Aegon Classic preview: Elina Svitolina, Dominika Cibulkova lead the way in Birmingham

Wimbledon is fastly approaching in two weeks but before many players on the WTA tour can think about the most prestigious Grand Slam tournament of the calendar. Some of the big hitters will participate at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham. Birmingham is known as the "Second City" in England as it is the second most populous city in England after London.

The Premier event was set to field its strongest lineup in years but a number of players have opted to withdraw from the event. A few of the notable absentees have had lengthy runs at the French Open, and some will opt to return to competition in Eastbourne. World number two Simona Halep and 2015 finalist Karolina Pliskova are amongst the notable absentees from the event. Halep was the runner-up at Roland Garros for the second time in her career, and Pliskova advanced to the semifinals for the first time losing to Halep, failing to wrestle the number one ranking away from Angelique Kerber

The 2015 champion Kerber attended a press conference in Birmingham on Sunday to announce her withdrawal from the event due to suffering a left hamstring injury, which has hampered her since the Mutua Madrid Open, and she will be hoping to be 100% fit for Wimbledon, where she is the defending finalist.

The defending women's singles champion Madison Keys is also out of the tournament due to injury. Newly-crowned French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko will not be competing in Birmingham, after her sensational triumph in Paris. The reigning BNP Paribas Open champion Elena Vesnina is also absent from the event. Despite reaching the third round of the French Open, the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska is another big name to fall from the draw, missing the tournament on her favorite surface.

Nevertheless, the Aegon Classic has still got a strong list of players with three Grand Slam champions, and two Grand Slam finalists amongst the field of players. This will be the fourth successive year that the tournament will be a Premier event. 

Quarters preview:

First quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Cibulkova (3) v Gavrilova (9)

Cibulkova won her first grass court title in Eastbourne last year (Photo by Tom Dulat / Getty)
Cibulkova won her first grass court title in Eastbourne last year (Photo by Tom Dulat / Getty)

With Kerber's withdrawal from the tournament, the draw has been reshuffled and Dominika Cibulkova is now at the top of the draw in Kerber's place. The third seed has struggled to replicate on a stellar 2016 campaign. The 2014 Australian Open runner-up won four titles in 2016 none bigger than the WTA Finals in Singapore and rose to a career-high ranking of four. Cibulkova is an exceptional player on grass as she won the title in Eastbourne last year, and she reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the first time since 2011. Cibulkova lost in the first round in S-Hertogenbosch, however, she claimed her first doubles title with Kirsten Flipkens. Ironically, the Slovak lost her first two doubles finals in 2011 and 2013 in S-Hertogenbosch, and she finally came out on the winning side.

Cibulkova has a tricky first round clash against 2015 French Open finalist Lucie Safarova.  The Czech lost a tight three-set match to Donna Vekic in the semifinals in Nottingham, and she will make the short trip over to Birmingham. Safarova is more than capable of beating the inconsistent Cibulkova although she trails 5-3 in their head-to-head meetings.  The diminuative Slovak leads 2-1 on grass and both have beaten each other at Wimbledon in the past. The winner of that first round encounter will face Lauren Davis or Naomi Osaka in the second round.

Daria Gavrilova was unseeded in this section of the draw but because of the plethora of withdrawals, she is now seeded ninth. The Russian-born Aussie begins her campaign against a qualifier or lucky loser, and she will have a winnable second round tie against Katerina Siniakova or Nao Hibino.

Semifinalist: Cibulkova

Second quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Mladenovic (5) v Kvitova (7)

The two-time Wimbledon champion will be happy to be back on grass (Photo by Adam Pretty / Getty)
The two-time Wimbledon champion will be happy to be back on grass (Photo by Adam Pretty / Getty)

The fifth seed Kristina Mladenovic will have her feet firmly on the ground as the expectations of winning the French Open became too much for her to handle. The Frenchwoman lost to Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals in straight sets, which she would have looked as a winnable match. Nevertheless, Mladenovic has transitioned well from clay to grass as she reached the quarterfinals in S-Hertogenbosch but lost to Lesia Tsurenko once again in straight sets. Mladenovic begins her campaign against Yingying Duan and she has a second round match with last year's Australian Open quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai or Magda Linette, providing she wins her first round match. 

Despite Mladenovic being the higher seed in this mini-section of the draw all eyes will be on two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. The Czech returned to action at the French Open which surprised many. She defeated Julia Boserup in straight sets, playing some vintage tennis. Unfortunately, she lost to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round but after suffering from a knife attack back in December at home in the Czech Republic, it is great to have Kvitova playing competitive tennis again. Kvitova is seeded seventh, thanks to the withdrawals and she is currently ranked at 17 in the world. Kvitova was meant to play Gavrilova but she now plays a qualifier or lucky loser in the first round. The fiery Alize Cornet or Britain's Naomi Broady could be her second round opponent. The duo Wimbledon champion is back on her beloved grass, and she will take every match one step at a time.

