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Roland Garros Fast Forward: Li, Wozniacki, Berdych Face Intriguing Tests on Day 2

Tomas Berdych can't afford to take his eye off the ball against Gael Monfils.

As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests.  Let’s start with the women this time.

WTA:

Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues:  Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore.  Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals.  Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome.  She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson:  When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round.  Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role.  (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.)  Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.

Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber:  The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player.  Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts.  Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski.  Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.

Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists.  Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier.  Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals.  Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova:  An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces.  Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal.  Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring.  Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.

ATP:

Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils:  Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman.  Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week.  His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd.  The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish.  But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.

Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis:  In singles, Benneteau is known for two things:  never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side.  He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent.  Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February.  It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.

Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner:  This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American.  Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation.  Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches.  While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.

Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman?  Maybe you should think again.  Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions.  For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major.  He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.

Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes:  The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals.  The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable.  Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.

 

All Roads Lead to Rome: WTA Rome Draw Preview

Rome produced one of the WTA's most thrilling finals last year, and one of its most elegant champions.

Starting one day later than the simultaneous ATP tournament, the second WTA Premier Five tournament of 2013 brings all of the top ten women to the Foro Italico.  Many of them will seek a fresh start following weeks in Madrid that ended sooner than they had hoped, although the world No. 1 will aim simply to continue from where she left off.

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Serena Williams arrives in Rome on the heels of clay titles in Charleston and Madrid.  To continue her winning streak, Serena may need to survive some friendly fire from older sister Venus, who would meet her in the second round for the first time.  The all-Williams match might not happen if Laura Robson finds her footing on Monday against Venus, suffering from a back injury recently.   Robson displayed the confidence that she needs to defeat a star of this caliber when she upset Radwanska in Madrid.  Also impressive there was Ekaterina Makarova, the nemesis of Azarenka, who could meet Serena in the third round.  The clay skills of Robson and Makarova do not equal those of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, but the latter has struggled with injuries this spring.  In Miami, though, Cibulkova took a set from a disengaged Serena before fading sharply when the American awakened.

The only blot on Serena’s otherwise spectacular second half of 2012 came against Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in Cincinnati.  This German lefty reached the semifinals of Rome last year, an achievement that she can equal only by repeating her Cincinnati victory.  While those prospects seem slim, Kerber may fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals.  Nadia Petrova, the seed closest to her, has performed well below her ranking for most of 2013.  More threatening to Kerber are two women who have produced sporadically excellent results this year, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  This pair collided in the Portugal Open final, where Pavlyuchenkova prevailed, and they could meet again in the second round with the winner advancing to face Kerber.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  Two top-five women who combined to win one total match in Madrid both look to thrust that disappointment behind them by advancing deeper into the Rome draw.  Sporting a new blonde hairstyle, Agnieszka Radwanska likely will open against a woman who also has experimented with a variety of coiffures in Svetlana Kuznetsova.  More relevant to their meeting, Kuznetsova’s resounding victory over Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that her far superior clay talents could cause an upset.   The thirteenth-seeded Roberta Vinci performed impressively on hard courts this year, reaching the semifinals in Dubai and the quarterfinals in Miami, but strangely she has earned fewer successes on the clay that favors her playing style.  Perhaps the local crowd’s enthusiasm can spur this veteran with a strong Fed Cup resume.

Toppled in the first round of Madrid by a lucky loser, Li Na suffered her first unexpected reverse of an otherwise consistent season.  That shock may have spurred her to raise her vigilance for early tests in Rome, possibly highlighted by Jelena Jankovic.  The Serbian former No. 1 has not faced Li since 2009, when she won both of their meetings, and they have not met on clay for seven years.  After an eye-opening start to the spring, however, Jankovic reverted to her unreliable self when the action shifted to Europe, and she has lost all three of her clay matches against second-round opponent Caroline Wozniacki.  Hardly a dirt devil herself, Wozniacki defeated Li on a hard court last fall but has lost their most important meetings so far.  The Chinese star also has held the upper hand recently against both Radwanska and Kuznetsova, positioning her for another strong week at a tournament where she held championship point last year.

