Karolina Pliskova unfazed by five-way battle for world No. 1 ranking in Cincinnati

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The hunted: Karolina Pliskova.

With sidelined Serena Williams about to have a baby, five players have a chance to grab the world number one ranking at this week’s US Open tuneup event in Cincinnati.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion who announced her pregnancy and the end of her season in April, owned the top spot for 186 consecutive weeks through last September, matching Steffi Graf for an Open Era record, and traded the spot with Germany’s Angelique Kerber earlier this year.

Defending Cincinnati champion Karolina Pliskova took over the top spot five weeks ago but could lose points from her title run, opening the door for rivals to overtake her.

Romania’s second-ranked Simona Halep, world number three Kerber, Ukraine’s fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina and fifth-ranked Dane Caroline Wozniacki could, mathematically, all claim the top spot.

“Nothing has changed. I have a big responsibility. I’ll do everything as I have before,” Pliskova said. “I do think it’s a huge thing but I don’t want to do anything just because of the rankings. I don’t try to behave differently. I try not to see the pressure.”

Pliskova has won titles this year at Brisbane, Doha and Eastbourne but anything short of a repeat gives Halep a chance to reach number one by winning the title.

“To be number one in the world is a big thing. It shows you have been consistent. You have won the place. If I deserve the place, for sure I will win it,” Halep said.

The Romanian however remains haunted by a French Open final loss to Jelena Ostapenko in which she was up a set and a break before squandering a chance at her first Grand Slam title and number one.

“I still have bad dreams about that,” Halep said. “I still suffer.”

She’s also trying to forget a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Svitolina in the Toronto semi-finals, one for which she apologised to spectators on Monday.

“I was really disappointed. It was a horror match for me,” Halep said. “I couldn’t feel the ball. I can’t say I wasn’t ready to play. It never happened to me before, not like that.”

Svitolina, 22, has won titles this year in Taiwan, Dubai, Istanbul, Rome and Toronto.

She credits Dubai with inspiration but improved in her Canada title run last week.

The title in Dubai really gave me that push. I played great,” Svitolina said. “But this tournament in Toronto showed me I can go there not playing my best and fight back and still be able to win the title.

“It’s one more step in a good direction.”

Svitolina’s hot season has inspired her to aim big.

“It’s very special. It gives me more energy to go for more,” Svitolina said.

She needs a title and Pliskova out before the semi-finals to reach number one.

“I know this but I try not to put so much pressure on myself. Of course to be number one is a goal of mine. The important thing is to play well,” Svitolina said.

“I know it’s very close for everyone. I’d prefer to play well at big tournaments. Then the ranking will be there.”

Kerber and Wozniacki need Pliskova to crash out in her opening match to have a chance at number one this week.

Media day brought all the smiles. 😁😁😁 📷: @besolomon #cincytennis #muguruza #nadal #halep #wta #atp #tennis #interview

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And while Spain’s sixth-ranked Garbine Muguruza, can’t overtake now, she would be a threat to do so at the US Open.

“It’s going to be a battle,” she said. “I like that I’m part of it and it’s going to be a big thing. Now I feel like I’ve got to play. I can’t miss a tournament. If I do I’m gone.”

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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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