Cincinnati 2020: Former champs Williams, Keys, Pliskova begin build-up to US Open

Barty and Halep stay away, but wild cards Osaka, Stephens and Venus Williams add weight to draw

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Serena Williams
Serena Williams (Photo: Fed Cup / Media Handout)

Rather like the men’s draw at this year’s Western and Southern Open, two of the top-ranked players in the world have pulled out of the prestigious Premier 5 tournament, which gets under way this weekend in the unusual environment of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.

For these are unusual times, so unusual that all players have been allowed a free hand in deciding where and when they choose to play tennis. Such has been the impact of the shut-down due to the coronavirus pandemic since the end of February.

But unlike the men’s draw, no fewer than six of the top eight women in the world have voted with their feet and opted to bypass both the Cincy Premier 5—only the second tournament to be played at this level this season—and the US Open. Some are simply uncomfortable with travel to the USA while the infection rate remains high, some prefer to focus their already compromised preparation on the short Roland Garros clay window that immediately follows the US Open.

Missing, then, are No1 Ash Barty and No2 Simona Halep—who lately won the Prague Open, on clay—along with No5 Elina Svitolina, No6 Bianca Andreescu, No7 Kiki Bertens and No8 Belinda Bencic.

Further down the ranks, Petra Martic, Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber have not made the journey to New York, though those who have taken the plunge have nothing but praise for the organization, the precautions, and the careful co-ordination of arrival, accommodation and the on-site arrangements.

However, for them, as well as the many media and fans who are unable to be part of this extraordinary phase in tennis, there is something other-worldly about the scenes of vast, empty spaces across the usually bustling US Open grounds.

Even so, there is reason to be optimistic for some fine competition during the “Cincy” week. For the draw is headed by a former champion and world No3 Karolina Pliskova, while the newest Major champion on the block—the only one so far this year, Sofia Kenin—holds the No2 slot.

Yet most eyes will be on the third seed, the biggest tennis star of them all, Serena Williams. She has won the Cincinnati title twice, and has clearly decided to focus on this unique home opportunity to win her third, but also to fine-tune her preparation for the US Open.

Since winning her 23rd Major in Australia in 2017 while two months pregnant, she has reached four Major finals, but has yet to equal Margaret Court’s record 24. What better place and what better opportunity to do so than next month at her home Major.

At this week’s Premier 5, though, there is already ample competition. The tournament suffered one late blow when former champion Kim Clijsters, in the draw with a wild card, had to pull out with an abdominal injury, but with other wild cards of the caliber of two-time Major champion Naomi Osaka, seven-time Major champion Venus Williams, and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the line-up, there are some mouth-watering matches lined up.

Stir in more Major champions in the shape of Petra Kvitova and the unseeded Victoria Azarenka, plus defending Cincinnati champion, Madison Keys, and this return to tennis competition, no matter how disjointed, promises much.

Pliskova does not have an easy ride in her early rounds, though she did sharpen her match-play by winning a small exhibition event at home in the Czech Republic during the lockdown. She is projected to play No5 seed and Doha champion Aryna Sabalenka in the quarters.

However, the next section throws up the prospect of Osaka against Venus Williams in Round 3, with the winner perhaps meeting Kvitova in the quarters.

However, once again, eyes are drawn to Serena Williams, for her quarter is a tricky one. The first seed could be Maria Sakkari, one of the fastest improving players in the last year and up to a career-high No20 before lock-down. However, she faces the young star Cori Gauff in the first round—a challenge indeed.

Heading to the quarters, and Williams is in the same quarter as Johanna Konta, seeded No8. The Briton took part in the Battle of the Brits in London, but suffered heart palpitations in her first return to the main tour in Lexington last week. She could face Marketa Vondrousova, who halted her in the semis of Roland Garros last year, in the third round.

The bottom quarter has No7 Keys scheduled to meet Kenin in the quarters, and the latter arrives with perhaps the best results so far in 2020: The Australian Open title and then the Lyon trophy. But in the third round, she could meet any one of Donna Vekic, Azarenka or Stephens.

There are certainly some match-ups to catch the eye in the first couple of rounds. Among them, a career-first meeting between Americans Alison Riske and Amanda Anisimova; Sakkari versus Gauff; Vekic against Azarenka; Stephens and Caroline Garcia.

But it may take a few matches to determine the physical and mental shape of all the players, whether they be Major champions or aspiring champions.

MORE: Cincinnati 2020: Former champs Djokovic, Murray, Medvedev return from coronavirus shutdown

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