Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

We attempt to make at least some sense of the anarchic WTA field at Roland Garros, which looks primed for another Schiavone.  Fasten your seatbelt and hold your breath as we race through the staggering (and perhaps still incomplete) list of contenders…

Wozniacki:  In theory, the clay should suit her seamless movement, precocious tenacity, and counterpunching mentality.  In practice, the Dane often struggles to penetrate the sport’s slowest surface with her relatively unimposing weapons, a factor often overlooked when analyzing a player’s clay potential.  Illustrating Wozniacki’s predicament were consecutive losses in Stuttgart and Madrid to Goerges, a promising ball-bruiser but not yet a worthy rival for a #1.  Nevertheless, Madrid and Rome have proved poor projectors of Paris achievement, and Caro can shoulder the pressure of a major more calmly than most of her peers.

Azarenka:  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Miami titlist translated her talents to clay with a Marbella title and a Madrid final.  Amidst those accomplishments, she has retired in three of her last six tournaments as an injury-addled 2010 has seeped into 2011.  Should her body withstand the rigors of a Paris fortnight, Vika can fuse smooth court coverage with scintillating groundstrokes and a raging appetite for competition that leaves her fearless of any foe.  That appetite sometimes devours her from within, as witnessed in majors past, so she may confront challenges more emotional than physical.

Sharapova:  Visibly elated to capture the Rome title, the three-time major champion should arrive in Paris brimming with confidence and as dangerous as ever since her return from shoulder surgery.  On a surface as gritty as herself, Sharapova pulled the triggers on her mighty artillery at intelligent moments and benefited from the extra time to position herself for her strokes.  Eyeing the elusive career Slam, she never has reached the final at Roland Garros but curiously has recorded more consistent results there than at the other majors.  Sharapova has not reached a Slam semifinal since her title at the 2008 Australian Open, though, leaving her with more to prove before regaining her former glory.

Kvitova:  Beware of extrapolating too much from a Madrid title, for surprise 2010 champion Rezai sputtered to a third-round defeat in Paris.  But Kvitova has raced to three titles this season with shot-making more charismatic than Wozniacki and a mind steadier than Azarenka.  The first lefty in the WTA top 10 since 2007, she has baffled five top-10 opponents this year with explosive serve-forehand combinations and unwavering self-belief at key crossroads in matches.  Other swaggering upstarts have wilted under the spotlight of a Slam; Kvitova did not during a breakthrough Wimbledon semifinal run last year.

Schiavone:  More difficult than the task of winning a major is the challenge of defending that title.  Can Schiavone summon the willpower and focus to repeat?  After a memorable quarterfinal charge in Australia, she has struggled to string together victories since then and has played surprisingly few matches on clay this year.  Having ingested the Paris clay in her 2010 victory celebration, she should bite the dust much earlier in 2011.

Stosur:  More disappointing than the 2010 champion’s slide this season was her fellow finalist’s lingering frailty on grand stages.  After stirring from her slump with a Stuttgart semifinal, the Aussie awakened with consecutive victories over Schiavone and Li in Rome—before illness surfaced to dangle uncertainty over her again.  While Stosur may never evolve into the champion that some expected, she could ride her kick serve and multifaceted forehand deep into the second week for the third straight year.

Li:  Arguably the streakiest player in a streaky WTA, the Melbourne runner-up lunged back into relevance with consecutive semifinals in Madrid and Rome, before which she had won only one match since Australia.  Although this resilient veteran owns no title of a magnitude greater than Sydney, an ordinary Premier, her crisp timing and balanced baseline style threaten almost any contender on any surface.  Li has not shed a frustrating tendency to veer wildly between the sublime and the absurd, however, as her lopsided losses this month testified.

Jankovic:  Gone are the days when her smile illuminated valiant battles against the WTA elite.  Now trudging listlessly from defeat to defeat against the tour’s second tier, Jankovic has shown herself most dangerous when most discounted.  And her three Roland Garros semifinals, coupled with two Rome titles, headline a clay resume too impressive to lightly ignore.

Clijsters/Zvonareva:  Despite their elevated ranking, the world #2 and #3 look ripe for an early upset.  Inactive since Miami, Clijsters has not won a match on clay since 2006.  As a crucial summer looms, Zvonareva must adjust to separating from pseudo-coach and emotional anchor Sergei Demekhine before defending finals at the next two majors.  One can forgive her mind for drifting beyond the terre battue, where she rarely has prospered before.

Petkovic/Goerges:  After one German broke through on the hard court, the other broke through on the clay.  Recently the bane of Wozniacki’s existence, the flashy Frauleins could topple similar counterpunchers with offenses that lash lines without lacking the consistency to survive longer exchanges.   Weathering the assault of an Azarenka or a Kvitova poses a more challenging test for their unremarkable movement, albeit not an impossible mission.

We return from this fast-paced series of snapshots on Friday or Saturday to detail each draw.  A bientot!