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WTA Rome 2018 draw preview and matches to watch: Simona Halep and defending champion Elina Svitolina lead the Internazionali BNL d’Italia field

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 11 May 2018
  • Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki lead the Internazionali BNL d'Italia draw
  • Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis is live from Rome from 13-20 May 2018
Elina Svitolina returns to defend her title at the 2018 Internazionali BNL d'Italia, live from Rome from 13-20 May (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Four French Open champions, including Garbine Muguruza, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko, packed into one quarter of the draw? The 2018 Internazionali BNL d’Italia draw promises a fascinating week from 13-20 May. 

Even without Serena Williams, who announced her withdrawal, the 2018 Internazionali BNL d’Italia has an unbelievably packed draw full of intrigue as the top players of the WTA try to get one last big win before the climax of the clay-court season – the French Open.

The top four seeds in Rome are 2017 runner-up Simona Halep, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza and defending Internazionali BNL d’Italia champion Elina Svitolina, but the unseeded players are just as intriguing – especially former world no. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who could meet Halep in the second round, and three-time Rome winner Maria Sharapova, who put together a good run in Madrid and has landed in a quarter bracketed by the last two players to win Roland Garros, Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko.

Top quarter

Predicted quarterfinal: Simona Halep (1) vs Caroline Garca (7) (1-2)
A semifinalist at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in 2013-14 and runner-up in Rome 12 months ago, when she might have won the title were it not for a rolled ankle in the final, two-time French Open runner-up Simona Halep has to be a huge favourite for the title – despite a tricky draw.

Ousted in the quarterfinals of Madrid where she was the defending champion by an on-fire Karolina Pliskova, Halep has to fight for her world no. 1 ranking again this week but her biggest incentive will be gaining plenty of confidence ahead of Paris. She has no time to play herself into form, however – after a first-round bye, Halep will face either former world no. 1 Victoria Azarenka or Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka. 

It gets a little easier from there, but not much: Former Rome runner-up Madison Keys is her projected third-round opponent, but could be displaced by classy, experienced Carla Suarez Navarro or Magdalena Rybarikova. In the quarterfinals, Halep is seeded to face either Miami champion Sloane Stephens – a danger to anyone when she’s in the mood – or Caroline Garcia. Seventh-seeded Garcia made the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, but suffered a demoralizing defeat to Kiki Bertens at the latter and much depends on how she bounces back. If she can put everything that happened in Madrid against Bertens behind her, Garcia should make the quarterfinals, with Stephens the most realistic threat in a soft mini-section of the draw. But Halep should conquer here.  

Semifinalist: Halep

Second quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Garbine Muguruza (3) vs Jelena Ostapenko (5) (3-1)
The last two women to win the French Open in the same quarter of the draw at a classic clay event like Rome – it should lead to a blockbuster quarterfinal. But it’s difficult to see that developing with the up-and-down form of both women coming into this event.

Garbine Muguruza struggled once more in Madrid, looking ineffectual at plenty of moments against Daria Kasatkina before exiting in the round of 16. It’s true that the world no. 3 is capable of finding form out of nowhere, and she does play better in Rome than Madrid – she’s made two straight semifinals at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. But she has one extremely tough draw, starting with the clay-loving Daria Gavrilova (probably, and also a former Rome semifinalist) in the second round. She’s seeded to face Ashleigh Barty, who pushed Caroline Wozniacki very hard in Madrid, in the third round, but it’s much more likely that she’ll be up against Barty’s first-round opponent instead – a certain Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova, champion in Rome in 2011, 2012 and 2015, plays beautifully at the Foro Italico and the Russian’s return to clay seems to have revived her – she snapped a four-match losing streak in Madrid and got three wins against decent opponents before falling to an inspired Bertens. Barty is a brilliant youngster but doesn’t quite have the clay-court nous yet to beat Sharapova, in my mind, and neither Francesca Schiavone – another former French Open champion! – nor Dominika Cibulkova in the second round are playing well enough to stop the Russian.

So, a Muguruza-Sharapova third-round match looks very much on the cards and could be spectacular – and I’m not at all sure I like Muguruza to win it, the way she’s been playing recently (she’s also 0-3 against Sharapova).

