2017 Internazionali BNL d'Italia women's preview: Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova lead the way as the top two seeds

The road to the French Open on the WTA tour has one more major stop and it's the second Premier 5 event of the year at the prestigious Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome. This tournament will be crucial as these points and rankings at the end of this tournament will go towards French Open seedings. Therefore, it is vital for all players to get some more matches under their belts. For the second year running, the defending champion will not be defending their title. Maria Sharapova didn't defend her title last year due to serving her suspension for doping. The reigning Australian Open champion Serena Williams will not be defending her title due to pregnancy, and she will be inactive for the remainder of the 2017 campaign.

There are only three former champions in the draw, and all three of these players are former world number ones. Ninth seed Venus Williams claimed the title, 18 years ago in 1999, and she was a finalist, the year prior. Jelena Jankovic is a two-time champion in 2007 and 2008 and was a runner-up in 2010. Sharapova won the title three times in 2011, 2012 and 2015. The conditions in Rome are similar to those in Paris as it is at sea level, and not at altitude, which some players struggled to deal with in Madrid.

Quarters preview:

First Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Kerber (1) vs Halep (6)

Once again, all eyes will be on the top seed, Angelique Kerber. The German will return to the top of the rankings on Monday as Serena will not be participating this year in Rome. The two-time Grand Slam champion suffered a hamstring injury in her third round match with Eugenie Bouchard. Nonetheless, Kerber played some good tennis last week in Madrid. The German has a bye in the first round, and she begins her campaign against a qualifier. However, Kerber's draw is tricky. Should she advance to the third round, she could face three-time winner Maria Sharapova who begins her campaign against Christina McHale. McHale gave Serena a good a match last year in the third round but Sharapova should possess too much firepower for the American. Sharapova's potential second round opponent could be a rematch with 16th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni or Lucie Safarova. Safarova defeated Sharapova in the fourth round at Roland Garros two years ago to end the Russian's title defence, and she went on to reach her maiden Grand Slam final at the French Open.

Lurking in the bottom section of the top quarter is sixth seed Simona Halep. Halep is having a good clay court season and she is on course to retain her title in Madrid. Nevertheless, the Romanian has performed well at the Foro Italico in the past with two semifinal finishes, losing to Serena in 2013 and to Carla Suarez Navarro in 2015. Halep has a bye into the second round and begins her campaign against Naomi Osaka or most likely the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix champion Laura Siegemund. There are plenty of quality clay court players in this section of the draw with Halep's doubles partner in Madrid, Irina-Camelia Begu, a semifinalist in Rome last year, taking on Anastasia Sevastova, who Halep defeated in the semifinals in Madrid are potential third round opponents for the sixth seed.

The 12th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova won back-to-back titles in Monterrey and Rabat, defeating Kerber in the final in the former. Unfortunately, she ran out of steam and Sorana Cirstea, snapped her ten-match winning streak in the first round in Madrid. Furthermore, Pavlyuchenkova has a chance to put that right in Rome but she has a tough first round assignment with Sam Stosur. Ironically, this is the second time in three years, that the duo is paired in the first round with Pavlyuchenkova prevailing in 2015. Stosur was a finalist in 2011, losing to Sharapova and she has a good clay court pedigree. This section of the draw is wide open. Halep could be fatigued with her run to the final in Madrid, and Sharapova will be looking to set the record straight for losing early at the Caja Magica. On the other hand, Halep is playing good tennis right now, and she has performed well in the past in Rome and should make another semifinal at the Foro Italico.

Quarterfinal: Simona Halep-Maria Sharapova

Semifinalist: Simona Halep

The two-time semifinalist is enjoying a good clay court season thus far and could go on another deep run at the Foro Italico (Photo by Julian Finney / Getty Images)
The two-time semifinalist is enjoying a good clay court season thus far and could go on another deep run at the Foro Italico (Photo by Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Second Quarter

Projected quarterfinal:  Cibulkova (4) v Kuznetsova (7)

2017 has been an inconsistent season for reigning WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovak had a stellar 2016 campaign by winning four titles and advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the second time. Cibulkova is a former quarterfinalist in Rome back in 2012. This will be the fourth seed's first appearance at the Foro Italico for the first time in three years, and the Slovak has a tough draw to deal with, as she begins her campaign against two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, who's beaten her twice this year or 2015 US Open runner-up, Roberta Vinci. Cibulkova's projected third round opponent is 15th seed Kiki Bertens. Bertens advanced to the quarterfinals in Madrid last week, losing to Sevastova but she has reached the semifinals at Roland Garros last year and is a dangerous clay court player. The Dutchwoman begins her campaign against the unorthodox Monica Niculescu, and she should win her first two matches with Misaki Doi or a qualifier waiting in the second round.

Two-time finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova is also part of this section of the draw. The seventh seed was denied a spot in her second Mutua Madrid Open final in three years by Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals in Madrid. The Russian will be pleased with the bye, and she has a tough second round match with either Zhang Shuai or Katerina Siniakova. Siniakova is playing some good tennis on the red dirt, and she almost beat Kerber in the Spanish capital. Kuznetsova's projected third round opponent is a fellow former finalist in 10th seed Madison Keys. Keys lost to her compatriot Serena Williams in the final last year, and she will look to replicate that once more and try to go one better. She begins her campaign against a qualifier but Caroline Garcia could be a credible second round challenge for her. The American has recovered from a wrist injury, which ruled her out for a few months and Keys could go on a good run in the Italian capital.

Cibulkova and Keys are due to go on a good run ahead of the French Open, and both will feel fresher than Kuznetsova after being knocked out early in Madrid in the first and second rounds respectively.

