Rogers Cup preview: Karolina Pliskova debuts as world No1, Simona Halep out to defend title

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Tennis heavyweights will reunite next week in Toronto for the Rogers Cup, as preparations for the US Open (starts August 28) get underway.

Karolina Pliskova headlines a strong field, with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova being the most notable absentees.

Defending champion Simona Halep is the No2 seed and will be looking to recover from a brutal few days in Washington’s extreme heat that forced her to retire from her quarter-final against Ekaterina Makarova on Friday.

The Toronto draw was revealed on Friday and includes some tricky match-ups for the top seeds.

PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)

Karolina Pliskova (CZE) [1] v Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) [6]
Angelique Kerber (GER) [3] v Johanna Konta (GBR) [7]
Elina Svitolina (UKR) [5] v Garbine Muguruza (ESP) [4]
Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) [8] v Simona Halep (ROU) [2]

FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH

Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) [10] v Coco Vandeweghe (USA)
Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) v Sloane Stephens (USA)
Petra Kvitova (CZE) [14] v Carla Suarez Navarro (ESP)
Daria Kasatkina (RUS) v Roberta Vinci (ITA)
Julia Goerges (GER) v Catherine Bellis (USA)
Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) [13] v Barbora Strycova (CZE)
Madison Keys (USA) v Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (CRO)

MAIN STORYLINES

Pliskova in the hot seat

We’ve seen how Angelique Kerber reacted to her elevated status as world No1 and it did not go so well. Will Karolina Pliskova’s reign be any different? The Czech tends to portray a composed persona and has been consistent this year, winning three titles from three finals reached in Brisbane, Doha and Eastbourne, and reaching the semis at the French Open, Indian Wells and Miami.

Halep will be breathing down her neck in the rankings over the next six weeks, where Pliskova is defending the title in Cincinnati and a runner-up showing at the US Open. The next month and a half for Pliskova will be a test of character, and while she can’t lose her top spot in Toronto, she can surrender it to Halep in the following weeks.

A new and improved Muguruza?

It’s still early days but Garbine Muguruza is already reacting very differently to her Wimbledon title compared to how she did to her French Open success last season. The Spaniard is into the Washington semi-finals (faces Madison Keys on Saturday) and says she feels the pressure is off this time around. Toronto will be the first real test to that. In Canada, Muguruza she shares a quarter with fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina and Venus Williams and is in the same half of the draw as Halep.

More Penko power?

The French Open champion responded brilliantly to her breakthrough title in Paris by reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. The first seed she could face in Toronto could be eight-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round before a potential quarter-final against Halep, whom she beat to win Roland Garros in June.

With a power game that should do wonders on hard courts, Ostapenko is definitely one to watch these next few weeks.

Time for Kerber to bounce back?

After playing a high-quality three-setter against Muguruza before bowing out of the Wimbledon fourth round, Kerber tweeted: “Thank you Wimbledon for reminding me how much I love this sport.”

The German managed to bring out some of that magic form that won her two majors last year during that epic with Muguruza. And now that she’s no longer feeling like the hunted, having slipped from No1 to No3 in the rankings, can Kerber finally play freely and find her way back to her top level?

She’s been dealt a tough hand in Canada where she can face home favourite Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, Petra Kvitova in the third and Johanna Konta in the quarters.

Halep’s brutal draw

The title holder could face Keys in her opener, in a rematch of last year’s final in Canada. She could then face Mladenovic in round three, and either Ostapenko or Kuznetsova in the quarters. If Halep wants to defend her title, she’ll have to do it the hard way.

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Kristina Mladenovic's column: How my life changed this year, and should we promote women's sport using sex appeal?

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I’m back on the road again after a short holiday with my family and I’m excited to return to action.

A lot has changed for me over the past six months as a result of the success I’ve had on the court.

In life, a lot has changed. It’s the treatment you get at tournaments, whether it’s doing more stuff with the media, officials, organisation, you feel like you’re kind of more special and privileged – they take care of you way more. But it’s something I’m taking very calmly and I’m seeing it as a positive.

I’m working hard for this and I’m not getting too excited. I’m thinking more like this is normal, this is where I want to be, and more importantly this is where I want to stay – to stay and try every single day to keep working and improving.

So on one hand things have changed but on the other, I’m still the same person. I still have the same thoughts and personality – that will never change for me. It’s not because I’m getting higher in the rankings, and maybe in status, that I’m going to change and be more arrogant or not to talk to some people that I used to talk to.

But I can’t deny that it feels different. Players see you differently, when they go out on the court against you, you’re a higher-ranked player, they’re going to feel like they have no pressure, like underdogs, so I feel much more respect from my opponents.