Semifinalist: Kvitova 

Third Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Muguruza (6) v Konta (4)

The Brit is right at home on grass courts (Photo by Jordan Mansfield / Getty)
The Brit is right at home on grass courts (Photo by Jordan Mansfield / Getty)

The former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza surrendered her crown in the fourth round losing to Kristina Mladenovic. The former world number two was disgusted with how the crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen treated her, and she waved her finger at the crowd when she left the court. The Spaniard was left in tears in her press conference. Nevertheless, Muguruza's failure to progress further in the draw in Paris has meant that she has dropped out of the top 10. Muguruza is currently ranked at 15 in the world but she does not have a lot of points to defend from now up until the end of the season. The Spaniard reached only her third semifinal of the year in Cincinnati last year, and she lost in the second round of Wimbledon last year. The 2015 Wimbledon runner-up is one of the favorites to win Wimbledon, and she begins her Aegon Classic campaign against a qualifier or lucky loser. However, she could be set for an early exit as she could face Alison Riske, who reached the final in Nottingham last year or Donna Vekic, who's set to compete in the final in Nottingham this year, in the second round.

However, the favorite to progress the furthest in this mini-section of the draw is fourth seed Johanna Konta. The British number one will be pleased to be off the clay courts and be back on the grass. Konta has yet to win a main draw match at the French Open as she lost to Su-Wei Hsieh in the first round despite looking to be in a commanding position. Nonetheless, Konta will play against Vekic in the final in Nottingham, which will be her first grass court final and first final in Britain. Konta has a tricky opener against Lesia Tsurenko, who reached the semifinals in S-Hertogenbosch losing to potential champion Anett Kontaveit in three sets. Konta's potential second round opponent is guaranteed to be an American. Coco Vandeweghe, a quarterfinalist at SW19 in 2015 and a fellow Australian Open semifinalist like Konta, faces Christina McHale in the first round. 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash will be working with Vandeweghe throughout Wimbledon. The American lost in the first round in S-Hertogenbosch, failing to defend her title which she has won twice in three years. Should Konta and Muguruza, meet in the quarterfinals, you would fancy the Brit to defeat the Spaniard based on current form.

Semifinalist: Konta 

Fourth Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Strycova (8) v Svitolina (2)

Svitolina will be looking to continue her exceptional run of form onto the grass courts (Photo by Shaun Botterill / Getty)
Svitolina will be looking to continue her exceptional run of form onto the grass courts (Photo by Shaun Botterill / Getty)

The eighth seed Barbora Strycova would have been pleased to have seen the plethora of withdrawals from the event. Strycova would have been unseeded had so many players not withdrawn from the event. Strycova is a credible grass court player, and it is evident with her two finishes in the final in 2014 and 2016. She lost to Ana Ivanovic at the former and to Keys last year. However, she managed to win the doubles with her compatriot Karolina Pliskova. Reaching the final in 2014 was a catalyst for Strycova, heading into Wimbledon in 2014 as she reached her first Slam quarterfinal by defeating two-time Slam champion Li Na. It was the Chinese player's last competitive match as she announced her retirement from tennis in September of that year. Strycova begins her quest for the title against the diminutive but powerful Yulia Putintseva. The Kazakh troubled Muguruza in their third round clash at the French Open but was unable to sustain her high level of play. Ashleigh Barty or a qualifier is the second round adversary for the winner of the Strycova-Putintseva clash.

Elina Svitolina will spearhead the bottom section of a quality draw as she begins her campaign against Britain's Heather Watson. Svitolina is yet to show her grass court credentials as she has only reached the second round of Wimbledon on her last two visits. The Ukranian is one of the form players of 2017 as she has claimed four titles, including the first two at Premier 5 level. Watson is a quality grass court player, and she will be hoping to perform well on home soil. Watson's career has been up and down, as the Brit has failed to close out matches on a consistent basis, and injuries and illnesses have played a part too. The winner will face the talented Natalia Vikhlyvantseva or a qualifier in the second round. The 20-year-old will be competing in her first WTA final against Anett Kontaveit in S-Hertogenbosch. Svitolina will sense this as a good opportunity to go far in the draw and showcase her power hitting on grass.

Semifinalist: Svitolina 

Semifinals and Final prediction:

Kvitova d. Cibulkova

Konta d. Svitolina

Final: Kvitova d. Konta