May 18, 2011

Last -Minute Cramming

Remember when you were in college and, despite all your good intentions, you would somehow find yourself pulling an all-nighter to finish up a paper or reading up on all the assignments you ignored before a final? Heck, a decade removed from that reality, I still have nightmares of being unprepared for the big day.

Maybe it's a similar lack of preparation that's prompted so many of the tennis elite to spend the last week before the French Open, not resting up after the recent flight of Premier and Masters events, but hitting the ground hard for even more match play.

The field in Brussels is surprisingly loaded, with four top-ten ladies in attendance. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki leads the pack, fresh off a semifinal finish in Rome. She hasn't won a ton of titles this clay court season, but she has hung around the draws a while, only losing in a third round once. And frankly that makes me a little worried for her this week. Set to go up against some top talent in Belgium, she will by no means have an easy ride to the title. She already survived a tough opener against Varvara Lepchenko, and with Yanina Wickmayer in the next round, things are just getting harder.

Leading the other half of the draw is Vera Zvonareva, who'll be seeded third in Paris now that Kim Clijsters has confirmed. Her presence in Brussels makes a little more sense to me, since unlike workhorse Caroline, the Russian hasn't gotten in a many successful workouts on the clay. She was pushed to three sets in four consecutive matches, and the only straight-setter was a loss to Petra Kvitova in the Madrid third round. Not exactly the kind of record she would have wanted going into her least successful Slam. Vera faces a strangely more accomplished Alexandra Dulgheru on Thursday, and if she can get in a few more wins after that, her chances next week might certainly get better.

Reigning French Open champ Francesca Schiavone will have a ton of points coming off her ranking in a few weeks, and she's doing what she can to rack up a bit of padding before that happens. She's only won a handful of matches this season and didn't try to defend her title in Barcelona, so there's a lot of ground to make up. But two wins to her name in Brussels is a good start, and if last year is any indication, it might be all she needs to go for the gold at Roland Garros.

Over in Dusseldorf, where individual performances are less important than team scores, Robin Soderling heads up the otherwise sparse Swedish team. Still, as he tries to go one better than his previous showings in Paris, it's probably a good choice. So far, he's won both his matches against Sam Querrey and Maximo Gonzalez, and though his county may not be able to advance out of the round robins, this Robin may have gotten his confidence back up after quarterfinal exits in Madrid and Rome.

A little closer to the action in Paris, David Ferrer is hoping to make up for missing last week's event in Italy -- where he had finished runner-up last year -- due to fever. He should be confident enough, having won a title in Acapulco and reaching two clay court finals already this year. But a trophy in Nice this week could bode well for his French Open chances -- after all, he took the crown in Auckland last January just before making his best-ever run in Melbourne.

Whether these guys have been procrastinating in notching their clay court wins, or are diligent students over-prepping for a Major test isn't entirely clear, but I have my suspicions. Hopefully they won't wear themselves out this week -- the challenges ahead only get tougher.

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