There are fewer matches that capture the imagination on Friday, but those that do offer plenty to discuss. Here’s a look at the end of the men’s second round and the start of the women’s third round.
Tomic vs. Murray: The Aussie prodigy has all of the elements that should make him a future star: a balanced but distinctive and aesthetically pleasing game, a personality oozing with charisma, and more than a whiff of controversy. All of the elements, that is, but competitive toughness, although Tomic has begun to remedy that flaw this year with somewhat more consistent results. He has yet to leave his mark on a Masters 1000 tournament, however, unlike a few of his fellowing rising stars, nor has he scored a signature win over one of the Big Four somewhere other than an exhibition. Such an opportunity might await against Murray, who was fortunate to avoid an exit earlier than the quarterfinals at Indian Wells amid notably scratchy form. Since both men know virtually every shot and tactic in the book, a display of all-court tennis should ensue that suits this notably slow surface.
Venus vs. Stephens: The past and future of American women’s tennis collide in a match of two women separated by over a decade. Having just turned 20 this week, Stephens may have catapulted into celebrity a little too early with her victory over Serena at the Australian Open. She now attempts to echo what Kerber did last year by sweeping the two Williams sisters on hard courts, a task probably within range considering the arduous evening to which Kimiko Date-Krumm subjected Venus in her first match. The contrast in their serves should boost the veteran’s chances, albeit less than it would on a faster hard court. And Sloane also has looked mortal as she has struggled to find her best form in the wake of that Australian accomplishment. She will rely on her consistency to extend the points longer than the erratic Venus can harness her weapons.
Kubot vs. Querrey: Now the top-ranked American man, Querrey has some work to do in justifying the expectations associated with that label. His results this year have toed the line between mildly disappointing and unremarkable, and he lost his only previous meeting with Kubot in a five-setter at the 2011 Australian Open. The doubles specialist from Poland kept Querrey’s serve at bay with penetrating returns and took time away from him by capitalizing on short balls to approach the net. But these are the types of matches that the top-ranked American man is supposed to win, and the excuses for Querrey’s apparent lulls in motivation will grow less convincing with the increased spotlight on him.
Bellucci vs. Janowicz: A fairly straightforward lefty, the leading man from Brazil had lost five straight match before rallying from losing the first set to oust lucky loser Daniel Brands here. Curiously, considering his clay origins, he defeated Janowicz on the indoor hard courts of Moscow last fall, near the time that the latter launched himself on his charge through the Paris Masters 1000 draw. The superior server and arguably superior competitor, the youngster from Poland should fear little if he can unravel the wrinkles of a lefty’s game and put a reasonable number of returns in play. An intriguing rendezvous with Murray could await in the next round.
Petkovic vs. Tomljanovic: Reaching the Miami semifinals in her last appearance, two years ago, Petkovic justified her wildcard at this tournament by not only winning her first match but also upsetting top-15 opponent Bartoli (admittedly, by retirement). Since she played only a tiny handful of matches in the first half of 2012, she certainly would relish the opportunity to collect more points to boost her ranking. Petkovic will enter this match as the favorite, but Tomljanovic enters with plenty of momentum as well. The 19-year-old Croat defeated both Pervak and Goerges in straight sets to justify her own wildcard, producing a level of form well above her ranking of #242.
Wozniacki vs. Muguruza: Virtually unknown before the last few months, Garbine Muguruza raised a few eyebrows when she slugged groundstrokes fearlessly against Serena in Melbourne. Then she raised many more eyebrows by reaching the fourth round of Indian Wells as a qualifier, the best result that any qualifier had garnered in the desert for nearly a decade. Armed with much more potent weapons than most of her compatriots, Muguruza aims to duplicate that achievement at a second sraight Premier Mandatory tournament. Consecutive three-setters in the first two rounds may have sapped her energies for a physical matches ahead, although Wozniacki also opened the tournament with a taxing battle. Extended to a final set in her Indian Wells opener too, she hopes to bounce back again from that uninspired start but has no more margin for error on the eve of collisions with Li Na and then Serena.
