Women's Preview: Week of June 6 (Exclusive)
Women's Look Forward: Birmingham
For the women, every grass event is unique. Wimbledon is -- Wimbledon. Eastbourne is the only other high-tier event on grass. 's-Hertogenbosch has both men's and women's sides, and no qualifying.
And Birmingham -- well, it's the only Tier III or lower on the entire schedule to have a draw larger than 32: It's a 56-women field, with the top eight seeds getting byes.
And that's good, because it's the only grass event a lot of women will get to play before Wimbledon. The top players play Eastbourne (or don't play a warmup). The rest -- well, they're almost all here. The top player in qualifying turned out to be Jill Craybas, #78 going into Roland Garros, so the field has more than half the players above #80, and a very large fraction of the players between #50 and #75.
You can tell that Maria Sharapova is out from under the age restrictions. Until her eighteenth birthday, she had been playing a very limited schedule this year, consisting mostly of the Tier I events; having played more events than she should have in 2004, she had to skip even the Tier II tournaments in 2005. But now she can play what she wants -- so she's here to defend her title and try to keep within striking distance of Lindsay Davenport in the contest for #1. (It will be interesting to see how long she can stay uninjured if she plays the schedule she seems intent on playing.) Sharapova is, of course, the #1 seed. The tournament features one other Top Ten player in Alicia Molik, who is making her comeback on what was historically her best surface until last year, when everything became her best surface.
Below that, we naturally see a certain amount of fall-off; the #3 seed is Jelena Jankovic, though #4 seed Elena Likhovtseva is now the third-ranked player in the field. Last year's finalist Tatiana Golovin is the #5 seed. Shinobu Asagoe, another player who likes grass a lot, is #6. Daniela Hantuchova, who just won the Roland Garros mixed, will have about four days to adjust to grass as the #7 seed. And Ai Sugiyama is #8 and snags the last bye. She's also the last Top 30 player in the field.
Seeded but not getting first round byes are #9 Marion Bartoli, #10 Nicole Vaidiosova, #11 Virginie Razzano, #12 Evgenia Linetskaya, #13 Anna-Lena Groenefeld, #14 Lisa Raymond (the 2000 champion), #15 Maria Kirilenko, and #16 Samantha Stosur. That gives us about 15 of the Top 50.
That still leaves us with some interesting unseeded players. Anne Kremer is in terrible form, but she was in terrible form last year also and still did lots of damage on grass. Meghann Shaughnessy used to be a Top 20 player. Eleni Daniilidou also was Top 20, and she won 's-Hertogenbosch on grass in 2002. Anna Chakvetadze is now ranked higher than some of the seeds, though she's fairly new to grass. Tamarine Tanasugarn and Kristina Brandi have had their best career results on grass. It's not a draw where the seeds can just assume they'll win everything.
Wildcards went to Britain's Elena Baltacha, Amanda Janes, and Anne Keothavong; they didn't bother handing out a wildcard to a fourth British player who surely wouldn't do anything with it, so Nicole Pratt was given the final spot.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
At a Tier III where the top eight seeds have byes, there inherently aren't many of these. But there are so many slumping players trying to get back in form that we might get some real surprises. Eleni Daniilidou will start against Yoon Jeong Cho, who did well at Surbiton and who is in much better form than the Greek right now. Anne Kremer faces higher-ranked but perhaps not as grass-happy Tatiana Perebiynis. #11 seed Virginie Razzano faces Carly Gullickson, who is really sloppy off the ground but who serves pretty well; that could be important on grass. And #15 Maria Kirilenko, who has minimal grass experience, takes on Yuliana Fedak, who sees herself as a scrambler but who seems to do better on faster courts where opponents can't sit on her serve quite as much.
This is only a Tier III, but it does have its significance: The rankings after Birmingham will be used to seed Wimbledon. But, of course, only a few players here are in position to earn Wimbledon seeds.
At the top, there will be no movement. Maria Sharapova is the defending champion; she can only lose points, allowing Lindsay Davenport to strengthen her grip on the #1 spot. But Sharapova is too far ahead of everyone else to be threatened. Amelie Mauresmo will stay #3, Serena Williams #4, Svetlana Kuznetsova #5, and so on. The first ranking at which we might see a move is #8: If Alicia Molik can win the title, she might be able to regain that spot from Nadia Petrova. She probably has to beat Sharapova in the final for that to happen, though.
That's the only possibly change in the Top Ten. In the Top 15, Elena Likhovtseva needs only a dozen points to overtake #14 Elena Bovina.
Ana Ivanovic isn't playing, but this could well be the week she hits the Top 20. She's less than 70 points behind Tatiana Golovin, less than 15 behind Jelena Jankovic -- and Golovin has 124 points from last year's final to defend, and Jankovic has 28 points. An early loss for either, and it's goodbye Top 20, with Ivanovic the likeliest to take the spot -- though Daniela Hantuchova could also get in; she probably needs a final.
Shinobu Asagoe comes in at #25, with 55 points to defend; Ai Sugiyama is #26, with nothing to defend. This could be the week that Sugiyama regains her place as Japan's #1 player.
It appears Anabel Medina Garrigues will be losing her Top 30 spot; she has 62 points to defend and isn't playing. That probably means that Nicole Vaidisova will finally be gaining a Top 30 spot, though someone else (Marion Bartoli, perhaps) could still block her.
We hate do list finals as key matches, because it's so rare that a final comes off as predicted -- but, in light of the above, this final really is key. The top seeds, Sharapova and Molik, really are the best players here, and both something big on the line. If Sharapova defends the title, it keeps her within shooting distance of the #1 ranking; she could take it at Eastbourne, or maybe even at Wimbledon if she can defend and Lindsay Davenport loses early.
That's not likely. But if Molik can win and move back up to #8, she would be in line for the #8 Wimbledon seed. Otherwise, she ends up at #9. So she has real reason to try to win this event.
Elena Likhovtseva has 26 points in her seventeenth event, so she needs to earn about 40 points to reach a career high. That means reaching the quarterfinal. So her Round of 16 match against Anna-Lena Groenefeld looms fairly large.
Tatiana Golovin needs about 70 points to stay Top 20. That means a semifinal. And that means beating Molik in the quarterfinal.
As Shinobu Asagoe and Ai Sugiyama try to earn that last Top 25 spot, they face rather similar draws: Relatively easy second round matches, then a Talented Teen. Asagoe will face Evgenia Linetskaya in the Round of Sixteen; Sugiyama will have to contend with Nicole Vaidisova. Vaidisova is looking for a Top 30 spot; Linetskaya has a chance for a Wimbledon seed. But she probably needs a final. It won't be easy; she faces Anna Chakvetadze in the second round, then Asagoe, then Likhovtseva, then Sharapova. She'll definitely earn that seed the hard way if at all.
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