Semifinalist:  Li 

Third quarter:  No clear favorite emerges from a section with three members of the top ten and a former Roland Garros champion.  Again situated in the same eighth with Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova shares the Aussie’s 2013 pattern of stumbling into dismal setbacks just as momentum starts to swing in her favor.  Kvitova has won all four of their meetings, should that third-round match develop, and she also should feel confident in her ability to outshoot the equally erratic Sabine Lisicki.  Many of the matches in this section will feature short points punctuated by ferocious hitting, a contrast to what one normally expects from clay.  This seemingly benign early draw could allow Kvitova to settle into the tournament and find her baseline range, which she has showcased on clay before.

The lanky Czech’s most significant clay win to date, the Madrid title in 2011, came at the expense of the woman whom she could meet in the quarterfinals.  During a string of marquee collisions that year, Kvitova regularly bested Victoria Azarenka on all surfaces, although they have not met since then.   The world No. 3 predictably lacked rhythm in Madrid, the first tournament that she had played since Indian Wells.  But the ankle that sidelined Azarenka seems healthy again, and she will need the mobility that it provides to weather a Serb surging with confidence.  A semifinalist in Madrid, Ana Ivanovic has reached that round in Rome as well, claiming an ailing Azarenka as one of her victims en route.  Vika won their 2012 meetings convincingly, taking command of a matchup that had troubled her before.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  The two-time defending champion in Rome, Maria Sharapova finds herself ideally situated to break Italian hearts.  As early as the third round, the world No. 2 could release her angst from another loss to Serena by pouncing on Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone.  An unfortunate quirk of the draw aligned these aging former Fed Cup teammates to meet in the second round, assuming that Sloane Stephens continues her post-Melbourne swoon.  Heavy hitters Garbine Muguruza (a qualifier, but a notable rising star) and Kiki Bertens round out a section through which Sharapova should cruise unless Pennetta can roll back the clock several years.

The world No. 2 also may look forward to a quarterfinal reunion with Sara Errani, the supporting actress on stage when Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam last year.  More than just the Roland Garros flavor of the year, the top-ranked Italian backed up her surprise fortnight with hard-court achievements yet still plays her best tennis on clay.  Last week, Errani even flustered Serena for a set despite the massive power differential, and she has grown more competitive with Sharapova in their latest meetings.  A quarterfinalist in Madrid and a qualifier in Rome, Anabel Medina Garrigues survived a three-hour epic against Yulia Putintseva to reach the main draw.  This Spaniard opens against Maria Kirilenko, less assured on clay, and could meet surface specialist Varvara Lepchenko afterward.  Throughout this quarter, contrasts of styles could unfold between Sharapova and the counterpunchers set to face her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

 

Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

Serena didn't feel blue on the blue last year.  Will she see red on the red?

Rare is the non-major that features every woman in the WTA top 10, but Madrid can lay claim to that honor this year.  In another rare quirk, all of the top three women arrive there on winning streaks.  Only one of those streaks can survive Madrid.  Whose will it be?  Or none of the above?  We take a look at each quarter of the draw.

First quarter:  Clearly the best women’s player of the last decade, Serena Williams won this title on blue clay last year but has not reached a final on red clay since she completed the career Grand Slam in 2002.  With her world No. 1 ranking somewhat at stake, Serena has landed in the more challenging half of the draw.  Her first two rounds should allow her to find some rhythm on the surface, for the green clay of Charleston offers only partial preparation for the European terre battue.  Seeking her third straight title, Serena could meet Maria Kirilenko in the third round, or perhaps Klara Zakopalova.  Both of those counterpunchers have troubled her on clay before, each extending her to three sets at Roland Garros.  Stiffer competition will arrive in the quarterfinals, though, where the draw has projected her to meet Stuttgart finalist and 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.

