French Open 2015: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova vie for glory in Paris

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the women's draw at the French Open, where Maria Sharapova is the defending champion

The top two seeds at the climax of the clay season in Paris both have cause to be optimistic about their chances of claiming the Roland Garros title.

Top of the pile is Serena Williams, who is so far ahead of the competition in the rankings that she cannot be caught during the French Open however she plays. She has been beaten only once this year, has the Australian Open and the Miami titles, and with the US Open already in her pocket from last year, she could be on her way to becoming the first woman to win the non-calendar year Grand Slam for a second time.

And while her affair with this particular Major has a love-hate feel about it—11 years elapsed between her first win here and her most recent in 2013, which was itself sandwiched between a first and a second-round exit—there is no doubting her love affair with the city: She has a home here and breaks into French at the drop of a hat.

She has also allayed any concerns about the elbow problem that saw her withdraw from Rome.

And then there is the second seed, Maria Sharapova, who has arrived with that same Rome title alongside her name. She is also defending champion, a semi-finalist in the last four years, finalist in three of them, winner twice. It’s an exceptional record for a woman who once described herself as a ‘cow on ice’, but she has since stacked up the most match-wins at Roland Garros on the tour—50 of them and counting—and the best percentage win rate, followed, it so happens, by Williams.

But for all her success and multiple clay titles—and there have been many in Rome and Stuttgart—Sharapova’s big problem has been Williams, even on clay. The Russian may have beaten the American twice back in 2004, but she has never done so again, in 10 years of trying. And that includes the 2013 final in Paris, a straight-sets victory for Williams. Indeed only three times in that entire decade has Sharapova won a set.

They cannot meet before the final this year, of course, and it is a match that many tennis enthusiasts would love to see. But there are many other women who will have a say in whether the top seeds survive the course in the biggest clay challenge of them all.

For a start, there are seven other active Grand Slam champions in the draw. Three of them have won the French title: Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone. Another four have been finalists: Sara Errani, Sam Stosur, Simona Halep and Venus Williams.

Then there are the women who have already won a big clay title this year, or come close: Carla Suarez Navarro gave Sharapova a run for her money in Rome to reach a career-high No8. World No4 Petra Kvitova stormed back from a two-month absence to take the Madrid title, beating Williams in the semis and Kuznetsova in the final. No11 Angelique Kerber won Charleston and Stuttgart back to back and reached the semis of Nurnberg last week.

The other factor in the draw equation is the placement of former world No1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, Victoria Azarenka, who is still climbing back up the rankings after long-lasting injury last season. She reached the semis here in 2013, has twice more been a quarter-finalist, but missed last year.

Fortunately for the rest of the 31 seeds, she made the cut to earn the No27 seeding, because she and her rivals have had tough draws on the way to Paris. Azarenka lost to Sharapova in the quarters of Rome, and only just lost to Serena Williams in the third round of Madrid. As luck would have it, she could make Williams’ life very difficult again, drawn as her first seed in a possible third-round replay of last month’s battle.

Where are the other pinch-points for the top seeds, the players who could derail Williams and Sharapova, Halep and Kvitova?

Serena Williams’ quarter

As well as Azarenka in the third round, Williams could meet sister Venus in the fourth round, though the elder Williams has a tough opener against Sloane Stephens. Come the quarters, things are also demanding in this difficult quarter.
The seeds line up with Andrea Petkovic against Errani, and former world No1s and Grand Slam finalists Caroline Wozniacki against Jelena Jankovic. Any one of them could make a run to the quarters.

Also here, in Venus Williams’ segment, are Britons Heather Watson and Johanna Konta, who in theory could meet in the third round and take on Serena Williams or Azarenka in the fourth.

Semi-finalist: Serena Williams

Petra Kvitova’s quarter

The Wimbledon champion has, on paper, a much more conducive draw. Her first seed is Irina-Camelia Begu, followed by Timea Bacsinszky or Madison Keys.
Her possible quarter-final should bring Eugenie Bouchard, who Kvitova beat to a pulp in the Wimbledon final and in their other two meetings, too.

Bouchard has had a tough year since reaching the quarters of the Australian Open, so it is possible that the evergreen Kuznetsova could make the run through to the quarters instead. The Russian should first face No12 seed Karolina Pliskova in the third round.

Also in Kvitova’s eighth are teenage star Belinda Bencic, who has an intriguing first-round meeting against a woman 14 years her senior, Daniela Hantuchova.

Semi-finalist: Kvitova

Simona Halep’s quarter

No3 seed and 2014 runner-up had the privilege of opening the tournament on Philippe Chatrier against Evgeniya Rodina. She is confident, has shone on hard courts this year, and reached the semis in Rome before falling to in-form Suarez Navarro in a very close contest. Her first seed, though, is Alize Cornet, who beat her in the first round in Madrid, though the French woman has a tough opener against Nürnberg finalist Roberta Vinci.

Halep’s next seed should be Agnieszka Radwanska, who is in something of a slump this season, with Ivanovic a possible quarter-final opponent. Ivanovic has an interesting first seed in the shape of home favourite, Caroline Garcia, and is also searching for something like the form that won her only Major here in 2008. She has yet to reach the quarters again.

Radwanska could find her third-round seed, Elina Svitolina, a handful: the Ukrainian has won Marrakesh and reached the final in Bogota this spring.

Semi-finalist: Halep

Maria Sharapova’s quarter

There are certainly some trip-wires for Sharapova in this quarter, not least her Rome final opponent Suarez Navarro as a possible quarter-final opponent. The Spaniard also beat Bouchard, Kvitova and Halep to reach that final.

But Sharapova’s first test is the formidable non-seed Kaia Kanepi. Then she could face former finalist Stosur, fresh from the title in Strasbourg this weekend, in the third round, and the winner between Sabine Lisicki and Lucie Safarova in the fourth round.

Suarez Navarro has Flavia Pennetta as a dangerous first seed, then Garbine Muguruza or Kerber.

Semi-finalist: Sharapova

Final: Williams beats Sharapova

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