In 2012, Maria Sharapova conquered Rome and then Paris. Being able to win the last prominent lead-up tournament to the French Open, and to then claim Roland Garros itself, represented one of the more substantial clay-court achievements in recent women’s tennis history.
Sharapova has once again lifted a trophy in Italy’s ancient city, but as the French Open approaches, the same feeling of “ClayPova power” doesn’t quite permeate the air. For the WTA Tour, the road to Roland Garros is marked by uncertainties heading out of Rome. Several details from this tournament illustrate why clouds are in the forecast for Paris.
Although Serena Williams has finished in the semifinals or better at only three French Opens, her 2013 victory (over Sharapova in the final) will be enough to make her the favorite for many. She withdrew from Rome in the third round, an event which — on an immediate level — helped 21-year-old Daria Gavrilova make a bold run to the semifinals with her defense and sustained energy. Does this Serena withdrawal — out of concerns related to her elbow — mean a lot, or a little, or essentially nothing?
The forecast, to establish our theme here, is cloudy.
On one hand, Serena withdrew from Indian Wells out of concerns about her knee, but the following weeks, she was fine in Miami — she endured a tough semifinal against Simona Halep and then rolled to the title. The player Serena defeated in that Miami final? Carla Suarez-Navarro, who lost in Sunday’s Rome final to Sharapova after taking out Halep in a contentious and entertaining semifinal with a tension-soaked and error-strewn third set.
It could very well be that Serena’s most recent precautionary withdrawal is merely an attempt to ensure complete health heading into France. On the other hand, a knee concern one month and an elbow worry several weeks later could create a situation in which Serena accumulates too many diminishments — albeit minor ones — to be at her best when the French Open begins. Leaving Rome, Serena can’t fully know where she’s going to be.
Even for Sharapova, it’s hard to know how robust her game will become in Paris. First of all, her win over Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals has to be seen in light of the fact that Azarenka is still not the player we saw two to three years ago. Andy Murray — as we can now see with the benefit of hindsight — needed 2014 to gradually work his way back into holistic playing shape. He is now a physically rebuilt player, but he needed time to carry out that process. It’s reasonable to expect Azarenka — who has never made most of her money or won most of her biggest titles on clay — to require more time to become a top-tier player. Accordingly, it’s hard to assign a given level of significance to Sharapova’s victory over Vika.
Beyond that point, Sharapova’s backhand — her best groundstroke and, almost certainly, her best shot — was not a model of consistency in Rome. Sharapova sprayed ample amounts of errors through the weekend. Her backhand return of serve, even on second balls, was spotty in the semifinals against Gavrilova. It was hardly a polished and perfected shot against Suarez-Navarro in the final. Sharapova does not seem to be a world-beater following this particular Rome title.
Yet, while Sharapova’s tennis — as successful as it was this past week — leaves something to be desired, there is something very important the Russian achieved in Rome: She earned the No. 2 seed for the French Open, ensuring that she cannot meet Serena Williams until the final. Sharapova and Serena produced a magnificent match in the Australian Open final, and if they were to meet again in Paris, the match would rate as a blockbuster, with Sharapova having a much better chance of winning than she did in 2013.
However, Serena’s body and Maria’s backhand both offer legitimate reasons for pundits and prognosticators to think that neither woman will make the final. It could be Halep, last year’s runner-up who made the semis in Rome and has displayed an appreciable degree of staying power on tour. It could be Suarez-Navarro, in search of her first major semifinal after failing to seal the accomplishment a year ago at the French Open, when she came so agonizingly close.
Suarez-Navarro has enjoyed a luminous season, and while she lost to Sharapova on Sunday after winning the first set, her taxing semifinal triumph over Halep played a part in that result. “CSN,” as she is known in shorthand, has gacked away leads in the past, as shown in her quarterfinal loss to Eugenie Bouchard in the 2014 French Open. Yet, this loss to Sharapova was not a gack attack; it was the product of having no legs left in the third set against a consummately resilient champion, someone who will be seeded second at Roland Garros in 2015.
Serena. Sharapova. Halep. CSN. Someone else we don’t know about.
Cloudy with a chance of everything is the forecast as Rome fades away and the tennis world turns its eyes to Paris.