Quarterfinal: Dominika Cibulkova-Madison Keys
Semifinalist: Cibulkova

The Slovak is looking to reach her first semifinal at least since February (Photo by Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)
The Slovak is looking to reach her first semifinal at least since February (Photo by Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

Third Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Konta (5) vs Muguruza (3)

French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza will be needing a good run in Rome once again. It all started right here in Rome last year for the Spaniard as she struggled for the first four months in 2016 but she reached her first semifinal of 2016 in Rome. Muguruza lost to Keys in the semifinals last year but she went to win her maiden Grand Slam title in Paris a few weeks later. The third-seeded Spaniard historically struggles in her home event in Madrid and she lost to Timea Bacsinszky in the opening round. Muguruza has a bye into the second round, and she should face last year's French Open quarterfinalist Shelby Rogers, should the American defeat a qualifier in the first round. Muguruza's projected third round adversary is 14th seed Kristina Mladenovic. The Frenchwoman is currently competing against Halep in the biggest final of her career in Madrid. Mladenovic kickstarts her campaign against Julia Goerges who is a tricky customer on clay. It is a tough section of the draw for 23-year-old as she has a potential mouthwatering second-round clash with two-time champion Jelena Jankovic. The Serb will be hoping to get past Alison Riske and potentially upset Mladenovic, to have a showdown third round clash with Muguruza.

Fifth seed Johanna Konta is also in this section of the draw but the Brit has struggled on clay. Konta lost to Laura Siegemund in the first round in Madrid last week, and she could be set for another early exit in Rome. The fifth seed begins her campaign against either last year's French Open quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva or Olympic champion Monica Puig. On a hard court, you would fancy Konta to beat both players quite comfortably, however, on a clay court, she is still the slight favourite against both of those players but you wouldn't guarantee a Konta victory. The Brit could have a mouthwatering third-round clash with 1999 champion Venus Williams. The American advanced to her first Grand Slam singles final in seven years at the Australian Open. The veteran lost to her sister Serena in that final. Furthermore, the 36-year-old had a remarkable hard court season losing to eventual champions Elena Vesnina in the quarterfinals in Indian Wells and to Konta at the semifinal stage in Miami. Williams returns to the European clay courts but could be sent packing in the first round as she faces two-time French Open quarterfinalist Yaroslava Shvedova. The duo met last year on Williams' favoured grass court at Wimbledon and the American will be looking to replicate that victory. Williams' section of the draw is quite tricky but she would fancy her chances to go far in Rome.

The French Open champion needs to get more clay court matches under her belt, and this is the week in Rome, where she builds some momentum ahead of her big title defence in Paris.

Quarterfinal: Garbine Muguruza-Venus Williams

Semifinalist: Muguruza

The French Open champion is desperate for matches and wins ahead of the biggest title defence of her career in two weeks (Photo by Denis Doyle / Getty Images)
The French Open champion is desperate for matches and wins ahead of the biggest title defence of her career in two weeks (Photo by Denis Doyle / Getty Images)

Fourth Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Svitolina (8) vs Ka. Pliskova (2)

2015 French Open quarterfinalist Elina Svitolina has struggled at the Foro Italico. This is the eighth seed's fourth main draw appearance in Rome. The Ukranian's solitary victory was over 2015 US Open champion Flavia Pennetta in 2015. Nonetheless, Svitolina has a bye but has a tough second round assignment against a former finalist. 2008 finalist Alize Cornet and 2014 finalist Sara Errani engage in a first round battle to see who earns the right to face Svitolina. That should be a close encounter to entertain the crowd but you would fancy Errani in front of her home crowd to beat Cornet, and face Svitolina. Svitolina's projected third round opponent is the 11th seed Elena Vesnina. The Russian won the BNP Paribas Open title in March but suffered a first round exit to Irina-Camelia Begu in Madrid. However, the 11th seed has a nice way to enter the tournament against a qualifier but could have a tricky second round tie with Shuai Peng.

Second seed Karolina Pliskova has "no expectations" on clay, as the Czech's struggles on this surface are evident. Although she has won a title on clay in her home event in Prague a couple of years ago, her movement is one of the main reasons for her downfall on clay, and it's not easy to get a lot of aces on clay like she would get on grass or hard courts. Last year's US Open runner-up won her first round match in Madrid last week but lost to Sevastova in the second round. The bad news for Pliskova is that she could be set for another early exit at the Foro Italico. The world number three is set to face Lauren Davis or most likely, 2015 runner-up, Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round. The Spaniard defeated Caroline Wozniacki in Madrid last week, however, she suffered a surprising loss to Coco Vandeweghe, which could give Pliskova some hope. This is a tough section of the draw as Pliskova's compatriot, Barbora Styrcova, the 14th seed plays Daria Kasatkina in the first round. Kasatkina won the clay court title at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston. The winner of Strycova-Kasatkina clashes with last year's quarterfinalist Timea Bacsinszky or Timea Babos. The WTA tour is unpredictable but Bacsinskzy, a French Open semifinalist at Roland Garros two years ago, has the credentials to go on a deep run in the Italian capital.

Quarterfinal: Timea Bacsinszky-Elina Svitolina

Semifinalist: Bacsinszky

Bacinszky has suffered with injury for some parts of this season but she is looking strong ahead of the French Open (Photo by Denis Doyle / Getty Images)
Bacinszky has suffered with injury for some parts of this season but she is looking strong ahead of the French Open (Photo by Denis Doyle / Getty Images)

Semifinals and Finals prediction:

Halep def. Cibulkova

Muguruza def. Bacsinszky

Final: Garbine Muguruza def. Simona Halep