The champions of tennis eye the top prize at Devonshire

Marion Bartoli
Marion Bartoli

Big names and big serves are set to descend upon Devonshire Park this week as the AEGON International tournament kicks off once again.

As ever, the event has tempted a host of world-class players to Eastbourne for the week-long competitions between past, present and future stars of the tennis world.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki headline the women’s section this year, but there’s someone else on the scene who’s threatening to cause a stir again.

On paper, Petra Kvitova has to be fancied as one of the favourites to take the 2012 Devonshire Park crown.

The reigning Wimbledon champion heads to Eastbourne in a rich vein of form after reaching the final four of the French Open earlier this month, and now she looks to climb the world rankings toward the number one spot that she was tipped to hit at the start of the year

The Czech, who burst onto the scene in 2011 and lost out to Marion Bartoli in the AEGON International final that year, will no doubt be back with a renewed vengeance as she attempts to secure the title that just eluded her last year.

However, despite recent faltering form, anybody would be foolish to overlook former world numbers ones Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic.

Ivanovic, now ranked 14 in the world, hopes to start rediscovering the form that saw her win the French Open title four years ago.

Wozniacki, on the other hand, held the number one world ranking at the start of the year but has since slipped to seventh following a handful of defeats in the earlier stages of major tournaments.

This year alone she has suffered defeats at the hands of fellow Eastbourne entrants Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Lucie Safarova, Ivanovic and Angelique Kerber. On paper, it doesn’t bode well for the top duo.

But then, tennis isn’t played on paper.

Aside from the big names, there are a number of players considered to be underdogs who are more than capable of causing an upset.

Former world number two Svetlana Kuznetsova, promising young American Christina McHale and multiple junior Grand Slam champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova all head into the tournament unseeded to try and steal the crown from Frenchwoman Bartoli, who returns to defend her title.

Brit starlet Heather Watson is also one to watch as she looks to capitalise on being handed a wildcard alongside British senior women’s number one Elena Baltacha.

World number three Agnieszka Radwanska enters the tournament at top seed and add other top stars like Vera Zvonareva and Angelique Kerber into the mix and this year’s tournament is as wide open as ever.

The men’s line-up this year also promises to be an exciting contest, with young 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finalist Bernard Tomic hoping to put up a challenge against the likes of Richard Gasquet, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Marcos Baghdatis.

The 19-year-old has already beaten the reigning AEGON International men’s champion Andreas Seppi when the two met at the Queen’s Club Championships in 2010.

Seppi, who overcame world number three Janko Tipsarevic in last year’s final, returns to defend his title against top seed Gasquet and 2010 champ Michael Llodra.

However, this year Eastbourne is offering a whole lot more than just the mainstream competitions, with a special Father’s Day legends match tempting Martina Hingis, Conchita Martinez, Greg Rusedski and Mark Philippoussis to Devonshire Park.

Alongside that flash back to the past, Eastbourne are also hosting a challenge match putting GB juniors up against the USA for a chance to see the next generation of tennis talent in action too.

With a share of the $600,000 kitty up for grabs for the women and a slice of $450,000 available for the men, competitors will be taking no prisoners in their hunt for glory in Eastbourne.