Many people, including me, thought Maria Sharapova’s decision to return to the tour in Warsaw was misguided. A premier level event on her worst surface in the week immediately prior to the French Open did not seem like the place to gain momentum or confidence. She would probably crash out early against a middling clay court specialist and be doubting herself and her comeback going into one of the biggest events of the year.
That was before. Now, she seems like a genius. The field has been decimated by withdrawals and only two seeds have advanced into the Quarterfinals. The toughest obstacle for Sharapova en route to the final now will be Alona Bondarenko – a tough player in her own right but not in Sharapova’s league. This event, where she appeared destined for an early loss, now looks like it could provide Sharapova with her first title on red clay. Even if she doesn’t win, she has already achieved the desperately needed momentum.
This doesn’t just apply to Sharapova. There are other players who can take advantage of the weakest Premier level field of the season. British hope Anne Keothavong used to avoid clay courts like the plague. In the last few years, she has made a concerted effort to improve her play on clay and it is showing. She is having the best clay season of her life and can certainly advance deep in this draw, potentially carrying that confidence through to next week. Dare we even day it? A British woman could actually put together a run at the French.
2009 has hardly been a season to remember for Daniela Hantuchova, but as the only seed left on the bottom half, she now looks like the clear favorite to make the final. She played a solid, if tense, match against clay specialist Llagostera Vives in the first round and advanced past hometown hope Urszula Radwanska in the second. A title here could put Hantuchova on track to salvage this season and return to where she belongs in the rankings.
While the withdrawals of Wozniacki and Radwanska seemed to hurt the field, they have actually created one of the more compelling events of the season. Sure, those two are more likely to make a French Open run than anyone left in this field (save for possibly Sharapova), but they have given this tournament the gift of the unexpected and provided a huge opportunity for ranking points, prize money, and momentum. And who knows what will happen in the coming days? An Olaru/Dulgheru final, anyone?