The women take to Toronto on Monday for the Rogers Cup. Chris Skelton previews the action and offers his picks.
Nine of the top ten women convene for the first of two consecutive Premier Five tournaments in the U.S. Open Series. While Montreal hosts an ATP Masters 1000 tournament, Toronto welcomes the cream of the WTA. Who will seize the chance to make a commanding statement ahead of the US Open?
First quarter: A champion when she last appeared in Toronto, world No. 1 Serena Williams looms above a quarter with six qualifiers. The section does not lack women with strong credentials, however, for it includes three major champions and Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens in addition to Serena. Flipkens faces the most famous unseeded player in the draw, Venus Williams, to start the tournament. The elder Williams has faded to a shadow of her former self, and the prospect of facing her sister in the third round cannot inspire Venus. Serena may open her U.S. Open Series campaign against former Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone, while reigning Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli could await in the quarterfinals. Expect Bartoli to suffer a hangover in the wake of that astonishing title run, from which an unheralded player could profit. That player could be Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won a set from Serena at Roland Garros and enters the draw as a lucky loser after the withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka.
Semifinalist: Serena Williams
Second quarter: Over the last two weeks, Agnieszka Radwanska has shown signs of vulnerability that should embolden players around her. Plenty of young talent surrounds her in the draw’s most open section, such as Wimbledon quarterfinalist Sloane Stephens. Much more impressive at majors than non-majors this year, Stephens must defuse the heavy serve of Kristina Mladenovic in the first round. Radwanska’s opener might prove just as challenging against the fierce lefty forehands of Laura Robson, who defeated her in Madrid but imploded last week in Carlsbad. Another woman who defeated Radwanska on clay this spring, Sara Errani has shown that she can excel on hard courts as well as clay. Errani reached the quarterfinals at both Indian Wells and Miami, and few of the players in this section can overpower her. Standing in her path is the highest-ranked Russian in Toronto, Maria Kirilenko. The “other Maria” recently cracked the Top 10 and defeated Radwanska at Indian Wells, but she has struggled against Errani. Whoever does advance will arrive a heavy underdog in the semifinals.
Semifinalist: Sara Errani
Third quarter: When we last saw Li Na, she emerged from a clay slump to reach the threshold of the Wimbledon semifinals. A clash of fellow Roland Garros champions could loom in the third round against Ana Ivanovic, a semifinalist in Carlsbad last week. Never has 2012 Rogers Cup finalist Li played a completed match against Ivanovic, whereas she has compiled a strong record against the other two seeds in this section. The Chinese star crushed Roberta Vinci at Wimbledon and has won her last three meetings from Angelique Kerber, although she lost to the latter at Indian Wells last year. Li’s greatest threats often come from the least expected sources, which suggests that Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova could catch her off guard in her opener. In fact, unseeded players could spring early upsets throughout this section. Stanford champion Dominika Cibulkova will fancy her chances against Kerber in the second round, and Urszula Radwanska will aim for a second-round repeat of her victory over Ivanovic this spring. This section has the potential to be anything from explosive to a house of cards.
Semifinalist: Li Na
Fourth quarter: Defending champion Petra Kvitova caught fire around this time last year, but the 2012 U.S. Open Series winner generally struggles in North America.Dismal at Carlsbad, Kvitova could meet a resurgent Samantha Stosur in the third round. Kvitova has held the upper hand over the Aussie in general, never losing to her on a hard court, but recent form suggests that Stosur will reverse this trend. Near them stands former semifinalist Alisa Kleybanova, unlucky to launch her comeback against young Canadian talent Eugenie Bouchard. Home hopes proliferate in a section with three wildcards, but the quality of their competition should forestall a deep run for any of them. With Azarenka’s withdrawal, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki moved from Serena’s quarter into a top-eight position here. Often at her best on North American hard courts, Wozniacki will seek her second Rogers Cup title a few months after reaching the Indian Wells final. She has held the upper hand in recent years against fellow counter-puncher Jelena Jankovic, a Miami semifinalist this year who awaits her in the final 16.
Semifinalist: Samantha Stosur
Final: Serena Williams vs. Samantha Stosur
Champion: Serena Williams