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Wimbledon Rewind: Thoughts on Marion Bartoli’s Magical Fortnight, and More

The most surprising pair of major finalists in recent memory.

Six of the ten Wimbledon finalists took to Centre Court on Saturday, spearheaded by a first-time women’s champion in singles.

Stage fright:  Since the start of 2010, the WTA has produced several first-time major finalists.  Some have dazzled in their debuts, such as Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros 2010, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon 2011, and Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open 2012.  Others have competed bravely despite falling short, such as Li Na at the Australian Open 2011 and Sara Errani at Roland Garros 2012.  Still others have crumbled under the stress of the moment, and here Sabine Lisicki recalled Vera Zvonareva’s two major finals in 2010 as well as Samantha Stosur’s ill-fated Roland Garros attempt that year.  In an embarrassingly one-sided final, Lisicki held her formidable serve only once until she trailed 1-5 in the second set.  One hardly recognized the woman who had looked so bulletproof at key moments against world No. 1 Serena Williams and world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

Straight down the line:  Pause for a moment to think about this fact:  Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon title without losing a set or playing a tiebreak in the tournament.  The wackiest major in recent memory found a fittingly wacky champion in one of the WTA’s most eccentric players.  Detractors will note that world No. 15 Bartoli did not face a single top-16 seed en route to the title, extremely rare at a major.  But she could defeat only the players placed in front of her, which she did with gusto.  Bartoli lost eight total games in the semifinal and final, assuring that the words “Wimbledon champion” will stand in front of her name forever.

Greatest since Seles:  Bartoli became the first French player of either gender to win a major title in singles since Amelie Mauresmo captured the Venus Rosewater Dish in 2006.  More intriguingly, she became the first woman with two-handed groundstrokes on both sides to win a major since Monica Seles in 1996.  One wonders whether more tennis parents and coaches will start to think seriously about encouraging young players to experiment with a double-fisted game.  That might not be a bad development from the viewpoint of fans.  Bartoli’s double-fisted lasers intrigue with their distinctive angles, despite their unaesthetic appearance.

Walter vindicated:  Earlier this spring, Bartoli served a deluge of double faults in a first-round loss to Coco Vandeweghe in Monterrey.  She had attempted to part ways from her equally eccentric father, Walter, only to find that she still needed his guidance.  Within a few short months of his return, Bartoli secured the defining achievement of her career.  One need not like the often overbearing Walter, or his methods, but his daughter is clearly a better player with him than without him.

Greatest since Graf:  Lisicki became the first German woman to reach a major final since Steffi Graf in 1999.  That fact might come as a surprise, considering the quantity of tennis talent that Germany has produced since then.  Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber have reached the top ten, while Julia Goerges has scored some notable upsets.  Yet none of them has done what Lisicki has, a tribute to the finalist’s raw firepower and ability to overcome injury upon injury.  One wonders whether Petkovic in particular will take heart from seeing Lisicki in the Wimbledon final as she battles her own injury woes.

The grass is greener:  In her last four Wimbledon appearances, Lisicki has recorded a runner-up appearance, a semifinal, and two quarterfinals.  She has not reached the quarterfinals at any other major in her career.  While the grass suits her game more than any other surface, Lisicki has the talent to succeed elsewhere as well.  For example, the fast court at the US Open should suit her serve.  Will she remain a snake in the grass, or can she capitalize on this success to become a consistent threat?

Rankings collateral:  Into the top eight with her title, Bartoli will start receiving more favorable draws in the coming months.  If she avoids a post-breakthrough hangover, she will have plenty of chances to consolidate her ranking in North America, where she usually excels.

Holding all the cards:  Two other finals unfolded on Centre Court today, both more competitive than the marquee match.  In the first of those, Bob and Mike Bryan claimed the men’s doubles title as they rallied from losing the first set to Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo.  This victory not only brought the Bryans their third Wimbledon but made them the first doubles team ever to hold all of the four major titles and the Olympic gold medal simultaneously.  They stand within a US Open title of the first calendar Slam in the history of men’s doubles.