Flipkens vs. Kvitova: Never at her best at the spring North American tournaments, the former Wimbledon champion has struggled with the heat and her breathing in previous appearances. An Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance struck a more hopeful note, although her serving debacle at that stage did not. Opponents who can disrupt her baseline rhythm with something unexpected tend to trouble the Czech more than those with straightforward styles, and Flipkens can offer some unconventional looks with her backhand slice and occasional forays to the net. Those tactics should work better on a faster, lower-bouncing surface, though, while the Miami court should present Kvitova with balls at a comfortable height and time to target the lines.
Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!
First quarter: For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha. Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other. In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago. Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian. Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd. Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way. Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.
The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson. In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine. The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki. Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching. Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February. On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress. She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.
Second quarter: Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert. Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round. For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality. Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne. Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far. Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it. If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.
Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber. A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before. Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats. At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw. The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round. Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency. Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods. Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.
Third quarter: Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders. Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea. Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either. In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title. Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011. Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?
Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova. Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven. Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there. The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros. Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round. Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova. Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.
Fourth quarter: Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013? Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro. Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards. The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur. Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her. But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.
Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later). Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival. Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08. If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year. By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco. Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.
Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!
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!
In the wake of her statement triumph over Venus Williams, world #2 Maria Sharapova faced the challenge of avoiding complacency as she prepared for a fourth-round encounter with the unremarkable Kirsten Flipkens. At first, that challenge did seem to trouble an inconsistent, uninspired Russian, who struggled through a few protracted games. Once she settled into the match, though, Sharapova added a breadstick and a bagel to the waffles of Belgian bakeries by dispatching Flipkens 6-1 6-0.
Battling through three deuces, Flipkens needed several game points to light up the scoreboard with an encouraging “1” next to her name—more than two of Sharapova’s three previous opponents had accomplished. That encouraging start stemmed in part from a slightly scratchy series of groundstrokes by the second seed, who missed two routine inside-out forehands. Once she stepped to the service notch, however, Sharapova produced a confident hold and built upon it for an easy break of serve. If Flipkens failed to seize control of the point with the first stroke or two, her more powerful opponent typically wrested it away.
Sharapova continued to look a bit flat, at least in comparison to her sparkling performance against Venus. One wondered whether her motivation simmered at a low ebb for a foe of whom she knew little. With two double faults and two errant forehands, she offered Flipkens a pair of break points in the fourth game, which extended through several deuces. A challenge erased a third break point by handing the Russian a backhand winner, and the 12-minute game finally ended with a hold.
Deploying drop shots to great effect, Flipkens tried to move Sharapova into the net on uncomfortable terms whenever the opportunity invited. After she had led 30-0, though, she soon faced break point following a thunderous return winner from the second seed. Seizing the insurance break with a backhand pass, Sharapova established her authority over the first set. An uneventful hold preceded a long game on the Flipkens serve in which the Belgian held several game points before yielding on her second set point under the pressure of her opponent’s weight of shot.
Despite her pedestrian play for much of that set, Sharapova still had recorded her sixth bagel or breadstick of the Australian Open. One sensed that her level would rise in the second set as the quarterfinals beckoned, and such proved the case. Losing just five points through the first five games of that set, she mirrored a dip in her opponent’s level with cleaner tennis in most areas, although her first-serve percentage continued to languish. It appeared briefly that Flipkens would hold when she held three game points at 1-6, 0-5. True to her remorseless character, however, Sharapova saved all three and ripped a forehand winner down the line on her first match point.
This match did not represent a peak performance from the second seed, the scoreline notwithstanding. But Sharapova still has lost only five games in four matches here, illustrating how quickly she can find her rhythm at the start of a new season and how well this surface suits her. She should face a more worthy opponent in the quarterfinals, compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, although their meeting at the same stage last year ended with a comfortable victory for the more heralded Russian. Few players ever have plowed so deep into a major with such a tsunami of momentum, and Sharapova could not have asked for a more auspicious start here.
At the start of the second week, all of the singles matches shift to the three show courts. We organize our daily preview a bit differently as a result, following the order of play for each stadium. From here to the end of the 2013 Australian Open, you can find a preview of every singles match in Wizards of Oz.
