The AEGON Classic 2016 saw Birmingham play host to a number of the world’s best WTA stars in an unforgettable week of tennis. This year’s tournament built on it’s success in recent years to serve up nine days of action at the Edgbaston Priory Club in the build up to Wimbledon in a week’s time.
It would not, of course, be the British tennis season had there not been intervention by the Great British weather throughout the week, as tournament schedulers had their work cut out in order to maintain the original order of play in the presence of lengthy rain delays that occurred between Monday through to Thursday.
14 of the world’s top 30 women’s tennis players appeared at the tournament, vying for the prestigious Maud Watson trophy, featuring the 2015 champion and 2016 Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber, back in Birmingham to defend her title. Withdrawals prior to the tournament start from Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova failed to weaken the quality of tennis on display, as wildcards in the form of Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova promised to add to the abundance of talent already competing in Edgbaston.
There was to be something of a trend throughout the tournament as the top seeds continued to fall as the week progressed and the Classic began to reach it’s climatic stages, with Agnieszka Radwanska, Belinda Bencic and last year’s finalist Karolina Pliskova all succumbing to their first round opponents.
Radwanska and Pliskova in particular can take some comfort in the knowledge that their victors – CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbara Strycova respectively, would go on to make the last four of the AEGON Classic, though Belinda Bencic can count herself unlucky having been forced to retire in her opener with Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
Four British players, including Australian Open semi-finalist Jo Konta, would endure mixed emotions during the week. Only Konta and Heather Watson respectively being able to reach the second round by recording straight sets victories, but soon faltering at the hands of sterner opponents.
Konta can have no complaints in the manner that she exited the singles, her lacklustre performance against Yanina Wickmayer was never likely to cause the Belgian too many problems, with her confidence high after dispatching former World Number One Caroline Wozniacki.
Despite Watson’s best efforts in pushing Barbora Strycova all the way in a tight two-setter, it was the Czech who would be the beneficiary not once, but twice in the week, later dispatching the British pairing of Watson and Broady alongside her Czech counterpart Pliskova to reach the doubles final.
Angelique Kerber’s journey to defend her Birmingham title was blighted by a number of rain stoppages during her first and second round encounters with Shuai Peng and Australian Daria Gavrilova, ultimately hindering her chances of successfully retaining her crown. Peng proved a trickier first round opponent than anticipated when forcing the first set into a tiebreak, but the German would soon recover her usual rhythm by controlling the second set to take a 7-6 (3), 6-3 victory.
Against Gavrilova, it was very much the same story as the Australian put Kerber to the sword and took the first set 7-5 after resuming play on Centre Court on Friday morning, but the defending champion would eventually find the aggression in her game to sweep her opponent aside with two successive 6-2 sets to reach the quarter-finals.
But that is where the German’s title defence would come to an end, facing Carla Suarez Navarro only a matter of hours later in a dramatic three-set victory for the Spaniard, an encounter some would argue was the best match of this year’s AEGON Classic. A slow start led to Kerber conceding the first set but from there it seemed as if the 28 year old would eventually progress when levelling the tie with a dominant 6-1 victory in the second.
The margins between victory and defeat narrowed in the deciding set as tiredness began to creep in, with both players having to complete their second round ties prior to their quarter-final clash. But even a player with the stamina of Kerber was always going to face a difficult challenge to progress, and against Suarez Navarro, who put in her best performance of the week, it was not to be for the German. The notorious backhand of the Spaniard coupled with her ability to match Kerber’s powerful shots and aggressive game plan worked in her favour in the crucial moments as she saw out a 7-5 win in the decider, progressing to the semi-finals.
Undoubtedly the star of the week and eventual winner in Sunday’s final was Madison Keys, who started strongly in her opener against Timea Babos and went from strength to strength en route to her second title on grass, adding to her victory in Eastbourne two years ago. Her quarter-final clash against another rising star on the WTA circuit – Jelena Ostapenko, would provide another of the memorable encounters to take place during the week, recovering from a first set tiebreak to edge her Latvian counterpart, whilst seeing one of the best rallies of 2016’s tournament take place that would level the match at 1-1 in Keys’ favour.
Imposing herself on the final set to win 6-2 and comfortably book her place in the last four, it was Carla Suarez Navarro standing in the talented 21 year old’s way and a place in the top 10 of the rankings for the first time in Keys’ career. The Spaniard had other ideas it seemed, when she took the first set 6-3 to pick up where she left off against Angelique Kerber, promptly putting one foot in the final. Storming back to level the match, the American would claim her biggest scalp on her road to the final by dumping Suarez Navarro out in a third set tiebreak to reach her first WTA final since May’s Italian Open.
Barbora Strycova’s week went relatively under the radar compared to her seeded opponents as she gradually worked her way past the 2015 finalist Karolina Pliskova, Heather Watson and Tsvetana Pironkova into Saturday’s semi-finals, where she met CoCo Vandeweghe – who had performed strongly after clinching the Ricoh Open title in Den Bosch a week earlier.
Despite the American’s dominance in the opener, Strycova took full advantage of her opponent’s frustrations which grew in frequency the longer the game progressed, Vandeweghe unable to utilise her strong serve and 6 foot 1 inch frame at the net which had worked so well for her in her previous matches to get her back with a chance of winning. The comeback was complete when Strycova clinched the final set 6-3 to recover from a seemingly unassailable position to make Sunday’s showpiece event on the Ann Jones Centre Court.
Considering Strycova’s participation in the doubles event in Birmingham throughout the week, the Czech had done remarkably well to make it all the way to the final, especially when noting that the 30 year old had to play three matches in a single day at one point to consolidate for time lost to the poor weather. For Madison Keys, her top 10 ranking was already secured before Wimbledon, therefore it was a chance to clinch another title on grass and add to the excitement surrounding her after becoming the first American in 17 years to enter the top 10 since a certain Serena Williams in 1999.
Barbora Strycova meanwhile had the intention of claiming a first singles title since 2011 but from the first few games of the set, the balance of the game seemed clear to everyone in attendance as Madison Keys continued to perform with some excellent ground stroke winners and clever shot selection to move Strycova around the court on which the American was able to capitalise.
As against CoCo Vandeweghe, Strycova looked much more dangerous in the second set but by this point Keys was never going to lose her grip on the game, the championship point won when hitting a smash which Strycova was unable to return over the net which handed Madison Keys the Maud Watson trophy and the title of AEGON Classic Champion for 2016.
A fitting winner for the week that was in the AEGON Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham, the 35th Classic living up to it’s billing whilst raising the bar for next years edition in which Madison Keys confirmed her intention to defend her title in her on-court interview.
A tantalising prospect for the summer of 2017 that’s for certain, but for the meantime we can revel in the British grass court season which is well and truly upon us, with plenty of tennis from this week to reflect on until we do it all over again next year.
Pictured Credited to Steve Bardens and Getty Images