Welcome to Memory Lawn, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the grass seasons of the past five years. Our retrospective starts in Birmingham to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Nature Valley Classic. Continuing with 2016, we revisit Barbora Strycova slicing and dicing her way past CoCo Vandeweghe into her second Birmingham final.
2015: Kristina Mladenovic def. Simona Halep, quarterfinal
2016 semifinal, Barbora Strycova def. CoCo Vandeweghe 2-6, 6-4, 6-3
HOW THEY GOT THERE: On paper, an all-unseeded semifinal is usually the result of a trail of upsets - but when Barbora Strycova took on CoCo Vandeweghe in the last four of the 2016 Aegon Classic, it was a clash between two players who were not only in superb form generally but had particularly proven themselves on grass, where their contrasting game styles had grown to be especially effective.
Both already had a Wimbledon quarterfinal showing under their belts, Strycova ending Li Na's career en route to the last eight in 2014 and Vandeweghe matching that feat a year later via wins over Karolina Pliskova and Lucie Safarova. Both had excelled in WTA grass tournaments previously, too: Strycova had reached her first Premier final in Birmingham in 2014, losing to Ana Ivanovic, while both of Vandeweghe's career titles had come on the lawns of 's-Hertogenbosch. Indeed, the World No.32 had arrived in Birmingham fresh off the second of those, where she had defeated Kristina Mladenovic in the final, and her form showed no sign of letting up: Vandeweghe kicked off her campaign with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 first-round upset of No.1 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, her maiden Top 5 victory, before dismissing qualifier Christina McHale 6-3, 7-6(2) and Yanina Wickmayer 6-4, 6-2 to extend her winning streak to eight.
In a mirror of Vandeweghe's path to the semifinals, Strycova had also begun Birmingham by evicting a seed - but where the American had bludgeoned through Radwanska's touch with her power, Strycova had reversed that dynamic in ensnaring No.8 seed Pliskova in her web of finesse for a 6-4, 7-6(7) triumph. The World No.30 had backed that upset up with solid wins over local favorite Heather Watson 7-5, 6-4 and former Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova 6-2, 7-5, continuing a solid rebound season: having fallen from the Top 20 in February 2015 to outside the Top 40 at the start of 2016, the Czech was heading in the right direction again after reaching the Dubai final, Rome quarterfinals and the fourth rounds of the Australian Open and Indian Wells.
WHAT HAPPENED: The contest was a tantalizing stylistic contrast on paper, but Vandeweghe wasted no time in bypassing Strycova's finesse entirely. The 24-year-old had no intention of getting embroiled in the carefully constructed rallies that favored her opponent, and a dazzling display of hitting from all corners of the court enabled her to place first-strike tennis at the forefront of the first set. Diving volleys, down-the-line forehand passes slammed at full power on the run, return winners swatted away dismissively: Vandeweghe showcased all of these and more in leaping out to a quick 5-0 lead. Failing to serve out the set at the first opportunity seemed but a minor blip, and a booming service winner would wrap it up 6-2 two games later.
The American would maintain her momentum to go up a break at 2-1 in the second set - but it was at this point that Strycova would start to turn the tide. The 30-year-old would redouble her efforts to scamper all around the court, digging out some spectacular retrievals and utilizing her supreme touch to turn points around, breaking back immediately and then levelling when Vandeweghe, serving to stay in the set, went wide with a forehand when facing a second set point.
By now, Vandeweghe's power, blunted by Strycova's anticipation and defence, was both less effective and less accurate. More points were being played on the Czech's terms, making for a series of dazzling setpieces, with her lob proving a particular frustration for Vandeweghe; Strycova ended a sequence of three straight breaks by capturing Vandeweghe's serve with a delightful net duel for a 4-2 lead.
This would prove decisive: Vandeweghe continued to fight valiantly, fending off two match points in the eighth game, but Strycova was able to seal her fourth opportunity with an ace for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph.
WHAT IT MEANT: Though both players backed up their performances with a solid Wimbledon - Vandeweghe reaching the fourth round and Strycova, having lost the Birmingham final to No.7 seed Madison Keys, the third - the quality they displayed was a longer-term foreshadowing.
Indeed, although this week raised Vandeweghe into the Top 30 for the first time - enabling her Grand Slam seeded debut at Wimbledon - the American would fade following the grass season, winning just two more matches over the rest of 2016 and ending the year on a five-match losing streak. However, her World No.37 year-end ranking would set Vandeweghe up for a career-best season in 2017, one in which she would reach her first two major semifinals at the Australian and US Opens, as well as a second Wimbledon quarterfinal.
Strycova, meanwhile, was just beginning the best sustained spell of tennis of her career as she entered her thirties. Having cracked the Top 30 for the first time two years previously at the age of 28, dipped back out in 2015 and re-entered it the week before Birmingham, the Czech would become a mainstay at that level, putting together an unbroken streak of two years and three months inside the Top 30 - the longest of her career. Her grass skills would come to fruition in a big way three years later, too, when - at the age of 33 - Strycova enjoyed a fairytale Wimbledon, reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal as well as capturing the doubles title alongside Hsieh Su-Wei.