The 2006 Roland Garros tournament has brought some memorable and exciting matches in the women's draw, and has thrown up a few surprises. At the end of the week, the quarterfinals have all (but one) been decided: Venus Williams will face the rising teenager Nicole Vaidisova; Svetlana Kuznetsova will meet her Rome nemesis Dinara Safina for the sixth time; Justine Henin-Hardenne takes on Anna-Lena Groenefeld for the first time in her career; and Kim Clijsters will face the resurgent Martina Hingis a two-time finalist (1997, 1999) and three-time semi-finalist (1998, 2000, 2001) at this event.
However, it is Martina Hingis that has provided the most consistently accomplished performances in the first week of play. Hingis outclassed Tour veteran Lisa Raymond in almost every department in their first round encounter, before providing two scintillating performances against Zuzana Ondraskova and Ivana Lisjak in rounds two and three respectively. Hingis attacked with verve, moved beautifully and never looked anything less than in full control — of both her opponent and the match itself. Having come through a tricky fourth-round encounter 6-3 2-6 6-3, held over two days, against the nineteen year-old Israeli Shahar Peer, Hingis should be at least competitive against the Clijsters, twice a finalist at this event.
Venus Williams, who lost to Martina Hingis in their Rome semi-final, has played well despite very little match play going into the tournament. Still searching for the destructive form that brought her four Grand Slams titles in a fourteen month span, from Wimbledon 2000 to the 2001 US Open, Williams marched through the first two rounds comfortably before defeating Karolina Sprem 7-5 6-3 in the most brutal, hardest-hitting match (by some distance) of tournament. As in the Venus vs Serena match-ups, the 'unforced' errors quickly mounted, yet the quality of the ball striking was frequently magnificent, and from both players. Williams is making more net approaches than any of the top players, including Henin-Hardenne, winning 24 of 31 (or 77%) forays into the forecourt in her fourth round match against the Swiss Patty Schnyder. Williams also finished with healthy total of 35 winners against 34 unforced errors; against a top-drawer clay court opponent such as Schnyder this is an excellent statistic. Hingis has also taken to the forecourt with some abandon, and with excellent results — winning around 70% of her net approaches, looking particularly effective.
Kim Clijsters has played her way through the first week with mixed results, before making a dramatic improvement to top form in her fourth round encounter against Daniela Hantuchova. Hantuchova was simply dismissed 6-1 6-4 in little more than an hour. Though not many people's choice for the title, Clijsters has the movement, weaponry, and experience to go all the way at Roland Garros. The first two attributes could also be applied to Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has moved almost unnoticed to the fourth round achieving a 1-6 6-4 6-4 win against the still-improving Italian Francesca Schiavone. Kuznetsova was defeated 3-6 6-4 7-5 by Dinara Safina in an agonisingly close semi-final at Rome, the most prestigious (and oldest) Tour event played on clay. The Russian players enjoy an intense rivalry and Kuznetsova will be keen to extract revenge against aplayer that has defeated her three times in five meetings. Indeed, Kuznetsova's only completed match win against Safina came in the qualifying round of 16 at Madrid 2001, a lifetime away in terms of their 500-place leap up through the world rankings.
Anna-Lena Groenefeld has also made very quiet progress through this year's tournament, defeating the talented Argentinian Gisela Dulko 6-3 6-4 to earn her quarterfinal meeting with the two-time (2003 and 2005) champion Justine Henin-Hardenne. This should be an explosive encounter, both players equipped with plenty of firepower and shotmaking capacity off both wings. Groenefeld's serve has been more consistent than Henin-Hardenne's this season, but the Belgian's forehand is the more deadly; powerful and clinically accurate when its owner is truly 'on.' It was the determining factor in Henin-Hardenne's 58 minute 6-1 6-2 semi-final rout of the world number one Amelie Mauresmo at Berlin in May.
Henin-Hardenne unleashed a flood of forehand winners that day, and though her form has been both erratic and unpredictable throughout the season, Henin-Hardenne is still more than capable of producing an equally devastating performance. Groenefeld may find the answers with her technically-excellent backhand, one of most powerful and penetrating strokes on the Tour today. In many ways, Groenefeld resembles a young Venus Williams: very, very powerful — explosively so off the ground and on the serve — and blessed with both intimidating athleticism and hard-to-get-past wingspan. Henin-Hardenne may find many of her best shots coming back with interest in this encounter, but is mentally prepared for battle: "I'm going to be very careful because this [Groenefeld] is someone who's made extraordinary progress over the last few months… she's really a fighter. She goes for it. This is her first quarterfinal in a Grand Slam. Obviously, she's going to be very motivated".
With quarterfinals now determined, some of best and most-fiercely contested matches of the season so far are likely to take place on the mesmerisingly beautiful red clay of Roland Garros' main show courts. In an increasingly unpredictable women's game, the winner is still far from certain.