WTA Stuttgart: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix Preview
This year marks the 40th edition of the Premier-level Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and it boasts a star-studded field that includes seven of the world's top 10 players. Photos: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. 

WTA action heads to Stuttgart, Germany for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. This year, the top-ranked Angelique Kerber returns as the two-time defending champion. Among those joining the world number one as tournament headlines include Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza and Johanna Konta, thus making it three of the world’s top five present. The tournament was a hit with a late withdrawal in Dominika Cibulkova, who was projected to be the third seed, due to a wrist injury.

Most notably, the tournament will mark the return of three-time winner and former world number one Maria Sharapova. The Russian, who tested positive for banned substance last January, will see her doping ban expire next Wednesday, thus clearing her to compete on the tour once again.

Focus on Stuttgart

As WTA’s sole clay event held indoors but initially played on hardcourts, the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix dates its roots back to 1978 in the suburb of Filderstadt, south of Stuttgart. It then relocated to its current location in 2005 and transitioned to clay in 2009. Entering its landmark 40th edition, the tournament has seen the likes of Martina Navratilova (who holds the tournament record for most titles won at six), Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin crowned champions. In 1991, Anke Huber became the first German to win the tournament, doing so in 1991, before Julia Goerges and Kerber joined her, by winning in 2011 and 2015 respectively.

Last year, Kerber soared to her second consecutive title of the tournament by seeing off compatriot Laura Siegemund in the final and thus, successfully defended a title for the first time in her career. Kerber also became the ninth player to win the tournament multiple times. Moreover, it was the first ever all-German the tournament witnessed. The tournament’s top four seeds were handed byes into the second round.

Porsche-Arena, the venue for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Photo credit: Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images.
Porsche-Arena, the venue for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Photo: Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images.

The tournament will be held at the Porsche-Arena located in the Veielbrunnen area of Stuttgart, the fourth largest city in Germany, located in the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

First quarter

Kerber is the two-time defending champion in Stuttgart. Photo credit: Simon Hofmann/Getty Images.
Kerber is the two-time defending champion in Stuttgart. Photo: Simon Hofmann/Getty Images.

Kerber takes her spot at the top of the draw. The world number one is due to face a big-hitter in her opening match of the tournament as Kristina Mladenovic, France’s sole representative in the draw, takes on Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. With both Mladenovic and Lucic-Baroni playing one of their best tennis at the moment, the winner of the match will no doubt go into the clash against Kerber hungry for an upset.

Progressing down the draw, an all-Russian is on the cards with Elena Vesnina going up against Daria Kasatkina. Spain's Carla Suárez Navarro, on the other hand, gets a qualifier or lucky loser. Kasatkina is the hot pick of the three names, having won her maiden title in Charleston earlier this month. There is no doubt the Russian loves the clay and expect to see her love affair with the surface resume here in Stuttgart.

With home support on her back, Kerber should sail into the last eight without much problems as she aims to become the second consecutive player to win three titles in a row this decade. Kasatkina has beaten the German twice this year, but the world number one looks to be slowly picking up steam this past couple of weeks, most recently reaching the last eight in Miami and then finishing runner-up in Monterrey and should survive stiff opposition from her Russian opponent to make the semifinals.

Prediction: Kerber d. Kasatkina

Second quarter

Back on her best surface, Muguruza looks to rekindle her game that took her to the French Open title last year. Photo credit: Ron Elkman/Getty Images.
Back on her best surface, Muguruza looks to rekindle her game that took her to the French Open title last year. Photo: Ron Elkman/Getty Images.

Fifth seed Muguruza headlines this quarter. The Spaniard will play either Croat Ana Konjuh, or a qualifer or lucky loser in her opening match. Muguruza’s 2017 has been rather consistent as she already has one semifinal and two quarterfinal appearances so far this year. Returning to her most successful surface, the reigning French Open champion seeks to get her clay court prowess going.

