This year, the Premier 5-tier Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, held in the Chinese city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, saw a familiar face crowned champion as Petra Kvitova took home her first title of the year and her second at the event. This feat puts the Czech number two close to a top 10 return.
Over in Central Asia in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Kvitova’s compatriot and fellow southpaw Kristyna Pliskova went all the way to her maiden WTA crown at the Tashkent Open. Pliskova breaks into the top 70 rankings for the first time courtesy of the achievement.
Last week’s titlists
This year, double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has endured what has been arguably the toughest stretch of her career since her 2011 breakthrough. The Czech finished 2015 ranked inside the top eight for the fifth year in a row, winning three titles and finishing runner-up at the WTA Finals. Scheduled to start 2016 at the Shenzhen Open, the Czech looked set for her debut match of the year against Zheng Saisai but a bout of gastrointestinal illness ultimately forced her to retire midway through the match.
The next six months since then up till the Rio Olympics saw the former world number two garner a less-than-meagre 18-16 record for the year, making just one quarterfinal (Indian Wells) and one semifinal (Stuttgart) and winning back-to-back matches in just three other appearances (Madrid, French Open and Montreal). Representing her nation in Rio on her third Olympic duty, the Czech did not disappoint, going all the way to the last four where she fell short to eventual gold medallist Monica Puig but then rebounded strongly to beat Madison Keys for the bronze medal, also her maiden Olympic medal.
A semifinal and round of 16 showing in New Haven and the US Open respectively followed suit. The week before Wuhan however, the Czech’s surge came to an early halt in Tokyo when she succumbed to Puig in the second round in three sets.
Entering Wuhan as the 14th seed, Kvitova began her search for her second title here by defeating the likes of Latvian teenager Jelena Ostapenko and Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina. In the last 16, she met world number one Angelique Kerber across the net and came back from a set down to send the top player packing in an three-set epic which took three hours 19 minutes to complete, in what is now the longest match of Kvitova's career.
Henceforth, there was no stopping for the lefty as she did not drop a set en route to the final, beating 11th seed Johanna Konta and fourth seed Simona Halep in the last eight and last four respectively to reach the championship match. She then dominated 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 6-1 in the final, taking just over an hour to claim her 18th career title, her first since the Connecticut Open last August.
Against Halep and Cibulkova, the unstoppable Kvitova dropped a combined total of just five games. The Czech is now 18-4 since Montreal and having won the inaugural edition of the tournament back in 2014, she became the first player to win it more than once. Kvitova has now won at least a title ever year beginning 2011.
This year, the top eight seeds all survived their opening matches with the exception of second seed and last year’s runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza, who was beaten by former world number one Jelena Jankovic in her opener. Sixth seed and defending champion Venus Williams saw her title defence end in the last 16 against ninth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, who went on to make the semifinals where she lost to Cibulkova.
Fifth seed Karolina Pliskova and seventh seed Carla Suárez Navarro were not so fortunate either, both falling in the last 16 to Cibulkova and Konta respectively. However, both third seed Agnieszka Radwanska and eighth seed Keys fared well by posting quarterfinal appearances.
Kristyna Pliskova’s rise is not as sharp as her twin sister Karolina. The Czech lefty, who is the current WTA record-holder for most aces served in a match (31 aces against Puig in the second round of the Australian Open this year), has nine singles titles on the ITF circuit and alongside her twin, they have three WTA doubles titles to their name. Her best result at the Grand Slams is the third round of Wimbledon last year.
This year, the Czech has begun playing more frequently on the WTA tour, but managed just two main draw wins all year before September. Entering Tashkent unseeded, Pliskova was coming off an opening round loss in Seoul though she did win a challenger tournament in Dalian, China the week before that. On Uzbek soil, she moved past Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo at the first hurdle and then made her first WTA final by defeating fifth seed Kurumi Nara, Russian Irina Khromacheva and Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova. In the final, the Czech went up against fourth seed and defending champion Nao Hibino and saw off the Japanese player in three sets 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 for her first WTA title.
Swede Johanna Larsson, who was projected to be the top seed in Tashkent withdrew pre-tournament ill. All seeds in the bottom half of draw made the quarterfinal stage. There, Hibino moved past sixth seed Lesia Tsurenko via retirement while ninth seed Denisa Allertova upset second seed Kirsten Flipkens. In contrast, the top half witness all seeds fall before the last eight. Third seed Cagla Buyukakcay was upset by Georgian Sofia Shapatava at the first hurdle with seventh seed Sorana Cirstea also joining Buyukakcay in the sidelines in the first round. Eighth seed Naomi Broady went out in the second round, the Brit falling to Khromacheva.
An improved performance in Wuhan this year sees quarterfinalist Radwanska rise to third in the rankings. Meanwhile, Wuhan semifinalist Kuznetsova moves up to her highest ranking in more than six years, going up three places to seventh while Cibulkova sits behind her at eighth, the Slovak recording a new career-high ranking. Kvitova surges five spots to 11th while Daria Kasatkina, who reached the last 16 in Wuhan, is improves four spots to 24th.
Progressing down the rankings, Kazakh Yaroslava Shvedova returns to the top 40 rankings for the first time since June 2013 after making the round of 16 in Wuhan, rising from 41st to 39th. Tashkent winner Pliskova cracks the top 70 for the first time in her career as the Czech vaults from 100th to 66th. Tashkent semifinalist Kozlova rises from 98th to 91st while quarterfinalists Khromacheva and Stefanie Voegele move up from 104th to 96th and 103rd to 98th respectively. Another Tashkent semifinalist, Allertova goes up eleven spots to number 103.
Venus Williams drops out of the top 10, from seventh to 13th after failing to defend her Wuhan title. Last year’s Wuhan semifinalist Roberta Vinci drops one spot to 16th after falling out in the second round. American CoCo Vandeweghe, a quarterfinalist in Wuhan last year, falls from 32nd to 40th after a first round exit this year. Meanwhile, Hibino drops seven places to 85th after failing to defend Tashkent title.
Road to Singapore
The third qualifier for the WTA Finals was announced last week with Halep making the cut, qualifying for her third year-end championships in a row. With five spots now up for grabs, Radwanska could be next in line as the Pole sits at fourth place. Keys overtakes Suárez Navarro to occupy eighth place after making the last eight in Wuhan. Kuznetsova rises from 11th to 10th while Kvitova begins her late-season charge for a spot in Singapore, improving nine places to 12th after winning Wuhan.
Kasatkina rises from 32nd to 28th while Shvedova cracks the top 40 standings, advancing six spots to 36th. Flipkens improves from 60th to 56th after a quarterfinal appearance in Tashkent while Pliskova surges 28th spots to 65th. Meanwhile, Khromacheva and Kozlova rise from to 91st to 87th and 100th to 91st respectively.
This week’s action
This week, the biggest event in the Chinese subcontinent will take place in Beijing as the China Open commences. It features nine of the world’s top 10 leading the 60-player line-up of the final Premier Mandatory-level tournament of the year. Among those in action includes the top-ranked Kerber, defending champion Muguruza and also a pair of former champions in Radwanska and Kuznetsova. All four Wuhan semifinalists, Kvitova, Halep, Kuznetsova and Cibulkova receive opening round byes.