Former world number one Venus Williams returns to the European clay courts at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome. Clay is the American's weakest surface but she isn't a slouch on this surface. The ninth seed reached a solitary French Open final in 2002, losing to her sister and three-time French Open champion Serena. Williams has been one of the form players of 2017 as she reached her first Grand Slam singles final in seven years at the Australian Open. The 36-year-old lost to Serena in straight sets but she backed up her results in Indian Wells and Miami losing to eventual champions Elena Vesnina and Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively in Indian Wells and Miami. Williams' sister Serena is currently pregnant and will miss the remainder of the 2017 campaign. Furthermore, the French Open may not be Williams' title to win but she could go on a deep run in Paris but the main priority will be Wimbledon and the US Open, where she may win an eighth Grand Slam singles title.
Williams' quest for a second title at the Foro Italico in Rome will begin against three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Yaroslava Shvedova. The Kazakh has struggled for form in 2017, and the current world number 50 suffered four successive first round exits at the start of the year losing to Irina-Camelia Begu in Melbourne, Natalia Vikhlyantseva in St.Petersburg, Monica Puig in Dubai and to Varvara Lepchenko in Indian Wells. Shvedova's first main draw win of the year came at the Miami Open when she defeated two-time Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion Jelena Jankovic but she lost to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a three-set tussle in round two. Shvedova's second main draw win of the year was in Rabat, defeating Aleksandra Krunic in the first round but suffering a disappointing second round loss to Tatjana Maria.
Breakdown of their rivalry
Williams and Shvedova have met on one occasion and it was at the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year. The Kazakh recorded good wins over Julia Goerges, Elina Svitolina who was seeded 17th, 2013 finalist Sabine Lisicki and 2014 semifinalist Lucie Safarova to reach her third Grand Slam quarterfinal. It was a hard-hitting match and Shvedova even led Williams by a break in the opening set but the seven-time Grand Slam champion showed her class and defeated Shvedova, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon. Williams was unable to reach her first Wimbledon final since 2009 as she lost to two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
Who advances to the next round?
The seven-time Grand Slam singles winner is competing in her second clay court event of the year. Williams lost to Porsche Tennis Grand Prix champion Laura Siegemund on the green clay courts on Charleston. On the other hand, the American, who suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, may have felt the fatigue following two deep runs in Indian Wells and Miami. The 1999 champion's preparation for the clay court swing has been minimal but Williams always has the motivation to perform well in every tournament. Her serve is still a dangerous weapon but doesn't get the recognition it deserves on this surface as it works stronger on hard and grass courts. Furthermore, at 36, the American may struggle for movement on clay, on the other hand, she portrayed good movement on this surface en route to her fourth round showing at the French Open last year.
Shvedova also possesses a powerful serve, which works well on hard and grass courts. The former world number 25 is a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, therefore, her net came is strong. However, in this first round match, Williams will look to target Shvedova's forehand side as that is the weaker wing in her game. The world number 50 has struggled for wins in 2017, and with the confidence that the ninth seed has built in the first few months of this season, it is hard to see anything else, other than a Williams victory.
Prediction: Williams in straight sets