The fifth seed must overcome a few notable obstacles of her own to reach that stage, such as a second-round match with Serena’s sister.  Not at her best on clay, Venus Williams still should have plenty of energy at that stage, but she has lost all three of her career meetings with Li.  Surrounding world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki are heavy hitters Yaroslava Shvedova and Mona Barthel.  If neither of those knocks off the Dane, who lost her Stuttgart opener, she could attempt to build on her victory over Li last fall.   While Serena has dominated her head-to-head meetings with both Wozniacki and Li overall, she often has found them foes worthy of her steel.  On red clay, Li’s counterpunching talents and ability to transition from defense to offense could prove especially dangerous.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:   Returning from yet another of her injury absences, Victoria Azarenka barely has played since winning the Doha title from Serena in a memorable three-set final.  That February achievement preceded a shaky effort at Indian Wells curtailed by a sore ankle, so Vika enters Madrid with less match play than most other contenders.  Her bid for a third straight final here will take her through the teeth of some formidable early tests, including Portugal Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her opener.  The Russian took sets from Azarenka in two of their three previous meetings, while second-round opponent Lucie Safarova took her the distance here two years ago and impressed in a three-hour loss to Sharapova at Stuttgart.  Twice a finalist and once a champion at Roland Garros, Francesca Schiavone should pose less resistance to the third seed as her consistency has dwindled.  Nevertheless, an unexpected title in Marrakech might carry Schiavone to their projected clash in the fourth round, for the higher-ranked Marion Bartoli tends to struggle on clay.

Relatively open is the lower area of this quarter, where Sara Errani looks to rebound from an early Stuttgart exit.  Last year’s Roland Garros finalist will appreciate the absence of a powerful shot-maker in her vicinity, allowing her to slowly grind down opponents vulnerable to erratic stretches.  Rising stars Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea fit in that category, as does enigmatic German Julia Goerges.  Eranni has faced doubles partner Roberta Vinci in two key matches over the past several months, a US Open quarterfinal and a Dubai semifinal, emerging victories both times on those hard courts.  Clay could prove a different story, especially with Vinci’s recent fine form.  But Errani’s veteran compatriot will meet last year’s Madrid quarterfinalist Varvara Lepchenko in the first round a few months after losing to her in Fed Cup.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  In the section without any of the WTA’s three leading ladies, the eye pauses on two unseeded figures who could produce deep runs.  One of them, 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, submitted indifferent results in Portugal last week and has played little since a strong start to the year.  This Russian has collected many of her best victories on clay, including Roland Garros upsets of Serena and Radwanska, building on the affinity of her athletic, forehand-centered game for the surface.  Less impressive is Kuznetsova’s focus, which undermined her in a fourth-round match in Paris against Errani last year and could cost her in a third-round meeting with Angelique Kerber.  While the indoor clay of Stuttgart differs significantly from outdoor clay conditions, the world No. 6 still may have gained confidence from nearly reaching a final on her worst surface.  The eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova has generated few headlines of late, and slow-court specialist Alize Cornet rarely makes a statement in a draw of this magnitude.

The other unseeded player of note here, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, burst back into prominence when she reached the Miami semifinals this spring and backed it up with a finals appearance in Charleston.  Jankovic defeated no opponent of note there or in her Bogota title run a month before, but she did win a set from Serena and generally looked at ease on her favorite surface.  Looming for her is yet another clash with her compatriot and fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who also showed encouraging recent form by defeating Kerber in Fed Cup and testing Sharapova in a Stuttgart quarterfinal.  The Serbs have split their two meetings on red clay, both of which lasted three sets, but Ivanovic prevailed comfortably in their only encounter from the past two years.  Scant reward awaits the winner, aligned to face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in a matchup that has befuddled both of them through long losing streaks to the Pole.  Like Kerber, Radwanska would consider clay her worst surface, so a quarterfinal between them could tilt either way.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  The majors, Premier Mandatory tournaments, Premier Five tournaments, and year-end championships form a group of fourteen elite events that overshadow the WTA calendar.  Accustomed to (literally) overshadowing her opponents, Maria Sharapova has reached the final at thirteen of those—all but Madrid.  This year’s draw offers the world No. 2 some assistance in correcting that omission, for only one player who has defeated her in the last twelve months appears in her half.  And that player, grass specialist Sabine Lisicki, hardly poses a formidable threat on clay.  By contrast, potential third-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova has defeated Sharapova on this surface before and seems a more plausible candidate to end her red-clay streak.  Injuries have troubled Cibulkova during her most productive time of the year, however, whereas Sharapova has evolved into a far more dangerous clay threat since that 2009 loss.

