With Serena Williams out for the rest of the season, and many of WTA’s top players—including last year’s No. 1, Angelique Kerber—struggling to find their forms, there are no clear favorites for this year’s French Open. In Madrid, a short list began to take shape: the champion, Simona Halep, and the ever-improving runner-up, Kiki Mladenovic, went to the top of it. Who else can join them before we get to Paris?
This week’s fully-stocked Rome draw should give us an idea. Here’s a look at how it might play out.
With Halep moving up to No. 4 and Mladenovic looking more dangerous each week, will Kerber feel a greater sense of urgency to build some momentum heading to Roland Garros? She hurt her hamstring in Madrid, but even if that has healed, recent history says it will be tough for her. In the last two years in Rome, the German has won one match. Even more daunting is her draw; there’s an overload of talent in the top quarter.
If Kerber wins her opening match, against a to-be-determined qualifier, she could be looking at a meeting with three-time Italian Open champion Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. Sharapova, who starts against Christina McHale, leads her head-to-head with Kerber 4-3, and she beat her in straight sets in the Rome semifinals in 2012.
This quarter doesn’t get any easier after that. Halep, fresh off of her Madrid title, is the top seed in the other half. The Romanian is obviously confident right now, and comfortable on clay, and she has been to the semis in Rome as recently as 2015. But even she won’t have an easy road: Her first match could be against Laura Siegemund, who beat her in straight sets in the semis in Stuttgart two weeks ago.
First-round matches to watch: Sharapova vs. McHale; Lucie Safarova vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni; Siegemund vs. Naomi Osaka
Potential third-round match to watch: Kerber vs. Sharapova
It has been awhile since Svetlana Kuznetsova reached the Rome final—eight years, in fact. But would you bet against her going deep at the Foro Italico again? At 31, she’s back in the Top 10 and coming off a semifinal run in Madrid, and with her penchant for comeback wins, she has made herself into the definition of the savvy veteran. Just as important, with so many good players in the top quarter, this section of the draw is fairly open. Kuznetsova is the second seed here, behind Dominika Cibulkova, who has been distinctly so-so in 2017.
Talent-wise and power-wise, though, there’s a wild card in this section: Madison Keys, who lost to Serena Williams in the Rome final last year. Keys had wrist surgery at the end of 2017, and has yet to get on track this year. But her draw—a qualifier in the first round; possibly Caroline Garcia after that—should give her the chance.
Garbñe Muguruza will begin her title defense in Paris in two weeks. Right now, the odds of success seem slim. She’s coming off first-round losses in both Stuttgart and Madrid, and she hasn’t won a tournament in 2017. But a quick turnaround is not out of the question for the ultra-streaky Spaniard. Last year she also stumbled out of the gate, but she found some form in a semifinal run in Rome, before rolling through the draw at Roland Garros.
Could she flip the switch in Rome again? To do so, she may have to get by the tour’s most improved player of 2017, Mladenovic, who has already reached two clay-court finals this spring, in Stuttgart and Madrid.
The two top seeds in the other half of this section are Johanna Konta and Venus Williams, neither of whom could be called a born dirt-baller. Konta should be better on the surface, though, and Venus has had her moments on it. Eighteen years ago, in another century, she won the title in Rome.
Sleeper: Shelby Rogers. The American made the quarters at Roland Garros last year, and could get a crack at Muguruza in the second round here.
Karolina Pliskova, the top seed in the bottom section, may always be one of those players whose seasons slow to a crawl during the clay swing. The Czech ace machine and no-margin power hitter is admittedly not at her best on dirt, and she lost in the first round in both Rome and Paris last year.
All of which means opportunity abounds in this quarter. But who is ready to take advantage of it? No name stands out. Elina Svitolina is the second seed. Carla Suarez Navarro, Pliskova’s potential opening-round opponent, reached the final here two years ago. Barbora Strycova, Daria Kasatkina and Timea Bacsinszky are all shot-makers who have had success on clay. This section is as unpredictable as they come.
First-round match to watch: Strycova vs. Kasatkina
Semifinalist: Suarez Navarro
SEMIFINALS: SHARAPOVA D. KEYS; MLADENOVIC D. SUAREZ NAVARRO
FINAL: SHARAPOVA D. MLADENOVIC
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