The Madrid Open final saw two players who had already won 2018 titles on clay face off. Are these next few weeks – including the Italian Open – more about clay-court specialists than elite players with general experience? With something unexpected happening every week, WTA predictions are becoming the hardest of guessing games.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Simona Halep  vs Caroline Garcia  (Halep leads H2H 3-1)
Simona Halep will be disappointed that her quest for a third straight Madrid Open title was stalled in the quarter-finals by Karolina Pliskova, but there are positives to take into her Rome quest. The Romanian was beaten by an in-form player who had already scored big on dirt this season, and prior to this she had thrashed three notable opponents. Heading into the Italian Open, she and coach Darren Cahill will have a fresh determination – as well as finalist points to defend.
Unfortunately for the Romanian, she couldn’t really have drawn a tougher opener. The winner of the clash between Victoria Azarenka – a two-time Grand Slam champion and major threat on every surface – and Indian Wells victor Naomi Osaka will face her in the second round, and both women have beaten her before. Osaka, 20, thrashed her in the desert a couple of months ago and pushed her hard at the 2016 French Open, while Azarenka – despite never having faced her on clay – destroyed her in their first two meetings.
It is hard to say whether Halep would come through that encounter. Should she emerge from it, no. 13 seed Madison Keys is her projected third round opponent, but the 2017 US Open finalist is in poor form at present. Carla Suarez Navarro, Spain’s former top ten player, clawed her way into the Madrid quarter-finals after knocking off 4th seeded Elina Svitolina last week, and is also in the running to take on the Romanian, while Magdalena Rybarikova – who took a set off Halep in Stuttgart, but is currently on a three-match losing streak – could also await a rematch.
Meanwhile, Caroline Garcia will be looking to capitalise on her run to the Madrid Open semifinals. The 24-year-old Frenchwoman – who first gained recognition after taking Maria Sharapova to the brink at her home Grand Slam – could open against former French Open finalist Sara Errani or Timea Babos: the current doubles partner of ex-friend Kristina Mladenovic.
Given Errani’s lack of recent success and Babos’ lack of clay-court success in general, Garcia will likely progress to a third round meeting with no. 9 seed Sloane Stephens – who, despite her straightforward losses against Coco Vandeweghe and Karolina Pliskova already this clay-court season, will like her chances of emerging from a bracket featuring Barbora Strycova, Italian wild card Camilla Rosatello and a qualifier.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Simona Halep
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Garbine Muguruza  vs Jelena Ostapenko  (Muguruza leads H2H 3-1)
A third round loss to 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina in Madrid is not the standard 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza expects from herself. Nevertheless, the Spaniard was forced to retire injured from her prior tournament, and may simply be taking her time to rediscover her groove.
A semifinalist here last season, the 24-year-old will open her Rome campaign against Aussie counter-puncher Daria Gavrilova or American prodigy Catherine “CiCi” Bellis – neither of whom have achieved much on clay-courts to date. Muguruza should definitely be expected to win that collision, with the third round potentially posing a tougher test. Out-of-form former top players Francesca Schiavone and Dominika Cibulkova – who face off in round one – could ask questions of the Spaniard should either of them meet her, but a stiffer challenge is likely to come from one of the other two possible opponents. Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova finally displayed a little of her old clay-court ability in Madrid, while no. 16 seed Ashleigh Barty – a doubles finalist at Roland Garros in 2017 – has the exploding repertoire to do any woman damage on any surface.
On the other side of the quarter, defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko has something to prove after crashing out of Madrid in her opening match. Granted, the Latvian had an awkward second round meeting with clay-court specialist Irina-Camelia Begu, but – however risky her game style – these are the sort of matches she should be winning on a regular basis.
