BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) — Top-seeded Elina Svitolina's search for the career-first grass-court title which would enhance her Wimbledon preparations began with a lengthy, hard-fought revenge win against Heather Watson in the Aegon Classic on Monday.
Svitolina overcame the British No. 2, the winner when they met on grass at Eastbourne two years ago, by surviving a worrying mid-match dip when her first serve deserted her, and won 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.
Although Svitolina won the Italian Open in Rome last month and, at 22, is the youngest player in the top 10, she has yet to find the confidence and adaptability to impose her powerful flat-hitting game on the lower, faster bounce of the green stuff.
Nevertheless, she grabbed a timely break of serve in the fourth game of the final set with the help of a couple of rare slices. Despite a slight wobble in the final game when she was hauled back from 40-15 to deuce, she closed out a hard-worked win when Watson was unable to make two returns of serve.
"I knew she would have the crowd with her, so I was trying to fight for everything," Svitolina said. "I was trying not to let her back into the match, but she played a good match.
"Of course, there will be small adjustments (to grass). But I don't put difficult things in my head."
Svitolina is likely to progress in a half which offers a possible quarterfinal with Barbaro Strycova, the eighth-seeded Czech, and perhaps a semifinal with Garbine Muguruza, the former Wimbledon finalist from Spain.
She could next meet Natalia Vikhantseva of Russia as she seeks to justify her unexpected pre-eminent seeding this week.
That happened when No. 1 Angelique Kerber withdrew on Sunday with a strained tendon. It was yet another setback for a tournament which had already been denied three other top 10 players - Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Agnieszka Radwanska - as well as defending champion Madison Keys, and Maria Sharaopova, all through injury.
Tournament director Patrick Hughesman confirmed he would be talking to the WTA about so many withdrawals, describing it as "frustrating" that the tournament had lost so many top names.
"Could some of the players have pushed themselves to play? Would they have done, if this had been Wimbledon?" he asked "I suspect we have just been unlucky."
The many absences may cause more attention to be diverted towards Muguruza, making her first appearance since losing her French Open title before a hostile crowd in Paris two weeks ago, and to Petra Kvitova, who continues an attempt to rescue her career with a damaged hand which, she says, "may never be 100 percent again."