Ash Barty’s stellar form, Naomi Osaka’s return and the presence of home favourite Garbine Muguruza are among the storylines awaiting fans when the Madrid Open WTA event begins Thursday.
In yet another example of the strength throughout the women’s ranks, first-round clashes between Grand Slam champions precede some exciting projected match-ups deeper into the tournament.
Seventeen of the world’s top 20 will compete at the Caja Magica; one noticeable withdrawal is world No.6 Bianca Andreescu, who tested positive to COVID-19 upon her arrival in Madrid. Andreescu’s fellow Slam champions Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin are also absent.
Yet even without that trio of stars, the women’s draw remains extremely compelling.
Can Barty continue to assert herself as a dominant world No.1? The Aussie has won two of her past three tournaments and 12 of her past 13 matches heading into Madrid, where she will be aiming for a fourth title in 2021. Barty opens against Shelby Rogers – their fourth meeting already this season – before a possible third-round meeting with No.14 seed Iga Swiatek.
“Obviously it's nice to be back on red clay,” said Barty, riding an 11-match winning streak on the surface. “Probably the biggest thing (in Madrid) is the change of balls and the change of altitude. It certainly does travel through the air a lot quicker and for longer. The courts here are extremely receptive to spin.”
Madrid will see the return of Osaka, playing for the first time since Miami and who will be debuting on clay in 2021. The reigning AO champion, who begins her campaign against fellow Japanese Misaki Doi, has only ever reached one tour-level semifinal on clay (Stuttgart 2019).
While Barty and Osaka are the world’s top two players, Muguruza leads the tour with 21 match-wins this season. The Spaniard, working her way back toward the top 10, hopes to carry her excellent form into her home tournament, where only once in eight visits has she passed the second round, and has never reached the quarterfinals.
“Once you start a clay season, just a little bit nervous. I love this surface. I want to do well, as always. Trying to not have too much expectation,” Muguruza said. “I'm not thinking too much. I'm just letting it go, just keep doing what I've been doing.”
Unlike Muguruza, world No.3 Simona Halep has flourished in Madrid, winning the title twice (2016, 2017) in four finals appearances. Back on her favourite surface, the Romanian faces in-form Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo and will look to build on last week’s semifinal finish in Stuttgart.
“I feel good. I feel happy to be here. My game looks good. I have nothing more to ask,” Halep said.
Best first-round matches
Garbine Muguruza v Sloane Stephens
A battle between major champions who produce some of their best tennis on clay, Muguruza and Stephens have split four career meetings and their two on clay, with Muguruza winning their most recent match in Rome 2020.
Angelique Kerber v Marketa Vondrousova
Three-time major champion Kerber plays fellow lefty Vondrousova, who rose to fame with her 2019 Roland Garros final run. The winner will likely meet ninth seed Petra Kvitova, whose three Madrid titles are the most of any player in the field.
Svetlana Kuznetsova v Jelena Ostapenko
A match featuring former French Open champions, Kuznetsova’s heavy spin and fluid clay movement contrast with Ostapenko’s flat, first-strike power. Ostapenko won their only previous meeting, more than five years ago in Doha.
Jennifer Brady v Venus Williams
The winner of Kuznetsova-Ostapenko will play one of these big-hitting Americans. Brady’s recent form – she was a finalist at AO 2021 – and greater shape on her shots suggest favouritism, but 91st-ranked Williams has won nine clay-court titles and is a former Madrid finalist.
Karolina Pliskova v Coco Gauff
Tour veteran Pliskova takes on rising teenage star Gauff, with the winner to play the victor of another intriguing battle between Madison Keys and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Those women all appear in the same loaded section featuring Williams, Brady, Kuznetsova and Ostapenko.
Should Barty and Swiatek progress to the last 16 in the top section of the draw, it would mark a battle between the two most recent Roland Garros champions, and their first ever meeting.
Also in the top quarter of the draw, Kvitova could face Kiki Bertens in the third round, a rematch of their epic Madrid final of 2018, which Kvitova won. Bertens then won the 2019 title, and is thus the defending champion.
In the bottom half, Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka could also meet at the same stage of the event, but Azarenka must navigate a tough path to get there; she opens against Stuttgart quarterfinalist Ekaterina Alexandrova, before a second-round meeting with last week’s Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea or Jessica Pegula, who beat Azarenka at AO2021.
Whoever comes through the dense Pliskova-Brady section could in the quarterfinals face Osaka, who is aiming to make an increasing impact on clay.
“It's exciting to go into the clay-court swing because I haven't won a tournament on clay yet,” Osaka said. “Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of, like, stress because I really want to do well here.”
But first, Osaka may in the last 16 confront Maria Sakkari, who snapped Osaka’s 23-match winning streak in Miami.