Rod Laver Arena:
Kerber vs. Makarova: When two left-handed women last met on Rod Laver, the match unwound deep into a final set. Viewers can expect less drama but higher quality from a meeting between the world #5 and a Russian seeking her second straight quarterfinal here. In this round last year, Makarova recorded probably the best win of her career in upsetting Serena, and she rekindled some of those memories with a three-set upset of Bartoli. Advancing through the draw more routinely, Kerber reached the second week here for the first time and will look to exploit the ebbs and flows in her opponent’s more volatile game. Makarova will aim to take time away from the German counterpuncher, in part by opening the court with wide serves behind which she can step inside the baseline. In a close match, Kerber’s outstanding three-set record and her opponent’s relative frailty under pressure could prove decisive. The German won all three of their 2012 meetings in straight sets.
Ferrer vs. Nishikori: Despite his clear superiority in ranking and overall accomplishments, the fourth seed might feel a bit anxious heading into this match. Nishikori has won two of their three previous matches, both at significant tournaments. More notable than his victory over Ferrer at the Olympics was a five-set thriller that he won from at the US Open, which introduced the Japanese star to an international audience four years ago. Chronically beset by injuries, Nishikori overcame a knee problem early in his first match and has won nine straight sets. As he pursues his second straight quarterfinal here, like Makarova, he cannot afford to encounter any physical issues in a grinding encounter filled with protracted rallies and few outright winners. Ferrer wore down Baghdatis, a former nemesis here, in a routine third-round clash as his level rose with the competition, but now it rises again.
Sharapova vs. Flipkens: Perhaps benefiting from the guidance of retired compatriot Clijsters, Flipkens has reached the second week at a major for the first time. Still, she defeated nobody of greater significance than Zakopalova to reach that stage, and it is difficult to see any area of her game that can trouble the rampaging Russian. Following her two double bagels, Sharapova conceded just four games to Venus in a highly anticipated encounter that turned into a demonstration of just how crisply she has started the season. The Belgian’s best chance may lie in the hope that the world #2 enters this match a little complacent or satiated with her statement triumph, not likely from someone of her professionalism. Their only previous hard-court meeting, in Luxembourg ten years ago, bears no relevance to what might unfold here.
Ivanovic vs. Radwanska: Early in their careers, the Serbian former #1 hit through the Pole’s defenses with her serve-forehand combinations. As Ivanovic has grown more erratic with time, the balance of power has shifted towards Radwanska with three straight victories in 2009-10 before a retirement from the former in their most recent meeting. All of those matches have stayed very close, though, which can give the Serb as she realizes that she will have chances against a player who will not overpower her. Stalling in the fourth round of majors for most of the last few years, Ivanovic has suffered a long string of losses to top-four opponents. Currently undefeated in 2013 with two titles already, Radwanska has shown greater discipline and steadiness here (no surprise, really) than the flustered former #1, who has oscillated wildly in form. Expect the fourth seed to outlast and outwit Ivanovic in an entertaining battle.
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Not exactly known as a steely competitor, the Swiss #2 has acquired a reputation for folding at majors against elite opponents—not just Federer, but Djokovic and Murray has well. He has lost his last ten meetings against the defending champion, last winning in 2006, although three times since then he has won the opening set. Demolishing his first trio of victims without dropping serve, Djokovic has not shown any vulnerability that might offer Wawrinka a reason to believe. Granted, the latter has not lost a set here either, but a matchup with the world #1 in a night session on Rod Laver Arena seems like the type of environment calculated to bring out the worst from the Swiss and something near the best from the Serb. Parallel to Sharapova and Flipkens, one struggles to imagine any part of the underdog’s game that can threaten the favorite consistently.
Almagro vs. Tipsarevic: Never before have they met on a hard court, discounting an Abu Dhabi exhibition. To no surprise, the Spaniard defeated the Serb comfortably when they met at Roland Garros last year, the most favorable surface for the former and the least favorable for the latter. Almagro remains almost as lethal a threat on hard courts as on clay, producing a handful of fine results in Melbourne and New York behind an impressive serve and plenty of groundstroke first-strike power. Both men can strike winners down the line from either groundstroke wing, nor will either hesitate in attempting a bold shot at any moment. That factor, combined with their proximity to each other in the rankings, bodes well for a tightly contested match, as does their mixture of impressive and unimpressive results in the first week.
