BAKU, Azerbaijan - The Caspian Sea boom town of Baku plays host to a brand new International series stop on the WTA this week. As well as giving many of Russia's finest a chance to play close to home, the $220,000 Baku Cup also heralds the beginning of the summer hardcourt season, a week before the Road to the US Open gets underway in North America. 

Former Georgian standout Leila Meskhi has put together an intriguing field in her first outing as a tournament director at tour level. Seven of the 16 Russians who currently feature in the Top 100 are present in the 32-strong draw, with six of them - led by world No.3 Vera Zvonareva - snapping up seedings.

Zvonareva certainly has plenty to play for as she looks to put a disappointing European swing behind her. Last year, as well as reaching the final at Wimbledon she was runner-up at Flushing Meadows, so the classy 26-year-old will no doubt be keen to get some momentum going.

On the other side of the draw sits the player many believe is the future of Russian tennis: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who turned 20 earlier this month and is closing in on the Top 10. Though the victim of an on-paper upset in the second round at Wimbledon - given her conqueror was Nadia Petrova, the result wasn't such a surprise - the world No.13 reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros, and with three hardcourt titles to her name is sure to be contender this week. She'll have to hit the ground running, though, for her first round opponent is Austria's Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, who is coming off her first WTA final, at Bad Gastein. 

Elena Vesnina, a five-time finalist but hunting her first WTA singles title, is the No.3 seed with lefty Ekaterina Makarova seeded fourth. Crafty RomanianMonica Niculescu takes the No.5 slot, while Ukraine-born British No.1 Elena Baltacha is seeded sixth. Twenty-year-old Ksenia Pervak, who reached her second career semifinal at Bad Gastein, holds down the No.7 seeding andEvgeniya Rodina is seeded eighth.

Another Russian, 16-year-old Nina Khrishanova, has been awarded a wildcard, as has Uzbekistan's 17-year-old Nigina Abduraimova (who faces formidable Zvonareva first up) and Azerbaijan's own Kamilla Farhad, who is just 15.

Other regional talents on show include Anna Tatishvili and Sofia Shapatava of Georgia, and Kazakhstan's Zarina Diyas and Galina Voskoboeva, who is doubles top seed with Niculescu. Dangerous floaters include Ukraine's Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna, and France's Aravane Rezai.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Centre (from 11.00hrs local) (06:00 GMT)

1. Galina Voskoboeva vs. Sofia Shapatava

2. Pavlyuchenkova/Zvonareva vs. Arefyeva/Yakimova (NB 13.00hrs)

3. Alona Bondarenko vs. Vesna Dolonts

4. Mariya Koryttseva vs. Elena Baltacha (NB 17.00hrs)

Court 1 (from 11.00hrs)

1. Valeria Solovieva vs. Tatia Mikadze (Singles Q Final)

2. Elena Bovina vs. Dalila Jakupovic (Singles Q Final)

3. Dominikovic/Lertcheewakarn vs. Gorgodze/Zharkova (NB 14.00hrs)

4. Kvatsabaia/Shamayko vs. Abduraimova/Farhad (NB 16.00hrs)

Court 3 (from 11.00hrs)

1. Yevgeniya Kryvoruchko vs. Yana Buchina (Singles Q Final)