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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Tennis Picks 2017 (April 26th)

Today is the day that Maria Sharapova returns to the Tour and she is going to be an even more divisive figure than she ever was before the drugs ban.

A Wild Card into Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome gives Sharapova a very good chance to pick up some significant Ranking points, especially with the top of the WTA not as strong as when she left. Back then Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams would all have been amongst the favourites to win the big events, but none of those players will be around until the summer and a healthy Sharapova could fill a big void.

A lot will depend how the now 30 year old Russian gets back up to speed on the court. Sharapova will have plenty of motivation to make up for lost time, but I can imagine her presence will make her rivals raise their levels against her too and the next few weeks could be difficult.

The reaction of the crowd to Sharapova's return can play a big part in whether she is able to produce some of her best tennis very quickly, but entering three relatively big events with a Wild Card certainly help as long as Sharapova can pick up the right draw.

Interestingly it does look like the French Open will not be offering Sharapova a Wild Card into the main draw regardless of how she plays in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. Instead it sounds like a decision has been made to offer her a Wild Card into the Qualifying event and that will mean Sharapova has to play three matches to enter the main draw.

While I don't agree with the tournaments falling over themselves to offer Sharapova a Wild Card, I can understand why the tournament organisers feel they are adding a huge attraction for the fans. Grand Slam events are not going to be affected as much by some big names missing out, because those tickets will sell regardless so I would love to see the French Open refuse a Wild Card into the main draw and force Sharapova to earn her spot.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni - 1.5 games v Kristina Mladenovic: This First Round match should highlight the kind of standard of player that is taking part in Stuttgart which is one of the top WTA tournaments in the lead up to the French Open. Both Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Kristina Mladenovic have had solid runs in a number of events over the course of 2017 and should provide a strong match.

The layers are not giving anything away with a very close match expected and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni narrowly favoured. That might be in part down to the fact she has beaten Mladenovic in all three previous matches with all of them being played on the clay courts within the last twelve months, although it is Mladenovic who has played more indoor tennis this season and thrived in that spot.

I am not sure that will be enough for her to beat Lucic-Baroni who played well in Charleston a couple of weeks ago and reached the Semi Final there. This has been a big year so far for Lucic-Baroni who is going to finish with her best year on the Tour at the age of 35 and that confidence coupled with her strong head to head against Mladenovic might be enough to see her edge out the Frenchwoman.

Mladenovic had two comfortable wins in the Fed Cup for France this past weekend, and she only dropped three games in two matches. She didn't have a great clay court season last year and those losses to Lucic-Baroni at this time of the season has to play a part in this one.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this one needing three sets to separate them, but I am looking for Lucic-Baroni to come through 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Simona Halep - 4.5 games v Barbora Strycova: The Fed Cup tie between Romania and Great Britain has been overshadowed by racial slurs, and offensive behaviour which has taken all of the headlines. It has also meant that Simona Halep's impressive wins over Heather Watson and Johanna Konta have not really been garnering too many headlines and perhaps that is the way she would like it.

With some of the big names due to miss out at the French Open, there looks to be a genuine void to be filled with Kristina Pliskova and Halep leading the way in terms of those players chasing their maiden Grand Slam title. Halep is very strong on the clay courts and has had deep runs in Roland Garros before and I think she could play herself into favouritism with some big wins over the next month.

It does have to be noted that Halep has not had a lot of success in the indoor clay tournament in Stuttgart, but I think she has a decent Second Round draw. That is no disrespect to Barbora Strycova, but I think the Czech player will allow Halep to dictate the rhythm of the match and that is where I would expect the Romanian to be too good.

On her day, Strycova can be a handful because she works hard for every point and returns hard enough to give Halep some problems with her relatively poor second serve. A first match on the indoor clay courts is also another issue that Halep has to deal with, but I do think she will fashion enough break points of her own to have a chance to cover this number.

The first set is likely to be very competitive with breaks both way as Halep finds her feet. From there I would expect her to be a little stronger than Strycova and move into the next Round with a 7-5, 6-3 win.

Maria Sharapova - 4.5 games v Roberta Vinci: For many this match will be about taking a watching brief and seeing where Maria Sharapova is about her fifteen month lay off from the WTA Tour. The return from the drug suspension is clearly the biggest headline in tennis this week and Sharapova will be leading the evening session in Stuttgart which won't surprise anyone.

I can't wait to see what kind of reception she gets from the crowd, although I am anticipating it will be more welcoming than anything else. That should settle Sharapova somewhat, but don't be surprised if there are early nerves and some tight shots in her first competitive match since the Australian Open Quarter Final in January 2016.

Sharapova is playing a tough opponent in terms of Roberta Vinci being a very competent clay court player and one who has played well in a really tense atmosphere before. Remember it was Vinci who beat Serena Williams in the US Open Semi Final when Serena was going for a calendar Slam so the Italian will focus on her side of the court and hope the overall occasion gets to Sharapova.

The Sharapova who left the WTA Tour on her ban would have been able to have plenty of joy attacking the Vinci serve and would have felt her power would overawe the Italian's backhand. That might not be so evident on Wednesday as Sharapova deals with nerves and match rustiness although I am looking for her to make the headlines for the right reason by returning with a victory.

The key for Vinci might be to try and out-last Sharapova where she can in the rallies, and see whether the fitness and consistency is there. That should work for her, but it is about dealing with the initial big blows that Sharapova will put on Vinci that may be a problem and I think eventually Sharapova will show off a 6-4, 6-3 win on her return to the Tour. 

MY PICKS: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni - 1.5 Games @ 2.00 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Simona Halep - 4.5 Games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Maria Sharapova - 4.5 Games @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)

Weekly Update: 3-5, - 4.80 Units (16 Units Staked, - 30% Yield)

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