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?)
The first day of the second round looks rather sparse in general, but we picked out a few potential diamonds in the rough. Let’s start with the ladies for a change.
Zheng vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena): When they met a week ago in Sydney, the Aussie suffered from a slow start, rallied to reach a final set, and then let a late lead slip away in a match of unpredictable twists and turns. Although Stosur improved on last year’s performance here by escaping the first round, her first victory of 2013 did not come without a series of wobbles such as donating an early break and failing to serve out the first set. She won fewer free points from her serve than she usually does, which could spell trouble against Zheng again. Despite her limitations on return, due to her short wingspan, the Chinese doubles specialist competes ferociously and should outlast Stosur from the baseline with her more balanced weapons. But she struggled even more to survive her opener and had stumbled through a string of losses before that upset of the Aussie in Sydney.
Venus vs. Cornet (RLA): At the 2009 Australian Open, Cornet stood within a point of the quarterfinals and a signature victory over then-#1 Safina. Match point upon match point slipped away, confidence evaporated, shoulder trouble sidelined her soon afterwards, and the petite Frenchwoman remained too mentally and physically dubious to fulfill her promise as a junior. The relatively slow court might suit her game more than the volatile, inconsistent style of Venus, but the American raised her level dramatically from the Hopman Cup while dropping just one game in the first round. By contrast, the Frenchwoman struggled to hold throughout that match, especially under pressure, so only an implosion by Venus could repeat the Suarez Navarro upset from the same Australian Open in which Cornet faced Safina.
Sharapova vs. Doi (Hisense Arena): On a late afternoon without many marquee matches, the Sharapova Show offers a decent way to end the day session. The 2008 champion has blitzed almost all first-week opponents at majors since the start of 2012, but the caliber of those opponents often has prevented one from accurately judging her form. Doi, who defeated Schiavone last year, may surpass expectations after defeating the more familiar Petra Martic in the first round. In general, though, the value of this match comes from juxtaposing Maria’s form here against what Venus shows in the night session, two days ahead of their highly anticipated third-round collision.
Pervak vs. Watson (Court 8): While Murray and Robson attract most of the attention currently circulating around British tennis, and justly so, Heather Watson may develop into a meaningful talent in her own right. The Bolletieri-trained baseliner twice has taken sets from Sharapova and defeated fellow rising star Sloane Stephens last year before finishing her season with a title in Osaka. Not lacking for durability, she won one of the season’s longest finals there and will attempt to grind down Pervak with a combination of depth and court coverage. Teenagers have excelled in the women’s draw so far, eleven reaching the second round, so this youth movement might bode well for the 20-year-old Watson.
Djokovic vs. Harrison (RLA): The Serb has won all five of their sets and looked his usual imposing self in the first round against Paul-Henri Mathieu, showing off his elastic movement and transition game at the major that most rewards it. For Harrison, who avenged his Olympics loss to Giraldo in four sets, an upset bid will require greater focus and competitive stamina than he has shown so far in his career. Typical of his stop-and-start results was a week in Brisbane when he defeated Isner and lost meekly to Benneteau in the next round. Harrison will need to take more chances earlier in the rallies than he did against Giraldo, especially on his forehand, to take Djokovic outside his comfort zone against an opponent who does nothing better than he does. As with his match against Murray last year, this meeting offers a useful measuring stick to test Harrison’s progress.
Malisse vs. Verdasco (MCA): Even in the twilight of his career, the Belgian defeated the Spaniard on the latter’s weakest surface at Wimbledon last summer. Malisse still can unleash blistering backhands when he times his short swings effectively, and Verdasco looked thoroughly human in a five-set rollercoaster against David Goffin. Both men have shown a tendency to alternate the sublime with the ridiculous, often finding the latter at the least opportune moments, but a comedy of errors could provide its own form of entertainment.
Lacko vs. Tipsarevic (Court 2): The eighth seed played his best tennis in months when he battled past Hewitt in a straight-setter closer than it looked. Ripping winner after winner down the sidelines, Tipsarevic looked every inch the elite player that he has become and could charge deep into a draw where he inhabits the least formidable quarter. He has struggled for much of his career with sustaining a high performance level from match to match, though, which makes a letdown a plausible possibility. If he does, Lacko might have just enough talent to punish him for it.
Lopez vs. Stepanek (Court 3): Aligned opposite each other are two net-rushers from opposite sides, the Spaniard from the left and the Czech from the right. As a result, the tennis might trigger memories of decades past before baseline tennis established its stranglehold over the ATP. Stepanek rallied from a two-set deficit in the first round to ambush Troicki, but a comeback would prove more difficult against a server like Lopez, who has won sets from Federer before. While the Czech has dominated most of their rivalry, the Spaniard did win their last meeting on a similar speed of court in Montreal.
Querrey vs. Baker (Court 6): The man who mounted a long-term comeback meets a man who mounted a more ordinary comeback that culminated last year when he rejoined the top 30. Querrey typically has struggled at majors other than the US Open, however, and he lost a set to an anonymous, underpowered Spaniard in his opener. If he can bomb a high percentage of first serves, Baker may not match him hold for hold. On the other hand, a sloppy effort from Querrey would open the door for his compatriot to expose his meager backhand, one-dimensional tactics, and unsteady footwork.