One of two one-time major champions stands poised to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but their uneven form this year opens this section for one of its several unseeded talents.  A champion here two years, eighth seed Petra Kvitova could meet ninth seed and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round.  Troubled by a leg injury in recent weeks, though, the latter faces a difficult opening assignment in rising Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.  This clay specialist with an Henin-esque one-handed backhand will bring momentum from reaching the Portugal Open final, while Stosur fell to Jankovic in her Stuttgart opener.  Mounting a comeback from injury is 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who also produced solid results last week.  Flavia Pennetta’s comeback has progressed less promisingly, but she too has plenty of clay skills.  Meanwhile, can Sloane Stephens rediscover some of the form that took her to the second week in Paris last year?  Many questions arise from this section that only matches can answer.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Final:  Li vs. Sharapova

Champion:  Li Na

Check back tomorrow for a preview of the ATP draw in Madrid.

WTA Stuttgart: Sharapova Ousts Kerber as Li Na Breezes Past Mattek-Sands

Kerber and Sharapova_600

STUTTGART (April 27, 2013) — Defending champion Maria Sharapova ended Angelique Kerber’s dream of reaching the final of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix while Li Na downed American qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the day’s second semifinal.

A hard-fought 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 win by Sharapova has prolonged the new Porsche brand ambassador’s streak in Stuttgart where she is yet to lose a match. At 5-all in the third set, Sharapova ended the duel quickly as she served at love and then broke Kerber at love to seal the win.

“Maria was more courageous than me in the last two games,” admitted Kerber. “In such situations, she obviously profits from her greater experience. But I saw that I can win such matches.”

Li Na had an easier path to the final as she was never in any real danger, solidifying her place in the finals with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Mattek-Sands.

Semifinal Saturday gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Moana Bauer below.

WTA Stuttgart Gallery: Sharapova to Meet Kerber, Mattek-Sands to Battle Li Na in Semis

Sharapova, Kerber, Mattek-Sands, Li Na_600

STUTTGART (April 26, 2013) — Friday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix saw all four quarterfinal matches hit center court, and the drama and action did not disappoint. Defending champion Maria Sharapova was taken to three sets by Ana Ivanovic before finally taking it, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. The only German to advance was third-seeded Angelique Kerber who defeated Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-3, 7-6(2). In-form American qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands ousted fan favorite Sabine Lisicki, 6-4, 6-2, while No. 2 seed Li Na defeated Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 7-5.

All the singles quarterfinal matches in the Tennis Grandstand gallery by Moana Bauer below, and includes select doubles match photos as well.

Stuttgart: WTA All Access with Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber

Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber cheering during Fed Cup

STUTTGART (April 22, 2013) — On Monday at the opening of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, world No. 6 Angelique Kerber and former top 1o player Andrea Petkovic sat down with media and gave their thoughts on everything from their tennis season, to injury recovery, to favorite off-court activities and more.

Andrea Petkovic

. . . on her recollection of injuring her ankle against Victoria Azarenka in last year’s tournament:
“The injury is still in my head. But I want to ban the bad memories and replace them with nice moments. Especially as Stuttgart always has been my favorite tournament.”

. . . on surviving without tennis during her injury layoff:
“That was by far the most difficult thing. I love tennis and I especially missed the competitive side of the game. But my family and friends have helped me get back on track and given me lots of encouragement.”

