Madrid WTA preview: Kerber tops field, but former champs Halep and Sharapova threaten
Angelique Kerber is the top seed at the Madrid WTA Premier event. So, can Simona Halep or Maria Sharapova stop her?
These are, it must be said, interesting times for the women’s tennis tour, and all the more so at the Madrid Premier this week, where the prizes and points are among the most rewarding in the calendar.
One of only four Premier Mandatories—the level immediately below the Majors—Madrid is the only one on clay, but it is the names that are missing as much as the names who are playing that are key.
Two-time former champion and the world No1—if only for the time being—Serena Williams will miss the rest of the year on maternity leave.
Two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka will not return to the tour until late summer after having her first child.
Two-time champion Petra Kvitova continues to rehab after the stabbing she sustained to her hand in an attack.
Former finalist Venus Williams, who returned to the top table this year with a final run at the Australian Open, is away injured. And just as the draw was made this year, former world No2 Agnieszka Radwanska pulled out with injury, too.
Notable by her presence, however, is another former champion. Maria Sharapova, amid wide-spread debate and not a little controversy, will play with a wild card, just as she did in Stuttgart on her return from her 15-month suspension for testing positive for meldonium.
That she reached the semi-final there after such a long absence throws her into the limelight as a possible champion in Madrid once again, especially as she is a former finalist and semi-finalist in the Spanish city, too.
As an aside, Sharapova has a potential second-round meeting with one of the women to stoke the wild-card controversy, Eugenie Bouchard, but the Canadian has not been in the best form this season, currently ranked only 60. Even so, if both come through tough openers—Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Alize Cornet—their encounter will be followed with considerable interest.
Age shall not wither them: Schiavone and Kuznetsova
Sharapova may now be the pin-up girl for the over-30s, but one of the most popular women in the draw is also the oldest. Francesca Schiavone, a former French Open champion, will be 37 next month, but after a long drift down the rankings in what many suggested may be the end of her career, she has hit back at such rumours with a title in Bogota last week and the final in Rabat this weekend. She has deservedly got a wild card into Madrid, though how much she has left in that wiry frame, who knows.
Then there is the Madrid runner-up from 2015, Svetlana Kuznetsova. She is back in the top 10 after some fine results on hard courts, but despite a disappointing Stuttgart, it is worth remembering that the Russian also has clay-court form. Indeed, the French Open champion of 2009 has won more matches at Roland Garros than any of the other Majors. She is also played into the special Madrid conditions after reaching the final of the Tie-break Tens contest ahead of the draw.
Can Kerber cash in?
Angelique Kerber, with two Majors in 2016 and a rise to No1 for a couple of stints, has the chance to cement her position at the top in the absence of Williams, but thus far in 2017, she has struggled to build on her position.
She needs only a couple of wins in Madrid to reclaim the top but, as well as only reaching one final, in Monterrey, this year, she lost her opener on Stuttgart’s clay, and lost her first matches in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros last year.
That she has drawn Sharapova in her section—in the third round—and possibly her nemesis Elina Svitolina in the quarters does not help her cause, though with so few points to defend for the rest of the clay season, she could really assert herself in the rankings.
Is Halep the woman to beat?
Kerber may be the top seed, but Simona Halep comes into the tournament as defending champion and one of the favourites. She certainly prepared well by winning the Tie-break Tens event here on Thursday, and played some superb tennis in the Fed Cup against GB.
She did not make a lot of headway during the hard-court swing, not helped by injury, but made the semis in Stuttgart. Hers, though, is a tough quarter, even if the biggest seeds have excelled on hard rather than clay courts—notably Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta. Her early unseeded players also have form: Kristyna Pliskova made only her second final on Prague’s clay this weekend, though Charleston champion Daria Kasatkina lost to Roberta Vinci in Round 1.
Is Muguruza ready to ride home advantage?
The French Open champion has not made even the quarters of her home Premier before, and although she has enjoyed some good results on the hard courts this year, she lost her only clay match last week.
She also has a tricky opener against Timea Bacsinszky, who broke new ground during last year’s clay swing, but the Swiss is returning from an injury-affected spring. Muguruza has won all her matches against Bacsinszky, including en route to her semi run in Rome last year, and with Karolina Pliskova the highest seed in her quarter—and the Czech is not comfortable on the clay—she could make ground on her second-round exit last year.
Other players to watch: Svitolina, Siegemund, Mladenovic
The 22-year-old Elina Svitolina made a big impression with her aggressive tennis on the way to picking up the Dubai trophy and broke the top 10. It marked her third straight win over Kerber, and she has gone on to make it four wins with her victory on clay in the Fed Cup. She then proved her clay credentials again with the Istanbul title—her third of the year.
The 23-year-old Kristina Mladenovic made her top-20 debut in Miami after starting the year at 45. The St Petersburg champion and Acapulco runner-up reached the semis in Indian Wells, too, beating quality opposition such as Caroline Wozniacki and Halep. She arrives here after a final run in Stuttgart, too, where she beat Sharapova and Kerber, and she is in a quarter with the returning Madison Keys last year’s losing finalist Dominika Cibulkova, who has a tough opener against Jelena Jankovic.
Laura Siegemund arrives on one of the tour’s strongest clay runs thus far: the semis in Charleston followed by the title in Stuttgart, where she beat both Halep and Pliskova. She is drawn against Briton Konta in her opener, here as No6 seed after a strong swing through the spring to the last Premier Mandatory title in Miami. But Konta’s record on clay is relatively weak, with one win in Fed Cup and another in Stuttgart so far this year and just two wins at the French Open through last year’s entire clay swing.
Previous champions in draw: Halep, Sharapova
Previous finalists: Cibulkova, Kuznetsova, Wozniacki (plus Halep and Sharapova)
Missing from main draw: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Azarenka, Kvitova, Radwanska, Naomi Osaka
Title winners so far in 2017: Lauren Davis, Konta x 2, Pliskova x 2, Katerina Siniakova, Elise Mertens, Mladenovic, Svitolina x 3, Babos, Tsurenko, Barty, Vesnina, Siegemund, Schiavone, Kasatkina, Barthel
[No byes for the 16 seeds in the 64-woman draw]
No1 seed Kerber quarter
R1, Timea Babos
R2, Katerina Siniakova or Q/LL
R3, first seed, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
QF, Seeds are Svitolina or Kuznetsova
SF, Cibulkova and Keys are top seeds
No4 seed Cibulkova quarter
R3, first seed, Mladenovic
QF, Keys or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
SF, Kerber and Kuznetsova are top seeds
No3 seed Halep quarter
R1, Kristyna Pliskova
R3, first seed, Sam Stosur
QF, Wozniacki or Konta
SF, Karolina Pliskova or Muguruza are top seeds
No2 seed Pliskova quarter
R1, Lesia Tsurenko
R2, Shuai Zhang or Anastasija Sevastova
R3, first seed Barbora Strycova
QF, Elena Vesnina or Muguruza
SF, Halep and Konta are top seeds