After almost five months away from main tour tennis, the WTA Tour resumes this week with a clay event in Palermo. Our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, previews the restart...
"The Romanian, Tig, is a real clay-court specialist and reached the final at WTA Bucharest last year, beating the likes of Anastasija Sevastova and Laura Siegemund impressively. She also won the Karlsruhe WTA Challenger (a level between the main tour and ITFs) defeating Alison Van Uytvanck and Jasmine Paolini, who are both in the field here, and I've seen worse 80/1 shots."
WTA Tour resumes after five months
With the resumption of the ATP Tour still several weeks away, the main focus of the tennis tour is on the Sicilian capital of Palermo as the WTA Tour gets back underway as players start competitive action for the first time in March. Several clay events are taking place in the opening weeks, as well as a hard court event in Lexington next week, as players begin their competitive preparation for the US Open, which is scheduled to start in four weeks time.
Conditions likely to be medium-slow
After a six-year break, main tour action returned to Palermo last year, with Jill Teichmann shocking Kiki Bertens in straight sets in the final, but neither player are going to be featuring this year. Having said that, the field looks competitive - I was pleasantly surprised to see how many strong players have entered, and there are 18 players of the 28 currently in the main draw before qualifiers are known with 100%+ combined service/returns points won on clay from the start of 2019 onwards.
Conditions, based on the data from last season, look potentially medium-slow compared to the average clay court. This assertion would also make sense given that a number of historical winners in tournaments prior to the tournament ceasing in 2013 were rather biased towards clay-court success. Given this, there could be a slight edge towards return-orientated, clay-court specialists, but I'm cautious about giving too much weight to this given that I'm only dealing with one year of recent sample size of court data.
Difficult to be confident about current player levels
It's probably also worth being cautious about player expectations, with many players not having played a competitive match for over five months. A number of players in the draw have participated in exhibition or low-profile events, but it's not ideal to base player levels on performances in those matches. I'm not saying you can't take anything from those matches, but given the weak opposition quality in many of these matches, plus a number taking place on hard courts, it's certainly not something that I would put considerable weight on.
Vondrousova leading the market
The outright markets aren't available on the Exchange as yet, but with the Sportsbook, Marketa Vondrousova is the current tournament favourite, at 9/2, with Elise Mertens, Petra Martic, Maria Sakkari and Anett Kontaveit all priced between 6/1 and 7/1.
Of this quintet, Vondrousova looks strong from a combined service/return points won perspective from 2019 onwards on clay (106%) and I've previously written about her high future potential. However, the Czech left-hander has struggled in some of these newly arranged hard-court events in the Czech Republic of late, getting bagelled by Iga Swiatek and Belinda Bencic several weeks ago. She's only 4-4 in these events despite starting matches as favourite on six occasions.
Clay-court specialist Tig with long-shot potential
Mertens, Martic and Sakkari are also at 103% or above, as well as several other lower-profile players including Fiona Ferro and Patricia Maria Tig. The Romanian, Tig, is a real clay-court specialist and reached the final at WTA Bucharest last year, beating the likes of Anastasija Sevastova and Laura Siegemund impressively. She also won the Karlsruhe WTA Challenger (a level between the main tour and ITFs) defeating Alison Van Uytvanck and Jasmine Paolini, who are both in the field here, and I've seen worse 80/1 shots.
She faces Anett Kontaveit in her opener, who is rated by the market, despite only running at 102% service/return points won on clay over the last three years, and worse than this figure from 2019 onwards. Laura Siegemund is also interesting in Tig's Q2, given the sheer volume of clay events she's played since the main tour was paused, winning three German Pro Series events, although it's also worth noting that many of her matches were against opposition ranked outside the top 300.
Ferro with chances in quarter three
As for Ferro, she faces an as-yet unknown qualifier in round one, before facing either Ekaterina Alexandrova or Kristina Mladenovic in round two. While I'm not overwhelmed by player levels in these exhibition events that players have played in during recent months, the fact that Ferro has beaten Mladenovic two weeks running (albeit both in a final set tiebreak and on hard courts) is clearly not a negative for her.
I don't expect Alexandrova to be a main contender for this event, with the talented Russian showing a clear preference towards quicker conditions based on her data - clay looks like her weakest surface based on main tour data, and she's also lost four of her last five in clay exhibitions in June (although her one victory was against Vondrousova).
To summarise, it's worth being cautious in this opening week but a tiny each-way stake on Tig at 80/1 could well provide interest - it will be fascinating to see the levels of various players here after five months away from main tour action and on a personal level, I'm delighted to see main tour tennis returning. I'll be back tomorrow, and every day in the coming week, to discuss the day's action.
Follow Dan on Twitter @TennisRatings