. . . on getting through her injuries, and her current form:
“I’m an optimistic person and have invested a lot of time in rehab and training. Tennis is a big love of my life. The energy (to fight through injury) just comes naturally… I feel really good again and am physically very fit.”

. . . on her aims for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix:
“Not too much. I simply just want to enjoy some nice moments and the tournament generally. If I win manage to win a match or two, it’d be naturally fantastic.”

. . .  on her goals for the year:
“In 2013 I want to get back in the main draws at Grand Slams. It means I have to re-turn to the top 100. I’m going to take things carefully this year as my body has to get used to the pressure again. I see this year as being a platform for things to come.”

Angelique Kerber

. . . on her rise to becoming a Top 10 player: 
“Everything obviously went really quickly last year but I’ve now established myself in the top ranks. But I can still do a lot to improve my game and I’ll definitely be keeping my feet on the ground. My friends and family will make sure of that!”

. . . on her off-court hobbies: 
Actually, all the normal things. I like to read and go with friends to the cinema. And I’ve got a weakness for fast cars. It’s why I really look forward to this tournament – it’d be great to drive home from the tournament in a Porsche.”

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Stuttgart and Marrakech Previews

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but a shiny new Porsche comes close.

After a weekend filled with Fed Cup, the ladies of the WTA dig into the clay for the first time this year with a prestigious event in Stuttgart that features most of the top ten.  In North Africa, meanwhile, a smaller International tournament attracts a group of clay specialists and younger stars.

 

Stuttgart:

 

Top half:  As Maria Sharapova once said, you never can have too many Porsches.  Proving herself right, the Russian will launch a title defense at the tournament that launched her spectacular clay campaign last year, culminating with a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.  Sharapova has looked just as brilliant—if not more so—during the first few months of 2013 as she did during the same period of 2012, while the indoor conditions reward her precise first strikes.  Of a similar mentality are several of her potential early opponents, such as home hope Mona Barthel.  The German nearly upset then-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka here last year at a tournament where her compatriots typically have fared well, although she produced mixed results in Fed Cup there this weekend.  Sharapova long has throttled the quarter’s other seed, Nadia Petrova, so she might face more compelling competition from fellow Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic at that stage.  In her two losses to the Russian last year, Ivanovic produced a set or more of quality tennis.  She has enjoyed plenty of clay success against Petrova but little against anyone in Stuttgart, where she will face friend and occasional doubles partner Andrea Petkovic in the first round.

 

More likely than Barthel or Petkovic to venture deep into the draw, the third-seeded Angelique Kerber will start against one of two flammable Russians in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Ekaterina Makarova.  Kerber routinely defeated former Stuttgart finalist Caroline Wozniacki here last year, so she still may feel confident if they meet in the quarterfinals despite her loss to the Dane at Indian Wells in March.  In fact, Wozniacki may struggle to survive the first two rounds with the swiftly rising Carla Suarez Navarro and veteran clay specialist Roberta Vinci setting their sights on her.  While the former world No. 1 enjoyed an apparent breakthrough by reaching the Indian Wells final, both the Spaniard and the Italian have produced steadier results than she has this year, and the latter stands just two rankings slots behind her at No. 12.  On the other hand, Stuttgart’s relatively fast surface can produce results more like hard-court tournaments than those on outdoor red clay.  Like the Caja Magica in Madrid, the Porsche Arena somehow retains some vestiges of its origins after transitioning from fall to spring.

 

Bottom half:  Among those who might have preferred a more conventional clay court, Sara Errani must feel relieved to avoid another quarterfinal date with Sharapova, as happened at Indian Wells and Miami.  Her projected quarterfinal opponent intimidates much less in Stuttgart, for she not only defeated Samantha Stosur in a memorable three-set semifinal at Roland Garros last year but repeated the feat at the year-end championships in Istanbul.  Delayed to a Sunday/Monday Fed Cup schedule, the Australian No. 1 may arrive a bit weary at a tournament that she came within a set of winning three years ago.  The draw also has handed her what could prove a stiff opening test in Jelena Jankovic, who has shown signs of a revival by reaching the semifinals in Miami and the final in Charleston.  Nobody other than Serena has defeated Jankovic on clay this year, and even Serena needed a third set.

