Cincinnati 2017: Battle for No1 resumes as Halep, Svitolina and Wozniacki chase Pliskova
The race for the women's number one ranking looks set to heat up ahead of the WTA tournament in Cincinnati
It is a battle that has been raging now for almost a year, since Serena Williams passed on the No1 baton after 186 consecutive weeks at the top to US Open champion Angelique Kerber.
Since then, the top spot has changed hands six times, with Williams reclaiming the No1 ranking after her Australian Open victory, and again interrupting Kerber’s residency for three weeks in late spring.
But with Williams firmly out of contention for the rest of 2017 as she expects her first child, the battle became more intense and more unpredictable as up to five women began to jostle for supremacy.
More than any other, it has been the ever-consistent Simona Halep who has pressed for her just rewards after an injury-blighted start to the year. Her surge began in Miami, with the quarters, and continued into the clay swing with a semi run in Stuttgart. She won in Madrid, made the final in Rome, and the No1 ranking would be hers if she won at Roland Garros. She was runner-up.
In the event, it would be Karolina Pliskova who rose to No1 in the red-hot competition of Wimbledon. Ironic, as it happens, because the Czech lost in the second round, but the other women in contention—Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elina Svitolina—could not take advantage.
Halep was surely doubly hurt by how things unfolded. For the Romanian had the opportunity to rise to No1 in three consecutive tournaments. After losing to Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open, she had another bite of the cherry in Eastbourne: she fell to Wozniacki. The odds then seemed in her favour at Wimbledon as she came within touching distance of the semis, which would have sealed the deal, only to lose 7-6, 6-7, 4-6 to Johanna Konta. And Pliskova slid into the No1 position.
Halep’s hopes were ignited again through Washington and Toronto, but her unfortunate retirement in the extreme conditions of the former closed the door: She needed a final run to give her a chance come Toronto, where she was defending champion.
Halep made the semis in Canada, losing to one of her rivals in the race to No1: Svitolina kept her chances simmering for Cincinnati.
Indeed Halep, Svitolina, and Wozniacki—the Toronto runner-up—are all in contention again, along with Kerber, for it was here last year that Pliskova began her bid for the top by winning the title and then backed it up with a final run at the US Open.
With all those points to defend, then, Pliskova needs a good result again in Cincinnati, otherwise Halep could at last make the top spot by reaching the semis. The permutations are complex, but suffice to say that they could contest the title and the No1 ranking if they both reach the final.
For the fourth time then, Halep, is in prime position to overtake her tall rival, but she assured the media in Cincinnati that this time, she is trying to avoid the stress of anticipation:
“I’m not thinking anymore about it. I think the desire holds me back a little bit. I’m just trying to take it match by match, and if I am able and if I deserve the place, then for sure I will be.”
The 22-year-old Svitolina is back in contention after winning her tour-leading fifth title in Toronto—becoming the first woman to win three Premier 5 titles in one season. It took her to No4 in the rankings and to the top of the Race to Singapore. If she reaches the final in Cincinnati, and Pliskova loses her first match, she could overtake Halep if the second-seeded Romanian loses in the quarters.
Wozniacki could return to No1 for the first time since Victoria Azarenka overtook her in January 2012. Thus far, the Dane has accumulated 67 weeks at the top through two stints. She has been enjoying her best form for a few years, starting 2017 ranked 20 but reaching six finals to break No5 this week.
Her chances are slim in Cincinnati: as well as winning the title, she also needs Pliskova to lose early and Halep to lose before the semis, but she will be among the favourites come her most successful Major, the US Open, where she has twice made the final and three further times the semis.
To return to No1, Kerber has the toughest challenge, needing not only to win the title but to see all her rivals fall before the finals.
So what barriers does the draw of the last Premier 5 before New York throw into the contenders’ paths?
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon
Nanchang, WTA International: Shuai Peng beat Nao Hibino
Washington International: Ekaterina Makarova beat Julia Goerges
Stanford Premier: Madison Keys beat Coco Vandeweghe
Toronto: Svitolina beat Wozniacki
Previous champions in draw: Karolina Pliskova
Previous finalists in draw: Kerber, Halep
[NB top 8 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Pliskova quarter
R2, Natalia Vikhlyantseva
R3, Daria Gavrilova or Camila Giorgi
QF, seeds are Venus Williams and Wozniacki
SF, Muguruza and Kuznetsova are top seeds
No4 seed Muguruza quarter
R2, Beatriz Haddad Maia
R3, first seed, Keys
QF, Svetlana Kuznetsova or Aleksandra Krunic
SF, Pliskova and Wozniacki are top seeds
No3 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Makarova or Barbora Strycova
R3, first seed, Petra Kvitova
QF, Goerges and Svitolina
SF, Johanna Konta and Halep are top seeds
No2 seed Halep quarter
R2, Taylor Townsend
R3, first seed Anastasija Sevastova
QF, seeds are Konta and Dominika Cibulkova
SF, Kerber and Svitolina are top seeds