If you are a casual tennis fan, you probably don't know Simona Halep. But there's a good chance you will soon.
Halep was 2013's breakout star, ripping off six titles in the second half of the year. The titles were spread out over a wide range of surfaces, too: two clay, one grass, one hard, and two indoor hard. Maria Sharapova is the only other player in the AB top 10 who provides similar results on all surfaces; even the reigning queen, Serena Williams, does far worse on clay than other surfaces.
Despite her resume and her French Open No. 4 seed, Halep is still missing the elusive Grand Slam semifinal run that's a prerequisite to becoming a household name. I picked that to happen last year at the U.S. Open; unfortunately, she ran into an out-of-nowhere Flavia Pennetta resurgence. But if I had to pick another time for the semifinal run to happen, Roland Garros 2014 looks even better for two simple reasons: almost none of the other top players do well on clay, and the mother of all draw imbalances has created a golden opportunity for a legitimate finals run.
Year in Review: Tracking the Top Four
Below is a 52-week tracking graph of the clay-adjusted Advanced Baseline ranks of the top four seeds from last year's French Open until now. It's a quick way to see what's changed at the top of the ladder, and how and why it might be different this year.
Serena only showed any real signs of slowing down this year with a first-round shocker in Charleston, a reminder that clay is definitely her worst surface. If she hadn't won Rome so convincingly last week, she actually might have been behind Sharapova, who's shown no signs of her shoulder injury being a factor, in the clay rankings. Sharapova's prolonged injury absence caused her to miss out on a lot of points, and she received the No. 7 seed as a result. That has absolutely wreaked havoc with the draw this year.
Meanwhile, Halep's meteoric rise looks even more impressive when it's put in the company of the top top women's players. I'm pretty comfortable picking Halep over Na Li for contender status at the French Open. You might think Li winning the Australian Open in January proves she's at a higher level of contention, but she has always been much better on hard courts than clay, and she's more or less been treading water since.
Below is a scatter plot comparing the seeded players’ ATP ranks to their Advanced Baseline clay-court rank. Players above the black line are overseeded relative to their actual performance level, and players below the black line are underseeded. Red circles indicate a preference for clay courts and blue circles indicate a preference for hard courts.
The upper-middle seeds are way out of sync this year. Three of the top five clay players (Sharapova, Sara Errani, and Ana Ivanovic) are in the No. 7-12 grouping, and it's resulted in the apocalypse scenario: a projected Serena-Sharapova quarterfinal matchup.
These two should have met in the semis at the earliest; they're nearly an order of magnitude above the rest of the field. The resulting imbalance has created a bunch of voids in the bracket that have opened up huge opportunities for other players (more on that below). Errani and Suarez Navarro are probably the biggest beneficiaries. Daniela Hantuchova and Kirsten Flipkens are the most overseeded in the tournament; both have a lot of luck-assisted grass points boosting their rankings. That obviously isn't indicative of how well they do on clay.
Forecast and Draw Analysis
Generated from simulating the tournament 100,000 times using Advanced Baseline win probabilities. The round probabilities for all players, along with their expected points and draw effects, are shown below. Full explanation of the methodology can be found here. Dashboarding provided by John Mathis.
To see each individual player's outlook, select their name from the drop-down list below.
Only a 22-percent chance for Serena? That's it? Well, it goes to show how far down a draw imbalance can take you. That number might be a little low since AB probably doesn't capture Serena's dominance all that well, but at some point her draw has to be reconciled (Sharapova in the quarters, Venus in the third, Garbine Muguruza in the second). Simona Halep and Ana Ivanovic have reaped the rewards of Serena's bad luck; it's better than even money for one of the two to make the semis. Li probably would've had a little better odds if not for a near-guaranteed third round matchup with Andrea Petkovic, a great trendy upset pick.
Unseeded Dark Horses
Polona Hercog: Circle this one in big red letters. The upstart mid-major equivalent of the French Open, she's absolutely dominated the lower tier of women's tennis on clay. A free-falling Sloane Stephens is not that tough a matchup in the second round, and Ekaterina Makarova is more of a hard-court player. Hercog is a great pick to get to the fourth round.
Petra Cetkovska: A partial winner of the "who draws worst-seeded Daniela Hantuchova in their section" sweepstakes, she'll have to get through Angelique Kerber first, which is a lot easier on clay. Her odds would've been much better if her seed order had been reversed.
Kiki Bertens: She had three blistering scorelines in qualifying, and she drew a pretty soft seed pair in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Caroline Wozniacki, neither of whom are that great on clay.
Outlook for Americans
Outside of the Williams sisters, Varvara Lepchenko is probably the best bet to get to the fourth round. Sloane Stephens is looking at the Hercog buzzsaw in the second round, and Madison Keys drew top-5 clay-courter Sara Errani in the first round, so Lepchekno's draw is the only one of the three that really cooperated. Keys has a 1-in-4 shot of the first round upset, and if she pulls it off, hop on the bandwagon immediately; there will be no one in front of her until Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round.
Mathilde Johansson (+235) over Karolina Pliskova
Elena Vesnina (-101) over Christina McHale
Lourdes Dominguez Lino (+200) over Casey Dellacqua
Donna Vekic (-175) over Julia Glushko
Maria Sharapova to win (7/1)
Andrea Petkovic to win quarter (16-1)
As much as I hate imbalanced draws, their silver lining is they'll occasionally offer some paths for lesser-known but otherwise deserving players to get some needed name recognition.
This year's French Open has done exactly that for a couple players, headlined by Simona Halep being handed her best chance yet. I thought last year's French Open was wide open; it's even more so this time around, with the two tournament favorites slated for an early matchup.
Everyone else has this tournament as a "Serena versus the field" lineup; Advanced Baseline thinks the draw is too stacked against her for this to be a runaway event. I hope Halep gets the run she deserves -- in terms of general notoriety, she's been toiling too long in obscurity despite having a fantastic 2013. If it's not this year, though, it will be soon. She's too young and too good on clay to not have at least a five-year title contention window ahead of her.