2017 Mutua Madrid Open women's preview: Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova battle it out for the world number one ranking

The third Premier Mandatory event of the year takes place at the Mutua Madrid Open, as the players on the WTA tour continue their transition onto European clay courts, in preparation for the second Grand Slam tournament of the year at the French Open.

2017 Mutua Madrid Open women's preview: Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova battle it out for the world number one ranking
The main Centre Court at the Mutua Madrid Open is called the Manolo Santana stadium (Source: Mutua Madrid Open)

World number eight Agnieszka Radwanska's late withdrawal from the Mutua Madrid Open means that eight of the top ten players on the WTA Tour will be participating in a star-studded field in the Spanish capital. The WTA Tour is going through a transitional period as current world number one and former two-time champion Serena Williams is the notable absentee of the event as she is currently pregnant, and will miss the remainder of the 2017 WTA season. Another fellow two-time winner in Petra Kvitova is also absent from the event as she continues her rehabilitation from a stabbing on her left hand in her home last year in December that left her playing career in doubt but she has recovered ahead of scheduled, and she picked up a racquet last week and may return for the French Open in three weeks time. 

Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova have a chance to usurp Serena Williams and become the new world number one, which Kerber should achieve as soon as possible but the German has struggled for form in 2017. There are only two former champions appearing in this draw at the Caja Magica with defending champion Simona Halep returning to Madrid looking to retain her title, and 2014 winner Maria Sharapova continues her comeback trail after reaching the semifinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix last week.

Quarters preview:

First Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Kerber (1) vs Kuznetsova (8)

In this 64-player draw in Madrid, top seed Angelique Kerber leads the top of this quarter of the draw which is filled with quality players. Kerber begins her campaign in Madrid against hard-hitting Hungarian, Timea Babos, should she defeat Babos, she will become the world number one once again. In the second round, she has a winnable match against Czech, Katerina Siniakova. However, 2014 champion Sharapova begins her campaign for a second Mutua Madrid Open title against 17th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who reached the semifinals at the Australian Open this year. Sharapova looked in impressive form in her first outing in 15 months, last week in Stuttgart, and her performances in the German city, made some bookmakers install Sharapova as the favourite to clinch the French Open title for the third time. The five-time Grand Slam winner's draw is tricky, and if she overcomes the Croat, she has a winnable second round tie with Alize Cornet or Eugenie Bouchard who have both made comments on Sharapova's return to professional tennis, which should make for interesting viewing should the former world number one win her first round match. A blockbuster third round match-up between Kerber and Sharapova could be on the cards with the Russian leading 4-3 in their head-to-head but Kerber won their last two meetings. 

A third Grand Slam winner is lurking in this quarter of the draw with two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, seeded eighth will be looking to go one better in Madrid after finishing as a runner-up in the Spanish capital two years ago at the hands of Kvitova, who was on fire that day. Kuznetsova has carried on where she left off in 2016, and the former world number two advanced to the final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells but lost for the third time to compatriot Elena Vesnina. The Russian should advance to the third round in Madrid as she begins her campaign against Yaroslava Shvedova and a second round matchup with either Alison Riske or Viktorija Golubic. 2015 French Open quarterfinalist Elina Svitolina is projected to meet Kuznetsova in the third round as she begins her campaign against a qualifier and a potential second round clash with Caroline Garcia could occur. This section of the draw is wide open but Kuznetsova's class on this surface should see her reach the semifinals.

Semifinalist 1: Kuznetsova def. Sharapova

Kuznetsova will be aiming for her first Mutua Madrid Open title after reaching the final in 2015 (Photo by Adam Pretty / Bongarts)
Kuznetsova will be aiming for her first Mutua Madrid Open title after reaching the final in 2015 (Photo by Adam Pretty / Bongarts)

Second Quarter

Projected quarterfinal:  Cibulkova (4) vs Keys (9)

The highest seeds in this section of the draw see the fourth seed, and last year's runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and ninth seed Madison Keys both have difficult first-round encounters. The Slovak hasn't competed since Miami due to a wrist injury and has a tough first round match with Jelena Jankovic, who has reached the semifinals at Roland Garros on three occasions. Keys isn't a clay court specialist by any means but she did reach the biggest clay-court final of her career in Rome last year losing to countrywoman Serena Williams. The American's first round match with Misaki Doi is tough but Keys should come through that match. Olympic champion Monica Puig is also in this quarter of the draw and she has a winnable first round match with Lauren Davis. France's 14th seed Kristina Mladenovic ended Sharapova's run in Stuttgart last year and she is more than capable of going on another deep run in Madrid, and the Frenchwoman was a runner-up in Stuttgart losing to Laura Siegemund in a three-set thriller.

