Ubha: Birmingham Expert Predictions
Published June 08, 2014 12:14
BIRMINGHAM, England - The tennis season is divided into chunks. There's the Australian summer, Indian Wells-Miami double, clay court swing - and now we make our brief pit stop on the grass.
Eastbourne begins next week but starting things off is the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, central England. The headline acts are top seed Ana Ivanovic, Samantha Stosur, Sloane Stephens, defending champion Daniela Hantuchova and a few of the upset artists from Roland Garros.
Here's a breakdown of the draw.
First quarter: Ana and Ajla
Opportunity knocked for Ivanovic at the French Open. Out went the top three seeds in the opening stages, gifting the Serb the chance to advance to a first Grand Slam semifinal in six years. And she started well, too, taking out the dangerous young duo of Caroline Garcia and Elina Svitolina. It was a continuation of her form in Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid.
Unfortunately for Ivanovic, she landed Lucie Safarova in the third round - who she had lost to four straight times. The formbook didn't deviate and Ivanovic was sent packing.
Grass isn't Ivanovic's best surface and a test comes in her opener against a big hitter, either Ajla Tomljanovic or Mona Barthel (remember her?) Barthel made progress in Nürnberg and Paris, but it was the Croat who made the headlines at Roland Garros by topping Agnieszka Radwanska.
That serve is a weapon, especially on grass.
Garcia, Karolina Pliskova - another with a potent delivery, although it was her twin who won the Wimbledon juniors - and Virginie Razzano, a grass court finalist, shouldn't be discounted, either.
But Ivanovic is determined to keep moving up this season and book a spot at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Second quarter: Is this Sloane's time?
By now you'll know this stat: Stephens is the highest-ranked player without a title after both Eugenie Bouchard and Carla Suárez Navarro triumphed on clay. Stephens will know that stat, too. She's also well aware of the tag that she saves her best stuff for majors while struggling at the smaller events.
The third seed probably faces Zheng Jie - no doubt happy to get off the clay - in her opener following a bye. Zheng is a seasoned grass courter, making the semifinals at both Wimbledon and Birmingham.
Stephens' fellow American, Alison Riske, loves playing on grass. 'Grass court specialist' might be stretching it but you get the point. Riske achieved the semifinals as a qualifier both last year and in 2010 and got to the quarters in 2011. And did we mention that eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova is a former finalist in Birmingham?
Not the easiest section for Stephens.
Last year's net-rushing Wimbledon semifinalist has lost six of her last seven matches and needs some momentum as she prepares to defend all those points at the All England Club.
Camila Giorgi is her expected foe after a bye. Giorgi is streaky and still learning her trade but has already ousted Maria Sharapova, Dominika Cibulkova, Andrea Petkovic and Alizé Cornet this year. With those booming, flat groundstrokes, it's no surprise that Giorgi's resume already boasts a fourth round showing at Wimbledon.
Safarova, the fifth seed, tends to produce her best results on faster surfaces. How about a Safarova-Madison Keys clash in the third round?
Fourth quarter: Experience vs. youth
The most intriguing first round match in Birmingham could be a showdown between 17-year-olds: Donna Vekic vs. Wimbledon junior champion Belinda Bencic. Growing pains haven't escaped Vekic, but the Croat won her first title in Kuala Lumpur this year. Switzerland's Bencic has climbed well inside the Top 100, having ended 2013 at No.212.
The winner just happens to meet Hantuchova, and if it's Vekic, it's a repeat of the tight 2013 final. Monica Puig looms in the third round. Puig bagged her first title entering the French Open, with the quick turnaround perhaps the reason she offered little against Stosur in the first round in Paris.
Hardcourts and clay have proved to be successful for Stosur, yet the grass continues to confound the Aussie. In 11 visits to Wimbledon, nine first or second round departures have been the result; in five trips to Birmingham, reaching the quarters has eluded her.
~ Ravi Ubha (@raviubha) has written for ESPN.com, CNN.com, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is also a tennis broadcaster. He is based in London.