The Asian Swing begins in earnest at the Toray Pan Pacific Open, the first of three Premier level tournaments that will likely determine the line-up for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. Three teams have already qualified for highly-anticipated championships - including Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis, Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, and Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, but this week could set the stage for a major shake-up...
Mirza Goes All In: World No.1 and defending WTA Finals winner Sania Mirza was the first woman to earn a return berth back in May alongside then-partner Martina Hingis. But the two have since split and Mirza appears to be making a push to grab another spot on the Singapore squad with new partner Barbora Strycova. The two won their first tournament together at the Western & Southern Open - knocking out Hingis and her new partner CoCo Vandeweghe in the final - and are seeded second in Tokyo. The current Top 8 on the Road to Singapore leaderboard lead the field by about 500 points, but the Tokyo champions take home 470 points, which could be a major boost for Mirza and Strycova, who currently sit at No.19. The pair open against Japan's own Misaki Doi and Kurumi Nara in the first round.
Meanwhile, Hingis headlines the Guangzhou International Women's Open without Vandeweghe, and instead with fellow No.3 seed Jelena Jankovic. The Swiss Miss fared one round better than Mirza in Flushing, reaching the semifinals, but won't add any points to her race total this week. Should Mirza get that second spot with Strycova, she'll be in the driver's seat with the option of playing the WTA Finals with one of two partners. As Wimbledon runner-up Yaroslava Shvedova predicted at the US Open, "maybe we'll see some drama!"
Teams In Pole Position: Speaking of Shvedova, she and Babos are ranked No.4 on the Road to Singapore leaderboard. Though they've opted not to play in Tokyo, they could assure themselves of a return to Singapore by winning the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in two weeks. Babos made her WTA Finals debut in 2015 with reigning French Open champion Kristina Mladenovic, who qualified this year with compatriot Caroline Garcia. Shvedova was third in last year before partner Casey Dellacqua sustained a concussion at the China Open, precipitating their withdrawal.
"I went to Singapore, and as soon as I landed she decided she couldn't come," Shvedova said at the US Open. "So I was there for a day and half. I know we qualified and deserved to be there; we proved that we're a very good team, and a successful team. From my side, it was more important how she was feeling. Tennis goes to the side when health is involved."
Chan sisters Yung-Jan and Hao-Ching are top seeds this week and No.6 on the Road to Singapore leaderboard, trailing Babos and Shvedova by 245 points - a gap they could close by taking home the title in Tokyo. Their first opponents are the all-Chinese pair of Liang Chen and Yang Zhouxuan.
All-American Triple: Raquel Atawo and Abigail Spears made it to Singapore for a second straight year thanks to a strong fall swing that saw them reach the last eight in Wuhan capture a title in Linz to earn one of the last open spots. The Americans have their work cut out for them yet again as they attempt to play the WTA Finals for a third straight year; they sit at No.10 on the Road to Singapore leaderbaord, and trail the Top 8 by 640 points.
Seeded third in Tokyo, they begin their campaign against a pair formidable doubles players in 2008 Australian Open champion Kateryna Bondarenko (with sister Alona) and 2007 Australian and US Open finalist Chuang Chia-Jung (with former partner Chan Yung-Jan). Can the Americans make another late surge to Singapore?
Czech Plus In Québec: Supplanting the Chan sisters for the No.5 spot on the Road to Singapore leaderboard are 2015 semifinalists and 2012 runner-ups Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, who conquered the Coupe Banque Nationale with a 7-6(2), 7-6(2) win over Alla Kudryavtseva and Alexandra Panova, their 12th title together. Hlavackova had already won two doubles titles in 2016, but the win in Québec was her first with Hradecka since 2013, when they won the US Open - the second of their Grand Slam titles.
"I was looking forward to winning one with Lucie," Hlavackova said after the win. "I'm even happier when I win with her."
Hlavackova and Hradecka's chances of qualifying for Singapore came down to the wire last fall, with the Czech pair ultimately getting in as an alternate team. Once there, they nonetheless finished second in their round robin group to reach the final four.
"It's a little bit too early for us to stress about Singapore, but this win definitely jelps because it might take the pressure off at the end of the season. Last year, we really experienced some crazy counting and had to go all the way into the last week of the season. So, we don't want to do that again; we'd like to qualify as soon as possible and this is a great step towards doing that."
All photos courtesy of Getty Images and Pascal Ratthé