13th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is in danger of falling at the first hurdle as she is up against wildcard Sorana Cirstea. Cirstea was one of four Romanians, who reached the quarterfinals in the Spanish capital last year. This quarter of the draw could spring up a few surprises with last year's French Open quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva being Keys' projected second round opponent. Clay is the former Australian Open semifinalist's weakest surface and Putintseva could exploit that. Daria Gavrilova could face Pavlyuchenkova in the second round with projected third round meetings between Cibulkova and Mladenovic, and Pavlyuchenkova and Keys looking unlikely with dangerous players lurking in this quarter of the draw. 

Semifinalist 2: Mladenovic def. Keys

Mladenovic advanced to the final in Stuttgart last week (Photo by Matthias Hangst / Bongarts)
Mladenovic advanced to the final in Stuttgart last week (Photo by Matthias Hangst / Bongarts)

Third Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Konta (6) vs Halep (3)

This quarter of the draw is arguably the strongest at the Mutua Madrid Open. Sixth seed Johanna Konta has won two titles in 2017 albeit on hard courts, and the Brit struggles on clay. The Miami Open champion could be set for a first round exit as she has a mouthwatering first round encounter with Laura Siegemund, who won her hometown event at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix last week. Australian Open semifinalist Coco Vandeweghe is the projected second round opponent for Konta or Siegemund. 10th seed Caroline Wozniacki is projected to face Konta in the third round and Konta eased past Wozniacki in the third round of the Australian Open and final of the Miami Open. The former world number one reached the final at the revamped maiden event in 2009. She begins her quest for her first title of the year against unorthodox Monica Niculescu. In the second round, Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro is unseeded but is a dangerous floater in the draw but conformable on clay and could upset Wozniacki should they meet in round two.

Defending champion Simona Halep, the third seed will be hoping for another deep run in Madrid after winning the maiden women's Tie-Break Tens title against Kuznetsova in the final. The Romanian begins her title defence against Kristyna Pliskova, who's game is more equipped for hard courts and grass. However, a tricky second round match with 2015 US Open runner-up Roberta Vinci or Daria Kasatkina could pose some problems for last year's winner. A projected third-round clash with 16th seed Sam Stosur could be another tricky test for the Romanian. The 2011 US Open champion defeated Halep in the fourth round at the French Open last year and Stosur has a good clay court pedigree by reaching the final at the French Open in 2010, and the semifinals in 2012, and 2016. The conditions at altitude, favour both players games but you should fancy Halep to come through this tricky section of the draw.

Semifinalist 3: Halep def. Suarez Navarro

Halep has a great chance to repeat her triumph from last year in Madrid (Photo by Julian Finney / Getty Images)
Halep has a great chance to repeat her triumph from last year in Madrid (Photo by Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Fourth Quarter

Projected quarterfinal: Muguruza (5) vs Ka. Pliskova (2)

It has been up and down year for reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza. However, her performances in 2017 have significantly been better than those in 2016 at this stage of the season. Muguruza advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and at the BNP Paribas Open along with a semifinal appearance in Brisbane at the start of the year. The fifth seed will have a tough task to go far in this draw with 2015 French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky being her first round opponent, and last year's French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens or two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova awaiting in round two for the erratic Spaniard, should she defeat the Swiss number one. Muguruza's projected third round opponent is the BNP Paribas Open champion Elena Vesnina, seeded 12th. The Russian's mini-section of the draw is just as tough as Muguruza's. Irina-Camelia Begu is Vesnina's first round opponent. Begu, reached the quarterfinals in Madrid last year and followed it up with a semifinal run in Rome. Another French Open champion in Francesca Schiavone could be Vesnina's second round opponent, and the Italian has been playing good tennis this year, winning an eighth title in Bogota, and the veteran could upset Vesnina.

Last year's US Open finalist and second seed Karolina Pliskova has an outside chance of gaining the world number one ranking but that is only possible if Kerber loses in the first round, and Pliskova wins the title in Madrid. The world number three begins her campaign against Lesia Tsurenko and a potential third round encounter could be on the cards with compatriots, Barbora Strycova who is the 15th seed and Lucie Safarova. Safarova advanced to the French Open final in 2015. Pliskova struggles on clay are evident as the lanky Czech isn't a good slider on this surface but her serve can bail her out of trouble. Pliskova advancing to the quarterfinals would be a good result for the consistent world number three.

Semifinalist 4: Muguruza def. Ka. Pliskova

Muguruza has not gone beyond the second round in Madrid on four previous main draw appearances (Photo by Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)
Muguruza has not gone beyond the second round in Madrid on four previous main draw appearances (Photo by Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Semifinals and Finals prediction:

Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Kristina Mladenovic

Simona Halep def. Garbine Muguruza

Final: Simona Halep def. Svetlana Kuznetsova