Six of the world’s top 20 are heading to Birmingham next week for the Aegon Classic. The draw could have been even stronger if it hadn’t been for a spate of withdrawals which saw the likes of Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova, Agnieszka Radwanska and many more all pull out – it would have been Stuttgart-esque! Still, it’s a decent line-up with plenty of intrigue as we settle into the 2017 grass court season and prepare for Wimbledon. Let’s take a look at the draw…
Note – Since writing the preview, Angelique Kerber has withdrawn from Birmingham
Dominika Cibulkova  – Lucie Safarova
Lauren Davis – Naomi Osaka
Nao Hibino – Katerina Siniakova
Qualifier – Daria Gavrilova 
I had two paragraphs all about Kerber-Safarova but that’s down the drain now with the draw reshuffle! So let’s start again… the number three seed, Dominika Cibulkova, moves into Kerber’s position and will now play Lucie Safarova in the first round.
Dominika Cibulkova will be seeking her first win on grass in 2017 and to win back-to-back matches for the first time since Miami. The Slovak player opened up in ‘s-Hertogenbosch with a shaky three set loss to Antonia Lottner. This is a tough opener for both – Cibulkova will have likely been boosted by winning a first ever career doubles title with Kirsten Flipkens in the Netherlands. Safarova arrives from Nottingham after playing four three set matches. The pair have split their last six encounters with neither player managing to win consecutive matches during that period. Safarova won their only match this year in Miami, 7-6(5) 6-1.
The winner of Cibulkova-Safarova gets Lauren Davis or Naomi Osaka in the second round. Both players lost their first matches in Nottingham – Osaka’s loss was the more emphatic as she mustered just two games in a 1-6 1-6 loss to Kristie Ahn in 48 minutes. I wonder with more matches and adjustment to this surface whether grass will be a good surface for Osaka? Davis’s ability to absorb pace and rally may be the deciding factor this time round.
Kristina Mladenovic  – Duan Ying-Ying
Zhang Shuai – Magda Linette
Alizé Cornet – Naomi Broady
Qualifier – Petra Kvitova 
The number five seed, Kristina Mladenovic plays Duan Ying-Ying in the first round. Mladenovic’s versatility continues to impress in 2017 and she has proven that her game can work on all surfaces. In ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Frenchwoman made a solid start on grass as she reached the quarter-finals where she lost out to Lesia Tsurenko in straight sets. On closer inspection, Tsurenko has won five of their six encounters! Duan hasn’t won a tour level match since Miami but has a game that can match up well with grass.
The sight of Petra Kvitova in a grass-court draw is simply beautiful! I’m so thrilled to see Petra contesting this stage of the year because it really didn’t seem a possibility six months ago. I was impressed with Kvitova’s level at Roland Garros where she reached the second round.The two-time Wimbledon champion will play a qualifier in the first round.This is obviously Kvitova’s favourite surface but i’d still say that expectations should be somewhat tempered. I’m still not sure what to expect in terms of results and still just happy Petra is back. I’ll be saying this all year!
Garbiñe Muguruza  – Qualifier
Donna Vekic – Alison Riske
Christina McHale – CoCo Vandeweghe
Lesia Tsurenko – Johanna Konta 
After an emotional exit at Roland Garros in a feisty three set clash with Kristina Mladenovic, it will be fascinating to see how Garbiñe Muguruza approaches the grass court season. The Spaniard has chosen to double up by playing Birmingham and Eastbourne – her first match on grass in 2017 will be against a qualifier.
One to watch in the first round will be Donna Vekic vs. Alison Riske, two players who have made their mark in Birmingham before. Vekic reached the final back in 2013 as a 16-year-old although she hasn’t won a match at this tournament since! At the time of writing, Vekic is into the final of Nottingham this week. Riske used to burst into life during the grass court season and mostly in Birmingham – the American player has a 19-6 W-L record at this tournament and reached the semi-finals in 2010 and 2013 ranked outside of the world’s top 150. Riske has since become much more versatile and able to score wins on all surfaces.
Two more Americans, Christina McHale and CoCo Vandeweghe, face off in the first round. McHale bagged a vital win over Anastasija Sevastova in the first round of Nottingham but was unable to back it up in the second round, missing a match point in a three set loss to Maria Sakkari. Vandeweghe also missed a match point in her first match on grass this year against Carina Witthoeft in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The 25-year-old American has paired up with Pat Cash for the grass court season and she defeated McHale last year in Birmingham, 6-3 7-6(2) in the second round.
The Nottingham finalist, Johanna Konta rounds out this quarter and will play ‘s-Hertogenbosch semi-finalist, Lesia Tsurenko in the first round. Tsurenko had won just two matches combined through the last two grass court season but has already bettered that alone in 2017. In their most recent match-up, Konta beat Tsurenko at Eastbourne last year, 7-6(4) 6-1.
Barbora Strycova  – Yulia Putintseva
Qualifier – Ashleigh Barty
Qualifier – Natalia Vikhlyantseva
Heather Watson – Elina Svitolina 
I’m thinking about cancelling all my plans and hopping on a train to Birmingham just to watch Barbora Strycova vs. Yulia Putintseva 😂. If both are on their drama A-game, this could be a classic! In all seriousness, the two-time Birmingham finalist, Strycova will be the favourite based on her grass court exploits. The winner will play Ashleigh Barty or a qualifier in the second round. Barty made a strong start to the grass court season in Nottingham and will be one to watch for the next few weeks.
The draw is bookended by the second seed, Elina Svitolina. This will be her first tournament since missing match point against Simona Halep at Roland Garros. I’d expect a resilient, Svitolina to bounce back but she has never proven herself on grass with a 4-10 W-L record on the green stuff. First up will be home favourite, Heather Watson. The pair have played in the UK before where Watson came from a set down to win in Eastbourne two years ago. I remember being on the outside courts and hearing the constant cheers for Heather!
Records in Birmingham
Of the top eight seeds, Barbora Strycova has the best record in Birmingham and reached the final last year. Three of the eight seeds have never won a match in Birmingham – Dominika Cibulkova’s only previous appearance in Birmingham was a qualifying loss to Brenda Schultz McCarthy in 2007!