Li vs. Goerges: If Almagro and Tipsarevic never have met on a hard court, this pair of women never has collided at all. Whereas Li rolled through the first week without dropping a set, Goerges needed to claw through a long three-setter in her opener against Dushevina and salvage a third-round epic against Zheng after the Chinese served for the match. Despite the accumulated fatigue, that resilience under pressure might aid her in a match likely to feature several twists and turns between two streaky women. Under Henin’s former mentor, stern taskmaster Carlos Rodriguez, Li has hinted at improving her consistency from one tournament to the next. Starting the year with a title and a Sydney semifinal, she enters this match with an 11-1 record in 2013. On the other hand, Goerges has wobbled through a long span of the unpredictability typical of WTA Germans, leaving her stagnant until this week.
Margaret Court Arena:
Anderson vs. Berdych: The first South African to reach the second week of a major since Wayne Ferreira ten years ago, Anderson did it the hard way by winning the last two sets of a five-setter against Verdasco. Few players have started the year more impressively than he has, marching from a strong week at the Hopman Cup to the Sydney final and now a week in which he twice has won matches after losing the first set. But Anderson may find himself eyeing adversity again when he meets a man who won all four of their matches last year. The last two of those reached final sets, offering him some hope in this contest of crackling serves, ferocious forehands, and meager backhands, which should produce repeated holds and perhaps some tiebreaks. Berdych has dominated the opposition through three rounds with the relentless focus that he does not always show, although he has not faced anyone of a quality approaching the South African.
While the top stars are preparing for the grass courts of Wimbledon, the challenger circuit remains on the clay courts. Last week showed one player on the men’s side continuing his prowess on the circuit, while another player on the women’s side took a small step towards gaining back her former top 15 ranking.
After an outstanding 2006 season which saw her reach a career high ranking of No. 14, Groenefeld suffered a nightmare 2007 season that included fitness issues and a high-profile feud with her former coach, Rafael Font De Mora. After taking most of 2008 off, Groenefeld showed that she is serious about getting her game back on track by winning the $75,000 challenger in Zlin, Czech Republic, dispatching Jelena Kostanic Tosic of Croatia 6-3, 4-6 6-1, in the final. The win also puts Groenefeld back in the world’s top 300, with minimal points to defend for the rest of the year.
At the $75,000 challenger in Marseille, France, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium won her second challenger title of the year with a 7-6, 6-2 win over local favorite Stephanie Foretz of France. The win gives Flipkens the biggest title of her career and propels her just outside of the top 150 in the rankings.
While satellite results normally aren’t mentioned in this column, one result deserves a special accolade. Kimiko Date-Krumm, who reached a career high ranking of No. 4 in 1995, won the first singles title in her comeback at the $10,000 satellite event in Tokyo, Japan. The 37-year-old didn’t drop a set all week, storming through Shiho Akita of Japan in the final with a 6-3, 6-2 win. The win moves Date-Krumm just outside of the top 400 in the world rankings after just four tournaments.
In other results on the women’s side, Masa Zec-Peskiric of Slovenia won the $25,000 event in Campobasso, Italy, while Anna Tatishvili of Georgia won the first pro title of her career at the $25,000 challenger in El Paso, Texas.
On the men’s side, Adrian Ungur of Romania won the first pro title of his career at the $50,000 challenger in Sofia, Bulgaria, rolling over Franco Ferreiro of Brazil in the finals 6-3, 6-0. Ferreiro is still looking for his first title of the year, having lost his other final of the year at the challenger in Florianopolis, Brazil.
At the $35,000 event in Kosice, Slovakia, Lukas Rosol of Czech Republic also won the first challenger title of his career by beating Miguel Angel Lopez-Jaen of Spain with a 7-5, 6-1 victory in the final. The win moves Rosol within a few spots of breaking the top 200 for the first time in his career.
Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia continues to roll on the challenger circuit. The 23 year old won his third challenger title of the year at the $35,000 challenger in Milan, Italy, beating Diego Hartfield of Argentina 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in the final. The win moves Gabashvili within striking distance of the world’s top 100, a place he has remained out of for almost a full year now.