But I’ll never change my personality based on my ranking. That’s absolutely not me, or who I’m ever going to be because I know where I came from. Who I am doesn’t change if I’m like 200 or No1 in the world, I stay the same person.

In my opinion, the most important thing is your personality, that’s what stays, not how many titles you’ve won. Once you’ve finished your tennis career, we’re not going to remember if you won 15 titles or 27 titles on tour. It’s more about your image, what you brought to people and your values. At the end of the day, it’s a job, it’s sport, and the nicest thing that we will miss at the end is this connection, this life.

📸👙 @parismatch_magazine @helenepambrun.photography

A post shared by Kristina Mladenovic (@kristinamladenovic93) on

A BALANCING ACT

As athletes we get to be part of many campaigns to promote our sport, or the brands we represent. I was asked recently if promoting women’s sport through sex appeal is positive or negative for our game.

I think it’s important to find a great balance, to send the right message. At the end of the day, we are women and what you want to show is that women can be beautiful in being strong and being athletes. Being beautiful while having muscles, having any kind of body shape, whether you’re curvy or any type of body. We are women so it’s part of our characteristics.

Men also do some commercials like that. Like Rafa Nadal for example, we saw him do a boxer shorts commercial.

So on the women’s side, we can do swimsuit photoshoots, and other things. We are athletes, so either you decide to show a message about body strength, or you show off your body with different kind of brands.

It’s the message you want to communicate, which people you’re addressing, which fans you want to bring to the sport. It’s an important balance, and you have to be smart. Personally, I’m not the one that will push for a provocative way but it’s nice to show off your athletic body, to be classy, elegant, and to maybe attract some women who don’t know about sport and tennis but they know you from the magazines they’re reading and they get interested in what you’re doing.

In my opinion it’s more about keeping an open mind. It’s also part of our job. It’s like this in business. Some can say it’s unfair that brands and sponsors are just going for the good-looking ones. Yes, but a lot of things in life are unfair. Sometimes you just have to accept it and follow. It’s the same for everybody I guess.

*This column was done via an interview with Kristina Mladenovic. It has been slightly edited for clarity.

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Maria Sharapova is not focusing on US Open wildcard, makes winning return in Stanford

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Back to business: Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova is looking to avoid all drama surrounding a potential wildcard for the upcoming US Open, the Russian said on Monday after making a winning return at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.

The Russian ex-world No1 was denied a wildcard by French Open organisers last May, making her unable to compete at a Grand Slam she has won twice. Her ranking was too low following a 15-month doping suspension to give her direct entry into Roland Garros, and the French Tennis Federation (FFT) refused to invite her on the basis of “protecting the integrity of the sport”.

She then missed Wimbledon qualifying because of a thigh injury and has returned to action this week following a two-and-a-half-month break. Competing in the United States for the first time since March 2015, Sharapova fought past Jennifer Brady 6-1, 4-6, 6-0 to make the Stanford second round. She next takes on Ukrainian No7 seed Lesia Tsurenko.

Sharapova, currently ranked No171 in the world, will need a wildcard if she were to gain direct entry into the US Open main draw; otherwise, the 30-year-old would have to compete in the qualifying tournament.

The topic of Sharapova and wildcards has been a controversial one since she returned from her suspension in April and she is hoping to avoid that ahead of the final Grand Slam of the year.

“It’s not something that I’m focusing on,” Sharapova told reporters on Monday when asked about whether she was expecting a US Open wildcard.

“When I started playing on the clay season, there was so much focus on the French Open wildcard, and Wimbledon, and really around the Grand Slams. And I understand that the Grand Slams are the big events, they’re the ones you want to compete at.

“But when you’ve been away from the game for such a long period of time, my focus is solely on the event that I’m playing at and for me playing here is just as big, and I’ll take away a lot of positives, maybe a few negatives, and I’ll have to work through those just as much as I would at the US Open.

“So my mind is not there. So much was put on the decision of the wildcard of the French Open and it didn’t work out. And that’s not really my frame of mind today and I’m not looking forward to what’s going to happen in five weeks.”

Sharapova has so far received invites for Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, Stanford, Toronto and Cincinnati this season, and it’s likely she will get one for the US Open, which she won in 2006. That may come to the dismay of a number of her peers, who have been harsh critics of Sharapova since she tested positive for meldonium.

Did that negative reaction from some of her fellow players come as a surprise?

“I don’t think it was really an element of being surprised or not. I’m very fortunate and grateful for the tournaments that have provided me wildcards and I would say that 99 per cent of them have at this point, so I’m very thankful,” said Sharapova.

“A lot of these events I’ve played at before, and I have a history with the people and the fans and the tournament itself, so the opportunities that I have, I’m taking it, and I want to perform, I want to perform well and it means a lot to me to be here.”

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