The 20-year-old will kick off against Zhang Shuai or Prague Open finalist Mihaela Buzarnescu in a highly winnable opening encounter, before a potentially dangerous encounter with Madrid Open champion Petra Kvitova – who claimed her third title at the event with a marathon victory over Kiki Bertens – in round three. But no. 10 seed Kvitova – already a clay-court title winner this season – looked exhausted after the final, and it would be a quick turnaround to take on recent top ten player Johanna Konta in the first round of the Italian Open. Given Konta’s own struggles and her few clay-court victories, Ostapenko – if she makes round three – could find herself up against a qualifier.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Garbine Muguruza
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Elina Svitolina  vs Karolina Pliskova  (Pliskova leads H2H 5-2)
Clay has never been Elina Svitolina’s standout surface, but she is the defending champion in Rome – and a second round Madrid Open loss came unexpectedly.
The Ukrainian will hope to avoid a second successive exit in the last 32 in Italy, with Lesia Tsurenko and Petra Martic her potential opponents. While Svitolina has never faced Tsurenko, she will probably hope to avoid Martic and her looping groundstrokes. All three of their previous meetings have come on dirt, and the duo have split both of their completed matches – both of them three-setters.
If Svitolina makes round three, no. 14 seed Daria Kasatkina – a quarter-finalist in Madrid, with a consistent groundstroke game that fits clay well – would be her most tricky opposition, although two qualifier spots are still waiting to be filled.
Meanwhile, Karolina Pliskova did not play her best tennis during a Madrid semifinal loss to Petra Kvitova, but is still looking comfortable on the clay this season. It will be vital that she maintains her good form if she comes up against Madrid finalist Kiki Bertens – a five-time WTA title winner, and one of the few players on tour that does not attempt to play a hard-court game on clay – in the second round. If Bertens – who does not receive a first round bye – is feeling the swift transition and stumbles in round one, Pliskova will surely be happier to face promising Greek star Maria Sakkari, whose best results have come on hard-courts.
Should she survive for round three, world no. 11 Angelique Kerber – who had a promising start to the season, but prefers to compete on faster surfaces – is on track to take on Pliskova, with Irina-Camelia Begu – a former semifinalist in Rome – also in the mix.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Karolina Pliskova
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Caroline Wozniacki  vs Venus Williams  (Venus leads H2H 7-1)
The materialisation of projected quarter-finals are currently the most uncommon thing in tennis, but should this one occur, the head-to-head must not deceive. Venus Williams struggled minimally in winning her first six meetings with Caroline Wozniacki, but has never faced her on clay – the American’s least successful surface. And in their last meeting – on the slow courts of the WTA Finals final – Wozniacki notched her first victory of their rivalry.
Wozniacki, who fell in the Madrid third round to Bertens, potentially opens her campaign Samantha Stosur. But given the 2011 US Open champion’s perpetual struggle to grasp match wins against any opponent, the Dane could just as easily find herself up against a qualifier. In a favourable draw, the most difficult of her third round opponents could well be Madrid Open doubles finalist Kristina Mladenovic: one of the best clay-courters of last season, still struggling to rediscover her old singles form. Nevertheless, many eyes will be on former US Open finalist Roberta Vinci in this quarter. The Italian – renowned for her backhand slice – opens the final tournament of her career against a qualifier, and could face the winner of Mladenovic’s clash with Anastasia Sevastova in round three.
Finally, Venus Williams’ quest for a first 2018 clay-court victory – after apparently taking some time to relax in Madrid following a first round exit – begins against the winner of Elena Vesnina’s encounter with Laura Siegemund. Siegemund – a legitimate French Open contender last season after winning the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix – returned from almost a year of injury at the beginning of this year’s clay-court season, only to pick up another ailment at the WTA event in Rabat the week prior to Madrid. If she is fit, she could at least trouble if not beat Williams, who has shown little to no sign of her stellar form of last season so far this year.
Big-hitting Coco Vandeweghe – a surprise presence in the Stuttgart final in April – is likely to await the winner of Williams’ second round clash, with former Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anett Kontaveit – who delivered the elder Williams sister her opening round Madrid loss – also potential opponents.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Kristina Mladenovic
SEMIFINALS: Simona Halep d. Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova d. Kristina Mladenovic
FINAL: Simona Halep d. Karolina Pliskova
Thanks for reading! Simona Halep may be my predicted champion, but I originally had Naomi Osaka down to emerge from that quarter… Which predictions would you change?