 

Arguably the least formidable quarter of this formidable draw, the lowest section includes 2011 champion Julia Goerges.  Nothing for over a year has suggested that the German can reel off a similar string of victories again, nor has Miami quarterfinalist Kirsten Flipkens honed a game suited to clay.  Thus, this section may not produce much action of interest until the quarterfinal between its two seeds, both scintillating shot-makers who have claimed notable clay titles.  Able to spring back into action at Miami after a long injury hiatus, former Roland Garros champion Li Na has lost only to top-five opponents this season while nearly notching her second major title in Melbourne.  She has split her two clay meetings and her four overall meetings with former Madrid champion Petra Kvitova, the last three of which have reached a third set.  In general, one would guess that Li’s game will ebb and flow less than the Czech whose major breakthrough came in the same summer.

 

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. Kerber, Errani vs. Li

 

Final:  Sharapova vs. Li

 

Marrakech:

 

Top half:  The successor of a tournament in Fes, Marrakech would not have featured any woman in the top 25 had not Dominika Cibulkova accepted a wildcard to become the top seed.  The fifteenth-ranked Slovak looks to move past the disappointment of letting a 2-0 lead slip away against Russia in a Fed Cup semifinal.  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, and a quarterfinalist there last year with a victory over Azarenka, Cibulkova finds herself in the same section as 2012 Fes champion Kiki Bertens.  The Dutchwoman won this tournament’s ancestor as a qualifier last year, and she looks to rekindle memories of that Cinderella run by overcoming veterans like Flavia Pennetta.  Bertens defeated Cibulkova at the Paris Indoors this February, although that indoor hard court differs dramatically from outdoor clay.

 

Accompanying Cibulkova to the brink of glory in Moscow this weekend was her compatriot Daniela Hantuchova, stopped just a few key points short of the clinching victory there.  Always a streaky player who veered wildly between dramatic highs and lows, Hantuchova opens against Florianopolis runner-up Olga Puchkova, who defeated Venus Williams at that International event this year.  Either of them might fancy her chances against Romina Oprandi, delayed by the same Switzerland-Australia tie that detained Stosur, but the fourth-seeded Kaia Kanepi seems a more ominous threat.  Returning from injury at Katowice last week, where she won one match, Kanepi will use events like these to rediscover her rhythm ahead of Roland Garros.  She has reached two quarterfinals there, and she will grow more dangerous with every win here.

 

Bottom half:  After going winless all season, promising youngster Petra Martic finally awakened to post two victories in Katowice.  She opens here against a veteran almost equally moribund this year but with a far more imposing resume, 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.  In this quarter also are found the two Moroccan wildcards, one of whom faces the third-seeded Alize Cornet.  Nearly a surprise quarterfinalist in Miami, Cornet has lost her last seven meetings with Schiavone as the Italian’s versatile, crafty game has wreaked havoc on her fragile emotions.  She will hope that someone like Simona Halep halts her nemesis before then.

 

Anchored by the second-seeded Sorana Cirstea, who defeated Kerber in Miami, the lowest quarter showcases some notable young talent.  Former junior No. 1 Yulia Putintseva will accumulate more main-draw experience after winning one main-draw match each at the Australian Open and Dubai.  While she probably is not at her best on clay, neither are most of the women around her other than Cirstea.  French fans will look forward to seeing more of Kristina Mladenovic, who reached the quarterfinals or better at three straight February tournaments.  Having cooled off in March, Mladenovic could edge inside the top 50 by stringing together a few victories here.

