By David Sweet
The French Open womenâ€™s field is as wide open as ever.Â Â Gone are the days of Justine Henin who, during her height, was always the favorite to win the French.Â What have we learned from this yearâ€™s clay season to help us predict the winner?
In 2012, itâ€™s all about the big hitters.
Big hitting and aggressive tennis are todayâ€™s winning formula on clay.Â Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have each won two tournaments this clay season.Â Victoria Azarenka was the runner-up twice.Â Li Na once. Â Big hitting led to success in 2011, when Li Na out-hit Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova on the way to her French title.Â Â Meanwhile top grinders Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniaki have had little success.Â With due respect to Sara Errani, I predict a big hitter will win the French.
Letâ€™s look at the top big hitters in 2012:
Serena Williams won Charleston and Madrid, and could easily have won Rome given her current level of play.Â The last time Williams had consistent success on clay was 2002 â€“ the year she won the French.Â Yes, that was (gulp) 10 years ago.Â Consider that coincidentally (or maybe not) 2002 was also the last time sheâ€™s played this many clay tournaments going into the French.Â Clearly practice makes perfect for her – on clay.Â She has owned the top 2 players for many years, on all surfaces.Â Fun stat â€“ Serena has lost to the eventual winner 5 out of the 9 Frenchâ€™s she has played (not counting her win in 2002).Â She is currently ranked at No. 5.Â Â Someone in the top four wonâ€™t be happy on Friday.Â Sheâ€™s my best bet for 2012â€™s front-runner – regardless of her draw.
Sharapovaâ€™s clay results in 2011 and 2012 have been consistently high.Â Surprising statistic â€“ 4 of her last 5 titles have come on clay.Â Â You read that right. Â Â Has she finally conquered her worst surface?Â Consider her 2012 road.Â She impressively won Stuttgart by beating current No. 5 seed Sam Stosur, No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova, and her current nemesis Azarenka.Â Kvitova and Azarenka had Sharapovaâ€™s number at slam finals on different surfaces.Â Maybe the match up with the current crop of big hitters changes on clay, maybe Sharapovaâ€™s got more clay experience than they do, or both. Â Sheâ€™s in a better headspace than we thought toughing it out against Li Na in the Rome finals.Â This is a good thing. Â Consider that only last year Sharapova surprisingly fell to Li Na in the semis at the French.Â Barring a rough draw (read Serenaâ€™s in her quarter), Iâ€™m counting on a deep run here.
Azarenka has had a great clay season.Â Not counting her retirement in Rome, she played two clay tournaments, losing in the finals to top players in both.Â Itâ€™s a slight drop from her extremely high level of tennis, which goes back to late in the 2011 season.Â This might play with her head game, but probably not.Â Sheâ€™s had decent results on clay in the past, including the quarters at last yearâ€™s French Open.Â Itâ€™s not the best pedigree, but consider that the same was said about her results going into the Australian Open this year.Â We all know what happened there.Â This is the first time Azarenka will be the No. 1 seed at a slam.Â Itâ€™s unproven ground, but she seems up to the task.Â Sheâ€™s more of a challenge to Serena than Sharapova.Â Sheâ€™ll definitely be a finalist if Serenaâ€™s not in her half, but donâ€™t count her out if Serena is.
As for the rest of the top big hitters:
Kvitovaâ€™s playing with a tough abdominal injury that has sucked the life out of the serve that won her Wimbledon last year.Â Injuries are rough on the body and mind.Â Â The 2011 â€œplayer of the yearâ€ was one of the best bets to win the Aussie this year and rise to #1.Â One slam later, sheâ€™s struggling to stay in the top 4.Â Sad to say, I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if she retires in the 2nd round.
Credit to Li Na for coming out of nowhere to get within match point of winning Rome.Â The positive – sheâ€™s still got it on clay.Â The negative â€“ sheâ€™s still a head case when the chips are down.Â The same can be said for 2010 runner-up Stosur, who has a few tough losses this clay season to Serena, Sharapova, and 2002 finalist Venus Williams.Â Theyâ€™re both ranked inside the top 8, so count on them getting to the quarters.
I have my eye on top 10 newbie Angelique Kerber to get to the quarters as well.Â Also on my radar is resurgent Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 champion who is back in the top 15 after a long hiatus. Â Â My â€œsuper dark horseâ€ to get at least to the round of 16 â€“ Mona Barthel.Â Â Remember her name when she wins a slam a few years from now.
Itâ€™s hard to predict both finalists without the draw out.Â Â Chances are itâ€™ll be Serena and â€œsomeone elseâ€.Â Watch out â€œsomeone else.â€