It’s a time of year when tennis barely stops for breath, and no sooner have the world’s elite finished competing in Toronto than they’re heading to another Premier 5 event in Cincinnati.
Full Draw Here: WTA Cincinnati Draw 2013
The Western and Southern Open boasts an even stronger draw than the Rogers Cup. Every single member of the top ten is scheduled to compete in Ohio, including two notable Toronto absentees, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. The second and third seeds will most likely view the event as a chance to get vital match practice ahead of the US Open, but they might also be thinking about rankings. With only 40 points currently separating them, Azarenka and Sharapova could switch places in the WTA standings depending on how they perform in Cincinnati. That would determine who would be seeded second in New York, i.e. who will avoid a semi-final showdown with Serena.
At the time of writing, the American has been is superb form in Canada, dropping just 10 games in her first three matches there. Indeed, she looks so sharp that she probably doesn’t need to play again before the final Grand Slam of the year, but Serena in 2013 has been a woman on a mission. Whereas, in the past, she was known to pull out of events at the last moment, this year she has played her fullest schedule in over a decade. The world number one seems to be enjoying her tennis more than ever, and wants to win wherever she plays, be that Paris or Bastad. It’s great for fans and tournament organisers, but ominous for the other 55 players in the Cincinnati draw.
After a first round bye, Serena will play a qualifier in her second round match. That could be anyone from comeback kid Andrea Petkovic to veteran Jie Zheng to up-and-coming youngsters such as Eugenie Bouchard or Madison Keys, such is the strength in depth of the Cincinnati field. In round three, Serena is seeded to face 16th seed Maria Kirilenko, but that’s only if the Russian can get through a section that includes Mona Barthel, the once hotly tipped German who is showing signs of life again this summer.
A number of highly talented and dangerous players will vie for the role of Serena’s quarter-final opponent. One of the standout first round matches will pit two former US Open champions against each other: Sam Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova. While Kuznetsova has slumped again following a positive start to the year, Stosur has moved in the opposite direction, and beat Azarenka to win the title in Carlsbad last week. The winner of that match would play either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or American number three Jamie Hampton. Also in this section is Simona Halep, who won three International titles in June and July and is playing her first hard court event of the summer. The eighth seed in Cincinnati is Marion Bartoli, but the Frenchwoman’s participation is in doubt after injury forced her out of Toronto.
Predicted quarter-final: Serena v Stosur
Agnieszka Radwanska won’t be thrilled about finding herself in Williams’ half of the draw again. To make matters worse, she’s seeded to face Li Na in the quarter-finals, who has beaten her in five of their six hard court encounters, one of which was a 6-1, 6-1 drubbing in Cincinnati 12 months ago. Li has the easier route to the last eight, with Angelique Kerber – not at her best recently – and Klara Zakopalova the highest ranked players in her section. Standing in Radwanska’s way could be Varvara Lepchenko, who pushed her to three tough sets in Stanford last month, and one of Venus Williams, Elena Vesnina or Kirsten Flipkens. Venus fell to Flipkens in Toronto after winning the opening set 6-0, so the veteran will be keen to exact revenge on home soil should they meet in the second round.
Predicted quarter-final: Radwanska v Li
Sara Errani has done a much better job than expected defending her place in the top ten this year. A French Open runner-up and US Open semi-finalist in 2012, she has reached the quarter-finals or better of 11 tournaments in 2013 and has regularly been a thorn in the side of big hitters. The feisty Italian is likely to meet the in-from Dominika Cibulkova in the second round (who has beaten her five times in eight meetings), and could run into doubles partner Roberta Vinci in the last 16, provided Vinci can get past the streaky Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
In her first match since that shock Wimbledon loss to Michelle Larcher de Brito, Maria Sharapova will play either a qualifier or Sloane Stephens. To date, the young American hasn’t had enough firepower to deal with a consistent Sharapova, but if the Russian is rusty or tentative then the wily, counterpunching Stephens could have a shot at an upset. If all goes to plan and Sharapova does win her opening match in Cincinnati, she could meet either Jelena Jankovic or Sabine Lisicki in round three. Another chapter of her bad-tempered rivalry with Jankovic would be one to watch, but a clash with Lisicki – also in action for the first time since Wimbledon – would be equally intriguing.
Predicted quarter-final: Sharapova v Errani
Will Victoria Azarenka actually play in Cincinnati or will it become her eighth tournament withdrawal of the year? The Belarusian looked to be in great shape in her first three matches in Carlsbad, but she played a stinker against Stosur in the final and promptly pulled out of Toronto, citing a lower back injury. If she does make it to the Western and Southern Open, she will have a tough test in the second round against either rising star Kristina Mladenovic or a qualifier. After that, she would face the winner of a section that includes 15th seed Ana Ivanovic, world number 30 Alize Cornet and Washington champion Magdalena Rybarikova.
Caroline Wozniacki lost to Sorana Cristea in a high quality three hour marathon at the Rogers Cup, and the friends could meet again in the second round in Cincinnati, assuming the Dane can deal with Peng Shuai and Cristea can take care of Yanina Wickmayer. Wozniacki badly needs to win a few matches to restore the confidence that has been sorely lacking in recent months. If she can get on a roll next week, she would fancy her chances against 7th seed Petra Kvitova in the last 16, who fell apart against Cristea in the Toronto quarter-finals. It seems hard to believe now that Wozniacki and Kvitova, both on the verge of dropping out of the top ten, were ranked one and two in the world at the end of 2011.
Predicted quarter-final: Azarenka v Wozniacki
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Li; Azarenka def. Sharapova
Champion: Serena Williams
Sharapova and Azarenka both come into this event nursing injuries and in need of match practice. As a result, they will be more vulnerable to an early round upset than usual. But Azarenka, despite her numerous setbacks, tends to find top form quickly, and she has too much power and consistency for the other players in her section. Sharapova has an equally strong record against the players standing in her way, and has also been remarkably consistent in 2013. A semi-final showdown between the two would be highly anticipated, especially now that Sharapova has been working with the legendary Jimmy Connors.
But the perennial question remains: can either woman challenge a fit and motivated Serena? Combined, they have a 4-26 win-loss record against the 16-time Grand Slam champion, so the short answer would appear to be “no”. There must surely come a day when an ageing Serena begins to lose her edge over her younger competitors, but that day seems a long way off. It will take a stunning performance to stop her winning her first Cincinnati title.