Anastasia Kharchenko

Ascione Continues to Rise While Zahalova Strycova Turns Back the Clock

The challenger circuit this week saw a mixture of new old and faces hoisting up the trophies this week. Two young players on the men’s side recorded their first tournament wins on the challenger circuit, while a former breakout star on the WTA Tour took a big step in moving back to that level by winning her first singles title since 2004.

First, to the men’s side. In Cherbourg, Frenchman Thierry Ascione delighted the home crowd by winning the $50,000 event 6-4 7-6 over Kristian Pless of Denmark. The 27 year old has been hovering just inside the world’s top 100 for several months, but the strong form he showed by only losing one set this week shows that Ascione might be ready to compete exclusively on the ATP Tour. Despite the loss in the final, Pless can still take comfort in the fact that this was his best tournament in several months. After going 13-12 on the challenger circuit last fall, Pless, who cruised to the finals without losing a set began to rediscover the form that saw him reach a career high ranking of 65 back in 2002. He’ll head to Indian Wells next, where he lost in the first round of the main draw last year.

At the $35,000 Volkswagen Challenger in Wolfsburg, Louk Sorensen became the first Irishman to win a challenger in well over a decade. He came through the qualifying rounds to prevail 7-6 4-6 6-4 in a thrilling final over Farrukh Dustov of Uzbekistan. For Sorensen, who now lives and trains in Germany, the win pushes him into the top 250 for the first time in his career and will almost guarantee a place into the qualifying draw at Roland Garros. The result of the final likely came down to match toughness; Dustov was competing in his first event of the year while Sorensen had already contested 17 matches in 2008.

The $35,000 Challenger Providencia in Santiago featured two young South American players who are both playing the best tennis of their careers. In the end, Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil came through and won 6-4 7-6 over Eduardo Schwank of Argentina. For the 20 year old Bellucci, it was the first challenger title of his young career. Having competed in over 30 events in the last 12 months, the majority of them on clay, Bellucci’s vast experience on the red dirt make him a likely candidate to begin to break through at the ATP level during the spring season. Both Belucci and Schwank are scheduled to compete at challenger events over the next two weeks in Bogota and Salinas.

On the women’s side, it hasn’t been an easy few years for Barbora Zahalova Strycova. In her rookie year on tour back in 2004, she made the transition from the juniors to the pros look effortless with results that included a 4th round finish at Indian Wells and a semifinal showing at a WTA Tour event in Guangzhou. However, Strycova quickly fell out of the top 100 and has yet to regain the level that took her to a career high of #55. However, her win this week at the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach is a strong statement towards her commitment to regaining that old form. The 6-3 5-7 7-6 win in the final over American teenager Melanie Oudin gave Strycova her first challenger title in four years. Despite the loss, 2008 has gotten off to a promising start for Oudin; in her only other event of the year, she reached the semifinals at the $25,000 tournament held last week in Clearwater.

On the futures circuit this week, several men were able to score back-to-back tournament victories. Jamie Baker of Great Britain won his second title in a row in Harlingen, Alexander Satschko of Germany did the same in New Delhi, and Jeremy Blandin of France made it a clean sweep of the two events in Benin City. On the women’s side, Ukrainian teenager Anastasia Kharchenko also made it a clean sweep of the two $10,000 events held in Benin City this month. Michaela Johansson of Sweden more than lived up to her billing as top seed at the $10,000 event in Wellington as she stormed through the field with the loss of just 18 games in five matches; she’ll look to do the same at the next $10,000 event in New Zealand, which will be held this week in Hamilton.

The spotlight on the challenger circuit turns over to the women this week with the $50,000 challenger event held in Las Vegas. All of the seeds at this event are ranked among the world’s top 100, while the qualifying draw features several notable players on the comeback trail including Sesil Karatantcheva, Mirjana Lucic, and Elena Bovina. On the men’s side, Martin Vassallo Arugello leads the way at the $125,000 event in Bogota, while Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Kyoto.

Challenger and futures write-up for the week of February 24th

This week, the challengers and futures circuit saw a mixture of both young and old taking center stage. One Russian player continued her impressive run on the ITF circuit, a French veteran continues to play his best tennis at the age of 30, and Britain’s #1 female player continues to fly the flag this week under the weight of her nation’s shoulders.