Tennis diplomacy:  In a women’s doubles draw almost as riddled with upsets as singles, eighth seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai prevailed in straight sets over the Australian duo of Casey Dellacqua and the 17-year-old Ashleigh Barty.  The champions did not face a seeded opponent until the final, where the joint triumph of Chinese Taipei citizen Hsieh and People’s Republic citizen Peng illustrated how tennis can overcome rigid national boundaries.

Question of the day:  Where does Bartoli’s triumph rank among surprise title runs in the WTA?  I would rate it as more surprising than Samantha Stosur at the 2011 US Open but less surprising than Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros 2010.

 

Wimbledon Rewind: Thoughts on the Men’s Semifinals

Fast forward six months.

We can anticipate a blockbuster meeting between two members of the Big Four in the Wimbledon final after all.  The route getting there took some intriguing twists and turns, however.  Here are some reactions to Friday’s action.

That was…expected:  For the seventh time in ten years, the Wimbledon final will feature the top two men in the world.  When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal tumbled by the first Wednesday, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray became overwhelming favorites to reach the second Sunday.  Credit to them for taking care of business and ensuring a worthy climax to the tournament.

But also better than expected:  With Djokovic’s semifinal opponent injured and Murray’s semifinal opponent highly inexperienced, two routs could have unfolded on Friday.  Instead, a captivated crowd saw more than seven and a half hours of high-quality tennis, courtesy of underdogs who showed determination and resilience.  Credit to Juan Martin Del Potro and Jerzy Janowicz for battling the favorites bravely.

Marathon man:  The world No. 1 played the longest major final ever last year at the Australian Open, and this year he played the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history.  Novak Djokovic’s super fitness and physical style of play predispose him toward these epics, as do the ebbs and flows that still characterize his emotions.  His five-set victory over Del Potro lasted 4 hours and 43 minutes, just five minutes shorter than the Federer-Nadal classic in 2008 and longer than the Federer-Roddick thriller in 2009.

The march of grass revenge continues:  Having defeated his 2009 Wimbledon nemesis in the fourth round and 2010 Wimbledon nemesis in the quarterfinals, Djokovic avenged his loss on grass to Del Potro in the bronze-medal match of the 2012 Olympics.  In the final, he will get a crack at the man who denied him a chance at the gold medal there.

That was then, this is now:  Djokovic’s Wimbledon semifinal followed almost exactly the opposite pattern of his Roland Garros semifinal.  He took an early lead, let it get away, took another lead, let that get away in a fourth-set tiebreak, but then closed the fifth set in style by winning his opponent’s last service game.  With just a month between those memorable matches, the similar situation combined with the contrasting result should give him even more confidence for the final.

E for effort:  Deep in the fourth set, Del Potro cracked an unthinkable 120-mph forehand, a speed comparable to the average first serves of many players.  He also saved two match points in the fourth-set tiebreak before forcing a final set.  The Tower of Tandil came to play despite a painful knee injury, and he willed himself to retrieve more balls and survive longer in rallies than anyone could have asked of him.  Fans could see why he had not lost a set en route to the semifinal, where he made his most impressive statement at a major since winning the 2009 US Open.

But Z for zero:  On the other hand, Del Potro remains winless against the Big Four of Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, and Federer at majors since the start of 2010, with at least one loss at each major.  He has won at least one set in four of those six losses, but an 0-6 record is what it is.  Players don’t get points or trophies for “almost” in this cruel sport.

Murray’s mulligan:  For the second time, Andy Murray reached the final at consecutive majors.   The previous do-over did not end well when he lost the 2011 Australian Open final to Djokovic in straight sets, a year after falling to Federer.  Losing last year’s final at his home major likely taught the Scot some valuable lessons that he can apply to his second chance, though, and he came much closer in his first attempt than he did in Melbourne.  One can expect Murray to shed tears for one reason or another on Sunday, and the British fans will do their best to facilitate a happier ending to the remake.

