The grass court season is now in full swing and the second week of tennis action on the green lawns will see the city of Birmingham host the Aegon Classic Birmingham. The tournament will witness the likes of 2012 Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska and defending champion Angelique Kerber spearhead the 32-player field.
Simona Halep, who was projected to be third seed, was the high profile withdrawal pre-tournament. The Romanian withdrew with an Achilles injury.
Focus on Birmingham
This edition marks the first time in the tournament's history where the draw features 32 players instead of the conventional 56-player format that has been in effect since the tournament first began all the way back in 1982 as the Edgbaston Cup. Birmingham's roster of past champions includes legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova along with Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova, Li Na and Ana Ivanovic.
The prior 34-year history of the event saw American players lift the trophy fifteen times, the most of any nation, the last coming in 2012 via Melanie Oudin. Interestingly, for nine straight years since 2006, the champions were all of distinct nationalities except 2011 and 2015 where the winners were Germany's Sabine Lisicki and Kerber, respectively.
The Edgbaston Priory Club, located in the settlement of Edgbaston and a stone's throw from the University of Birmingham, will be the center of tennis action throughout the week in Birmingham. The city, situated in the West Midlands region of England, is also the most populous city in Britain outside of London.
Top seed Radwanska and former world number one Caroline Wozniacki are on a quarterfinal collision course. Firstly, the world number three Radwanska would need to navigate her way past CoCo Vandeweghe, who just won the Ricoh Open title yesterday.
Wozniacki was handed a similarly tough opening match against Belgian Yanina Wickmayer. A second round encounter with British number one and ninth seed Johanna Konta looms. The Brit, however, would need to overcome Misaki Doi in her opener, whom she lost to in the round of 16 of Rome last month.
Radwanska does well on this surface, having reached her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2012 and the semifinals in 2013 and 2015. The much-anticipated blockbuster quarterfinal match-up with Wozniacki is very likely to materialize and with the Pole having the upper hand on this surface, she should seal her spot in the semifinals.
Prediction: Radwanska d. Wozniacki
Swiss number one Belinda Bencic missed the whole month of May to nurse a back injury. Returning to action in s-Hertogenbosch last week, she showed no signs of rustiness, scoring back-to-back wins for the first time since February to make the semifinals. She takes on in-form Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round.
On the other end, eighth seed and 2015 finalist Karolina Pliskova and 2014 finalist Barbora Strycova square off in a Czech derby. The winner plays one of Heather Watson or big-hitting Italian Camila Giorgi in the second round. Pliskova just won her first title of 2016 in Nottingham yesterday, also her first trophy on grass.
With the title, Pliskova enters Birmingham with a boost of confidence. However, spells of fatigue could be a factor here and going up against the versatile Strycova, the older Czech will not cease to create an upset. Bencic should safely navigate through her draw into the last eight but with tricks up her sleeve, Strycova should steamroll her way into the last four.
Prediction: Strycova d. Bencic
Grass court lovers Petra Kvitova and Madison Keys headline this quarter. Fifth-seeded Kvitova opens her campaign against compatriot Lucie Safarova, another Czech derby. She will then have a shot at revenge against Latvian youngster Jelena Ostapenko, whom she lost to in Doha earlier in February. Ostapenko though would need to see off Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova first.
2015 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Keys is the seventh seed in Birmingham, drawing Timea Babos in the first round. Should the American secure the win over the Hungarian, her path to the last eight will be much easier. However, Babos did beat Keys in their sole encounter on grass at this tournament two years ago with the loss of just three games. The 45th-ranked Babos will look to repeat a similar result over her American opponent.
Kvitova will be delighted to be back on her favorite surface and will look to start turning her 2016 around. Assuming the Czech is fully fit and ready, a breeze to the last four is inevitable.
Prediction: Kvitova d. Babos
The concluding quarter of this year’s draw features defending champion Kerber and sixth-seeded Spaniard Carla Suárez Navarro. Kerber starts the defense of her title against China’s Peng Shuai, who is on the road back from injury. Contrarily, Suarez Navarro drew Elina Svitolina, and with four ranking spots separating the pair, this is definitely the tightest opening round match. Other players of note include Andrea Petkovic, Daria Gavrilova and wildcard Naomi Broady, the latter two squaring off in the first round.
Kerber had an up-down clay season, defending her Stuttgart title and making the semifinals in Charleston were her best results on the dirt but she failed to win a match in a stretch of three tournaments from Madrid, through Rome till the French Open. Back in Birmingham, where she won her maiden grass court title last year, the German seeks to start another phase of the season fresh and ready and defend her title.
With grass not to Suarez Navarro’s liking and Petkovic out of form, Svitolina should emerge out of her eighth of the draw and seal her spot in the last eight. Kerber, however, has the upper hand on this surface and possesses a winning head-to-head against the Ukrainian Svitolina, there is no doubt the German will make her second consecutive semifinal in Birmingham.
Prediction: Kerber d. Svitolina
Semifinals: Radwanska d. Strycova, Kvitova d. Kerber
On grass, Kvitova is more of an asset than a liability, possessing a game tailor-made for the quick surface where the bounce of the ball is kept at a low. Going up against Radwanska in the final, the outcome will depend on the racket of the Czech southpaw.
Having lost three of her last four meetings against the Pole, it will be sweet revenge at last for the Czech whose 2016 has not gone as planned so far, winning back-to-back matches in just four tournaments this year. The title in Birmingham will put Kvitova’s dire first half of 2016 to rest.