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WTA Eastbourne: Aegon International preview

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With only a week until the third major of the season at Wimbledon, eight of the world’s top ten look to hone their grass court preparation at the Aegon International in Eastbourne.

After the women’s grass court season kicked into full gear with big events in Mallorca and Birmingham, eight of the world’s top ten head to the sunny south coast of England for their final preparations ahead of Wimbledon at the Aegon International in Eastbourne. A star-studded field is set for the WTA Premier event on the grass courts of Devonshire Park, where besides a prestigious grass court title lay on the line, the world number one ranking is also up for grabs between current top-ranked Angelique Kerber and world number two and Porsche Race to Singapore number one Simona Halep.

First quarter

Headlining the top quarter of the stacked draw in Eastbourne is world number one and 2014 finalist Angelique Kerber, who as a seed has a bye in the first round before opening against either big-serving British wildcard Naomi Broady or Czech Kristyna Pliskova. Another potentially tough match awaits the German in the third round with 16th seed Daria Gavrilova looming as a possible round of 16 opponent before possibly facing newly-crowned French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko, who begins her grass court campaign against either Ekaterina Makarova or Carla Suarez Navarro, or Eastbourne local and fifth seed Johanna Konta, who opens against a qualifier or Katerina Siniakova, in the quarterfinals.

All makes for a very tough few early rounds for Kerber on the grass, as the already struggling German looks to begin her grass court season strongly ahead of defending her points from her runner-up finish last year at Wimbledon. If the world number one can negotiate some very tough opening three matches than it bodes well for the former finalist’s confidence heading into Wimbledon, but some big-hitters in Broady, Gavrilova, Ostapenko, and Konta could very well trouble the German here in Eastbourne.

Semifinalist: Konta

Johanna Konta hits a forehand at the 2016 Aegon International in Eastbourne/Zimbio/Steve Bardens

Second quarter

In the second quarter of the draw, it’s led by last year’s finalist and third seed Karolina Pliskova along with three of the more in-form players on the WTA at the moment in French Open quarterfinalist and Porsche Race to Singapore number six Kristina Mladenovic, French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky, and Indian Wells finalist and Madrid semifinalist Svetlana Kuznetsova. Pliskova, who cannot become world number one this week due to her finals points to defend here in Eastbourne, anchors the draw, opening against either grass court specialist Alison Riske or Frenchwoman Alize Cornet.

The third seed could then face Bacsinszky, who is not at her best on grass but opens against either a qualifier or Peng Shuai of China. After a pretty comfortable opening two rounds for the big-serving Czech, a potentially mouthwatering quarterfinal could await against ninth seed Kristina Mladenovic or seventh seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, who are on a collision course for a rematch of their highly competitive Madrid semifinal in the third round here in Eastbourne.

While there are many in-form players lined up in this quarter, the clear favorite is Pliskova, who coming off a surprise semifinal showing on her weakest surface at the French Open, is pulsing with confidence heading into the grass court season. If Pliskova can navigate past another of the most in-form and talked about players on tour this season, Kristina Mladenovic, it should be the Czech world number three reaching a second straight semifinal showing on the south coast of England.

Semifinalist: Pliskova

Karolina Pliskova hits a forehand at the 2016 Aegon International in Eastbourne/Zimbio/Tom Dulan

Third quarter

Headlining the third quarter of the draw is defending champion and fourth seed Dominika Cibulkova and another former champion at Devonshire Park who’s suffered a tough year, 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. After a bye in the first round, Cibulkova begins her title defense against either Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko or British wildcard Heather Watson. A potentially difficult third round match looms for the Slovak, with possibly 14th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who opens against Timea Babos or Elise Mertens, a round of 16 opponent for Cibulkova. For eighth seed and 2008 champion Agnieszka Radwanska, the Pole has a very dangerous opening round opponent in either big-hitting German Julia Goerges, who is into the final in Mallorca this week, or American rising star CiCi Bellis, who fell to Goerges in the Mallorca semifinals, awaiting Radwanska in the second round. If the former Wimbledon finalist can negotiate her way past her very tough opening opponent, 2016 French Open champion and 2015 Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza could await Radwanska in the third round, barring Muguruza get past a tough first match for her as well against either Czech Barbora Strycova, a talented player on the grass, or 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

For eighth seed and 2008 champion Agnieszka Radwanska, the Pole has a very dangerous opening round opponent in either big-hitting German Julia Goerges, who is into the final in Mallorca this week, or American rising star CiCi Bellis, who fell to Goerges in the Mallorca semifinals, awaiting Radwanska in the second round. If the former Wimbledon finalist can negotiate her way past her very tough opening opponent, 2016 French Open champion and 2015 Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza could await Radwanska in the third round, barring Muguruza get past a tough first match for her as well against either Czech Barbora Strycova, a talented player on the grass, or 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

Despite a quarter loaded with former Wimbledon finalists, this draw does present an opportunity for Spanish 11th seed Muguruza to reset following a tough French Open title defense and set herself up well for a deep run at Wimbledon. With a very tough opening match for an already struggling and ailing Radwanska, it’s tough to see the 2008 winner making it to the third round, and with possibly Cibulkova or Pavlyuchenkova awaiting Muguruza in the last eight, the Spaniard seems primed to reach the last four here in Eastbourne.

