Stuttgart 2021: Defending champ Petra Kvitova faces ‘unbelievably strong’ draw
Ash Barty and Simona Halep top eight seeds that are all ranked 12 and above
The build-up to the French Open has begun with a vengeance this week at one of the most prestigious clay tournaments on the women’s tennis calendar.
The name itself speaks of quality, known by the name of its long-standing sponsor, the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, and its Stuttgart home has become synonymous with that rare feature in tennis, indoor clay.
The list of former champions, too, oozes quality. The first, held in October 1978, was won by a 15-year old Tracy Austin, and the list of subsequent champions runs like a who’s who of women’s tennis: Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova have all been multiple titlists in Stuttgart.
This week, the most recent of them, Petra Kvitova, is one of four former champions in a draw that features no fewer than six Major champions, and where all eight seeds are ranked 12 or higher.
This is a tournament beloved of the players, too, voted their favourite Premier event 10 times in the last 13 years. One of those players, indeed, expressed her particular desire to add this title to her resume: world No3 Simona Halep. The Romanian second seed has won all the big clay titles, including the French Open—except Stuttgart. She is a two-time semi-finalist, but admitted:
“Yes, I want it. I want it badly. It’s a nice tournament, nice conditions, the people are very nice to me here and, yes, it’s one of my goals to win this tournament as well. I want to win all the clay-court tournaments if possible.”
Top seed Ash Barty is also a former French Open champion, but is playing for the first time in Stuttgart. She comes into the tournament on the back of a great opening to her 2021 season, winning the Yarra Valley Classic and the Miami Open—though she was quick to play down her form.
“There have been times where I have felt like I am in great form but haven’t been winning matches, and vice-versa… So I think confidence comes from the practice and the work you do in preparation and before you play.”
In a draw of such quality, of course, there are no easy runs, but Barty finds herself in a half that boasts all four previous champions. Her first match is against 2017 champion Laura Siegemund, who beat Mona Barthel in three sets to reach her unenviable showdown with Barty.
In the next round, the quarters, the world No1 could find the last woman standing between 2018 champion Karolina Pliskova and former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
And in the other quarter of this top half, two more former winners could face each other in the quarters. The unseeded home favourite, Angelique Kerber, champion in 2015 and 2016, will face the No4 seed Elina Svitolina first, but then defending champion Kvitova will hope to make the same kind of run here as in 2019: Then, she dropped just one set on her way to the trophy.
Kvitova’s first opponent was the not insignificant test of Jennifer Brady, who reached the Australian Open final, but the popular Czech cruised through. However, next in line is the equally formidable world No19 Maria Sakkari, who is coming off a semi-final appearance at the Miami Open.
There, the Greek ended Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak and narrowly lost in the semi-finals to Bianca Andreescu in a third-set tiebreak. Now she is on her favorite surface: her only title thus far came on clay in Rabat in 2019.
Not that Halep, at the bottom of the draw, has the most enviable opener against Marketa Vondrousova, who beat Marie Bouzkova. Vondrousova, the youngest player in the draw, won their two previous matches, both played in 2019, both in tough three-setters.
Halep’s first seed is scheduled to be Belinda Bencic, though the Swiss has struggled to string wins together since her final run in Adelaide. And the semis will not feature No3 seed Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Roland Garros runner-up who had an emergency appendectomy after the Australian Open. She was beaten into the quarters by Anett Kontaveit. However, also here is one of the form players of the last six months, No5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, who won three titles back-to-back between 2020 and 2021.
But back to defending champion Kvitova, a woman whose most renowned titles have come on the grass of Wimbledon, but who has proved to be very successful in transitioning to the clay, too. The defending Stuttgart champion has twice been a semi-finalist at Roland Garros, and won the top-tier Madrid Open three times. So how does she view her campaign to win the German title again?
“I mean it’s so tough to defend the title for sure. As I saw the players who are coming here, who are going to be in the draw, it’s unbelievably strong like every year to be honest. Everybody really can win it here. So, for me to think about another trophy here is kind of unreal right now.
“But of course when the tournament is starting, you have [to go] just match by match—and day by day that can change everything.”