of defeating Serena. No one has played Serena better at the highest levels of competition over the past four years than Azarenka has; if this round-of-32 clash comes to pass, one should expect a tight three-setter.
Since Azarenka would get the chance to face Serena earlier in the tournament rather than later, she’d be dealing with less accumulated wear and tear; she’d also have to worry less about “when will I face Serena?” as the tournament moves along. That question will be answered sooner rather than later.
This dynamic gives Azarenka a chance to use Madrid as a teaching tool, helping her to find that extra pinch of poise in crunch-time moments which can enable her to upend the world No. 1.
If Azarenka can beat Serena, the top half of the draw becomes one big banquet table of an opportunity, shaping the situation in Paris over the coming fortnight:
Petra Kvitova is a thoroughly undependable player at major tournaments not named Wimbledon. Yet, she drew a quarter with the slumping Eugenie Bouchard. Kvitova’s only potential roadblock of substance — other than herself, of course — is Serena. If Azarenka knocks off the best player in women’s tennis and then becomes fatigued in the second week, Kvitova could march through the door… if she can put herself in a position to capitalize.
Jelena Jankovic (25), Svetlana Kuznetsova (18), and Venus Williams (15) are all very accomplished tennis players, Venus much more so than the previous two. Yet, all three women — seeded outside the top 10 — could make a deep run in Paris. Less proven players such as Karolina Pliskova (12), 2014 semifinalist Andrea Petkovic (10), and emergent 2015 performer Timea Bacsinszky (23) could also make runs from double-digit seed positions.
None of this has even touched on fifth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who doesn’t match up well with Azarenka, but who might be in position to beat the Belarusian should they meet in the quarterfinals. Azarenka could pick off Serena in round three, but even if she does, winning seven matches over two weeks will be an uphill battle for her. Wozniacki could be the beneficiary of such a dynamic. That top half is loaded with intrigue, especially if Azarenka avenges Madrid against Serena.
In the bottom half, players near the bottom of the seeding list — No. 31 Caroline Garcia and No. 29 Alize Cornet — will try to catch lightning in a bottle. Players seeded in the lower portion of the top 10 — Carla Suarez-Navarro (8) and Ana Ivanovic (7) have a ton to prove at Roland Garros. Yet, when all is said and done, the shape of the draw might not stand in the way of a main-event semifinal between third-seeded Simona Halep and second-seeded Maria Sharapova.
Halep and Sharapova contested last year’s French Open final, the best singles final of 2014 among the eight that unfolded from Melbourne to New York. Sharapova regained her winning ways on clay in Rome, despite an inconsistent backhand. She is somewhat vulnerable here, but the two more prominent seeds in her section — Samantha Stosur (26) and Lucie Safarova (13) — are well-known teases in tennis, players with big games but documented penchants for failing to close out high-profile matches.
It was just last year, in fact, that Stosur held a 6-3, 4-3 lead over Sharapova and applied a ton of pressure in Sharapova’s 3-4 service game in the second set, only to make the kinds of nervous errors that have limited the Australian’s career. Sharapova, after surviving that 3-4 game on serve, won the next eight games. She bageled Stosur in the final set and reminded everyone who is known for mental toughness… and who isn’t. Sharapova received the right draw, though Stosur — someone who beat Serena Williams in an epic quarterfinal match half a decade ago in Paris — is always capable of doing something special.
Halep comes into this tournament having failed to add a trophy to her collection from the European claycourt swing leading into Roland Garros. However, her ability to make the semifinals at several prominent events this year — on hardcourts and clay alike — suggests that she’s ready to crack the final four once more and test her skills in the cauldron of end-stage pressure at this tournament.
Readiness, of course, doesn’t equate to locked-in and secured results. For all we know, a draw in which the top half seems to promise more chaos than the bottom half could become the more stable half of the bracket, with Serena meeting Kvitova and something unforeseen happening in Sharapova’s or Halep’s sections.
You probably wouldn’t want to make a wager on that happening, but do be assured of this: The next fortnight in Paris promises volatility. The central truth about bracketed tournaments with an air of unpredictability is as follows:
You know surprises are coming… you just don’t know where or when, hence the surprise. We’ll see what kind of drama the 2015 French Open provides in a city known as a global magnet for great theater.