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?)
“Comeback Kid” Brian Baker trips up in first round of the Citi Open
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hot off his stellar fourth round appearance at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, Baker has failed to progress past the first round in his last two events in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and he can now add Washington, D.C. to this list.
Ranked outside of the top 300 just three months ago, and not having played a full ATP schedule since 2005 due to numerous injuries, the comeback kid’s dream to the top is taking a temporary detour this summer.
With such great results earlier in the year, the question arises whether it’s more of a physical or mental hurdle that is slowing him down currently.
“Fitness-wise, I was fine today. It wasn’t an issue. I definitely took some time off after Wimbledon – had some aches and pains. But it hasn’t been the physical aspect of [playing so much], it’s just been maybe more the mental aspect coming back after such a high [at Wimbledon], and then starting over… I definitely haven’t played my best tennis in all the last three weeks. I don’t think I’ve competed poorly, … I just haven’t given myself a lot of chances on the big points.”
Prior to Atlanta, Baker has had to go through qualifying matches in most of his Tour-level events and he admits that “I tend to play my best tennis if I get a couple of matches under my belt.” It seems that with every tournament, he needs to build his confidence and get familiar with his settings. But if he is to keep up his ranking at world No. 78 or better, he’ll have to get used to jumping into tournaments quickly and adjusting to the conditions. Otherwise, he’ll continue dropping in the first round of tournaments this summer.
Surprisingly, in the first set, Baker was up a double break and held easy to win 6-4. In the second set he admits to not being “very sharp the first couple return games” and Serra took lead, winning 6-3. During the third set, Baker simply couldn’t string enough points together and his served failed him, double-faulting three times. He only converted 3-of-16 break points for the match, and had 43 unforced errors. Baker commented on these gaping holes, and said that “it’s not typical of me to make so many unforced errors. All summer, I played pretty clean matches… I had three pretty good draws, I should have won all three matches. I think it’s just been more [that] I haven’t been playing great – the confidence wasn’t there.”
Whatever happens during the rest of the hard court season, there’s no doubt that Baker still has hunger for the game after being away for so many years. He’s ready to battle and says that it’s “sometimes nice to go in being the underdog … being the hunter.”
Sloane Stephens pushed by Karatantcheva, but prevails in three
American golden girl Sloane Stephens, currently ranked No. 50 in the world and seeded third here, was given a scare when six breaks of serve were exchanged with her opponent Sesil Karatantcheva in the second set that saw the two split sets. Despite some strange line calls on a court that doesn’t have the Hawkeye challenge system, Stephens luckily kicked it into high gear by straight way breaking her opponent twice at the start of the final set.
Always a personable character both on and off-the-court, Stephens is quick to sign autographs or chat with fans during her down time. But when it comes to her game on court, she has a personal motto she lives by. After losing in the first round of the last two tournaments she played in at Stanford and Carlsbad, she joked that “You just can’t ever lose three [first round matches] in a row — it’s not even an option.”
With that attitude and a steadily increasing ranking that makes her the second youngest in the top 100, Stephens is sure to make a lasting impact in American women’s tennis. Like her self-proclaimed “bestie” Serena Williams, Stephens carries a powerful forehand, immense athletic ability and has a passion for the sport of tennis that will no doubt help her break into the top 10 soon.
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.