Madrid Premier 2018 preview: Two-time champs Halep and Kvitova to the fore, as Wozniacki targets No1
Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova are among the big names in action in the WTA tournament in Madrid
As the third of the four WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments gets under way in Madrid, the women’s scene is replete with new young champions, ambitious returning champions, and former No1s jostling for a place at the top as they contest one of the biggest titles in the calendar
At the first of the Premier Mandatories, Indian Wells, the exciting Japanese player Naomi Osaka, age just 20, surged to her first title and up the ranks to 21 from 70 just three months before. But such is the quality of the draw in Madrid that she does not make the cut of 16 seeds.
In the Indian Wells final, she beat fellow 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina, who hit her own career-high with her bold, big-strike tennis, at No11.
Come the second ‘big one’ in Miami, Sloane Stephens reproduced the stunning form that took her to the US Open title last September, and won her only title since. She beat fellow Major champion, another 20-year-old, No5-ranked Jelena Ostapenko, though it is worth noting ahead of Madrid that the young Latvian has won 10 of her last 11 matches on clay.
Four young women, then, who have already proved their worth at this top tier of the WTA tour this year. And they may draw extra motivation from the roster of previous Madrid champions in the draw, too—Major champions or No1s to a woman.
And make no mistake: This is a tough one. There are no byes for top seeds in a draw of 64, so the champion has to win six matches in the space of a week. And incidentally, then head to the Rome Premier and thence Roland Garros in the span of a month.
Impressive draw, as Halep and Wozniacki contest No1
Only one woman in the top 16 is missing from the seeds, the injured Angelique Kerber, and there are big names with big reputations among the unseeded players, too.
Try former champion Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka, playing her first Europe event in almost a year and only her third tournament of 2018. She has twice reached the final in Madrid.
Also unseeded are Johanna Konta, ranked No6 in Madrid last year but still in search of a win in the Spanish capital—and hoping to turn around her flagging 2018 form.
Then there are former Madrid finalists Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dominika Cibulkova, and a clutch of titlists this year, among them Elise Mertens and Kiki Bertens. Last year’s losing finalist Kristina Mladenovic also just missed a seeding.
The in-form No10 Petra Kvitova won in Madrid in 2011 and 2015, and has played a packed and largely successful season so far, winning in St Petersburg and Doha. This week, she has reached the final in her home event in Prague. She then had to go three sets to claim the title: What does she have left?
And then there is Simona Halep, looking for a Madrid three-peat—she was finalist in 2014, as well. She is also hoping to fend off Caroline Wozniacki at No1. Halep has been top dog since last October, except for four weeks after the Australian Open—when Wozniacki took over.
The Dane, who was a finalist in Madrid in 2009, lost early last year, but she still needs to reach the semis to have a stab at No1. If Halep wins one match in Madrid, Wozniacki will need to reach the final, but if the Dane goes on to win the title, she can displace Halep.
However, Wozniacki’s record since 2009 has not been good in Madrid, not gone beyond the quarters. She also had to retire against Pauline Parmentier a week ago in the Istanbul Cup with an abdominal injury. As if that was not bad enough, she has a tough draw, beginning Daria Gavrilova, and in a difficult quarter with Ostapenko, Sharapova, Osaka and Bertens.
Madrid’s darling, Garbiñe Muguruza, faces uphill task—including Venus
She is one of the reigning Major champions in the draw and rose to No1 last autumn, albeit for just a month or so. This season, Muguruza has also picked up two titles, in Doha and Monterrey, but she has yet to reach the third round at her home tournament. She was also forced to retire in her first clay match of the season—Stuttgart last week—with a back problem.
Not the perfect preparation for Madrid, but it is worth remembering that her first Major came on the clay of Roland Garros, and with home support, perhaps she can overcome the weight of expectation. She opens against Peng Shuai in a tough quarter that may also throw in Donna Vekic, before in-form Kasatkina. And to advance beyond the quarter-final, she is likely to have to beat either Kvitova or the returning Venus Williams, a finalist in Madrid in 2010.
The American, who turns 38 next month, has played in Madrid only four times since it switched to the heart of the clay season in 2009. And aside from that 2010 run, she has won only one other match at the Caja Magica. She has a difficult opener, too, against 22-year-old Anett Kontaveit, who had her best result of 2018 last week on Stuttgart’s clay, the semi-finals.
In some ways, then, this is a wide-open quarter. If Williams, seeded No8, is fit—and her runs in Indian Wells and Miami suggest she is—she could break through to the semis. If Kvitova is still fresh after winning Prague and 24 of her 30 matches this season, her form and previous record will be a big boost, but she has played a lot of tennis with precious little recovery time. And Kasatkina has yet to really prove her clay credentials this season, though she did win on the green clay of Charleston last year.
Come the semis, and the top quarter is also wide open based on current form. Halep faces Ekaterina Makarova in the first round and could then face Australian Open semi-finalist Mertens—who is in the final in Rabat this weekend. Then there is Madison Keys, a semi-finalist in Charleston, followed by the survivor of the Pliskova-Azarenka-Stephens section—and No6 Pliskova may just be the dark horse. She does, after all, arrive with new clay kudos after winning in Stuttgart.
Other players to watch:
Elina Svitolina, two-time titlist in Dubai and Brisbane, and up to 20 wins this year with a first-round victory over Alize Cornet in Madrid.
Caroline Garcia has a tough opener against Cibulkova but arrives with a semi finish in Stuttgart and wins over Sharapova and Svitolina on clay. She was arguably one of the players of 2017, too, especially in the final months.
Julia Goerges ended 2017 on a roll, and has built on that form with an 18-8 run, the Auckland title, the Charleston final, and a win over Pliskova on clay in Fed Cup.
Coco Vandeweghe reached a career-high No9 last month and showed clay form to reach the final in Stuttgart, beating Halep, Garcia and Stephens. She is, though, in a very tough segment, opening against last year’s Madrid runner-up Mladenovic.
The nuts and bolts
Previous champions in draw: Halep (two), Kvitova (two), Sharapova (one)
Previous finalists in draw: Azarenka (two), Venus Williams, Wozniacki, Mladenovic, Cibulkova, Kuznetsova (one apiece). [Halep and Sharapova finalists in addition to titles.]
Youngest: Marta Kostyuk 15
Oldest: Venus Williams, 37
Wild cards: Sara Sorribes Tormo, Georgina Garcia Perez, Monica Puig, Kostyuk, Lara Arruabarrena
Missing from draw: Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Catherine Bellis, Timea Bacsinszky
Title winners so far in 2018: Svitolina (x2), Halep, Goerges, Kerber, Elise Mertens (x2, one on clay—plus final of Rabat), Wozniacki, Kvitova (x3, one on clay), Timea Babos, Alison van Uytvanck, Lesia Tsurenko, Osaka, Stephens, Bertens (clay), Muguruza, Kirsten Flipkens, Anna Karolína Schmiedlová (clay), Karolina Pliskova (clay), Pauline Parmentier (clay)
Potential quarter-finals top half:
Halep vs Pliskova
Other seeds: Stephens, Keys
Also here: Azarenka, Mertens
Muguruza vs Williams
Other seeds: Kasatkina, Kvitova
Also here: Shuai Peng, Katerina Siniakova, Puig, Kontaveit
Potential quarter-finals bottom half:
Svitolina vs Garcia
Other seeds: Goerges, Magdalena Rybarikova
Also here: Cibulkova, Kuznetsova, Konta
Wozniacki vs Ostapenko
Other seeds: Vandeweghe, Sevastova
Also here: Sharapova, Osaka, Mladenovic, Bertens, Ashleigh Barty