The Eastbourne International has been the WTA’s premier Wimbledon warm-up since 1974. Held on the south coast of England, supposedly one of the “sunniest” parts of the country, the tournament has welcomed countless Wimbledon champions over the years. Martina Navratilova won a staggering 11 singles titles at the Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club; other big names to make the roll of honour include Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin.
Although the world’s top three – Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova – have opted not to play on grass prior to Wimbledon, the field at this year’s Eastbourne International is still jam-packed with stars. Agnieszka Radwanska, runner-up to Serena in a memorable Wimbledon final last year, is the top seed, and is joined by five more top ten players in Li Na, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Kirilenko.
Radwanska will be looking for a better result in Eastbourne this year, having bombed out in the first round in 2012. She will take on a qualifier in her opening match, and in the second round could face either Britain’s Johanna Konta or Su-Wei Hsieh. The top section of the draw also features one of the standout first round matches. Eighth seed Nadia Petrova will try to find a way past Sam Stosur, whose early loss at the French Open has seen her drop out of the top ten, and enter a Premier tournament unseeded, for the first time in years. The winner of that clash will play either Lucie Safarova or Klara Zakopalova, who respectively reached the quarters and semis of last year’s Eastbourne International.
Three players under pressure to do well on grass this year, albeit for different reasons, are Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki and Tamira Paszek, all of whom find themselves in the second quarter of the draw. Kerber came within points of winning the title in Eastbourne last year – losing out to Paszek in a nail-biting showpiece match – and went on to reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon, meaning she has over 1200 ranking points to defend in the next three weeks. Paszek may be ranked 29 in the world, but she has won only two matches in 2013, and owes her exalted standing to a superb grass court season last year. As well as scooping the silverware in Eastbourne, she made the last eight at the All England Club. Put simply, failure to defend those points will see her ranking plummet. The good news for Caroline Wozniacki is that she has barely anything to defend from 2012’s grass court season, having lost in the first round in Eastbourne and Wimbledon. But the Dane desperately needs to start winning again in order to protect her precarious position in the top ten. Her high-stakes first rounder sees her take on Paszek who, coincidentally, was the woman who beat her on the opening day of Wimbledon last year.
It has been a long time since Petra Kvitova was the favourite to win a WTA title, but the Czech’s capacity to surprise should never be underestimated. After all, she stormed to the Wimbledon title in 2011, and ended that year a whisker away from the number one ranking. Her loss of form and consistency since then has been disappointing, but she remains one of the few top players whose game is tailor-made for grass. Her big, lefty serve can be devastatingly accurate, and her powerful groundstrokes, when they land inside the court, leave opponents floundering. Kvitova has a great chance to play herself into form in Eastbourne, as she won’t face a top 40 player until the quarter-finals. At that stage, she is seeded to meet sixth seeded Maria Kirilenko, who beat her on grass at the London Olympics last year, but the Russian will first have to navigate the mercurial Bojana Jovanovski.
Li Na will attempt to rebound from her early exit at the French Open with a strong result in Eastbourne. The second seed takes on Alize Cornet in her first match, and could run into former Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli in round two, if the Frenchwoman can overcome Flavia Pennetta. Also in this section of the draw is Ana Ivanovic, who is hoping to build on a solid clay court season. If the Serb can maintain her unblemished run against Elena Vesnina in her opening match, she would play either American number three Varvara Lepchenko or Britain’s Heather Watson for a place in the quarter-finals. Watson, who only returned to the tour in Paris following a bout of glandular fever, reached the second round of the Eastbourne International and the third round of Wimbledon last year.
In spite of the absence of the WTA’s “Big Three” from Eastbourne, that there is still plenty of scope for pre-Wimbledon intrigue at the seaside town. The tops seeds, making the transition from clay to grass, may be vulnerable in the early rounds, but it would be surprising if there were a repeat of last year’s raft of upsets, when Radwanska, Kvitova and Wozniacki all fell at the first hurdle. As is always the case when a tennis tournament is held in the UK, the weather could play a determining factor. Rain delays can disrupt rhythm and change the momentum of matches, and if players are forced to do “double duty” and play two matches in a day, fitness becomes paramount.