Tough tests for Victoria Azarenka
What will the ever-adventurous organizers of the Madrid Open think of next? Black tennis balls? An all-pink dress code?
The blue courts have been a major talking point leading into the event and will no doubt garner more attention in the early rounds. But later in the week, it'll all be about the tennis.
In the women's draw, Maria Sharapova is looking to win a second consecutive big clay-court title after crushing world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in Stuttgart, and Serena Williams contests her first European clay-court tournament since the French Open in 2010.
Here's a breakdown.
First quarter: Tests for Vika
Azarenka's tussle with Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round is intriguing at first glance. After all, Kuznetsova owns two Grand Slam titles, one coming on clay, and possesses a 4-2 record against Azarenka.
However, let's dig deeper: Azarenka is playing the best tennis of her career and crushed Kuznetsova in Indian Wells, and the Russian has beaten one top-five player in the past three years. In her last match in Fes, Kuznetsova blew a 6-1, 5-2 lead, which won't come as a surprise to many. Azarenka will advance comfortably.
Tougher opponents await.
Azarenka could tangle with a rejuvenated Ana Ivanovic in the third round and the ever-improving Angelique Kerber in the fourth. Although clay isn't Azarenka's preferred surface, the faster conditions in Madrid should help. Azarenka reached last year's final.
Second quarter: Radwanska's to lose
If she took a close look at her quarter, fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska would be all smiles, more so now that Marion Bartoli lost Saturday. What she won't be too pleased about is that another head-to-head match with Azarenka looms in the semifinals. Uh-oh. All five of Radwanska's losses in 2012 have come against Azarenka, with the last three of the lopsided variety.
Sara Errani will give Radwanska a match if they meet in the second round, some would say, since the plucky Italian won on clay in Acapulco, Barcelona and then Budapest on Saturday. Yet during that spell, Errani didn't have to face a top-15 player.
Third quarter: It's Petra or Sam
She had her lull. Now it's time for Petra Kvitova to make another charge.
Kvitova's health woes of recent months are behind her, and she beefed up her fitness during a training block in Turkey. Even if she lost to Sharapova in the Stuttgart semis, it was a good week and something to build on.
Kvitova, the defending champion in Madrid, has little to trouble her in the first few rounds. She starts with New Zealand's Marina Erakovic and lands either a qualifier or Peng Shuai in the second round. Erakovic reached the final in Memphis and semifinals in Budapest but hasn't ousted a top-50 player all season. Peng, meanwhile, is having a difficult time backing up her consistent 2011.
All roads lead to a Kvitova-Samantha Stosur match in the fourth round, despite the Aussie's nervy win over Petra Martic on Saturday. Stosur has finally steadied after a dismal Australian summer, going 8-2 on dirt this season, and came close to eliminating Sharapova -- who she routinely struggles against -- in Stuttgart.
Fourth quarter: Maria versus Serena?
Remember last summer, when Maria Sharapova said she hoped to tangle with Serena Williams? She got her wish and was pitted against Williams in Stanford. Unfortunately, the hype surpassed the match, with Williams beating Sharapova so convincingly that she offered up sympathetic applause as the Russian left the court.
A possible fourth-round clash between the two in Madrid would have to be closer, and we can only hope it happens. Sharapova is surging following her success in Stuttgart, and Williams romped to the title in Charleston in her previous tournament. Williams' opener, against Elena Vesnina, might be tricky. Vesnina is in one of those patches in which she's playing well.
With the focus on Sharapova and Williams, Caroline Wozniacki has little pressure. But Wozniacki, in a strong section, will do well to survive the second round .
Semifinals: Azarenka def. Radwanska, Kvitova def. Williams