The manic Madrid-Rome double hurtles into the Italian capital with main draw action starting for the WTA on Monday. It’s a mostly similar line-up to Madrid with Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska both missing and eight of the world’s top ten in attendance. The top eight seeds all have byes into the second round. The list of qualifiers for Rome is confirmed and it’s one of the strongest slates i’ve ever seen – Daria Gavrilova, Jelena Ostapenko, CiCi Bellis, Mona Barthel, Donna Vekic, Andrea Petkovic, Wang Qiang and Anett Kontaveit are all in. Truth be told, I always much prefer Rome to Madrid so I am looking forward to this week! Let’s take a look at the draw…
Angelique Kerber heads up the draw in Rome although her participation may be up in the air. Kerber was forced to retire hurt in her third round match in Madrid against Eugenie Bouchard due to a hamstring injury. While it was reported that the injury was not serious, playing Rome with the French Open just two weeks away could perhaps be a risky move. Kerber’s first match of tournament, were she to play, would be against a qualifier; either Andrea Petkovic or Anett Kontaveit.
Kerber’s section is one of the most intriguing in this draw as it houses Maria Sharapova; like Madrid, the pair are projected to meet in the third round if both make it that far. Sharapova’s first round match appears more favourable on paper compared to Madrid as she will play Christina McHale. Sharapova has won all four previous matches against the American and McHale is on a shaky run of form, losing her last four matches and wasting a 6-4 4-0 lead against Lara Arruabarrena in her first round match in Madrid.
If Sharapova were to reach the second round, she could face a rematch with Mirjana Lucic-Baroni – the wild card won their first round match in Madrid, a furious battle of heavy hit groundstrokes, 4-6 6-4 6-0. Lucic-Baroni plays Lucie Safarova in the first round, a tough draw for both. Curiously, Safarova leads the head-to-head with Lucic-Baroni, 4-0 with four straight set wins between 2012 and 2013. Lucic-Baroni has been on an inspired run of form in 2017, while Safarova has too enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence this season following an injury-and-illness plagued 2015/16. My one hope is that Lucie’s health and fitness will hold up having been ill in Prague. She was clearly struggling at the end of a brutal first round battle against fellow compatriot, Barbora Strycova in Madrid.
The top half is packed with enticing openers – Simona Halep’s first match will be against either Laura Siegemund or Naomi Osaka in the second round. Halep has played both this year, losing to Siegemund in Stuttgart in her most recent loss on tour and toughing out a three setter against Osaka in Miami. Siegemund vs. Osaka should be oodles of fun!
Halep didn’t fare so well in Rome last year after winning Madrid, falling in her first match to Daria Gavrilova. She did a good job though in the Montreal-Cincy double last year where she won in Canada and backed that up in the following week with a semi-final showing in Cincy. I’d fancy a better response than last year but it would be a surprise to see Halep reach the final few rounds, based on the taxing mental nature of her matches in Madrid and the dangers within her draw.
Another tasty first rounder in this section features Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur. This is one of those matches that without seeing the draw, it is difficult to figure out who is the seed. For the record, it is Pavlyuchenkova who has recently hopped above Stosur in the rankings after winning two titles. I’m a tad disappointed the pair have to meet so early as I had circled both pre-draw to make some noise in Rome. Pavlyuchenkova has won three of their four last meetings, of which two took place on clay and one in the first round of Rome. Pavlyuchenkova won that particular match in 2015, 6-4 7-5.
The winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Stosur will play either Anastasija Sevastova or Irina-Camelia Begu, both players who have pedigree on clay. Sevastova reached the semi-finals of Madrid last week, while Begu was one of the form players on clay in 2016 and reached the semi-finals in Rome.
As a former semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2009, Cibulkova has proven she can compete well on clay; however, she has been unable to channel her end-of-season form in 2016 into 2017 and was halted in her tracks by a wrist injury in Stuttgart. Cibulkova’s first match in Rome will be against Roberta Vinci or Ekaterina Makarova. Vinci was present at the draw ceremony and appeared to be laughing, perhaps because she and Ekaterina have played their fair share of matches. This will be their eighth encounter on tour – the pair have split their last four and gone the distance in their last two meetings.
The other seed in this section is Kiki Bertens. For much of the year, Bertens had been one of the seeds you would often overlook. It would seem that now is time to sit up and take notice once again. Returning to her favoured surface of clay, Bertens enjoyed her best tournament of the year in Madrid where she claimed three top 50 wins; this included a superb 6-2 6-2 victory over Timea Bacsinszky where she served brilliantly and was hitting decisively from the baseline. A first round match in Rome against Monica Niculescu is a fairly devilish draw. The Romanian player has won their two previous encounters; on clay, and with Bertens clearly having a boost of confidence from Madrid, she heads into that match with likely renewed optimism.
