Who is dominating the WTA? Serena Williams, Sharapova, anyone?

Serena IW 15 TR MALT1138


Plus Wozniacki vs. Azarenka in Italy

After January ended, it looked like the WTA’s two top women, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, would go on and on, winning titles and still believing they could cruise on hard courts, clay and grass. But not anymore.

Serena won the Australian Open while Sharapova won Brisbane, as well as reaching the final at the Aussie, which was close. The 28-year-old won both of matches for Russia defeating Poland at the Fed Cup.

But after that, things changed, right up until now in Rome.

Ms. Williams won a match in Fed Cup in Argentina before she got sick. She went to Indian Wells, returning for the first time since 2001, playing pretty darn well but then she was injured and pulled out before the semifinal against Simona Halep. A couple weeks later, she played Miami and overcame Halep in the semis (in a terrific match) and then blitzed Carla Suarez-Navarro. Serena was all good again.

She signed up to play Fed Cup once again and she played her heart out against the Italians and won both of her singles, but in the doubles she and Alison Riske lost quickly. She did not play Stuttgart and last week, Williams fought very hard, somehow besting over Vika Azarenka 7-6 (5) 3-6 7-6 (1). A few days later she finally lost, falling to Petra Kvitova 6-2 6-3 in the semis.

But does that matter and is Serena vulnerable? Perhaps not, and these days she is the favorite here in Rome and in a week and half at Roland Garros. But she is not unbeatable. Why?

Two things: one because last year against Garbine Muguruza in Paris, she was smoked 6-2, 6-2 and the second she walks on court, she will be thinking about it, which could maker her nervous; secondly, while Serena had not lost when she has played an entire match since August in Cincinnati until last week in Madrid, she has retired against Wuhan and withdrew from Beijing and Indian Wells. That matters. When Williams is feeling fine physically, she can wipe out her opponents when she is on. But when she is hurt, well, that is where she could be in trouble. She is 33 years old, you know…

Sharapova has sputtering now, too. She withdrew at Acapulco before the semis because she was sick, she lost in early at Indian Wells against Flavia Pennetta, she shouldn’t have played in Miami because her leg was bruised and she lost to Daria Gavrilova. She pulled out of Fed Cup, tried at Stuttgart but lost to Angie Kerber in three long sets. On Madrid, she played much better overcoming Caroline Garcia and Caro Wozniacki, but then she lost to Sveta Kuznetsova in the semis and while the other Russia was impressive, Maria was sporadic.

No. 3 Sharapova is the Roland Garros champion and she badly wants to win it again, but first things first: she has to beat everyone in Rome (except against Serena, who owns her) to hone her strokes perfectly, fine and true. If she doesn’t, it will be difficult to win a Slam back to back, which the five-time champion have yet to do.

Here is the cool thing on the WTA: no one knows where the wind blows. No. 2 Halep had looked excellent on hard courts beginning in February, winning Dubai and Indian Wells, but she has faltered on clay, losing early at Stuttgart and Madrid. No. 4 Kvitova looked ready to win another major after snagging Sydney, but then she fell fast and didn’t begin to strike the ball inside the lines until last week and she won Madrid.

Everyone wants to rise and most of the top 20 have had at least a week or better, such as Wozniacki, Bouchard (yes, she’s been quiet for a while but she did reach the quarters at the Aussie Open), Ivanovic, Makarova, Petkovic, Kerber and Pliskova, etc. This week in Rome, someone will play fantastic and come very close to winning it, or grabbing it. Some of the others will lose early and dash to Paris.

On the first day Sunday May 24 at Roland Garros, everyone will dream a sweet dream and envision of raising the trophy. But right now, who is a gigantic favorite? Nobody knows.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Victoria Azarenka, May 13, Wednesday, Rome

This is pretty simple, even though it is an extremely important match: if the Dane has a real chance, she was to move forward quickly or for the third time this year, she will go down quickly. Azarenka dictated her shots from the beginning to the end, out-hitting her forehand, putting away balls at the net and dare her to kiss the lines with her backhand. Wozniacki has beaten Azarenka before on hard courts and knows how to frustrate her, but this is clay and she has admitted that she isn’t confident there. This year, she has to do things differently. Wozniacki has to be patient but when her opponent drops the ball short, she has to rush ahead and attack immediately. Caro’s backhand is by far her best shot so she has to crush it down the lines, crosscourt and very deep down the middle.

Let’s assume that Wozniacki plays the first set brilliantly, but then Azarenka will pound it with her better forehand, win the second set, and in the third set, one would stay true and the other will panic. Azarenka was off on Tuesday, and she won’t play well again. Wozniacki will win in three sets.

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