 

Final:  Bertens vs.  Cornet

Fed Cup Gallery: Germany Defeats Serbia in Decisive Rubber

Team Germany Fed Cup 2013

April 21, 2013 — The German Fed Cup team defeated Team Serbia in a tense fifth rubber in World Group Playoffs in Stuttgart’s sold out Porsche Arena Sunday. Ana Ivanovic gave Serbia an early lead as she defeated Angelique Kerber to go up 2-1, but Mona Barthel rallied back and defeated Bojana Jovanovski to take it to a doubles decider. There, Germans Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld routed the pairing of Vesna Dolonc and Aleksandra Krunic.

Check out all of Sunday’s action from Tennis Grandstand photographer Moana Bauer.

Fed Cup: Germany and Serbia Tied 1-1 After Day One

Kerber and Petkovic_600

STUTTGART (April 20, 2013) — After day one in the Fed Cup World Group play-off in Stuttgart’s Porsche Arena,  Germany and Serbia are all-square at 1-1. Serbian Ana Ivanovic won the opening match against Mona Barthel 7-6(5), 2-6, 6-2, but in the day’s second rubber, Angelique Kerber leveled Germany’s chances by defeating Bojana Jovanovski 7-5, 6-2.

On her Fed Cup debut, Barthel battled valiantly in the first set, but it eventually went to Ivanovic in a tiebreak. After evening the match at one set a piece and 2-all in the third set, Barthel then lost her way and everything went downhill very quickly. The Serb won four games in succession to put last year’s Fed Cup finalists up 1-0.

“I can’t remember ever being as nervous as I was today,” said Barthel when explaining why she buckled in the third set. “But, playing for Germany for the first time is something very special.”

Kerber then had her work cut out against a player who has had a very good start to 2013, Serb Jovanovski. The 25-year-old German No. 1 broke her opponent’s serve to go 3-2 up but was pegged back when serving for the set at 5-4.

“I was a touch nervous as I had to go on court with us 1-0 down and I naturally wanted to give my all for the team,” said the world No. 6. And it’s exactly what she proceeded to do. With nerves of steel, she once again broke the Serb before closing out the set 7-5. Afterwards she cruised through the second set 6-2 to even the results at the end of the day.

“1-1 after day one is a good result,” said team captain Barbara Rittner. “Now we’ll give it everything in our efforts to achieve our goal of securing (the win).”

A World (Group) to Conquer: Fed Cup World Group Semifinals / Playoffs Preview

Hosting a Fed Cup semifinal on clay should make Errani & Co. smile.

Clearing the schedule of tournaments, the WTA turns its spotlight on Fed Cup this week.  Semifinals and playoff ties will decide not only the matchup for the 2013 final but the membership of next year’s World Group in two days filled with action.  Here’s a look at what you might want to know about each tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic:  When these two teams met on indoor hard courts in the Czech Republic last year, that surface advantage played a key role in a relatively comfortable victory for the hosts.  With the choice of surface now in their favor, Italy will hope that the slow outdoor clay of Palermo will play just as critical a role in reversing the result.  Recent Fed Cup champions themselves, the Italians always have risen to the occasion for Fed Cup, as have the Czechs.  While Lucie Safarova lifted them to their second straight title last fall, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova has produced a far greater level of consistency in Fed Cup than she has in individual events.

An odd bit of déjà vu pits Kvitova against the twelfth-ranked Roberta Vinci on Saturday in a rematch of their Katowice final six days before.  Emerging triumphant on the earlier occasion, Vinci could hand Italy a 2-0 stranglehold over the tie if she can repeat the feat, for world No. 7 Sara Errani likely can outlast the struggling Safarova in the first rubber.  The two No. 1s, Errani and Kvitova, never have met on clay, although Kvitova has dominated their meetings overall.  If the Czechs can survive to reach the doubles, which seems an uphill battle, Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti should substitute Errani and Vinci into a blockbuster battle of the top two teams in the world.  Czech mates Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova captured the 2011 Fed Cup title with a clutch display against Russia, while Errani and Vinci never have lost a live rubber as a team.

