No. 1 Serena Williams takes her undefeated record into the biggest French Open lead-up event of the season at the Madrid Open, a WTA Premier Mandatory event. Serena and No. 2 Simona Halep are the top two seeds, but it's Serena who may have the most difficult draw of anyone in the field—a remarkable statement given the number of blockbuster first round matches littering the draw. Only three players out of the entire Top 20 in the WTA Rankings will not play in Madrid, making the field highly-competitive.
Main draw play at the Madrid Open begins on Monday. Here are the top storylines and under-the-radar players to watch out for as the players battle it out on clay:
Serena could play Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams back-to-back
Though she played and won two clay court matches in Fed Cup last month, this will be Serena's first tournament on clay and she will not have the luxury of playing herself into form. Serena opens against fellow American Madison Brengle, who is coming off a semifinal run at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart last week. She then has a possible second round match against Sloane Stephens and a potential third round match against either her sister Venus or Victoria Azarenka. And that's just to get to the quarterfinals. From there she could play the likes of Carla Suarez Navarro or Ana Ivanovic, with Petra Kvitova, Andrea Petkovic, Sara Errani and Eugenie Bouchard looming in the semifinals.
Unless the draw completely falls apart with early round upsets, this is tougher than any road Serena might get at a major.
Defending champion Maria Sharapova handed a tough first round match
On the short list of players you don't want to face right now, Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky is on the list—and that's precisely who Sharapova drew in the first round. Ranked at a career-high No. 21, Bacsinszky lost just two matches since the Australian Open, with two titles in the spring in Acapulco and Monterrey and an undefeated Fed Cup record so far this year. Sharapova, who lost her opening round match in Stuttgart to Angelique Kerber in three sets, is riding a three match losing streak and needs to get some wins under her belt before heading to Paris to defend her title.
If she gets past the first round, Sharapova's road gets slightly easier. She would play either Heather Watson or a qualifier in the second round, with a possibly fatigued Karolina Pliskova or Caroline Garcia in the third. Win through to the quarterfinals and she could play No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki in a match that would be a great litmus test for both players, given how well Wozniacki played to get to the Stuttgart final.
Venus Williams and Victoria Azarenka clash in the first round
Azarenka's bad luck draws continue. Her opening round opponents at three of her last five tournaments include Kerber, Stephens (with Wozniacki in the second round) and Pliskova, and in Indian Wells she drew Sharapova in the third round. Now, in her first clay tournament of the season—other than Fed Cup she has not played since Miami—she drew Venus. The match has potential French Open implications, as both women are on the cusp of important seed placements with Azarenka currently ranked No. 31 and Venus ranked No. 16. A first round loss for either woman would put more pressure on their results at the Italian Open in Rome the following week.
Simona Halep gets a favorable draw
The No. 2 seed opens against a struggling Alize Cornet and would then play either Monica Puig or Roberta Vinci. As far as opening round matches go, Halep can't complain about that slate. The test will likely begin in the quarterfinals, where she could play the red-hot Kerber, who is riding an eleven-match win streak and winning the two biggest clay titles of the season so far. From there she could either face Sharapova in the semifinals, a rematch of last year's final, or Wozniacki, a rematch of their Stuttgart semifinal which the Dane won in three sets. Navigate that field and she could get her first crack at Serena on clay. That would be a must-watch final.
Under the radar names to watch in Madrid
- Madison Keys: Keys opens against the erratic but talented Kaia Kanepi in the first round and could play Kerber in the second round. Keys led Kerber by a break in the third set in their Charleston final and the conditions at altitude in Madrid could be a boon to her big serve. It could also trouble her control off the ground. We'll have to see.
Eugenie Bouchard: Bouchard's 0-2 performance at Fed Cup has to be rock bottom. The only way is up. After pulling out of Stuttgart to focus on practice, No. 6 Bouchard returns to competition in hopes of just getting wins. This is a crucial stretch for Bouchard, as she's defending not only her French Open semifinal in a few weeks but also her title points from Nürnberg. In the most ironic result of the draw, Bouchard will play her first round match against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. The Czech veteran has never been shy about teaching the proper handshake etiquette to young rising stars.
- Petra Kvitova: The Czech lost to Brengle in straight sets in Stuttgart, but like Serena, Keys and Sharapova, Madrid's quicker conditions could feed into her game. She opens against a qualifier and could play either Sabine Lisicki or CoCo Vandeweghe in the second round. If she can get some confidence this week on clay—her worst surface—she could be a factor in Paris.
- Garbine Muguruza: After a very strong start to the season, the young Spaniard has been struggling. She has not won back-to-back matches since making the semifinals in Dubai in February. The top seed in Marrakech last week, she lost in the second round to Kristina Mladenovic.