Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

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We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

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