It is rare on the WTA tour to see a two-time defending champion at a Premier event – and rarer still at the Mutua Madrid Open. Simona Halep is looking to become the first woman ever to win three consecutive crowns at the tournament, but several in-form competitors could have other ideas.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Simona Halep  vs Karolina Pliskova  (Halep leads H2H 6-2)
The most consistent player of the 2017 clay-court season, Simona Halep returns to defend her title as the top seed. The Romanian is on track for a rematch of her French Open semifinal with Karolina Pliskova in the quarters, but with no first round byes for the women, Halep has three matches to come through before reaching the last eight.
And the 26-year-old is thrown in at the deep end against Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova: the ever-dangerous former top ten player. Halep leads their rivalry by four wins to two, and should hold the advantage in their first ever meeting on clay, but she would surely have preferred a less established opening challenger. World no. 19 Elise Mertens – who won the WTA title in Rabat on Saturday – would be an in-form and dangerous opponent for whoever makes the second round, while no. 13 seed Madison Keys – the powerful and rather unpredictable American – is the projected opposition for round three.
Pliskova, meanwhile, is yet to lose on dirt this season, after sauntering to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix title indoors in Stuttgart. Thanks to her big serve and flat groundstrokes, the Czech is often underestimated on the dirt. In fact, the slower surface aids her struggle with movement, giving her that little bit more time to line up the ball and execute her shot. No woman will want to face her in Madrid.
Unfortunately for Pliskova – and her forthcoming opponents – she has landed the most crowded section of the draw. After opening against former Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina – an experienced pro on all three surfaces – Pliskova would await either Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic or two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka. The latter is finally returning to tour for good after a long off-court custody battle, and in Indian Wells and Miami, she proved that long periods of time away from the court have not blunted her talent. The Belarussian was always a tough customer on any surface, and she is without question a title contender in Madrid.
Should Pliskova battle through to the third round, US Open champion Sloane Stephens – a former French Open quarterfinalist – leads the charge to take her on. Other potential opponents include another struggling US Open champion, Samantha Stosur, and former junior world no. 1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Simona Halep
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Garbine Muguruza  vs Venus Williams  (Venus leads H2H 4-2)
Garbine Muguruza and Venus Williams have been two of the most consistent WTA stars of the past two years, but one statistic separates them. Venus, focussed on peaking at the majors at the age of 37, has reached two Grand Slam finals in that time frame, losing both of them. Muguruza, meanwhile, claimed the trophy at both the 2016 French Open and the 2017 Wimbledon Championships – beating Venus for the title on the latter occasion.
The elder Williams sister has not won a trophy since 2016, and Madrid is her first outing of the current year on dirt. It is not ideal for her title chances, but the American does possess the third highest winning percentage on clay of any active WTA player. She begins her quest to prove that she can still excel on the dirt against talented 22-year-old Anett Kontaveit, whom she beat in two tiebreak sets at the French Open in 2016. Should Venus come through that encounter, fast-rising Aliaksandra Sasnovich would likely await. Lethal no. 10 seed Petra Kvitova – a title winner at the Prague Open on Saturday, and a former French Open semifinalist – is on track to continue her rivalry with Venus in the third round, although Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, the underrated Lesia Tsurenko and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas all have legitimate chances to progress.
At the top of the quarter, Muguruza kicks off against Shuai Peng and her two-handed forehand and backhand. In the probable event that she comes through that encounter, the 24-year-old should have little trouble in dealing with either Donna Vekic – who has a game much better suited to faster courts – or wild card Georgina Garcia Perez, who spends most of her time competing on the ITF circuit. Daria Kasatkina – the 14th seed with a style of play akin to that of her favourite player, Rafael Nadal – is in line to face the Spaniard in round three, with energetic Katarina Siniakova and former top 20 player Sorana Cirstea also in the mix.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Venus Williams
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Elina Svitolina  vs Caroline Garcia  (Garcia leads H2H 3-1)
However efficiently she competes, the Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina always seems to be overlooked. The world no. 4 is solid in every department, reads the ball well and has total belief in herself, with a Grand Slam breakthrough seemingly on the horizon. She was the best player on the WTA tour in terms of results for the first half of 2017, and while clay is not her best surface, the 23-year-old can get the job done anywhere.
Svitolina has already made swift work of potentially tricky Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the first round at the time of writing: defeating her 6-2 6-2. She will most likely come up against former top ten player Carla Suarez Navarro in the next round, although the experienced Spaniard does not have it easy in her opening clash with giant slayer Barbora Strycova. Magdalena Rybarikova is Svitolina’s projected third round opponent by way of seeding, but the Slovakian opens her campaign against a recent top ten presence. Johanna Konta has endured a free-fall down the rankings over the past few weeks, and will be eager to start putting that right in Madrid.
Meanwhile, Svitolina’s projected quarter-final opponent is at last fulfilling some of the promise that she first displayed on clay-courts. Caroline Garcia finally broke through with astounding pace at the end of last season, and the 24-year-old has shown she means business in Spain by dispatching Dominika Cibulkova – a major finalist in 2014 – in straight sets in round one. The Frenchwoman next faces the looping groundstrokes of Petra Martic, before a third round duel with either home player Lara Arruabarrena or 11th seed Julia Goerges. The latter – one of the first WTA title winners of the year – would be a stiff test.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Julia Goerges
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINAL: Caroline Wozniacki  vs Jelena Ostapenko  (Ostapenko leads H2H 4-0)
Defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko took down Caroline Wozniacki – a long-time member of the WTA’s elite, who only claimed her maiden major title in January – en route to her 2017 crown in Paris. Having beaten the Dane no less than three times on dirt last season, the instinctive 20-year-old will not be saddened by the presence of the recent world no. 1 in her quarter of the Madrid draw. But danger lurks for the unwary, and the world no. 5 must be dialled in from the offset.
Ostapenko does not have an ideal start against clay-court loving Irina Camelia Begu, and a potential clash with Maria Sharapova lurks in round two. The Russian is currently a shadow of her pre-drugs-ban self, but she is still a two-time French Open champion, and her best surface is arguably clay. Mihaela Buzarnescu is in form, however, and may deal Sharapova her fourth successive opening round loss.
As far as the third round goes, Ostapenko – or whoever survives from her bracket – could have it tough. Leading the charge to meet the Latvian in round three is 12th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, who recently impressed on the way to the Stuttgart final. Nevertheless, the American has a difficult opening match against Kristina Mladenovic – who produced some of the best WTA tennis of the 2017 clay-court season – and Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka could well await the winner of that collision.
Caroline Wozniacki, meanwhile, opens up against feisty Aussie Daria Gavrilova, who will not be offering the Dane a lot to counterpunch. Ashleigh Barty and her incredible repertoire is on track to face whichever woman comes through, and clay-court expert Kiki Bertens is a potential round three foe. Anastasija Sevastova and her aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes, however, are projected to be Wozniacki’s third round challenge.
PREDICTED SEMIFINALIST: Jelena Ostapenko
SEMIFINALS: Simona Halep d. Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko d. Julia Goerges
FINAL: Simona Halep d. Jelena Ostapenko
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