BIRMINGHAM: Elina Svitolina, who never expected to be the favourite to win a grass-court tournament, began her bid to justify her elevation to top seed by overcoming Briton Heather Watson in the first round in Birmingham on Monday.
The 22-year-old Ukrainian, who is the youngest player in the world's top 10 but never a champion on this surface, won 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, recovering from a middle phase when Watson seemed capable of repeating a win she had when they last met on grass, two years ago in Eastbourne.
Svitolina mostly hit the ball hard and flat, much as she did while winning the Italian Open in Rome last month, and only turned to a couple of judicious slices while making the crucial break which got her to 3-1 in the final set.
Otherwise she trusted in her power off the ground to deny the tenacious and intelligent Watson enough time to make court-opening angles and sudden darts to the net.
"It's amazing because I have been struggling a little bit on grass in the last few years," Svitolina smiled.
"I liked the way I handled the game today. There were tight moments as well. She can be a very dangerous player.
"But this has been a good year for me and that means on grass I will be much better (than before). I don't tell myself this is a difficult surface. I play my game, of course with a few small adjustments.
"I don't put difficult things in my head. I played my game, even in the tough moments, and didn't let the negative things into my head."
Svitolina may next play Natalia Vikhlyantseva, the Russian who reached the final in 's-Hertogenbosch last week, and has a possible semi-final either with third seed Johanna Konta or Garbine Muguruza.
Both Muguruza and Petra Kvitova, the twice former Wimbledon champion who is continuing her comeback from a hand injury sustained in a knife attack, may find they have extra attention for a while.
That is because the late withdrawal on Sunday of Angelique Kerber, the world number one – which caused Svitolina's elevation to the highest remaining seed - is only the last in a long list of injury-triggered big-name losses for the tournament.
It had already suffered the withdrawals of three other top-10 players, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova and Agnieszka Radwanska, as well as that of the defending champion Madison Keys, and of Maria Sharapova, all through injury.
Tournament director Patrick Hughesman confirmed that he would be talking to the WTA Tour about the withdrawals, describing it as "frustrating" that the tournament had lost so many top names.
"Could some of the players have pushed themselves to play?" he asked.
"Would they have done, if this had been Wimbledon? I don't know. I suspect we have just been unlucky."