Semifinalist: Muguruza

Garbine Muguruza hits a forehand at the 2015 Aegon International in Eastbourne/Zimbio/Ben Hoskins

Fourth quarter

Arguably the most loaded quarter of them all in this jam-packed Aegon International draw, second seed and recent French Open finalist Simona Halep, 2009 champion and former world number one Caroline Wozniacki, and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova all feature in this stacked bottom quarter. For Halep, a semifinal appearance this week on the south coast of England guarantees the Romanian claim the world number one ranking regardless of Kerber’s results this week. Halep’s campaign begins against either American Christina McHale or a qualifier before a possible mouth-watering third round clash with 13th seed Petra Kvitova, who is into the final in Birmingham despite only playing her second tournament of the year in her inspiring comeback from a potentially life-threatening knife attack in her home.

For 2009 champion and sixth seed Caroline Wozniacki, the Dane has a potentially very dangerous opening match opponent, with big-hitting Japanese Naomi Osaka or a qualifier awaiting the former world number one in the second round. Wozniacki could have another tough test in the third round, with 2013 champion and defending Wimbledon semifinalist Elena Vesnina a possible round of 16 opponent for the former world number one. If Wozniacki can get past two very tough opening matches on the grass, her reward would be a possible quarterfinal meeting with Halep or Kvitova, a tough draw for all four seeds in this section.

If Wozniacki can hold off the powerful play of Osaka and crafty grass court game of Vesnina, the Dane should reach the quarterfinals, but with a strong, fresh Kvitova looming in the quarterfinals despite possibly having to play Halep in the third round, the two-time Wimbledon champion looks hard to beat on the grass, and that looks like it will continue this week at Devonshire Park.

Semifinalist: Kvitova

Petra Kvitova hits a forehand at the 2016 Aegon International in Eastbourne/Zimbio/Steve Bardens

Predictions:

Semifinals: Pliskova def. Konta, Kvitova def. Muguruza

Final: Pliskova def. Kvitova

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Karolina Pliskova Finding Her Footing With The Help Of New Coach Krajan

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Karolina Pliskova (CZE) playing against Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) in the semi-final of the Ladies' Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 10 Thursday 08/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Simon Bruty

Karolina Pliskova’s resurgence on the Tour comes at a time when she has formed a new partnership with a well-known coach. 

After her first round loss at the Australian Open to Elena Rybakina, the Czech won nine consecutive matches on the Tour. In Romania, she claimed her 17th WTA title at the Winners Open before reaching the semi-finals of a WTA 1000 event in Doha. However, she was unable to play her semi-final clash against Iga Swiatek due to a lower back injury. During this period she has improved her ranking from 77th to 36th. 

Pliskova began the season without a coach at her side but is now working with Croatia’s Zeljko Krajan. A partnership she believes is showing promising signs already. 

“Personality-wise, I think he’s kind of similar to me,” Pliskova told WTA Insider. “Not really high or low. Relaxed and very like calm. 
“We didn’t really plan yet anything because now the schedule was difficult. I might be in qualifying in Indian Wells. Maybe I enter San Diego. So I don’t really know what’s gonna be. I’m just living day by day at the moment.” 

Krajan has worked with a series of players on both the WTA and ATP Tour’s. He guided Dinara Safina to three Grand Slam finals between 2008 and 2010. He has also worked with Borna Coric, Laura Robson, Marcos Baghdatis, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika cibulkova.

Pliskova, who is a former world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam finalist, has endured a roller-coaster journey on the Tour in recent months with mixed results. Last season she failed to win back-to-back matches at 11 consecutive tournaments. 

So how has she managed to regain her form on the Tour?

“Motivation was never really a problem for me,” Pliskova said. “If I go on the court no matter how bad or good I feel, I always want to win. I always want to compete. 
“But my game is based on confidence and I need to feel that. Even if I’m not playing well or winning many matches, I just need to find that confidence in that moment or in that game because it’s just so risky. My shots are so flat, so I go for mostly lines. If something is not going well or you start to doubt, then of course you miss a little bit. Everything is about this.”