Winner:  Italy

Russia vs. Slovak Republic:  Fortunate to receive consistent participation from its two main stars, the Slovak Republic has overachieved in Fed Cup over the last several years.  The visitors once again will lean heavily on Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, the latter of whom has faded well outside the top 50 in singles but may remain a threat in doubles.  Part of the team that won the Fed Cup for Slovakia more than a decade ago, Hantuchova often brings greater determination to the competition than to individual tournaments.  Without their own top two players, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, Russia still will fancy its chances in view of its outstanding depth and the encouraging recent form of its singles entrants.  World No. 13 Maria Kirilenko has impressed in a season highlighted by an Indian Wells semifinal appearance, while the unpredictable Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arrives with momentum from her most recent Monterry title.

Although Hantuchova won her most recent clash with Kirilenko, the pair never have met on clay and only once in the last five years.  The other Saturday pairing of Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova also marks the first clay meeting in a sparse history, so one would favor each of the No. 1s to prevail.  The key to this weekend might lie in their meeting on Sunday, for which their nearly consecutive rankings would suggest a tight encounter.  More consistent than Cibulkova this year, Kirilenko would position Russia for another trip to the final with a victory.  Not only has Pavlyuchenkova won her last five meetings with Hantuchova, but the experienced doubles duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina would seem more formidable than any pairing that the Slovaks can muster.

Winner:  Russia

World Group Playoffs: 

Germany vs. Serbia:  Last year’s Fed Cup finalists field the player with the strongest career resume, especially on clay, in Ana Ivanovic.  But the former No. 1 has watched her results during this stage of the season dwindle sharply since winning Roland Garros five years ago, and she fell to Friday opponent Mona Barthel on this court in Stuttgart last year.  The resurgent Jelena Jankovic has not traveled to Stuttgart, leaving Bojana Jovanovski to complement Ivanovic.  German No. 1 Angelique Kerber should handle the raw Jovanovski comfortably, while Ivanovic often has struggled with lefties like her.  The heavy serves of Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld could offer a valuable edge in the doubles on this serve-friendly indoor clay.  But the home team likely need not worry about a deciding rubber.

Winner:  Germany

Switzerland vs. Australia:  Voluntarily ceding home-court advantage with the European clay ahead, Australia sets its sights at an underrated Swiss team.  Federer’s countrywoman Stefanie Voegele reached the Charleston semifinals after upsetting three top-30 opponents, including world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki.  Her Saturday meeting with Samantha Stosur could set the tone for a tie that pits Australian heavy-hitting against Swiss counterpunching.  Troubled by multiple injuries and a loss of confidence over the last several months, Stosur may need to win three matches in two days with no teammate inside the top 100.  Clay arguably suits her game more than any other surface, and she should feel less pressure than if Australia hosted this tie.  This tie might well come down to the doubles after some unpredictable momentum shifts.

Winner:  Australia

Spain vs. Japan:  The No. 1s of both nations, Carla Suarez Navarro and Ayumi Morita, have played some of their best tennis to date this year.  Especially notable is the Spaniard’s rise to the top 25, built in part on a runner-up finish in Acapulco.  As with the Italy-Czech Republic semifinal, this tie could hinge on the surface.  Morita and her compatriots have done most of their damage on hard courts, whereas the veteran Spanish squad relishes the opportunity to grind through the weekend on dirt.  Outside the fan bases of each nation, few viewers will find this tie engaging to watch, except for the spectacle of Suarez Navarro’s florid one-handed backhand.

Winner:  Spain

USA vs. Sweden:  With not one but two of the Williams sisters in Delray Beach, Sofia Arvidsson and her fellow Swedes can harbor little hope to keep this tie competitive.  Captain Mary Joe Fernandez saw no need to request the services of doubles specialist Liezel Huber to join such a stacked lineup.  Struggling since reaching the Australian Open semifinals, future star Sloane Stephens perhaps can use the presence of the Williams sisters to steady her spirits.  This tie stands alone among the semifinals and World Group playoffs in its surface, outdoor hard courts, and it likewise stands alone among these ties in its location outside Europe.

Winner:  USA

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