After the excitement of the French Open, it’s time for the WTA Tour to focus their attention on the grass in the lead up to Wimbledon. The AEGON Classic in Birmingham has been upgraded to a Premier event although many of the top names scheduled to compete have withdrawn to their exertions in Paris over the last few weeks. These include Eugenie Bouchard, Sabine Lisicki and Garbine Muguruza.
Ana Ivanovic is the tournaments top seed and will hope to improve on her 2011 semi final showing. A promising clay season ended in disappointment as the former No.1 failed to make the second week at the French Open. She opens against the winner of Mona Barthel and Ajla Tomjlanovic. Tomjlanovic is fresh off the biggest win of her career, defeating Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets. A rematch with Caroline Garcia is possible for Ivanovic if both players make the third round but qualifiers Vicky Duval and Tamira Paszek will pose plenty of questions for the Frenchwoman. Paszek was impressive on grass in 2011 and 2012 but even saw her form on her favoured surface suffer during an awful 2013.
Klara Koukalova looks to end a six match losing streak when she begins her tournament but the possibility of facing Karolina Pliskova‘s booming serve could cause plenty of headaches for the Czech. Zarina Diyas lost to Karolina’s sister Kristyna in the final of Nottingham 75k but will take confidence from her run in the event. 10th seed Bojana Jovanovski is her expected round two opponent but is out of form with just two wins in her last 10 at tour level.
Two Americans reside in the second quarter of the draw but it is Alison Riske rather than Sloane Stephens that has the greater experience on the surface. That didn’t stop Stephens from making the quarter finals of Wimbledon in her only grass event last year but there has been a marked contrast between slam and non-slam performances for a while now. She made her sixth consecutive fourth round in the French Open, winning as many matches there as in her three clay tournaments prior. Stephens has a tough opener facing either Jie Zheng or Francesca Schiavone. Zheng has grass pedigree while Schiavone was a tough opponent at last years event. Meanwhile, Riske has 2 semi finals and a quarter final in the past four years with losses to Daniela Hantuchova (x2) and Maria Sharapova on those occasions. The American will look to deny a second round between the Kichenok sisters.
Magdalena Rybarikova is one of two former winners in the draw and will fancy her chances of a deep run as eighth seed. She made the semis finals last year, losing to Donna Vekic in three sets. Shuai Zhang has played just one main draw match on grass and will be a marked woman as ninth seed. After a promising French Open, Kristina Mladenovic will look to build and a first round match against Shahar Peer provides a generous platform to begin with.
Lucie Safarova extended her head to head lead over the tournament’s top seed Ivanovic in France which should give the Czech promise should they meet in a potential final matchup. Given that her quarter contains numerous seeds and qualifiers, living up to her seeding shouldn’t be too much of an ask. Either Barbara Zahlavova-Strycova or big serving wildcard Naomi Broady are up first. Broady did win a grass ITF in Japan a few weeks back but struggled upon returning to stronger fields in Nottingham. Both Marina Erakovic and Irina Falconi have quarter finals to their name at this tournament but big hitting Madison Keys should send either packing in round two if she can keep errors to a minimum.
Wildcard Johanna Konta looks to extend her record over Kurumi Nara to 5-0 and will look to an all-Brit second round if Heather Watson can do the business against Aleksandra Wozniak. Watson is beginning to look back to her best after her return from injury and a good run is need here to continue her rise back up the rankings. British qualifier Katy Dunne impressed in qualifying with wins over Alize Lim and Timea Babos but has a tough opener against Camila Giorgi while Kirsten Flipkens awaits in round two. The fourth seed made the semi final of Wimbledon last year but has struggled so far this year winning just two matches in her last ten and one over the clay season.
While the field is weaker than initially expected, the organisers had put together a good group of promising youngsters who could well be stars in the future. Unfortunately, two of them were drawn together in the match of round one. Belinda Bencic is a Wimbledon junior winner while Donna Vekic made the final last year, losing to Daniela Hantuchova. If she defeats Bencic, Vekic can gain revenge with Hantuchova awaiting the winner in round two. It is 18 years since she made the semi finals of Wimbledon but Kimiko Date-Krumm continues to amaze at the age of 43. A match against Paula Ormaechea is very winnable for her while Monica Puig, 23 years is a possible round two opponent. Puig made a name for herself at Wimbledon last year with a run to the fourth round.
Second seed Sam Stosur makes her return to Birmingham after 5 years off as she looks to prepare for the slam that she struggles at the most. She has not made the second week in singles play at Wimbledon in 11 attempts. Fellow Aussie Casey Dellacqua was successful in this event last time out, winning the doubles title with Ashleigh Barty but lost round one in singles play. Urszula Radwanska continues to struggle with injury and had to retire in her French Open encounter with Magdalena Rybarikova.
We will be in Birmingham all week to provide coverage of the event’s happenings – weather permitting!
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