In Bensacon, Frenchman Marc Gicquel delighted the local crowd by winning the $125,000 event 7-6 6-4 over Alexander Peya of Austria. At an age where many of his contemporaries have retired, the 30 year old is playing some of the best tennis of his career. He reached the final at the ATP event in Lyon last November and has now picked up the biggest title of his career. While the final loss was disappointing for Peya, it was still his best result in quite some time. The 27 year old struggled to find his form throughout all of last year and found himself sitting at #249 in the rankings heading into Bensacon; this was his lowest ranking since mid-2006. The result propels Peya to a spot just outside of the top 200 this week and he’ll look to continue playing with the form that saw him reach a career high of #97 in the rankings.

Onto the women’s side, where, in Capriolo, top ranked British player Anne Keothavong lived up to her billing as the number one seed at this $25,000 event by winning the final 6-1 2-6 6-3 over Vesna Manasieva of Russia. The 24 year old Keothavong, who broke through on the WTA Tour last fall by reaching her first ever semifinal in Kolkata, has now fully recovered from a rib injury which hampered her at the end of last year and is setting her sights on becoming the first British woman to crack the top 100 since Sam Smith in 1999. Manasieva, who was searching for her first challenger title this week, has still had an impressive start to 2008 by reaching the quarterfinals of the WTA event in Pattaya City and qualifying for the WTA event in Auckland. With only a handful of points to defend until this summer, the teenager can only continue to climb up the rankings and may be a regular fixture on the WTA tour by the end of the year.

The city of Clearwater hosted the first of two $25,000 events in Florida this month. Regina Kulikova of Russia continued her dominance on the ITF circuit with a 6-4 6-4 victory in the final over qualifier Yevheniia Savranska of Ukraine. Kulikova, who broke out last summer by reaching the finals of six consecutive $25,000 events in Asia and winning three of them, swept through the tournament this week without losing a set. The nineteen year old rises to a new career high ranking this week and will be the favorite to win the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach this week. This tournament was also home to Venezuelan Milagros Sequera’s comeback. Sequera, who won the WTA event in Fes last year, was arguably playing the best tennis of her career before she sustained a left foot injury in August that took her off the tour for over six months. The effects may not have fully gone away either; she bowed out in the second round of the singles event and then withdrew from the doubles event.

On the men’s side, the futures circuit belonged to the top seeds this week; four out of eight top seeds this week hoisted up the winners’ trophies. Pavel Snobel of the Czech Republic won the event in Zagreb this week, Michael Quintero of Colombia prevailed in La Habana, Alexander Satschko of Germany double-bageled his Korean opponent in the final to win in Kolkata, and Paolo Lorenzi of Italy satisfied the local crowd by prevailing in Trenton. Jamie Baker of Great Britain also won in Brownsville this week, but it was his first round match up against 15 year old Ryan Harrison of Texas that was the most hyped of the tournament. Harrison reached the semifinals of the boys’ event at the Australian Open this year and many predicted him to score an upset over the affable Brit. However, Baker provided little for the pro-Harrison crowd to cheer for, easily prevailing 6-3 6-2 before sweeping through the tournament without losing a set.

Ukranian teenagers dominated the futures events on the women’s side this week with both Anastasia Kharchenko and Tetyana Arefyeva picking up titles. Unranked going into Benin City this week, Kharchenko stormed through qualifying and then breezed through the tournament without losing a set. With the title, the 18 year old will enter the rankings for the first time next week. Arefveya also picked up the first title of her career this week by winning the event in Melilla.

Next week will only feature smaller challenger events for both the men and the women, which will allow the chance for some new faces to break through. Thierry Ascione of France will lead the way as the top seed at the $50,000 event in Cherbourg, Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Santiago, and Philipp Petzschner of Germany will look to build on his good form he showed at the event in Belgrade this month when he plays as the top seed at the $35,000 event in Wolfsburg. On the women’s side, top seeded Shuai Zhang of China is looking for her first title of the year while Kulikova hopes to make it two tournament wins in a row at the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach, the only challenger event for the ladies this week.