Sharapova surging after Paris run
PARIS -- Typically, the French Open is unpredictable but this year's fortnight at Roland Garros on the women's side was almost incomprehensible.
The top three seeds were all gone before the fourth round, a first for an Open era Grand Slam, and so were six of the top 11 overall. Serena Williams and Li Na, who had won three of the four previous majors, were second- and first-round casualties.
Entering the grass-court season -- as you read this, they're already hitting balls on a living carpet in Birmingham, England -- the top women are all over the place. Here is an up-or-down accounting of who's trending, for better or for worse:
No. 1 Serena Williams: In her all-or-nothing world, Serena has always performed better when you put someone like Maria Sharapova in front of her. Problem was, it was Garbine Muguruza, who was a middling 2-2 in Madrid and Rome. The 20-year-old Spaniard handed Williams her worst Grand Slam beating ever, 6-1, 6-2. Serena's past three years in Paris: lost in the first round, won the title, lost in the second.
No. 2 Li Na: In some ways her departure was even more surprising. Li, the 2011 French Open champion, was stunned in the first round by a 21-year-old Frenchwoman, Kristina Mladenovic, who was ranked at No. 103 in the world. Li reached the quarterfinals in both Madrid and Rome, but goes into Wimbledon scuffling.
No. 3 Simona Halep: The 22-year-old Romanian reached her first Grand Slam final -- and she distinguished herself. Halep pushed Sharapova to the first three-set women's final in 13 years and many believe she will win a future title at Roland Garros.
No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska: The clever Polish player was also upended by another upstart, Ajla Tomljanovic from Croatia. The third-round score was 6-4, 6-4. Radwanska, who made the semifinals in Madrid and the quarters in Rome, is a counterpuncher whose game doesn't play well on the dirt.
No. 5 Maria Sharapova: How about 20 consecutive three-set wins on clay? Or a second title at Roland Garros, her most unlikely surface on which to succeed? Or 142-43 for her career in three-set matches. That is some serious grit. Sharapova has been the most consistent performer so far this year and heads into Wimbledon with some serious momentum.
No. 8 Victoria Azarenka: So far, the two-time Australian Open champion has scored an incomplete for the 2014 season. She injured a foot before the Australian Open, but fought through to the quarters, where she lost to Radwanska. Since then? One match in Indian Wells, a loss to American Lauren Davis. No one knows if she'll take a swing at the grass circuit.
No. 12 Eugenie Bouchard: No other woman reached the semifinals of this year's first two Slams. That's how good this 20-year-old Canadian is. Sure, she lost to Sharapova in Paris, but pushed her to three sets -- where Maria is pure death. Utterly fearless in big points, goes for the lines. Huge upside going forward.
No. 19 Sloane Stephens: In a battle we should be seeing for another decade, Stephens fell in straight sets to Simona Halep in the fourth round. She played tentatively, afraid to make a mistake. When she's willing to hammer her forehand, she'll take the next step. Stephens has now been to at least the fourth round of the past six majors, something no other women can say.