While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions. Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.
Acapulco: One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final. Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup. Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals. Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface. She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.
Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed. The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her. The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second. Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.
An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco. Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks. Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed. Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter. Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.
Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories. The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface. Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement. Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.
Final: Errani vs. Begu
Florianopolis: In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy. The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages. While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman. Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.
In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open. Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest. Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity. Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.
Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers. When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks. The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer. With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.
Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points. Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her. Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.
Final: Williams vs. Mladenovic
Kuala Lumpur: With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100. Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10. After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013. Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel. Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.
Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur. Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe. Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open. Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.
Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant. The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami. This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter. She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers. But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.
When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results. Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play. Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable. While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.
Final: Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova
(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)
Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week. In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces. Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.
Dubai: Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012. She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani. Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka. Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential. If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals. The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami. But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.
Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field. The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum. While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American. Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge. Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon. Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.
Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking. Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward. Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska. In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate. If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year. Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.
Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai. Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court. So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success. The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.
Final: Azarenka vs. Kvitova
Memphis: Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years. Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States. This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring. Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.
Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court. Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month. Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals. Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.
Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine. Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline. Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again. Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court. But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw. Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.
Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans. While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil. Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.
Final: Lisicki vs. Hradecka
Bogota: Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting. Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years. She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here. In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber. As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant. Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta. Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.
The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet. Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve. For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus. Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork. Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation. Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?
Final: Jankovic vs. Schiavone
Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!
Follow professional tennis photographer Rick Gleijm as he covers the Open GDF SUEZ WTA Tour event in Paris this week. The gallery below includes singles action from day four of the tournament, including Maria Sharapova, Alize Cornet, Christina McHale, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Yanina Wickmayer, Klara Zakopalova and Varvara Lepchenko among others. For full singles results, go here, and for full doubles results, go here.
Check out Rick’s previous Paris photo galleries: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and stay tuned as he covers the ATP Rotterdam tournament next week! Make sure to also check out his in-depth feature “Paris Tennis Diary: From the Photo Pit.”