Cincinnati preview: Karolina Pliskova out to defend title, Maria Sharapova's injury woes continue, stacked quarters

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The women’s tour heads to Cincinnati, where top seed Karolina Pliskova is the defending champion.

This upcoming stretch is where Pliskova caught fire last year and she has 2,100 points to defend between now and the end of the US Open.

This time, the Czech is the world No. 1 and the hunted rather than the hunter. Here’s a look at the Cincinnati draw and the main talking points ahead of the action…

PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)

Karolina Pliskova (CZE) [1] v Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) [6]

Elina Svitolina (UKR) [5] v Angelique Kerber (GER) [3]

Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) [8] v Garbine Muguruza (ESP) [4]

Simona Halep (ROU) [2] v Johanna Konta (GBR) [7]

FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH

Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) [13] v Daria Gavrilova (AUS)

Elena Vesnina (RUS) v Carolina Garcia (FRA)

Madison Keys (USA) [16] v Coco Vandeweghe (USA)

Sloane Stephens (USA) v Lucie Safarova (CZE)

Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) [11] v Ana Konjuh (CRO)

MAIN STORYLINES

Stacked second quarter

The Muguruza quarter of the draw includes: Kuznetsova [8], French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko [12], Stanford champion and runner-up Madison Keys [16] and Coco Vandeweghe, along with talented Russian Daria Kasatkina and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.

Kerber’s tough path

The German’s task at hand is not any easier than Muguruza’s. Kerber shares a quarter of the draw with: Elina Svitolina, who is into her fifth final of the season in Toronto (faces Wozniacki on Sunday 21:20 UAE time), two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Toronto quarter-finalists, Lucie Safarova and Sloane Stephens (faced off in Canada on Friday and will meet in Cincy opening round), Washington champion Ekaterina Makarova, and No10 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

Another Sharapova withdrawal

With all the fuss surrounding Maria Sharapova and wildcards, the Russian hasn’t been able to make full use of those invites due to ongoing injuries. Sharapova, who returned from a 15-month doping ban end of April, has only managed to contest 10 matches in nearly four months. Her latest withdrawal is from Cincinnati, where she was due to face Ostapenko in the first round but an ongoing left arm injury has ruled her out.

Is over-training during her suspension perhaps a reason for her injury woes? Or is this just bad luck?

She has withdrawn six times already in the last three and a half months, suffering a thigh problem that forced her to retire from her Rome second round, and pull out of Birmingham, Wimbledon qualifying. A soreness in her left arm ruled her out of her second round in Stanford, and she subsequently withdrew from Toronto and Cincinnati.

She says her latest withdrawal is a precaution for the US Open, where she will either play qualifying, or contest the main draw as a wildcard (USTA have not announced their decision yet).

Pliskova’s title defence

The world No. 1, who won the title last year in Cincy, did well during her first week at the top of the rankings, reaching the quarter-finals in Toronto before losing a close three-setter to Wozniacki in a rain-interrupted clash. She blew leads in the first and final sets in that match and will be looking to avoid that this week in Cincy. Pliskova could have a rematch with Wozniacki by Friday as they’ve both landed in the same quarter of the draw.

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Sara Errani fails drugs test and is handed two-month ban

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Banned: Sara Errani.

Italian tennis player Sara Errani has failed a doping test and has been banned for two months the International Tennis Federation announced on Monday.

The former Roland Garros runner-up tested positive for the aromatose inhibitor, letrozole, in an out-of-competition test on February 16, 2017. Letrozole is typically used for the treatment of hormonally-responsive breast cancer after surgery and can hide the presence of the male hormone testosterone. It is listed on the WADA prohibited list as a hormone and metabolic modulator.

According to the ITF report, Errani said the substance was present in her system because her mother’s medication spilled over her food.

“The most  likely  way  in  which  the  player  came  to  ingest  letrozole  was  by  accidentally   consuming  her  mother’s  anti-cancer  medication  ‘Femara’,” said the ITF report.

Errani’s mother, Fulvia, told an Independent Tribunal that she has been battling breast cancer since 2005, and has had surgery twice.

“On 18 April 2017, Ms. Errani was charged with an Anti-Doping Rule Violation under Article 2.1 of the Programme (presence of a Prohibited Substance in a Player’s Sample). She promptly admitted that she had committed the Anti-Doping Rule Violation charged, and asked for a hearing before an Independent Tribunal in accordance with Article 8 of the Programme to determine the consequences to be imposed on her for that violation,” read a statement published on the ITF website.

The hearing took place on July 19 and Errani received a two-month ban starting from August 3 and ending on October 2, 2017.

Her results between February 16, 2017 (the date of sample collection) and June 7, 2017 (the date of her next test, which was negative) will be disqualified, resulting in forfeiture of the ranking points and prize money that she won at events during that period.

Errani is currently ranked No98 in the world. Her most recent title came in Dubai last year.

Part of the evidence submitted to the Independent Tribunal included statements from her parents who said that they conducted an experiment to see if the ‘Femara’ can dissolve in food. They said that it dissolved in both broth and meat mixture used in making tortellini.

“Clearly this was not a test under laboratory conditions and no weight can be given to it. Equally neither can it be dismissed,” read the ITF report.

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Madison Keys beats Coco Vandeweghe to claim first title of season in Stanford

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Home success: Keys (r) and Vandeweghe.

Madison Keys looked to be in US Open form early on Sunday at the WTA tour’s Stanford tournament, beating American compatriot CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6 (4), 6-4 for her third career title.

The 22-year-old Keys was pleased with the win after battling injuries this year which caused her to miss the first two months of the season following wrist surgery.

“It hasn’t been the easiest last couple of months, but this means a lot to me,” said Keys, who earned her first win of 2017.

Keys also said the victory will give her confidence going into the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the year which begins in three weeks in New York.

“It finally feels like I’m on the right track and feeling good about my tennis again. It feels amazing to have a title at home and on hard courts.

“I’m really, really happy that this is kind of the start of my US Open Series.”

The world No. 21 Keys reached the final by eliminating reigning Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in straight sets, so it didn’t come as a surprise she played her best tennis in the final.

It was the first career WTA meeting between Keys and Vandeweghe but they are no strangers off the court. The two Fed Cup team-mates shared a long embrace at the net after Keys closed out the win with back-to-back forehand winners.

“Thanks for a great week CoCo,” said Keys.

Keys hit two aces, had three double faults and won 76 per cent of her first-serve points in the one hour, 28 minute match.

Vandeweghe, 24, also served brilliantly, hammering six aces and winning 73 percent of her first-serve points. She reached the final without dropping a set. Keys hit 23 winners to just 19 unforced errors, while Vandeweghe tallied 20 winners and 22 unforced errors.

Keys won the first-set tiebreaker with a forehand winner down the line after both players held serve through all 12 games of the set.

Both players continued to serve solidly in the second and Keys finally broke Vandeweghe at 4-4 in the set.

“I just knew that if I kept hanging in on my service games, hopefully I would have a chance to break,” Keys said.

After the only break of the match, Keys wasted no time finishing off Vandeweghe on her serve in the next game. She jumped out front 40-0 then closed out the win with a cross-court forehand winner.

“I felt really calm, and I didn’t feel any nerves until like 30-0 in the last game serving. I kind of went in with feeling no pressure, in a weird way,” she said. “She’s had an amazing season and lots of matches, and I just knew what I needed to do and kind of stayed focused on that.”

Keys has a quick turnaround as she flew straight to Toronto where she faces Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in her opening clash, before a potential showdown with second-seeded Simona Halep in round two. Vandeweghe has a brutal opener in Canada against 10th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.

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