Rome Premier preview: More questions than answers for Williams, Azarenka, Kvitova and more

Serena Williams is set to make her return at the WTA tournament in Rome this week

As the women’s main draw gets under way for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at a very warm Foro Italico, it is, in truth, hard to predict what will happen.

Last week’s Premier Mandatory, the Mutua Madrid Open, suffered a catalogue of woes, some through injury, some via unexpectedly early losses, among the top ranks.

Before Madrid began, world No1 Serena Williams pulled out with illness, while Maria Sharapova, the defending Rome champion, remained suspended as she awaits her hearing on a failed doping test. Also out of Madrid with injury was another former champion, Venus Williams, followed by two of the tour’s favourites, Belinda Bencic and former finalist Caroline Wozniacki,

Defending Madrid champion Petra Kvitova lost in the third round—the 12th seed to do so before the tournament is half over. The top two seeds Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber were beaten in their first matches, while home favourite and No3 seed Garbine Muguruza lost in her second.

Lucie Safarova pulled out with illness in the second round, and then one of the favourites for the tournament, the Indian Wells and Miami champion Victoria Azarenka, withdrew with a back injury in the third.

The only seed by the quarter-finals was No6 Simona Halep, the one player whose form had looked uncertain after four first-round losses this season—and she went on to win her first title of the year.

Madrid, then, posed as many questions as answers, and already Rome is without Radwanska, Wozniacki and also Camila Giorgi. Meanwhile the losing Madrid finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, did not make the cut for the main draw—a pity given her surging form. But what of those who are here?

Serena Williams returns, but…

The world No1 is playing just her third tournament of the year, and her final runs at the Australian Open and Indian Wells were her first outings since a tired semi-final loss at the US Open last year. She looked under par during her truncated run in Miami too, and after her withdrawal from Madrid, Rome, where she has won the title three times across a span of more than a dozen years, became her first clay outing of 2016 and her only preparation for the French Open.

She has been here practising for several days and has taken a wild card with sister Venus into the doubles, but her comments ahead of her campaign here were cautious: “I wasn’t feeling really good for the past several weeks and even the past few days. But right now I’m better. I will see how I’m doing when I step on the court for the first time, but overall I think I’m feeling a lot better.”

With the likes of Ana Ivanovic in the third round, Halep possible in the quarters, and Azarenka in the semis, it will be no cake-walk. However, after her early withdrawal last year, she could regain valuable points with a decent run.

How is Azarenka?

2016 has seen an impressive renaissance for No4 seed Azarenka. From a high of No1 in 2012, her ranking was down to 48 little more than a year ago after repeated injury problems. Come 2016, she has won Brisbane, made the quarters at the Australian Open, and went from good to great to win the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami, beating Serena Williams for just the fourth time in 21 attempts.

With two Fed Cup wins and a run to the third round in Madrid before withdrawing, she enjoys a 26-1 run, but Spain has not been her only withdrawal: the same happened in Acapulco. So there remains a small question mark by her name—something she had to address in her pre-tournament press.

“[The back] is getting better, day by day. I still have a couple of days before my first match, so I’m hoping to be ready.”

And she would comment on that and her draw no further. Azarenka has, of course, shone on the hard courts—twice an Australian Open champion, twice a US Open finalist, and with nine Premier hard-court titles—but while clay may not be her first choice of surface, she has reached the final in Rome, the semis at Roland Garros, and is close to a 70 percent winning record on clay.

So if she is fit, she will like her chances at least as far as the semis here, for a possible renewal of her rivalry with Williams.

Kvitova’s draw and health problems

Rome may not be Kvitova’s favourite surface, but this year she reached the semis in Stuttgart, where she beat Muguruza, and did not play badly in her attempt to defend the Madrid title, though hampered by a niggling abdominal injury.

She does have a tough draw, though, opening against the 24-ranked Madison Keys, and she is lined up for No2 seed Angelique Kerber in the quarters—the woman who beat her in Stuttgart.

So Kvitova, too, was playing her fitness cards close to her chest.

“I came yesterday [Sunday]. I have been with my doctor and checking the stomach muscle, and he said it’s almost OK. I didn’t really practise and I practised yesterday for half an hour for the first time and today again. So that’s good. I don’t feel really pain. I’m just a little bit scared about it. But I think it’s in a good way. I’m just trying to hit as many balls as I can but still with a good balance, not really too much.”

Perhaps that does not inspire the greatest of confidence. So what about Kerber?

Kerber on the rebound

The No2’s first Grand Slam may have come on the hard courts of Australia, but the leader in the WTA Race won on clay in Stuttgart, as she did last year, and made the semis in Charleston. She has yet to pass the quarter-final stage at Roland Garros, however, making that a key target in a fortnight’s time, but she faces a big hurdle immediately in the shape of either Jelena Jankovic or Eugenie Bouchard. She could also end up being an opponent for British qualifier, Heather Watson, who scored an impressive win over former French Open and Rome finalist Sara Errani in her first round.

But Kerber is full of confidence. As she said ahead of her first match here:
“Clay, it was not always my favourite surface, but in the last years I learned to play on clay, and with the movement, it’s always a little bit different. But, I mean, I won last year Charleston, Stuttgart. Also this year I won Stuttgart. I think clay court getting closer to my favourite!”

Britons in the draw

Watson came through two rounds of qualifying and then set up a second round encounter against Barbora Strycova after beating Errani in an up and down three-setter. She was both pleased with her victory over a clay-court specialist on her home dirt, and also looking forward to the challenge posed by the contrast posed by Strycova:
“She’s a toughie… she can come to the net, she’s just got lots of variety and she’s a good fighter. That would be a really tough match on the clay.”

Top Briton, Johanna Konta, ranked 23, will try to turn a round two first-round losses on clay in Stuttgart and Madrid when she takes on qualifier Johanna Larsson. The No7 seed and home favourite Roberta Vinci will await the winner.

Former champions in draw: Serena Williams (three times), Jankovic (twice), Venus Williams (once)
Additional former runners-up: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Errani, Azarenka, Sam Stosur
Missing seeds: Missing from the top 16 are, No3 Radwanska, No8 Bencic, No10 Sharapova.

The draw (NB top eight have Round 1 byes)

Top half

No1 seed Williams quarter
R2, Anna-Lena Friedsam
R3, first seed, No13 Ana Ivanovic
QF, No9 Kuznetsova or No6 Halep are seeds
SF, No4 Azarenka, No10 Safarova, No7 seed Vinci are seeds

No4 seed Azarenka quarter
R2, Irina-Camelia Begu
R3, first seed, No16 Pliskova beaten by Daria Kasatkina
QF, No10 Safarova or No7 Vinci are seeds
SF, No1 S Williams, No13 Ivanovic, No9 Kuznetsova, and No6 Halep are seeds

Bottom half

No3 seed Muguruza quarter
R2, Ekaterina Makarova
R3, first seed, No15 Svitolina beaten by Monica Puig
QF, No8 Suarez Navarro or No11 Timea Bacsinszky are seeds
SF, No2 Kerber, No12 V Williams and No5 Kvitova are seeds

No2 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Jankovic or Bouchard
R3, first seed, No14 Errani, beaten by Watson
QF, No8 Suarez Navarro or No 11 Safarova are seeds
SF, No3 Muguruza, No11 Bacsinszky, or No8 Suarez Navarro

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