The Nature Valley Classic main draw officially starts Monday. Two British players are in action in the singles, as Johanna Konta and Heather Watson both play their respective opening rounds then. Join me as I take an in-depth look into the four key matches on Day 1 of the tournament.
WTA Birmingham Day 1 Predictions:
Heather Watson vs Barbora Strycova
Head to Head: 3-2 Strycova
Heather Watson was given one of the main draw wild cards for the tournament in Birmingham. In order to make the second round of the event for the first time since 2016 she’s going to have to overcome a player that tends to play well in this part of the world, having twice been a losing finalist at the event. The player she is facing first off is the unpredictable and volatile Barbora Strycova, who has a game well-suited to the grass.
The good thing for Watson is that there is a chance that she can really catch the Czech cold. Strycova is capable of causing any player problems on the grass, with the backhand slice, the often randomly-timed drop shots and the differentiating placement of shots always effective in these sort of conditions. Most critically it is a surface where her shots have a little bit more purchase to the slower conditions. Watson crucially has had matches under her belt in Surbiton, where she made the quarterfinal, and won two good matches on the grass a couple of weeks ago.
The key really is on what sort of Watson turns up. On her day she’s capable of big match-wins on this surface, but she needs a good serving day as she historically does tend to falter when her first serve disappears. Strycova leads the head-to-head 3-2, but Watson won their last meeting in 2017 in the Eastbourne quarter-finals.
Prediction: Strycova in 2
Kristina Mladenovic vs Evgeniya Rodina
Head to Head – Tied at 1-1
The second match to look out for on Day 1 of the Nature Valley Classic is the matchup between France’s Kristina Mladenovic and Russia’s Evgeniya Rodina. It’s a match that really shows two very different game-styles on a tennis court. Rodina is really known for her ability to make a huge number of balls from the baseline, and doesn’t really take the initiative too much in the rally. Mladenovic is a player that really prides herself on a big serve and forehand that follows.
The key for Rodina will be using the Mladenovic backhand to gain control of points. Mladenovic’s grass-court points are usually decided in short, sharp moments, where she aims to be the aggressor. The Frenchwoman historically has a game that can be applied tremendously to the grass, but her problem has been consistency and confidence in recent years. Her new coach Sascha Bajin will be eyeing this swing as a great indicator as to where Mladenovic’s game really is at. I think Mladenovic’s strengths will ultimately be too much for the Russian and her aggressive pin-point groundstrokes will totally test the Russian’s lack of great movement on the grass courts. Rodina has also lost 13 of her last 14 matches on tour, with all of the defeats coming in straight sets. Her game-confidence is not at its highest at present.
Prediction: Mladenovic in 2
Aryna Sabalenka vs Su-Wei Hsieh
Head to Head: Hsieh leads 1-0
Aryna Sabalenka will take on the tricky Su Wei Hsieh in her opening round match in Birmingham. The Belorussian had a breakout season on the tour last season, where she claimed two big titles in Wuhan and New Haven. She also made a couple of finals in Eastbourne on the grass and Lugano, and she rose to World No.11 at the end of the year, but she’s struggled unbelievably to back that up in the following year as seems to be the case for many players that make a breakthrough. Sabalenka has only been able to win three matches or more at a single tournament once this season and it puts her in a difficult spot as a lot of her ranking points come off in the second half of the year.
Su-Wei Hsieh typically will make things rather uncomfortable and turbulent on a tennis court. Hsieh likes to mix things up from the back of the court, utilizing the talented array of groundstrokes she has at her disposal. She doesn’t have the blistering power that someone like Sabalenka can boast, but she wins points in different ways by keeping her opponent on their toes and make them expect the unexpected. The question really will be on how Sabalenka adapts to a first match on the grass this season. Her experience on this surface is limited at best, but she has easy pace off both wings and the ferocity from the service line to fly through service games comfortably. That can make a big difference on a court that rewards aggressive tennis.
Prediction: Sabalenka in 3
Johanna Konta vs Anett Kontaveit
Head to Head: Konta leads 2-0
All eyes will be on Johanna Konta in her first match back at Birmingham. Over the years it hasn’t necessarily been a tournament she’s thrived at, but she’s one of the better players on tour when it comes to rising to the occasion in the United Kingdom in front of her home fans. Her first round opponent is Anett Kontaveit, who has had a very good season herself, but the question in this matchup is really who can bully their opponent first in the rally.
Konta takes the ball incredibly really from the first return onwards, but Kontaveit is a player that is bold in her shot selection and is very much trying to do similar things to Konta on a tennis court. The focus for Kontaveit will be really isolating Konta’s forehand side and looking to break it down as much as possible. Over the course of the clay court swing Konta actually found a decent level of form on that wing. However, it is still the side that will often lose form under pressure before any other part of her game.
Prediction: Konta in 3
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Disagree with our Birmingham Day 1 predictions? Have any other thoughts? Let us know your Birmingham Day 1 thoughts in the comments.