Toronto Premier 2017: Pliskova on top of the world, but Halep and Muguruza gear up for challenge
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the Toronto WTA 2017 tournament, where the likes of Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza are in action
The Rogers Cup will renew a running battle that has headlined much of 2017.
Since the expectant Serena Williams gave up the No1 ranking after three and half years to Angelique Kerber less than a year ago, the top spot in women’s tennis has changed hands six times. In the early months, it alternated between Williams and Kerber, but then Karolina Pliskova rose to No1 in the red-hot competition of Wimbledon. Ironic, as it happens, because she lost in the second round, but the other women in contention—Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elina Svitolina—could not take advantage.
Halep was surely doubly, perhaps three times, hurt by how things unfolded. For the Romanian had the opportunity to rise to No1 in three consecutive tournaments. At the French Open, she finished runner-up to Jelena Ostapenko. Then at Eastbourne, she fell to Wozniacki, but the odds looked on her side at Wimbledon: 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.
This week, with her unfortunate retirement in the extreme conditions of Washington, Halep saw her hopes slide out of reach again—she needed a final run to open the door in Toronto, where she is defending champion. So now the campaign must wait until Cincinnati, where she may at last be able to take advantage of Pliskova’s former success. The tall Czech won that Premier tournament, and went on to reach the final of the US Open. Yes, opportunity does continue to knock for Halep during the US Open swing.
First things first, however—and that means keeping the chasing pack at bay.
Kerber and Muguruza keep up pressure at the top
Kerber,a semi-finalist in Montreal last year, remains close behind Halep, but as a finalist in Cincinnati and champion at the US Open, the door could slam shut on her quickly.
She has drawn home favourite Eugenie Bouchard as a possible opener, and while the Canadian woman has scored scant main-tour wins this season—though notably beating Kerber to reach the quarters in Madrid—she is a big-stage player. And things get even tougher for Kerber in a possible third round against Petra Kvitova, with Konta or Dominika Cibulkova scheduled for the quarters.
It is, then, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza—already a semi-finalist in Stanford this week—who looks the biggest danger. She withdrew from Montreal last year with illness, made the semis in Cincinnati, but lost in the second round of the US Open. Thereafter, she won only six matches in 2016, and that means her improved confidence and impressive form of recent months could take her all the way to the top later this year.
So Halep cannot afford to take her foot off the pedal if she is finally to claim the top ranking, but the Montreal draw has hardly helped. She opens against the woman she beat in last year’s final, Madison Keys, assuming the American beats Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who can turn on the form in a big way—as she did to make a semi run at the Australian Open.
Keys, in fact, only just missed out on a seeding in a packed draw that misses just Serena Williams from the top 16, and will take on Muguruza in the Stanford semis—a useful yardstick for both women ahead of this exhausting swing through North America.
Halep could then face the dangerous No13 seed Kristina Mladenovic, who gave Halep such a battle for the Madrid title, followed by a quarter-final against either No8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova or a perhaps a painful replay against Roland Garros champion Ostapenko, one of the women to deny her that No1. And all that before Muguruza or Svitolina.
But what of top dog Pliskova?
The Czech played Montreal as No14 seed last year, losing in the third round to, it so happens, Halep. This time, Pliskova is playing her first tournament as world No1, having picked up three titles this year that included back-to-back wins over Kuznetsova, Konta and Wozniacki in Eastbourne.
But the Rogers Cup has not been a happy hunting ground: just three wins since her first appearance in the main draw three years ago.
Yet her game, as evidenced by Cincinnati and New York last year and her runs in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Doha this year, is ripe for the hot hard courts. She has a tough opener for sure, in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who missed a seeding by one place, or Alize Cornet.
The quarters are tough too, with either Wozniacki, who beat her in Miami, or Agnieszka Radwanska, against whom Pliskova has yet to win a set in seven matches. The Pole, who married last month, won the title in Montreal in 2014, but has a dangerous opener against Coco Vandeweghe, who is in the Stanford semis, perhaps leaving the American below bar for such fast turnaround.
Can Venus stay the course again, or will youth have its day?
Her sister may be away from centre stage at the moment, but the name Williams has remained in sharp focus via the 37-year-old Venus, finalist at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She is back inside the top 10 having picked up wins over other top-10 players such as Kerber, Kuznetsova and Konta, as well as Roland Garros star Ostapenko. She has, though, never won a match in Toronto, with her best Canadian run coming as runner-up in Montreal in 2014.
The evergreen Williams is in a section packed by young contenders: Katerina Siniakova is 21 and a titlist since Wimbledon; Daria Kasatkina is 20, and has shared her two meetings with Williams, both long three-setters; and the seed to challenge for the quarters is Svitolina, age 22, ranked No5 and with four titles this year.
Meanwhile 20-year-old French champion Ostapenko has Stanford semi-finalist, 18-year-old Catherine Bellis in her segment. The fast-improving American is at a career high and could break the top 30 with a title run.
In the top half of the draw is another talented 20-year-old, Canadian Francoise Abanda, who almost bettered Ostapenko at Wimbledon. And drawn to meet Muguruza in the third round is one more 20-year-old, 55-ranked Oceane Dodin.
But do not be surprised if the old familiar names of Williams and Kuznetsova are still in contention come the quarters.
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon
Nanchang, WTA International: Shuai Peng beat Nao Hibino
Washington International: Ekaterina Makarova, Dodin, Julia Goerges and Andrea Petkovic contest semis
Stanford Premier: Muguruza, Keys, Vandeweghe and Bellis contest semis
Previous champions in draw: Halep, Radwanska, Kvitova, Wozniacki
Missing potential seeds: Serena Williams, Timea Bacsinszky; plus Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova
[NB top 8 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Pliskova quarter
R2, Pavlyuchenkova or Cornet
R3, first seed, Anastasija Sevastova
QF, seeds are Radwanska and Wozniacki
SF, Kerber and Konta are top seeds
No3 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Bouchard or qualifier
R3, first seed, Kvitova
QF, seeds are Konta or Cibulkova
SF, Pliskova and Wozniacki are top seeds
No4 seed Muguruza quarter
R2, Ana Konjuh or qualifier
R3, first seed, Elena Vesnina
QF, seeds are Williams and Svitolina
SF, Kuznetsova and Halep are top seeds
No2 seed Halep quarter
R2, Keys or Lucic-Baroni
R3, first seed Mladenovic
QF, seeds are Kuznetsova and Ostapenko
SF, Muguruza and Svitolina are top seeds