Svetlana Kuznetsova has staked her claim as a contender for Roland Garros and she enjoyed an excellent week in Madrid; the Russian player saved a match point to beat Alison Riske in the second round and delivered a clay-court masterclass against Eugenie Bouchard in the quarter-finals in one of the most impressive individual performances of the year so far. Kuznetsova eventually went out in a high-quality semi-final where her good friend, Kristina Mladenovic played the big points better. Kuznetsova will open her campaign in Rome against either Katerina Siniakova or Zhang Shuai.
Madison Keys is the number 10 seed and could face Caroline Garcia in the second round. The pair have enjoyed similar challenges in 2017 as they battle back from injuries – Keys had minor surgery on her wrist in the off-season and came back at Indian Wells, enjoying quick success in the desert but now struggling for match wins. Garcia has been hindered by a back injury (and likely all the French Fed Cup drama) and played her first match in over a month last week in Madrid. Based on their recent struggles, this could present a beaming opportunity for one of two qualifiers in this section of the draw, Daria Gavrilova and Donna Vekic, to go all the way to the quarter-finals. Note that Gavrilova qualified after forgetting to enter the main draw!
Johanna Konta’s season has hit somewhat of a roadblock on clay, based on the super-high level she has been playing at all year. It is kind of to be expected as the Brit had won just three WTA level matches on clay in her career – two of those wins came in Rome last year. Konta’s had her fair share of challenging draws in 2017, yet this one in Rome may be workable. First up will be either Monica Puig or Yulia Putintseva – both can be a handful on clay, but neither have been in convincing form of late.
Konta is seeded to meet Venus Williams in the third round who will be playing her first tournament on red clay in 2017. The American pulled out of Madrid but will take to the court in Rome against Yaroslava Shvedova. Venus has had a terrific year up till now, fighting and battling hard on the court with bundles of determination and heart. Clay though is always a challenge, so much so, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to me to see Venus skip clay altogether to prepare fully for the grass. For that reason, this is a winnable opener for Shvedova, despite struggling for match wins for most of 2017.
The winner of this match will play either Lesia Tsurenko or Deborah Chiesa; the latter earning her place in a first ever WTA main draw thanks to winning the Rome pre-qualifier wildcard.
Garbiñe Muguruza will aim to get her clay court season back on track after a listless first round display in Madrid where she lost in straights to Timea Bacsinszky. It was a concerning display from the Spaniard, one that suggested all is not fine and dandy in her camp. Perhaps playing away from home will reduce the pressure and she will play Shelby Rogers or Jelena Ostapenko in the second round. If it were to be Rogers, this would be a repeat of their quarter-final from Roland Garros last year which Muguruza won, 7-5 6-3.
One of this year’s star performers, Kristina Mladenovic, is the seed projected to meet Muguruza in the third round. After a fabulous run to the final in Madrid, this will be a quick turnaround for the Frenchwoman who was dealing with a back injury in the final. Mladenovic plays Julia Goerges in the first round which feels like a 50-50 match-up on clay although Mladenovic’s recent form, and more importantly, her ability to perform in the key moments, will automatically make her a favourite.
The winner of Mladenovic-Goerges will play either Jelena Jankovic or Alison Riske in the second round – both players lost heartbreakers in Madrid; Riske missed a match point in a second round loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova, while Jankovic served for the match in a super-entertaining first round clash with Dominika Cibulkova. Despite the loss, it was actually one of Jankovic’s best performances of the year.
After first round losses in Madrid, Elina Svitolina and Elena Vesnina will both be searching for form on the clay. Although one of the weaker sections of the draw, there’s still plenty to look forward to… a why-you-say-vamos rematch between Sara Errani and Alizé Cornet on clay is bound to be an entertaining and go on for hours and hours and hours! There are signs that Errani is beginning to play a little better having had a miserable year by her lofty standards, currently languishing at number 90 in the rankings. Cornet started the year with a final in Brisbane but other than that, hasn’t had much success elsewhere with a back injury thwarting her. Vesnina’s first match of the tournament will be against Wang Qiang, with the winner going onto play either Peng Shuai or Mona Barthel. I like the pair of qualifiers, Wang Qiang and Barthel, to be dark horses in this section.
Karolina Pliskova’s second round loss to Anastasija Sevastova in Madrid seemed to quash clay-court ambition as she embarks on what has famously has been her least favourite stretch of the calendar. Draw-wise, Pliskova’s section is filled with clay court lovers, almost queuing up to cause her mayhem on the dirt. Pliskova’s first match in Rome will be against either Carla Suárez Navarro or Lauren Davis, two players that are short in stature but can pack a punch with their groundstrokes. Davis has been excellent through much of 2017, while CSN is beginning to settle after an injury-affected start where a dodgy shoulder prevented her from building momentum for weeks.
Also in this section are Timea Bacsinszky and Daria Kasatkina – Bacsinszky faces an all-Timea Ba. clash against Babos and Kasatkina gets a seed in Barbora Strycova. Kasatkina and Strycova will be playing each other for the first time on the tour and that’s a match-up I am very excited about!
Records in Rome
W-L records include results from qualifying (Data from Tennis Abstract)
*Note since the WTA ruined their website, my advice would be to use Tennis Abstract for all your WTA-related stats – a great site!