Maria Sharapova’s first match in her return to competition will see the three-time champion face Italian Roberta Vinci. The winner of that match will then take on the winner of the other first round encounter between seventh seed Agnieszka Radwanska and Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova. All eyes will be on Sharapova as she takes on the slicing Vinci, which may not be a favourable matchup for the Russian in her first match back on tour.

This may seem like a workable draw for Sharapova, with both Radwanska and Vinci not at their best form off-late while Makarova’s results on the dirt are nothing much to shout about. The Russian should able to sneak into the last eight but against Muguruza, in what could be a blockbuster of a match, expect the Spaniard to raise her game and deny Sharapova a place in the last four.

Prediction: Muguruza d. Sharapova

Third quarter

Halep waves to the crowd after a win at the Miami Open last month. Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.
Halep waves to the crowd after a win at the Miami Open last month. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Halep, seeded fourth, leads this quarter. The Romanian could get Barbora Strycova in her first match in Stuttgart, if the Czech sees off a qualifer or lucky loser in her opener. Halep had a slow start to the year but looked to have finally settle when she reached the last eight in Miami and is fresh from a fruitful Fed Cup campaign against Great Britain where she helped her nation to victory, winning both her singles matches in the process.

Across the quarter sits sixth seed Konta, who was handed a wildcard. The Brit, who is also set for her debut appearance appearance at the tournament, faces a qualifier or lucky loser in the first round. The winner then goes up against one of Anastasija Sevastova or Samantha Stosur in the second round. Both Sevastova and Stosur thrive well on the dirt, thus making Konta’s road to the last eight a tough one.

The in-form Konta, who has had a superb 2017 thus far, should live up to her seeding by making the quarterfinals. However, Halep, who had already defeated Konta in the aforementioned Fed Cup tie will seek to translate that success here. Clearly the better player of the pair on clay, expect the Romanian to repeat her 2015 run where she made the semifinals.

Prediction: Halep d. Konta

Fourth quarter

Kuznetsova is searching for her second title in Stuttgart. Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.
Kuznetsova is searching for her second title in Stuttgart. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.

The concluding quarter features second seed Pliskova. The Czech number one’s start to the season has seen her capture two titles, Brisbane and Doha, alongside semifinal showings in Indian Wells and Miami and a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open. Her first match of the week could be a big-hitting clash with American CoCo Vandeweghe lurking in her eighth. However, Vandeweghe would need to get past a qualifier or lucky loser first.

Across the quarter, eighth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion, gets Kiki Bertens, who is struggling for form at the moment, at the first hurdle. The winner of that match is due to face either Zhang Shuai or last year’s runner-up Laura Siegemund next. Kuznetsova’s all-rounded game is made for the clay and the Russian will be ready to get going in her first appearance here since 2014.

Kuznetsova seems like the most probable pick to come out on top in this quarter. Besides winning in 2009, the Russian also has a further three semifinal and one quarterfinal showing to boast and thus clearly loves the atmosphere here. With both Pliskova and Kuznetsova seeded to meet in the last eight, a much-anticipated clash is on the cards but Kuznetsova, who is more experienced on the surface should see off the Czech for a place in the last eight.

Prediction: Kuznetsova d. Pliskova

Semifinals: Kerber d. Muguruza, Kuznetsova d. Halep

Both Kerber and Kuznetsova have never met in a final before but this final in Stuttgart will be familiar territory for both women. They have only met twice on this surface before and have split both meetings at one apiece but its Kuznetsova who has the overall advantage in their head-to-head at 4-3. Kerber was on Fed Cup duty against Ukraine last week and the tie was held at the same venue here, hence she could have the edge over Kuznetsova in terms of getting used to the conditions here.

In their past seven encounters, a deciding set was needed to decide the winner on five occasions, both coming on clay too. Hence, it will not be a surprise to see this match going to a decider. Kerber has the local support and would want to impress the crowd but Kuznetsova, who has a tad more aggression and variety than her German opponent, will seek to frustrate the two-time defending champion by running down every ball and repeat her 2009 feat when she won the title by defeating the top seed in the final.

Final: Kuznetsova d. Kerber