The cliche says that a girl’s best friends are diamonds, but the entry list for the Porsche event in Stuttgart suggests that WTA stars must be very good friends with splashy sports cars as well. Even after the withdrawals of Venus and Clijsters, the 30-player field is saturated with talent to the extent normally associated with the Sydney tournament just before the Australian Open. There are a few possibly significant x-factors involved, ranging from Wozniacki’s ankle and Azarenka’s hamstring to Kuznetsova’s shoulder and Henin’s finger. For the purposes of this preview, we’re going to assume that all of these scratches and dents haven’t led to major engine damage. If you start hearing ominous sputtering sounds, though, run for cover before the draw explodes in your face.
Top half: After a pleasant sojourn in Paris, Azarenka will have to put the pedal to the metal immediately in order to survive Pennetta, who hopes to capitalize on a modestmomentum boost after a sturdy performance in the Fed Cup semifinals. The winner of this match should enjoy a brief respite in the second round before colliding with Wozniacki. While the Dane won 16 of her last 18 matches before her unsightly tumble in Charleston, the Minx from Minsk and the Coquette from Calabria recently have occupied a spectrum extending from the pedestrian to the dismal. That said, Azarenka thumped her friend and rival in Rome last year and has adapted her power-based game to the surface with surprising ease. She’s compiled a stronger resume on red clay than has the world #2, despite Wozniacki’s superior mental tenacity and defensive abilities.
Crashing the party with a wildcard, Stosur must be a rather unwelcome guest considering her sensational form since Indian Wells and Miami, where she lost to both eventual champions (Jankovic and Clijsters). Although the ever-dangerous Li lurks in the neighborhood and has defeated third-seeded Kuznetsova in the past, the Chinese star has accomplished almost nothing since her Australian Open breakthrough. A semifinalist in Miami, Bartoli doesn’t relish the surface of her country’s Slam, which provides a poor showcase for her quick-strike style. If we do see the Russian and the Aussie in the quarters, expect a highly suspenseful contest in which Sveta’s superb athleticism on clay will edge her past Stosur’s serving barrage.
Semifinal: Kuznetsova d. Azarenka. The defending French Open champion found her groove at precisely this moment last year and plays with more conviction on the red dirt than anywhere else. She leads the head-to-head 4-1, including two straight-set clay wins; Azarenka’s only victory occurred during the best fortnight of her career so far, last year in Miami.
Bottom half: “One Belgian woman has her name printed in bold / But the other Belgian is worth her weight in gold.” (We’re so funny.) Wickmayer and Henin could meet in the second round, although we suspect that the surging Schiavone will intercept Yanina and even might test Justine, whom she has defeated in the past. At the base of the third quarter lies the almost invariably injured or ill Jankovic, whose consecutive losses to Hantuchova in Charleston and Fed Cup support her claims that a swollen wrist has significantly hampered her play. If she escapes Dulko in her opener, not a certainty, she won’t escape a diminutive dynamo who owns a 9-0 head-to-head record against her.
When Ivanovic dares to open her eyes and look over her shoulder, she’ll find both good news and bad news: the 2008 Roland Garros champion has landed in the weakest quarter of the draw but adjacent to the most dangerous player in that section, Radwanska. Despite falling to the Pole in her previous match at Miami, she nearly defeated her on clay in Madrid last year and will have a chance to score what could be a momentum-turning victory. It’s a win-win situation for her because a loss wouldn’t be embarrassing, so she should be able to relax and swing freely. Since the second-seeded Safina will be eager but rusty, we expect the winner of this first-round clash to reach the semis; a finalist here last year, Dinara might even fall to Ana’s doubles partner Petkovic in her first match.
Semifinal: Henin d. Radwanska. We’re surprised that Radwanska hasn’t enjoyed more success on clay, which theoretically should suit her high-consistency, low-risk style. As explored in our player profile on her, she struggles with self-belief against the WTA superstars, and must address that flaw before she can regularly threaten competitors of Henin’s willpower and experience.
Final: Kuznetsova d. Henin. Although Henin will be favored to recapture her Roland Garros laurels, she may require a tournament or two to fit the patience required by clay into the matrix of her augmented aggression. More than any of her peers, Kuznetsova possesses both the offensive and defensive tools to overcome the four-time French Open champion on her favorite surface when she’s a shade below her best. Such occasions are few indeed, of course, but the Russian has defeated the Belgian on clay before and knows that it can be done.
Who will collect a new mode of conveyance for the journey through the Alps and Apennines down to Rome next weekend? Enjoy the first foray of the WTA onto European clay this decade!