Madrid Open 2015: Big stage sees more big strides for Serena Williams

Serena Williams is already looking like the queen of the court as she aims to win her third title in Madrid

The four Premier Mandatory tournaments of the women’s tennis tour are the biggest events in the calendar aside from the four Grand Slams.

And as the only one to be played on clay, the prestigious Mutua Madrid Open, begins to weed out the best from the rest, Serena Williams is already looking like the queen of the court as she aims to win her third title in the Spanish capital.

For Williams has now held the No1 ranking for 114 consecutive weeks, the third-longest streak in WTA history. And so great is her margin over the chasing pack that she cannot be overtaken this side of clay’s climax in Roland Garros—and that despite being defending champion in Rome next week.

With two matches under her belt already this week, Williams has also extended her winning streak to 25, a stretch that dates back to the WTA Championships in Singapore last October. Even then, though she lost her second round-robin match to Simona Halep, Williams went on to win the title.

It puts Williams in elite company. Only four players have won 25 or more matches in a row this millennium. She has done it herself three times, while Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Victoria Azarenka have managed it once apiece.

Yet Williams also owns an even longer streak that she will hope to extend in Madrid this week. With her opening wins over Madison Brengle and Sloane Stephens, she is now on a 48-match winning streak at Premier Mandatory events.

Her last loss at this level, which also includes Indian Wells, Miami and Beijing, came in the quarter-finals of Miami in 2012. Of course, that run has been helped by her long absence from Indian Wells until this year—where she withdrew ahead her semi-final match—but it is nevertheless a remarkable achievement.

And all the while, she continues to extend her own record as the oldest world No1 since the WTA rankings began, a record that she claimed more than two years ago.

So can the mighty Serena continue all these runs in Madrid? Can she, indeed, extend her streak at this very tournament, one that dates back to her title run in 2012, defended in 2013, and stopped short by her withdrawal ahead the quarter-finals last year with a thigh injury? It is currently up to 17 matches, but she will next face the toughest of challenges in the shape of the unseeded Azarenka, who is ranked at 31 courtesy of her long injury absences last year.

The former world No1 is one of that rare breed who has beaten Williams on big the stages in two of their last five matches. What’s more, the woman from Belarus has cruised to this premature third-round contest against Williams via victories over No16 seed Venus Williams and the young Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic.

Theirs was, not surprisingly, the match that jumped off the page when the draw was made of a tough top half that also holds the 2011 champion Petra Kvitova.

The defending champion, Maria Sharapova, has her own ambitions in Madrid, one of them being to regain her No2 ranking by advancing to the final from the bottom half of the draw. And already her way has been cleared of the current No2 Halep, who lost in the first round.

Sharapova, whose form on clay in recent years has seen her claim two of the last three French Open titles—and she defends at Roland Garros this year—and two of the last four Rome titles, has dropped only eight games in her first two matches in Madrid, but she plays the feisty Caroline Garcia next and then the winner from another third-round blockbuster between Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska.

But should Williams and Sharapova—Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros champions both—meet in the final, Sharapova will face her biggest challenge of all. It is now 11 years and 16 matches since she beat Williams, whatever the surface. And Williams’ last two victories on clay over her rival were back-to-back in 2013—at Madrid and Roland Garros.

Williams was, before the tournament, keen to play down her chances of extending any of her various and impressive runs in Madrid.

“I’ve had a lot of tough, close, three-set matches this year. Just by chance I was able to kind of get through those.

“My goal in every tournament is to do well and try to be the champion. I’m not at my top form right now, so I’m just hoping to play myself into shape here, and hopefully by Rome and the French Open, I’ll be able to start playing better.”

She has, thus far, dropped five games in her two matches. Azarenka will be a considerably bigger test of the Williams form, but it seems safe to say that the world No1 still remains the one to beat.

Also worth knowing…

• Madrid is the second-biggest WTA clay event of the year after the French Open.

• The top 16 ranked women in the world began as the top 16 seeds.

• As well as the streaks mentioned in this article, Serena Williams has also won 59 of her last 62 matches on clay.

• Sharapova also began the year on a hot streak, winning 17 of her first 18 matches, but failed to defend in Stuttgart after three consecutive titles there. But she has won 56 of her last 61 matches on clay.

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