Unseeded at this week’s Dubai Tennis Championships, Pliskova beat China’s Zhang Shuai in the first round. She will next play Ashlyn Krueger in the second round on Tuesday.

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Elena Rybakina Eases Past Kasatkina To Win Abu Dhabi Open

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Elena Rybakina has captured her second title of the season after beating an erratic Daria Kasatkina in straight sets at the Abu Dhabi Open. 

The world No.5 stormed to a 6-1, 6-4, win over the Russian in just over an hour. It is the third time in Rybakina’s career that she has beaten Kasatkina on the Tour and she now leads their head-to-head 3-2. The triumph comes a month after she won the Brisbane International, which is also a WTA 500 event. 

Rybakina’s latest match saw her capitalise on her opponent’s costly mistakes. Kasatkina struggled with her serve throughout the majority of the final and only managed to hold twice in eight attempts. Opening the door for the former Wimbledon champion who hit 17 winners against 12 unforced errors en route to victory. 

“I want to thank the fans who came this week,” said the new champion. “It has been an amazing atmosphere, especially to see flags from Kazakhstan. It means a lot, thank you so much.”

A one-sided 25-minute opening set saw Rybakina claim four straight games to clinch an early lead. During to the opener, Kasatkina only managed to win 26% of her service points. It was the fourth time in the tournament that the Kazakh had won a set by conceding two or fewer games. 

Fortunately for world No.14 Kasatkina and the crowd, there was more of a battle in the second frame. Twice in a row Rybakina worked her way to a break advantage before losing it in the following game. Then at 4-4, she dealt the decisive blow by hitting a clean forehand winner to break yet against and this time had a chance to serve for the title. With the rain starting to fall, she converted her first championship point with the help of another error from across the net. 

The defeat for Kasatkina comes a day after she came through a marathon three-hour semi-final match before criticising the WTA over their tournament scheduling. She is currently set to play in the Qatar Open with her opening match taking place tomorrow. It is the sixth time in a row she has been beaten by a top-five player on the Tour. 

“Congratulations to Elena, you’ve had a great week,” she said.
“Thanks to my team who has always been next to me. I am really proud of the job we’ve done and how we are doing. Thanks for always believing in me.”

Rybakina also referred to the demanding calendar during the trophy presentation. 

“Tough week (for Kasatkina), especially the last matches. Tomorrow there is already a match in Doha but hopefully, we will both recover and do well there. Maybe also play (against each other) in the final there,” she said. 

Unlike Kasatkina, Rybakina has a first round bye in Doha. She has now won seven WTA trophies so far in her career. 

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Ons Jabeur Hoping For Better Fortunes In Doha Despite Injury Concerns

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Ons Jabeur (TUN) playing against Venus Williams (USA) on No.1 Court at The Championships 2021. Credit: AELTC/Jon Super

Ons Jabeur is optimistic that she will be ready in time to play at her next event in Doha after suffering an emotional exit from Dubai on Friday. 

The two-time Wimbledon finalist was in tears during her straight sets loss to Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia in the quarter-finals. Jabeur later revealed that her emotional reaction was linked to the reoccurrence of a knee injury in recent days which has troubled her in the past. She said the pain can differ at various tournaments but in Dubai, it was causing her significant discomfort. 

“I’m an open book, an emotional person. I like to show myself. One thing I have learned is to accept the emotion, and if I try to hide it, it will not make me feel good,” Jabeur told reporters in Doha at a pre-tournament press conference. 
“So it’s good to let it out and be done with it than to keep it inside and probably will make more problems for you later.”

Despite the setback, the world No.6 intends to play at the Doha Open which gets underway today. She will be the fourth seed in this year’s draw and will be playing in the event for the first time since 2022. Last year she was forced to skip the Middle East swing after having surgery to treat an enlarged nodule which was obstructing her airway and preventing oxygen from reaching her lungs. 

“I’m very happy to be back. I’m obviously happier than last year,” she said. “I’m glad to be united with my fans here, and hopefully it’s going be a great week for me.
“I have been struggling with the knee for a long time, and last week was very, very tough. Hopefully, I can recover in time and then play better here in Doha.”  

This time of the year has always meant a lot to the Tunisian, who has spoken on numerous occasions about her aim to inspire more players from her region to take up tennis. She is the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final, crack the top 10 in the WTA rankings and qualify for the season-ending Tour Finals. 

“It is very important to be here to connect with Arabic crowds. I feel so much love here in the region, and obviously, that’s one of the reasons I chose to play Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai, because I feel so good here.” She said.

Declaring she is ‘happy’ with her rhythm on the court, Jabeur will begin her campaign in Doha against either Lesia Tsurenko or Turkish wild card Zeynep Sonmez.

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