With just one week left to go before the Australian Open, the WTA Tour’s top stars are searching for form at the Apia International Sydney – who will find it?
Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska and defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova lead an absolutely packed and glittering field at the Apia International Sydney as top players seize one last chance to try to tune up their games ahead of next week’s Australian Open.
Live from Sydney from Sunday 8 January, we break down the draw of the 2017 Apia International Sydney.
Projected quarterfinal: Angelique Kerber (1) vs Johanna Konta (6) (2-0)
World no. 1 Angelique Kerber’s start to the 2017 season didn’t quite go as planned at the Brisbane International last week – she survived a three-set tussle with the returning Ash Barty, but was flat and unimpressive in a straight-sets defeat to Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals.
With her Australian Open title defense looming, Kerber will be hoping for better things at the Apia International Sydney, where she was runner-up to Tsvetana Pironkova in 2014 and made the semifinals in 2013 and 2015. She has anything but an easy draw, however – after a first-round bye, Kerber is set to open against either talented Russian Daria Kasatkina (who pushed Garbine Muguruza all the way in Brisbane last week) or Timea Babos, the hard-hitting Hungarian who is in many ways better than her ranking. World no. 10 Johanna Konta, who made the semifinals of the Shenzhen Open last week before being shocked by eventual champion Katerina Siniakova, is her projected quarterfinal opponent but watch out for Daria Gavrilova, the ebullient young Australian who loves a big upset and has warmed up for the season at the Hopman Cup. If Kerber and Konta do meet, it will be a re-match of the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.
Predicted semifinalist: Kerber
Projected quarterfinal: Dominika Cibulkova (3) vs Svetlana Kuznetsova (5) (3-6)
Svetlana Kuznetsova captured the Apia International Sydney title in style in 2016, inaugurating a season that would see her win another title in Moscow, finish runner-up in Miami and make the WTA Finals Singapore by the skin of her teeth – going on to reach the semifinals, where she lost a hard-fought three-setter to her projected quarterfinal opponent in Sydney this year, Dominika Cibulkova.
Kuznetsova lost in the Brisbane quarterfinals to Muguruza last week in straight sets and perhaps should have performed a little better, but if the Russian is fit and healthy she can be a nearly unstoppable force on the courts – and she likes the conditions in Sydney, where she was also a runner-up in 2008. Kuznetsova should be equal to the challenge of clay-courter Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round, but a second-round clash with either Sam Stosur – hampered as always by playing at home – or fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova could be more of a challenge.
World no. 5 Cibulkova finished her career-best season of 2016 in triumph with by far the biggest title she had ever won – the WTA Finals Singapore – and now has a lot to defend in 2017. The diminutive Slovakian lost to an inspired Alize Cornet last week in Brisbane but has every chance to bounce back in Sydney, where she was runner-up to Radwanska in 2013, opening against Stuttgart runner-up Laura Siegemund and likely to face Zhang Shuai in the second round. Should she and Kuznetsova meet, Cibulkova will hope to reprise her three-set victories in Wuhan and Singapore in 2016 – the only two matches they have played since 2011.
Predicted semifinalist: Cibulkova
Projected quarterfinal: Elina Svitolina (7) vs Karolina Pliskova (4) (0-5)
Rising Ukrainian Elina Svitolina was inspired in a defeat of world no. 1 Kerber last week – the third time in the past 12 months she has beaten a reigning world no. 1 – but turned up flat in a crushing semifinal defeat to Karolina Pliskova, who went on to storm to the Brisbane International title, making a potential quarterfinal clash between the two particularly intriguing.
Svitolina has a fascinating first-round encounter with the 2016 Sydney runner-up and Rio Olympics gold medalist Monica Puig. The Puerto Rican has done little since winning gold but is 1-1 vs Svitolina – and the very dangerous Belinda Bencic, who slid down the rankings during an injury-marred 2016 but remains one of the brightest young talents out there, is also in this section (but has to make a quick transition from Hopman Cup).
Pliskova also has to make a quick transition from Brisbane to Sydney after winning her first title of the season: The question is whether she brings her good form from Brisbane or feels she has done enough. She starts off against Sloane Stephens, who won a trio of titles in the early months of 2016 but struggled with injury thereafter – Stephens hasn’t played since the Olympics but is 2-0 vs Pliskova. Barbora Strycova or Ekaterina Makarova, who face off in the first round, are ideally placed to take advantage.
Predicted semifinalist: Makarova
Projected quarterfinal: Elena Vesnina (8) vs Agnieszka Radwanska (2) (1-5)
Agnieszka Radwanska’s Shenzhen Open title defense didn’t precisely go to plan – she was ousted by Alison Riske in the quarterfinals in a match that bizarrely included a bagel – so the Pole has headed to Sydney, where she won the title in 2013, in an attempt to get herself in better shape ahead of the Australian Open, where she was a semifinalist last year.
World no. 3 Radwanska, who gave her season a late filip when she captured the China Open title even if she was unable to defend her WTA Finals Singapore crown, has a bye into the second round where she is likely to meet Roberta Vinci, the crafty Italian who has generally been comprehensively out-crafted by the player known as ‘the ninja’ – Radwanska owns an 8-2 record against Vinci so looks set for quarterfinals at least. Intriguingly, Radwanska could meet perennial rival Caroline Wozniacki there, with the Dane – a quarterfinalist in Auckland last week – due to meet either eighth seed and 2016 Wimbledon semifinalist Elena Vesnina or Coco Vandeweghe, who played decently in Hopman Cup last week, in the second round. Wozniacki is 9-6 against Radwanska, but the Pole won their last two meetings.
Predicted semifinalist: Wozniacki
Apia International Sydney tennis is live from Sydney from 8-14 January 2017.