June 18, 2015

On Firmer Ground

It's no big surprise that the clay court season can wreak havoc among tennis's top palyers, but this year's French Open took a toll even on those who had been going strong on the dirt this year. So maybe the change of surface was especially welcome to the ladies taking the court in Birmingham this week -- as early results show a couple making big strides to erase the memories from Paris.

Angelique Kerber was one of my dark horse picks at Roland Garros, but after a couple easy rounds, she was knocked out by twentieth seed GarbiƱe Muguruza in her third match. But the one-time Wimbledon semifinalist seems to have her game back at the Aegon Classic, ousting another All England Cinderella Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener and then dealing a straight set defeat to former world #1 Jelena Jankovic earlier today. If she can get through unseeded Katerina Siniakova in the next round, she'll likely get a rematch with 2013's finalist in London, Sabine Lisicki. Her fellow German has struggled a bit more in 2015, making what could be called significant runs only in Miami and Indian Wells. Now ranked just #19 in the world, she could be poised to regain ground in Birmingham -- she's taken out Den Bosch runner-up Belinda Bencic, firing off an astounding twenty-seven aces, and grass specialist Magdalena Rybarikova. While her next opponent, veteran Daniela Hantuchova, can be tricky, you have to give Lisicki the odds to make at least the semifinals.

There's just as much at stake on the top half of the draw. Simona Halep isn't exactly having a bad season -- she's picked up titles in Shenzhen, Dubai and, most impressively, Indian Wells, and even reached the semis in Stuttgart and Rome. But the world #3 is still looking to redeem herself after a tough second round exit in Paris -- a far cry from her final run from 2014. She's been on point again in Birmingham, but faces her biggest test next against Kristina Mladenovic, one of those players you have to keep an eye on. And even if she passes that test, she could be in for an even tougher one down the road. Karolina Pliskova won the Juniors championship at the all England Club in 2010 and at a #12 ranking, is at her career high. A runner-up in Sydney and Dubai, she picked up a title in Prague, but was stunned in her French Open second round by then-#100 Andreea Mitu. After dropping her first set to Johanna Konta, she's had little trouble this week, and though she's the on-paper underdog against third seed Carla Suarez Navarro in Friday's quarterfinal she might be the favorite on grass. And that could give her a lot of confidence for the possible rematch against Halep in a couple days.

Of course only one woman can walk away the ultimate champion in Birmingham this weekend. But their performances so far have put them back on course to show everyone else just what they're capable of. And with a little more than a week before the start of the year's next Major, there's no better time to do it.

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