The men host the biggest event on the challenger circuit this week as Jiri Vanek of Czech Republic is the top seed at the $125,000 event in Braunschweig, Germany. Eric Prodon takes top billing at the $35,000 in Bytom, Poland, while Bjorn Phau of Germany leads the way at the $35,000 challenger in Recanati, Italy.
Only one challenger will take place on the women’s side this week, as Nina Bratchikova of Russia is the top seed at the $25,000 event in Istanbul, Turkey.
On the challenger circuit this week, a former number one junior continues to live up to the hype, a former top 35 player proves she’s well on her way to a comeback, and Mexico’s top ranked male player completely turns his year around.
Being successful on tour as a teenager is difficult. Just ask Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who’s been limited to 13 tournaments in the last year until she turns 17 this May. However, Pavlyuchenkova has simply milked the most out of the few events she can play. After winning the $25,000 tournament in Minsk earlier this month, she prevailed at this week’s $25,000 event in Moscow, dominating Ekaterina Dzehalevich of Belrarus 6-0 6-2 in the final. With this victory, Pavlyuchenkova’s ranking should be high enough to contest in the qualifying rounds at Roland Garros. Despite the loss, Dzehalevich has also been in a stretch of good form over the last six months as well. She won her first WTA doubles title at Tashkent last fall and won her first challenger singles title earlier this month in New Delhi.
At the $50,000 event in Latina, Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic stormed through the draw this week. She dropped a total of 10 games on her way to the title, including an overwhelming victory over Sesil Karatantcheva of Bulgaria 6-0 6-2 in the final. With form like this, it shouldn’t be long before Benesova her former place among the world’s top 35. Despite the loss, Karatantcheva has had an extremely successful start to 2008. Since returning from a two year drug suspension, she’s posted a 27-3 record on the challenger circuit and won two events so far.
At the $25,000 event in Jersey, Elena Baltacha of Britain satisfied the home crowd by winning her 18th career title with a 6-1 6-3 defeat of Croatian Ana Vrljic. After enduring everything from financial hardships to a recurring liver problem that limits her playing schedule, the 25 year old is still determined to crack the main draws of Grand Slams on her own ranking, a pursuit that she filmed a documentary for the BBC in 2005 entitled “Project 104.”
In other challenger news on the women’s side, Kristina Barrois of Germany won her first title in over two years at the $25,000 event in La Palma, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium won the $25,000 event in Tessenderlo, and American Carly Gullickson capped off a comeback from an injury which sidelined her for eight months by winning the $25,000 event in Pelham.
On the men’s side, Mikhail Kukushkin of Russia won his first challenger title of the year at the $50,000 event in Barletta by beating Boris Pashanski of Serbia 6-4 6-4. The Russian teenager showed his fortitude by coming through qualifying and prevailing in several tough three set matches throughout the week. This was also Pashanski’s best week of the year by far; he had endured a lackluster 2-7 record on the ATP Tour before turning the corner in his first challenger event of the year.
At the $50,000 event, Bruno Echagaray of Mexico won a thrilling 6-0 3-6 7-6 final over Ricardo Mello of Brazil. Prior to this week, Echagaray was winless so far in 2008, having lost in the first round of all seven events he played this year. The tournament also played host to former French Open finalist Guilermo Coria, who continues to try and come back from a career threatening shoulder injury. He lost in the first round to top seeded Werner Eschauer of Austria. Coria also received a wildcard into the challenger event in Napoli this week.
The men are hosting the biggest event next week with the $100,000 event in Napoli. Potito Starace of Italy will be the top seed there. Marcels Granollers of Spain also takes top billing at the $35,000 tournament in Saint Brieuc. On the women’s side, Petra Cetkovska of the Czech Republic leads the way at the $75,000 event in Torhout. Tzipi Obziler of Israel is the top seed at the $50,000 event in Patras, which will also host an exhibition match featuring Daniela Hantuchova. China’s Meng Yuan continues her strong 2008 campaign as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Pelham, Olivia Sanchez of France is top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Civatecchia, and Angelique Kerber of Germany hopes to bring her best out for the home fans at the $25,000 tournament in Hamburg.