The bottom half of this quarter is also intriguing. Jelena Ostapenko played well in Miami, but was fairly woeful in a first-round exit in Madrid; can the Latvian gather some confidence ahead of her French Open title defense by doing well in Rome? Prague runner-up Mihaela Buzarnescu or Zhang Shuai could both be tricky opening opponents, and I can see Buzarnescu in particular frustrating Ostapenko into a storm of errors – but if she gets through that one, she should be fine against either Petra Kvitova, or (much more likely) Kvitova’s slumping first-round opponent Johanna Konta, who should be able to end the Czech’s run after Kvitova has to make a quick transition from Madrid, where she is into the final. 

Anything could happen in this quarter – it could be an Ostapenko-Sharapova quarterfinal, or a Buzarnescu-Barty quarterfinal, or something even more surprising. But based on her record in Rome and the positive signs we saw in Madrid, Sharapova, bizarrely, is probably the safest set of hands.

Semifinalist: Sharapova

Third quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Karolina Pliskova (6) vs Elina Svitolina (4) (5-2)
A semifinalist at the French Open last year, Karolina Pliskova has emerged as a slightly unexpected force to be reckoned with this clay season, putting together a nine-match winning streak that saw her win in Stuttgart and make the semifinals in Madrid before Kvitova stopped her run – will she do well in Rome?

Thanks to the vagaries of the draw, Pliskova could open her campaign against Kiki Bertens, whose superb run in Madrid has taken her to the final, in the second round – a match which could very easily have been the Madrid final. Beyond that, however, there’s a packed section led by Angelique Kerber, who missed Madrid due to injury; Kerber’s first-round opponent Ekaterina Makarova, who is out of form but has a storied head-to-head against the former world no. 1; Peng Shuai; and Irina-Camelia Begu, who is brilliant on clay and was a semifinalist in Rome in 2016. With the fatigue concerns, it’s quite difficult to imagine either Pliskova or Bertens getting through all that lot.

Meanwhile, defending champion Elina Svitolina will be raring to put together a good run here after not making much of an impression in Stuttgart (beaten by Caroline Garcia in the quarterfinals) or Madrid (where she let victory slip through her fingers against Carla Suarez Navarro). Petra Martic in the second round is not an easy opponent, nor is Daria Kasatkina in the third round. Kasatkina is the only real wildcard in this quarter that can stop Svitolina, as far as I can see – but the Russian hasn’t really played well since her runner-up finish at Indian Wells and has been struggling with the increased expectation a bit. A third-round match between her and Svitolina could tell us a lot about where they both are, but I don’t think it will stop the Ukrainian’s title defense in its tracks.

Semifinalist: Svitolina

Fourth quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Venus Williams (8) vs Caroline Wozniacki (2) (7-1)
Given that neither Venus Williams nor Caroline Wozniacki really thrives on clay, this could be the quarter that throws up an unexpected semifinalist in Rome.

Wozniacki has plenty of incentive to improve on her third-round exit to Kiki Bertens in Madrid – she could retake the world no. 1 ranking this week, although it looks unlikely. The Dane has barely played Rome in recent years, and in fact is on a three-match losing streak at the Italian Open, so that potentially makes all her early opponents dangerous – and some of them are: Former French Open runner-up Sam Stosur in the second round (although woefully out of form) and Anastasija Sevastova, a Madrid semifinalist last year, in the third, with the slumping (but always capable of turning it around) Kiki Mladenovic an alternative opponent dependent on her first-round clash with Sevastova.

Matters for Venus Williams are not much better. She opens against either Elena Vesnina or Laura Siegemund, a fantastically tricky player on clay and a Stuttgart champion in 2017 (but newly returned from injury), and the section that will provide her third-round opponent is absolutely packed: Firstly with Coco Vandeweghe, who made a surprise run to the final in Stuttgart; secondly with Vandeweghe’s first-round opponent Anett Kontaveit, a semifinalist in Stuttgart who ousted Williams last week in Madrid; and thirdly with former French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. I’m going to back Kontaveit to get through this section and meet Sevastova in the quarterfinals – and prove once again she’s going to be a formidable force on the WTA. 

Semifinalist: Kontaveit

Semifinals: Halep d. Sharapova
Svitolina d. Kontaveit

Final: Halep d. Svitolina

Internazionali BNL d’Italia tennis is live from Rome from 13-20 May 2018. Click here to find out how to watch live tennis action online. 

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WTA Rome 2018 draw preview and matches to watch: Simona Halep and defending champion Elina Svitolina lead the Internazionali BNL d’Italia field

WTA Internazionali BNL d’Italia 2018 tennis is live from Rome from 13-20 May with French Open champions Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova all packed into one quarter of the draw

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