Ana Vrljic

For Calleri and Garbin, Clay Season Is Not Over

Last week on the challenger circuit, clay-court specialists prevailed in the biggest red dirt events on the men’s and women’s side, while we also got a sneak peek of coming attractions for Wimbledon at the first grass court tune-up of the year.

The $150,000 challenger in Prostejov, Czech Republic, has always attracted a strong field and this year was no exception. Top-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic is ranked among the world’s top 15 and all the seeded players were ranked in the top 100. In the end, Agustin Calleri of Argentina used his clay court prowess to overwhelm Martin Vasallo-Arguello of Spain 6-0, 6-3. The win propels Calleri back among into the top 50 in the rankings.

Daniel Kollerer of Austria, known as “Crazy Dani” on the ATP Tour, has attracted an infamous reputation for his bad attitude on the court and was even suspended from playing ATP tournaments for six months. He’s finally starting to become known for his tennis, winning his first title of the year at the $50,000 challenger in Furth, Germany, with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. This result takes some of the sting out of Giraldo’s Roland Garros performance, where he had match points to qualify for the main draw before losing to Frederico Gil of Portugal.

The $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, Great Britain, featured a top 20 entry in Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, but he withdrew from his second round match with an injury. Frank Dancevic of Canada, always a dangerous threat on the grass with his serve, won a hard fought 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 contest over Kevin Anderson of South Africa. Both Dancevic and Anderson are competing at the ATP tour event in London this week.

In other results on the men’s side, Michael Yani of the United States came through qualifying to win the $50,000 challenger in Yuba City, California, while Frederico Gil of Portugal won the $35,000 challenger in Sassuolo, Italy.

On the women’s side, Tathiana Garbin of Italy delighted the home crowd by winning the $75,000 event in Rome, Italy, rallying from being an early break in the final set to defeat Yvonne Meusburger of Austria 6-4, 4-6 7-6. This tournament also snapped a four-match losing streak for Garbin and a six-match losing streak for Meusburger.

At the $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, United Kingdom, Marina Erakovic of New Zealand continued her strong form by defeating Anne Keothavong of Great Britain 6-4, 6-2. Erakovic, who gave Jelena Jankovic a tough match in the second round of Roland Garros, could truly break through at Wimbledon on a surface which is tailor made for her game. Despite the loss, Keothavong has much to be proud about, becoming the first British woman to crack the world’s top 100 since Samantha Smith in 1999.

After coming close twice this year, Patricia Mayr of Austria finally broke through and won her first title at the $25,000 event in Grado, Italy, narrowly beating Jasmina Tincic of Croatia 6-4, 7-6. Mayr is now on track to compete in her first ever Grand Slam qualifying event at the US Open this summer. We could be hearing more from Tincic in the future though; this was only the fifth professional event she has ever played in.

Marseille, France hosts the top event on the women’s side this week as Martina Muller of Germany leads the way at the $75,000 event held there. Yvonne Meusburger of Austria is the top seed at the $75,000 event in Zlin, Czech Republic, Lauren Albanese of the United States leads the way at the $25,000 challenger in El Paso, Texas, and Ana Vrljic of Croatia takes top billing at the $25,000 challenger in Campobasso, Italy.

On the men’s side, Adrian Cruciat of Romania is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Sofia, Bulgaria. Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Milan, Italy, while Eric Prodon of France leads the way at the $35,000 challenger in Kosice, Slovakia.

Pavlyuchenkova Rises As Echagaray Rebounds

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.