Reem Abulleil takes a closer look at the WTA action in Madrid and Rome in the build-up to Roland Garros and lists 10 things we learned from those two clay tournaments.
As the Premier-level Madrid-Rome double-header wraps up, the countdown for Roland Garros officially begins.
Both weeks in Spain and Italy were eventful and there were far too many revelations to ponder.
With the French Open less than a week away, here are 10 things we learned from the past two weeks of dirt action in Spain and Italy.
SVITOLINA’S A FINALS SPECIALIST
The Ukrainian once again heads to Roland Garros as one of the favourites having bagged a second Rome title in as many seasons.
Svitolina bageled Halep in Sunday’s final, and was ruthless in her delivery as she capped a week of victories over Petra Martic, Daria Kasatkina, Angelique Kerber and Anett Kontaveit with a straight-sets success over the reigning world No. 1.
Even more remarkable is Svitolina’s record in finals, which currently stands at 12-2. She has won her last eight consecutive finals and has now successfully defended a title for the third time in her career and second time this year.
The world No. 4 told reporters in Rome that a painful final defeat to Eugenie Bouchard in the 2012 Wimbledon junior tournament was a useful lesson that drove her to give her maximum in every title match she contested. It was an experience that continues to pay dividends six years later. Now can she go all the way in Paris?
Svitolina has never made it past the quarter-finals in a major but she is constantly improving. Last year’s inexplicable meltdown against Halep in the French Open quarter-finals that saw Svitolina lose from a set and 5-1 up against the Romanian was undoubtedly a painful experience. But considering how Svitolina has dealt with such mistakes in the past, last season’s Roland Garros could be just the lesson she needed to finally break through at a Grand Slam.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN FOR HALEP
Once again, Halep continues to perplex. Each time you feel the Romanian has taken strides forward, a hefty defeat comes along to pull her a few steps back. I still believe the Australian Open was a huge turning point for her as she showed the world how much fight she has in her.
But as many people have pointed out, between those courageous performances from Halep, there are also some pretty significant beatdowns she has taken.
Some would argue that that is the nature of a sport like tennis – you win some, you lose some, it’s a case of match-ups, the variables are too many to quantify and the women’s field is closely packed with too much talent on display within the world’s top-50.
But it’s worth noting that Halep has received either a bagel or a breadstick in seven different losses in the past nine months. Sometimes such lopsided defeats have been a result of injuries – another normal side of any sport that just seems to strike Halep a little too often.
Will this Rome final loss to Svitolina, for a second year in a row, dent Halep’s French Open chances? It didn’t really affect the Romanian last season, where she went on to make the final in Paris, before she was stunned by an on-fire Jelena Ostapenko.
Still I will leave you with this stat: Halep has lost six of her last seven finals.
As Svitolina has been showing a knack of turning the screw each time she reaches a final, it seems that Halep is developing a habit of lifting her foot off the gas pedal when she’s at that stage.
MARIA RISES IN ROME
Quarter-finals in Madrid and semi-finals in Rome mean that Maria Sharapova gets to return to the top-30 for the first time since she came back from her doping ban 13 months ago and she’s also snagged a seeding spot in the Roland Garros main draw.
Same time last year, Sharapova walked away from Rome injured and was denied a wildcard for the French Open.
It’s now 12 months later and the Russian five-time Grand Slam champion seems to be in a far better place.
In Madrid, she made her first Premier Mandatory quarter-final in three years before losing to Kiki Bertens while in Rome, she was at her grinding best, battling through three-setters against Ashleigh Barty, Dominika Cibulkova and Ostapenko before falling to Halep in three.
A gritty Sharapova is always the most dangerous version of the 31-year-old.
MAKE WAY FOR THE TALL BIG-HITTERS
We’ve seen powerful players enjoy more and more success on clay in recent months, even ones who are over 180cm tall and aren’t necessarily natural movers on the surface. Karolina Pliskova won nine clay matches in a row, taking the Stuttgart title before reaching the semis in Madrid while Petra Kvitova is on an 11-match winning streak on the red dirt with trophies clinched in Prague and Madrid.
Pliskova made semis last year at Roland Garros, while an all-out attacking Ostapenko became a Grand Slam champion there a couple of days later.
If the last few weeks on clay are anything to go by, don’t exclude the power-hitters from your list of French Open contenders!
Ranked a career-high No. 25, Kontaveit heads to Roland Garros with a 10-3 win-loss record on clay over the past six weeks. She’s made semis in Stuttgart and Rome, with her list of scalps in the latter looking like this: Coco Vandeweghe, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki. Seeded and in-form, Kontaveit is a player many will want to avoid in Paris.
QUESTION MARKS AROUND MUGURUZA
For a second time this season, Garbine Muguruza lost a clash after holding match points. She did it in her defeat to Daria Kasatkina in Dubai last February, and it happened again in her loss to Daria Gavrilova in Rome last week. Muguruza squandered a 4-0 lead in the deciding set of her Rome opener against Gavrilova and is now 2-3 since she won the title in Monterrey early last month.
You’ve got to wonder why the Spanish two-time Grand Slam champion keeps switching off like that?
PROGRESS FOR PENKO
Ostapenko’s three-set defeat to Sharapova in the Rome quarters is arguably the match of the tournament. And while her clay season so far has been patchy (QF in Stuttgart, R1 in Madrid, QF in Rome), the reigning French Open champion feels her runner-up showing in Miami helped her regain her confidence and she’ll obviously be a threat in Paris.
BERTENS AND MERTENS
A title win on green clay in Charleston and a runner-up showing in Madrid (beat Wozniacki, Sharapova, Caroline Garcia) make Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens a genuine contender at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Elise Mertens has a clay season that consists of 13 consecutive match wins that included title runs in Lugano and Rabat. She had to pull out of Rome with an illness but if she’s healthy in Paris, we can expect another strong showing from the Australian Open semi-finalist.
SAKKARI STEPS UP
Greece’s Maria Sakkari is having a memorable clay campaign, reaching semis in Istanbul and ousting Bertens and Karolina Pliskova in Rome en route to the last-16. Her reward is a place in the world’s top-40 for the first time in her career. The Spartan warrior could be a dark horse in Paris.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO GELATO
Before she handed Halep a walkover in the Rome third round due to a rib injury, Madison Keys claimed two solid wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Donna Vekic.
The world No. 13, who is a former Rome finalist, recently split with one of her coaches, Dieter Kindlmann, due to a breakdown in their communication. Keys was flying solo in Rome, and said she was getting scouting advice and tips from her boyfriend, ATP player Bjorn Fratangelo.
While her relationship with clay continues to be complicated, Keys did come up with one of my favourite lines in Rome, when discussing how she feels about the city and the tournament.
“It kind of helps in the sense of it’s like you have a good day, you go get gelato, you have a bad day, you go get gelato. At the end of the day you’re going to have gelato,” laughed the American.
Indeed, all roads lead to gelato!