Victoria Azarenka seeks three in a row, Petra Kvitova her third at Madrid Open

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the Madrid Open, where Petra Kvitova is the defending champion

Only four active players on the women’s tour have won the prestigious Mutua Madrid Open since it became one of the jewels in the WTA crown—one of four Premier Mandatory tournaments in the calendar: Serena Williams (twice), Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova (the two-time and defending champion).

So this year, the popular No5 seed Kvitova could be forgiven for having a spring in her step as she prepares for the defence of her title at the stunning Caja Magica.

Draw opens up for defending champ Kvitova

With Sharapova suspended from the tour for failing a doping test at the Australian Open, and Venus Williams out with injury, it was then the turn of world No1 Serena Williams to pull the plug on her participation just ahead of the draw ceremony due to illness.

Kvitova did beat Williams on her way to the title in the Magic Box last year—their most recent meeting—though the American, like herself, has revelled in the fast conditions of Madrid. As Kvitova told the tournament’s website ahead of the draw: “The altitude really helps players who are playing fast and aggressively. The balls really fly… I think this really helps my game especially my serve. It is always good to have these kinds of weapons.”

So with the likes of Belinda Bencic and former finalist Caroline Wozniacki also out injured, and boosted to a No5 seeding, Kvitova’s draw has the potential to be a decent one, especially after falling into the opposite half from No2 seed Angelique Kerber: The Australian Open champion beat Kvitova in the Stuttgart semis last week on her way to the title.

In Madrid, though, there are no byes for the top seeds, and that means the champion has to win six matches, and also has to hit the ground running from Round 1. Kvitova may also be counting her blessings, therefore, that she plays wild card Lara Arruabarrena in her opener, and that the only top-30 player she can meet before the quarters is the No17-ranked Elina Svitolina. But other top seeds have not fared so well.

Early hazards for Radwanska, Muguruza and Suarez Navarro

At this high-stakes, high-points tournament, things can be tough from the very first day: Just ask last-minute top seed Agnieszka Radwanska. She drew Katowice champion and former Roland Garros semi-finalist Dominika Cibulkova for her opener. The petite Slovak is a former top-10 player making her way back to form after an injury-hit 2015, and as feisty a battler as anyone. She also took Radwanska to 7-5 in the third set in the second round of Indian Wells this spring.

Radwanska’s second match may be just as challenging, with the unpredictable Caroline Garcia vying for the honour with the highest unseeded player in the draw, Briton Jo Konta. However, a possible quarter-final opponent, Miami finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, has pulled out of her semi in Prague with injury, so may be in doubt in the Roberta Vinci and Jelena Jankovic quarter-final segment.

Home favourite and No3 seed Garbine Muguruza opens against the No34 ranked Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who won on clay in Katowice last year after reaching the final in Rio.

Muguruza could then face Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, but with the struggling No6 seed Simona Halep, a finalist in Madrid back in 2014, as her scheduled quarter-final opponent, the tall Spaniard may be lining up her first semi run since the WTA Finals last October.

The home nation has high hopes for the elegant and intelligent craft of No8 seed, Carla Suarez Navarro who has enjoyed her first top-10 season this spring after winning her first Premier title in Doha. She was also a finalist in Rome last year. Her section, though, brings first the steadily-rising Timea Babos, a semi-finalist in Morocco this week, and a possible showdown with the one of the two finalists in Prague, Sam Stosur or Lucie Safarova, in the third round.

Azarenka on a roll

It is no exaggeration to say that 2016 is proving to bring an impressive renaissance for No4 seed Azarenka. From a high of No1 in 2012, her ranking was down to 48 little more than a year ago after repeated injury problems, but Azarenka began to show something of her old self last year in quarter-final runs at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Come 2016, she has won Brisbane, made the quarters at the Australian Open, and went from good to great to win the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami, beating Serena Williams for just the fourth time in 21 attempts. With two Fed Cup wins since, she arrives in Madrid, where she is a two-time finalist, on a 24-1 run.

Azarenka has shone, of course, on the hard courts—twice an Australian Open champion, twice a US Open finalist, and with nine Premier hard-court titles—but while clay, apart from Madrid’s faster conditions, may not be her first choice of surface, she has reached the final in Rome, the semis at Roland Garros, and is close to a 70 percent winning record on clay.

The draw poses challenges: a returning Laura Robson in the first round is unpredictable; former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic in Round 3 is the same—and of course defending champion Kvitova in the quarters. But with Serena out, this could be Azarenka’s chance for a bit of history: a chance to win t he first three Premier Mandatories of the year.

British interest

Konta hit a new career-high of 21 a fortnight back, and had Sloane Stephens not gone on a title run in Charleston, the Briton may have nabbed the last seeded spot in the Madrid draw. As it is, she faces tough opposition from the get-go: Garcia first, top-seed Radwanska next, and clay specialist and No15 seed Sara Errani should she reach the third round.

Robson has been dipping a toe in the competitive waters this season at ITF and qualifier level after not winning a main-tour match since September 2013 through chronic wrist problems. Now she enters the main draw in Madrid with a protected ranking, but meets Azarenka in the first round. Ivanovic is a third-round possible, with Kvitova in the quarters.

The 56-ranked Heather Watson and 80-ranked Naomi Broady are competing for one of eight qualifier places in the main draw.

Former champion in draw: Kvitova (two-time and defending)
Additional former runners-up: Kuznetsova (last year), Halep, Azarenka (twice)
Missing seeds: Potential seeds missing from the 16 are No1 Serena Williams (flu), No9 Sharapova (suspended), No10 Bencic (back), No12 Flavia Pennetta (retired), No14 Venus Williams (hamstring)
Also injured: Wozniacki (ankle)
Wild cards: Arruabarrena, Sorana Cirstea, Sara Sorribes, Paula Badosa, Lourdes Dominguez

Top half

No1 seed Radwanka quarter
R1, Cibulkova
R2, Garcia or Konta
R3, first seed, No15 Errani
QF, No7 seed, Vinci or No9 seed Kuznetsova
SF, No4 seed Azarenka, No5 seed Kvitova, No12 seed Svitolina, No14 seed Ivanovic

No4 seed Azarenka quarter
R1, Robson
R2, Cornet or Badosa
R3, first seed, No14 Ivanovic
QF, No12 Svitolina or No5 Kvitova
SF, No1 seed Radwanksa, No7 seed Vinci, No9 seed Kuznetsova, No15 seed Errani

Bottom half

No3 seed Muguruza quarter
R1, Schmiedlova
R2, Begu or Bouchard
R3, first seed, No13 Pliskova
QF, No6 seed Halep or No10 seed Timea Bacsinszky
SF, No2 seed Kerber, No8 seed Suarez Navarro, No11 seed Safarova, No16 seed Stephens

No2 seed Kerber quarter
R1, Barbora Strycova
R2, Qualifer or Madison Keys
R3, first seed, No16 Stephens
QF, No8 seed Suarez Navarro or No 11 seed Safarova
SF, No3 seed Muguruza, No6 seed Halep, No10 seed Bacsinszky, No13 seed Pliskova

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