As Roland Garros draws near, let’s take a look back at the matches that have defined the clay court season on the WTA tour, and try and decipher what it all means for the Parisian Grand Slam.
Charleston Semifinal: Jana Cepelova d. Belinda Bencic, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6(7)
If you skipped this match, it’s probably because you thought it was the semifinal that would decide the runner-up. Well, you were right, but you missed what many were calling the match of 2014 so far. Swiss youngster Belinda Bencic has been making her presence felt recently with one of the most beautiful backhands on the WTA tour today, and the rest of her game is pretty great too. Match that with the grit of Jana Cepelova, and you have a thrilling contest.
Cepelova came into the match brimming with confidence after beating Serena Williams in the second round, 6-4 6-4, and following it up with solid third round and quarterfinal wins against the experience of Elena Vesnina, and Daniela Hantuchova. Perhaps it was this confidence that saw her edge the semi-final 6-4 5-7 7-6(7), going on to lose a tough championship match against a resurgent Andrea Petkovic.
While the tennis in this match was of the highest quality, what really made it made memorable was the raw emotion on-court from the first game to the last; neither player was too shy to make it clear how they were feeling point after point, and this is a trait we’re seeing among many of the new generation. The young WTA is on the way, and they’re not afraid to get a little rowdy!
Stuttgart Final: Maria Sharapova d. Ana Ivanovic, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1
Maria Sharapova is unquestionably the Queen of Stuttgart, having taken the Porsche Open title for the third year in a row after a 3-6 6-4 6-1 win over former World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. For her part, Ivanovic played with the dominating form that made her such a force six years ago, but has seldom returned to her until a sudden reinvigoration in 2014. Alas, she was unable to maintain the form over three sets.
Sharapova’s victory was a reminder to all tennis fans that this once self-described ‘cow-on-ice’ has transformed herself into a … something that’s happy on ice. Vodka? Well, Maria “vodka-on-the-rocks” Sharapova arrived in Stuttgart not having lost a match on clay to anyone other than arch-nemesis Serena Williams since the beginning of 2012. It’s an impressive record, and it would also see her through to become champion in Madrid two weeks later, until the spell was finally broken in …
Rome Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Ana Ivanovic, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1
It may seem a little cruel selecting two Ivanovic losses as ‘defining’ moments of the clay season, but it only goes to show how much of an impression she has made in 2014. Indeed, Ivanovic impressively avenged her loss in Stuttgart, by defeating Sharapova in the third round of Rome 6-4 6-1, with a performance that was utterly enthralling for those who remember the Ana of old. But it was this tussle against the current World No. 1 that would further impress on us the growing confidence of Ivanovic, which is absolutely the key to her game.
Serena Williams, who was returning from an upper leg injury that had seen her pull out of Madrid, was looking for revenge and confidence of her own in this semifinal match, having been knocked out of the Australian Open earlier this year at the hands of the popular Serbian. Vengeance didn’t come easy, as Williams gritted out a patchy 6-1 3-6 6-1 victory before going on to win the tournament in dominant fashion over home favorite Sara Errani.
If anyone thought Serena’s clay season was a write-off, she certainly chose an opportune time to reassert her authority and send a clear message back to the locker room ahead of Roland Garros.
What does it all mean?
When Serena Williams plays a tournament, she is always the favorite to win, and this year’s Roland Garros is no exception. Should the leg hamper her, or should she suffer a surprise loss, Maria Sharapova will be waiting to sweep in and take the title.
As far as the rest of the field is concerned, Ivanovic is perhaps waiting as third in line for the victory, but her nerves may not hold out on the biggest of stages.