The WTA Premier event in Stanford next week lost some lustre before the first ball was even struck. Serena Williams, the two-time defending champion, chose to compete on the clay courts of Bastad rather than on the concrete of California. Maria Sharapova, who took a tumble during her shock Wimbledon loss a few weeks ago, pulled out to deal with the resultant hip injury. And it seems that making the latter stages in SW19 came at a price: Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, runner-up Sabine Lisicki and semi-finalist Kirsten Flipkens have also pulled out of Stanford with injuries.
Full Draw Here: WTA Stanford 2013 Draw
That means that Agnieszka Radwanska will be the only Wimbledon semi-finalist competing at the Bank of the West Classic. The top-seed will undoubtedly be keen to banish the memories of her bitterly disappointing defeat at the All England Club. She came within points of beating Lisicki in the last four, and knew that, for once, there would be no Serena, Maria or Vika waiting in the final. Alas, she couldn’t finish the job, losing a classic deciding set 9-7. Many felt that Radwanska had lost her best chance yet of winning a Grand Slam, so it will be fascinating to see if she plays with greater urgency and determination during the summer hard court swing.
She certainly won’t mind the weakening of the draw – as far as Radwanska is concerned, the fewer big-hitters standing in her way, the better. The top four seeds each receive a bye into the second round, and at that stage Radwanska will play either Mallory Burdette or Francesca Schiavone. She dismissed the 78th-ranked Burdette in straight sets at the French Open this year, and will be confident of countering the young American’s aggressive but inconsistent baseline game. And although Radwanska has a 3-4 losing record against Schiavone, the losses came in the early part of her career, and she hasn’t dropped a set to the Italian since 2010.
The next section of the draw isn’t any more threatening for the world number four. It consists of two qualifiers, along with Tamira Paszek and Varvara Lepchenko. All but one woman in the qualifying draw has a ranking in three figures, and Paszek has endured a truly miserable year so far. The Austrian has won a single main draw match in 2013; even on her beloved grass at Wimbledon, she was dumped out in the first round. That leaves sixth-seeded Lepchenko as Radwanska’s most likely quarter-final opponent. Yet the world number 36 hasn’t had great season either, and nine of her 11 match wins have come on clay courts. Moreover, she is 0-3 in her head-to-head with the Pole.
Magdalena Rybarikova is the eighth seed in Stanford, but it would surprise no one if she lost her first round match to one of the USA’s most exciting prospects, Madison Keys. The 18-year-old began the year ranked 137, but three quarter-final appearances have boosted her to 44th. Strong off the ground and blessed with a powerful serve, she has the tools to get past both Rybarikova and Marina Erakovic to make the last eight. Waiting for her there, most likely, will be compatriot Jamie Hampton, another player who has shot up the rankings this season. The Alabama native reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time in Paris, and made her first WTA final in Eastbourne after coming through qualifying. Radwanska will have to be at her best to beat either woman: Keys pushed her to the limit at Wimbledon, and Hampton upset her in straight sets in Eastbourne.
The bottom half of the Stanford draw is packed with players who have gone on impressive streaks in their careers, but have never maintained top form for a sustained period. Sam Stosur is the second seed, but the Aussie hasn’t made it past the quarter-finals of a tournament all year. She tends to produce her best results on American hard courts, but appears short of confidence and could run into Julia Goerges or Sorana Cristea, two dangerous players who have beaten her in the past.
Third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova won a title in Carlsbad this time last year, but the diminutive Slovakian hasn’t exactly set the world alight in 2013. And if she can get her big-hitting, high-risk game in the zone in Stanford, how will she feel in the final against Radwanska, who beat her 6-0, 6-0 in their most recent meeting? The other contenders – Urszula Radwanska, Daniela Hantuchova, Christina McHale and Yanina Wickmayer – are solid, but haven’t done anything spectacular lately.
With so many top players pulling out, the Bank of the West Classic draw resembles that of an International-level event. It is a prime opportunity for the likes of Hampton and Keys to get their hands on a WTA trophy for the first time, while the slumping Stosur and Cibulkova have a great chance to play themselves into form.
But the player who can make most hay in the California sunshine is Radwanska. No one else in the field has such a winning combination of experience and consistency, and no one else has so many shots in her arsenal. If the promising young Americans hit peak form, they will probably pose the biggest threat; if not, the Stanford title is Radwanska’s to lose.