French Open 2011: Caroline Wozniacki eyes her first Slam
Will Roland Garros yield top seed Caroline Wozniacki the first Grand Slam title of her career?
Caroline Wozniacki displaced Serena Williams as the top ranked player last October, aged just 20. Yet while she goes into the French Open this week as the top seed and with over 2,000 points between her and world No2 Clijsters, there are many who feel she has yet to prove her mettle.
The reason is that she has not yet won a Grand Slam. The closest she came was the finals of the US Open back in 2009. But this year, Roland Garros has dealt the young Dane the closest thing to an ace in her bid to break that duck.
For the first time since 2003, neither Serena nor Venus Williams is in the French draw -both absent with long-term injury -and the winner of the last two Slams, Clijsters herself, comes to Paris still bearing the scars of her own extensive injuries.
Having recovered from shoulder and wrist problems earlier this year, she was then sidelined at the start of April by a freak ankle injury sustained at her cousin’s wedding.
The problem for Wozniacki, however, is that a few other players have been flexing their tennis credentials in recent weeks, and some of them have scored significant wins over her on the clay: Maria Sharapova in the Rome semis and Julia Goerges in Madrid and Stuttgart.
So who are the big threats to Caroline’s chances?
Caroline Wozniacki quarter
Wozniacki bounced back from her Rome disappointment with victories over Francesca Schiavone and Yanina Wickmayer to take the Brussels title, her fourth of the year.
She also took the prestigious clay court Charleston Premier event and was hugely impressive in winning on the hard courts of Dubai and Indian Wells. She remains the youngest title winner of the year thus far.
But the challenges come thick and fast in the Wozniacki quarter. In the third round she could face Slovak Daniela Hantuchova, a former top-10 player who has found some renewed form in recent months.
The fourth round holds the possibility of 2009 French Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova in what is her favourite event.
She is a woman who rises to the challenge on the big occasions and, should anyone doubt her fitness and desire to win, they have only to look at her share in the longest ever women’s Grand Slam match in Melbourne this year: four-and-three-quarter hours against Schiavone.
Wozniacki faces yet more problems in the quarter-finals where she could find Sam Stosur, who is enjoying one of the best 12 months in her long career.
Stosur was a surprise finalist in Paris last year -her only Slam final to date -and was a semi-finalist the year before. She has just avenged her defeat in last year’s final by beating Schiavone with some blistering tennis in Rome and went on to beat Li Na in the semis.
A dangerous alternative to Stosur in Wozniacki’s quarter-final is the rising talent of the powerful Goerges. The tall 22-year-old won the Stuttgart Premier on clay in terrific style, beating Stosur, Victoria Azarenka, and Wozniacki in the process.
She beat Wozniacki again in Madrid, as well as the world Nos15 and 16, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Kaia Kanepi. She is currently at a career high of 18 and a dark horse for the title.
Vera Zvonareva quarter
Vera Zvonareva, ranked three in the world, is slated to meet Wozniacki at the semi-final stage.
She reached a career high of No2 last year on the back of final finishes in Wimbledon and the US Open and has had good results on the hard courts this year -the semis in the Australian Open and Miami and beating Wozniacki for the title in Doha -but the clay has yielded less success.
Zvonareva will have heaved a sigh of relief to see one tripwire, Nadia Petrova, fall at the first hurdle. Next could be Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the improving 19-year-old who beat Stosur in Madrid to consolidate her ranking of 15.
The bottom section of this quarter holds the greatest interest in the shape of former No1, Jelena Jankovic, who has reached the semis at Roland Garros three times, including last year. However, she lost out to Wozniacki this year in Rome and in Charleston.
Also in this section is last year’s popular winner, Schiavone. She reached the fourth round on the hard courts of Miami and Indian Wells but has not shone on the clay, where her best result was the semis in Brussels last week, losing to Wozniacki.
But the fire has ignited in her eyes since stepping onto the Paris clay again -she dismissed Melanie Oudin for the loss of just two games in her opener. She is up for the fight and has a decent draw as far as the quarters.
Victoria Azarenka quarter
Number four seed Victoria Azarenka has been in great form coming to Paris. She won the clay title in Marbella -losing just 19 games in the process -straight after winning in the hard-court Miami Premier, where she beat Clijsters, Zvonareva and Sharapova.
She also reached the final in Madrid but was forced to retire in Rome against Sharapova with an elbow problem. If she is fully fit, however, the 21-year-old’s rise should take her at least to the quarters.
She has Ana Ivanovic and Kaia Kanepi in her draw but is most likely to meet the winner of Na Li, semi-finalist on the clay of both Rome and Madrid, or the formidable No9 Petra Kvitova, who has three titles this year.
The most valuable of these was Madrid where the tall, strong Kvitova powered past Li, Zvonareva and Azarenka. Still only 21, she reached the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2008 and will make a strong bid to go further this year.
Kim Clijsters quarter
Clijsters was runner-up in Paris in 2001 and 2003 but has never won. This is not her favourite surface and she is hampered not just by a heavily strapped ankle but by the fact that she has not played once on clay this year.
Indeed, since losing to Henin in the 2006 French Open semi-finals, Clijsters’ clay-court matches total four, two of them losses.
Clijsters campaign will not be helped by meeting, should she reach the fourth round, the strong No15 seed, Andrea Petkovic, who won in Strasbourg last week.
Her quarter-final prospect is Sharapova. The former No1, making a strong return to the tour after extended problems with shoulder injury, is back to No8 after beating Azarenka for the loss of just three games to take the Miami Premier and beating Stosur in similar style for the Rome title -only her third on clay.
The French is the only Slam that Sharapova has not won and her defeat of Wozniacki in the Rome semis will give her even more hope of completing her career Slam.
So for Wozniacki, on her least successful surface, there are multiple challenges in Paris if she is to silence her critics. But there are few who would begrudge this sunny, witty and industrious young woman her prize.