WTA welcomes tennis stars back to court in Palermo

 - Alex Sharp

Due to the ongoing pandemic tennis was off the calendar for five months, but players are now poised for competitive action in Italy.

Kristina Mladenovic during the Challenge Elite FFT at Nice©Julien Crosnier / FFT

It’s been an unprecedented and unfamiliar season for all of the sporting world, however, the scorching Sicilian sunshine provides the setting for tennis to finally mark its return. For the first time since March players will have the chance to enter tournament mode at the Palermo Ladies Open. A strong contingent of eight seeds from the Top 30 in the rankings bolster the draw ahead of main draw duels commencing on Monday.

World No.15 Petra Martic opens her account against Belgium's Alison Van Uytvanck hoping to recapture the form that witnessed the Croatian make the Dubai semi-finals back in February. "It’s been so long without tennis, without competition, without the adrenaline that we all kind of love," Martic told reporters, eager to play freely without expectations. "I’m just going to try to enjoy myself. To be back on the court right now is really just a privilege without thinking about any results or any goals or focused on numbers or anything else."

Joining Martic in the top half are No.4 seed Anett Kontaveit and No.6 seed Donna Vekic.

A productive lockdown

2019 Roland-Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova has completed a very productive and studious lockdown, finishing her high school qualifications.

“It was good because I missed the graduation two years ago. I had to finish Czech, English, and Economics,” said the 21-year-old, aiming to reignite her season in style as No.2 seed in Italy. “I played like Fed Cup exhibitions home in Czech, so I had some competitive matches. I spent some time with my family, which doesn’t happen often, so that was nice".

“I was able to stay motivated for sure and those exhibition matches helped my game. “I’m happy to play of course, I was unsure whether we would play again this year, so I’m happy to be able to fight for two Grand Slams still.”

Vondrousova, world No.18, is drawn within the same quarter as Ukrainian prodigy Dayana Yastremska and the unseeded Camila Giorgi.

"It's all about being patient and positive"

French hopes will be carried by Kristina Mladenovic, who will contest an intriguing opening round clash with No.8 seed and Shenzhen champion Ekaterina Alexandrova. Away from tennis courts for two months, the 27-year-old missed tennis, focusing her attention on her fitness, language skills and golf development.

“The hardest thing was saying to myself, ‘Damn! I should have been playing in Rome, Madrid or Roland-Garros this week.’ There’s nothing better than playing competitively,” said the two-time Roland-Garros women’s doubles champion.

“It’s so great to be back playing matches that matter in one way or another. It’s not easy to get started again and I don’t have any expectations, I’m just aiming to get back in that groove again, to experience how it feels, the emotions of playing break and set points, though I don’t have any expectations in terms of results,” continued the 27-year-old, building towards another successful Roland-Garros campaign this Autumn. “It’s all about being patient and positive. Those are the two key words for me right now.”

Kristina Mladenovic during the Challenge Elite FFT at Nice©Julien Crosnier / FFT

No.3 seed Maria Sakkari joins Mladenovic in the third quarter of the draw, facing the fierce serves of Kristyna Pliskova in the first round. The Czech has already struck 80 aces in just seven main draw matches this campaign, which is the third best total on Tour.

"We’re blessed to be back"

Remarkably, Sakkari told reporters she was tempted to enter the Greek National Championships 100m event to satisfy her competitive streak if tennis continued to be in lockdown this month.

The world No.20 has clearly kept up the pace with running during training and had also made a fast start on court in 2020, clinching a maiden Grand Slam last 16 at the Australian Open, followed by a semi-final tilt in St. Petersburg.

Despite enjoying home comforts during the break, Sakkari has been longing for tournament tennis once again. "I haven't been home for five months since I was maybe 12. It was really nice. After a while I wanted to get back to traveling and I missed tennis We’re blessed to be back.”