The seeds come out to play from the bottom half of the women’s draw on Saturday at the 2018 BNP Paribas Open. The likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Garcia and Madison Keys will all be in action, as well as the stars of Thursday’s night session, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. Read on for a sweeping preview of my favourite matches of the day.
Match of the Day – Sloane Stephens vs. Victoria Azarenka
No doubt about this match of the day as the US Open champion and number 13 seed, Sloane Stephens gets Victoria Azarenka in the second round. Considering the length of time she has spent on the sidelines, Azarenka looked strong in an 6-4 6-2 opening round victory over Heather Watson. The match was more challenging than the scoreline suggested.
Stephens snapped an eight match losing streak stretching all the way back to her title triumph at the US Open when she reached the quarter-finals in Acapulco. Stephens’s level wasn’t great but breaking the run was huge and she showed plenty of fight in her three matches.
Azarenka leads the head-to-head, 3-0 where curiously, all three wins have come at the Australian Open. Azarenka is clearly lacking match practice, yet Stephens herself has not played a great deal of tennis in 2018. Instinct is that Vika’s level will be high enough to keep her comeback run going strong. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Stephens raise her level for the occasion.
One to watch on the outside courts – Daria Kasatkina vs. Katerina Siniakova
The winner of Stephens-Azarenka will play the winner of my pick-of-the-outside-court-clashes between Daria Kasatkina and Katerina Siniakova. The number 20 seed, Kasatkina is my favourite player left in the draw – biasedness aside, this should be an entertaining clash between two styles at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Kasatkina’s last tournament appearance in Dubai was arguably her best ever run, even though she didn’t win the title, as she saved match points to secure stunning wins over Johanna Konta and Garbiñe Muguruza. Siniakova’s results haven’t been as consistent as Kasatkina, as explained by the gap in 28 places between their rankings, yet the Czech player has the game to trouble most. Temperament though remains as issue. A third set tiebreak over Christina McHale in the first round of Indian Wells won’t have hurt her confidence.
Kasatkina won their only previous match in Moscow last year, 6-2 6-3. I would favour Kasatkina for the win. She has bundles of variety, enough likely to disrupt Siniakova’s rhythm, and the conditions are ideal for her game.
Hipster match – Julia Goerges vs. Natalia Vikhlyantseva
I’m fast becoming a fan of Natalia Vikhlyantseva’s game and who doesn’t like Julia Goerges! Vikhlyantseva won her first WTA main draw match of the year on Thursday when she beat fellow compatriot Vera Zvonareva, 6-3 6-2. She showed nerves closing out the match but was ultimately too good for an error-prone and wasteful, Zvonareva. The number 12 seed, Goerges hasn’t played since retiring hurt in Doha with a hip injury.
Goerges won their only previous match in Moscow last year, 7-5 in the third set. Vikhlyantseva came out of that particular clash with plenty of pride having fought to the end despite having an injury. A mild upset alert as Vikhlyantseva has the shots. I would just favour Goerges, assuming she is fit, to be a bit more consistent when it really counts.
Only one firm upset I am going for which is for CiCi Bellis to beat the number 24 seed, Elena Vesnina. I’m intrigued to see how Vesnina approaches this week and whether she actually is able to rejuvenate herself in a tournament where she flourished in 2017. All too often players seem to struggle to back up the results and perhaps feel the pressure of defending the ranking points. Add to that, Bellis has looked in excellent form post-Australia and will be at home in these conditions.
One tentative “upset alert” would be the clash between the number 8 seed, Venus Williams and Sorana Cirstea. I’ve gone for Venus in my draw and would probably still give her the edge. Cirstea is certainly capable, and if she catches a hot streak, then can trouble Venus who has played very little tennis in 2018. Venus though is one of the best at coming in cold to a tournament.
The last time…
Elina Svitolina and Mona Barthel played each other, Svitolina came from a set down in Rome and dished out two bagels in a 3-6 6-0 6-0 win! Barthel was impressive in the first round but this is a killer draw.
Angelique Kerber and Ekaterina Makarova played each other, Makarova saved a match point and fought through stifling conditions to win an absolute thriller in Cincy, 6-4 1-6 7-6(11). Despite losing their last two matches, i’ll go for Kerber in straights.
On the comeback…
Serena Williams will continue her inspirational comeback against the number 29 seed, Kiki Bertens. I always think the second match back is harder because there isn’t quite the anticipation and buzz that was around the first match. It will be interesting to see where Serena’s level is at. I can’t go against her after watching some of her first round win over Zarina Diyas (impressed!) but I do feel it could be a struggle and may go the distance.