Toronto Premier preview: Simona Halep begins defence; Barty, Osaka, Pliskova bid for No1
Osaka and Williams could set rematch of US Open final
Even before Wimbledon was done and dusted, the women’s tennis tour had moved on—or perhaps back is a better term—to European clay. As the last 16 headed into week two at the grass Major, some were already back on the red stuff in Bastad, where Misaka Doi won her first title since 2016.
And five more clay tournaments would offer the chance for a ranking boost before the second big hard-court swing of North American took a hold of the tour. And just one week to prepare on hard courts for the demanding double-headed Premier events in Toronto and Cincinnati. Yet only four top-20 women have taken up the opportunity.
World No7 Elina Svitolina, semi-finalist at Wimbledon but certainly a lover of hard courts, played just two matches in San Jose, while No10 Aryna Sabalenka reached the final in California. And in Washington, both No8 Sloane Stephens and No17 Madison Keys bowed out in the first round.
At this early stage, such openings give little away: After all, none of the other top-20 players have made any strides on hard courts since the first week of April, and 27 out of the top 30 are in the Toronto line-up, plus significant lower-ranked stars such as Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, who has played just four matches since the Australian Open and retired in the first round at Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.
2019’s No1s—Barty, Osaka and Halep
All three of this year’s Major champions have held the No1 ranking at some stage during 2019, and they will be key among the women to beat in the next fortnight. With 900 points to the winner in Montreal, Barty and Osaka, along with No3, Karolina Pliskova, are capable of heading to Cincinnati as No1, while Halep will hope to defend her big points in the coming fortnight.
As well as winning in Montreal last year, the Romanian was runner-up in Cincinnati, but she will surely come back into contention for No1 thereafter, as she then has only 20 points to defend until the end of the season.
All four women have credentials when it comes to the big hard-court Premiers. While Halep is the Canada Open defending champion, Barty won in Miami this year—Pliskova was runner-up—and Osaka’s big breakthrough event was at Indian Wells last year, and she went on the win both the US and Australian Opens.
Barty will be tested early, not least in the third round by either the in-form Johanna Konta, seeded 13, or Azarenka. And come the quarters, she could face one of two former champions in Belinda Bencic and Svitolina. The popular young Australian also has Pliskova in her half, but the tall Czech has big challenges of her own.
Pliskova’s killer quarter, including home favourite Andreescu
Pliskova’s opener could be against the steadily-rising Maria Sakkari, who already has three top-10 wins this season, plus her first career title. But beyond that, Venus Williams and Sharapova will compete with the seeded Anett Kontaveit for the third-round. And all that before a possible quarter showdown for Pliskova with another former No1 and Major champion, Angelique Kerber, or one of the most improved players of the last year or so, No5 Kiki Bertens—who happens to be the Cincinnati defending champion next week.
Then there is the home favourite, Bianca Andreescu, who won a slew of ITF events last year before making her breakthrough this season, which she began outside the top 100, to win one of the biggest events on the WTA tour, Indian Wells.
Her progress was halted by injury at the French Open but still only 19 years old, she just missed out on a seeding—ranked 27 this week—and finds herself up against another Canadian who showed precocious talent to reach No5 at the age of 20 back in 2014, Genie Bouchard.
The older Canadian has endured a slump in fortunes and ranking since those heady days, and ranked 112, she has not won a match since Dubai in February—but where better to overturn those fortunes than at home?
However, many fans will hope for another contest between Andreescu and Kerber in the second round after the youngster beat the German in two compelling three-setters—in the last two big hard-court events, Miami and Indian Wells.
Osaka begins build-up to US Open defence—perhaps via Serena
So what about Osaka, who is at the other end of the draw with Halep? The young star has picked up some dangerous seeds before she can contemplate Halep in the semis. First is former champion Caroline Wozniacki—though the Dane has struggled with form all year aside from a final run in Charleston—and then three-time champion Serena Williams.
Should they follow the form books, Osaka and Williams could meet in the quarters for the first time since their memorable final at the US Open last year, and Williams, despite making the finals of three Majors since her return from maternity leave last spring, has yet to win a title. Seeded No8, she has played a limited schedule this season, and still lacked something of her usual stamina and speed during the final at Wimbledon.
But the US Open Series is sure to fire up the American, especially as she is back playing the Rogers Cup for the first time since 2015. However, Osaka has some early tests if she is to set that highly-anticipated rematch. She could open against either San Jose champion Saisai Zheng, and then if not Wozniacki, it could be a third-round match against Yulia Putintseva, who beat Osaka in both Birmingham and Wimbledon this summer.
If Halep is to reach her designated semi-final spot, she too will have to negotiate some potential trip-wires in the shape of Keys or Donna Vekic, then the survivor of the Stephens segment boasting Sabalenka, Jelena Ostapenko and Caroline Garcia.
Konta carries British hopes
From a ranking of 47 at the start of the clay season in April, a calm and confident Konta rode her Fed Cup success to her best ever clay season: the finals in Rabat and Rome, and the semis of the French Open. She then beat two top-10 players on her way to the quarters at Wimbledon. The former Miami champion is thus back to No14, though is the only British woman in the draw. However, she will have to hit the ground running, with an opener against teenager Dayana Yastremska, ranked 33, followed possibly by Azarenka—who she beat in Montreal last year—before her scheduled first seed, Barty.
The facts and figures
Champions since Wimbledon
Elena Rybakina (Bucharest clay)
Fiona Ferro (Lausanne clay)
Anastasija Sevastova (Jurmala clay)
Jill Teichmann (Palermo clay)
Patricia Tig (Karlsruhe clay)
Zheng (San Jose Premier hard) NB runner-up Sabalenka
Jessica Pegula (Washington hard) NB runner-up Camila Giorgi
Former champions in draw
Halep (two, defending), Svitolina (one), Bencic (one), Serena Williams (three), Wozniacki (one)
Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Marketa Vondrousova, Qiang Wang, Barbora Strycova
The draw: comprises 64, incl 12 qualifiers, 16 seeds; top eight have byes to Round 2
Top Barty half
R2 Sofia Kenin or Su-wei Hsieh
R3 First seed Konta; Azarenka also here
QF Seeds are No11 Bencic or No6 Svitolina
SF No3 Pliskova, No16 Kontaveit, No12 Kerber, No5 Bertens; Sharapova, Venus Williams, Andreescu also here.
Bottom Osaka half
R2 Zheng or Tatjana Maria
R3 First seed Wozniacki
QF Seeds are No8 Serena Williams, No10 Sevastova
SF No7 Stephens, No9 Sabalenka, No14 Keys, No4 Halep; Ostapenko, Vekic also here.