Guru of grass:  Great Britain should count itself fortunate in producing not only a remarkable champion in Murray but one suited to succeed at his home major.  Murray has won 17 straight matches and reached four consecutive finals on grass, including the Olympics gold medal and the Queens Club title earlier this month.  He will hold the surface advantage against Djokovic on Sunday with his superior first serve and stronger forecourt skills.

Contrasting paths:  Just as in the women’s draw, one finalist has survived a significantly more difficult route than the other.  Like Lisicki, Djokovic has halted three top-15 opponents en route to the final, including two top-eight seeds.  Like Bartoli, Murray has not faced a top-16 seed in his first six matches.

Contrasting trajectories:  In each of his last three matches, Djokovic has started impressively in winning the first set and then stumbled in the second set.  He rallied to win that set from Haas and Berdych anyway, but he trailed the German 2-4 and the Czech by a double break.  In contrast, Murray has started slowly in each of his last two matches, dropping the first set before roaring back to win.  If this trend continues, the final could become a best-of-three affair after the first two sets.

Rubber match:  Djokovic and Murray have contested three of the last four major finals, equal to any span compiled by Federer and Nadal.  The rivalry between the top two men has not quite caught fire yet, although they split those two previous matches in New York and Melbourne.  Perhaps extending their clashes beyond hard courts will raise the successor to Federer-Nadal a notch higher in intrigue.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie:  Overlooked amid the drama on Centre Court, Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty reached their second doubles final in three majors.  The two Australians defeated two of the top five teams in the world to reach the final, where they will face Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai.  Their Fed Cup team will have a solid pairing on whom to rely in decisive doubles rubbers moving forward.

My picks for the singles finals:  I’m taking Lisicki in two and Murray in four.  This Wimbledon has belonged to the underdogs, and I think that it will stay that way.

 

WTA Birmingham Semifinal and Final Recap: Hantuchova Defeats Vekic

Daniela Hantuchova d Donna Vekic in Birmingham_600

(June 16, 2013) As Daniela Hantuchova defeats Croat Donna Vekic for the Aegon Classic title in Birmingham, we recap the best photos from the semifinals and finals this weekend.

Gallery also includes Alison Riske, Ashleigh Barty, Casey Dellacqua, Sabine Lisicki, Madgalena Rybarikova and Kristina Mladenovic, and is by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Sharapova, Li, Stosur, Nadal, and More Set to Shine on Day 5

Flying under the radar, Stosur owns one of the tournament's biggest forehands.

Our Thursday preview discusses eight matches from each singles draw, starting this time with the WTA.

WTA:

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Her opening victory over Kimiko Date-Krumm looked impressive on paper with the loss of just two games.  Now, however, Stosur must face a Frenchwoman much more worthy of her steel.  Mladenovic caught fire on home soil in February when she reached the semifinals of the Paris Indoors, although she faces an uphill battle against an opponent more accomplished on clay and much more experienced at this level.

Maria Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard:  Teenagers have troubled Sharapova in the first week of majors before, from the Melanie Oudin catastrophe at the US Open to a hard-fought encounter with Laura Robson at Wimbledon and a narrowly avoided stumble against Caroline Garcia here.  Bouchard reached the semifinals of Strasbourg last week, where she threatened eventual champion Alize Cornet.  On the other hand, the 19-year-old Canadian eked out only two games from the woman who designs her Nike outfits when they met in Miami this spring.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  Logic suggests that the second round marks the end of the road for Schiavone, who faces a seeded opponent there.  Her history at this tournament suggests that we should not lean too heavily on logic and give her a fighting chance against a young Belgian more successful on faster surfaces.

Li Na vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands:  When they met in Stuttgart this spring, the 2011 Roland Garros champion eased past her fellow veteran.  Mattek-Sands pulled off a series of impressive victories that week, reaching the semifinals as a qualifier.  The indoor conditions in Stuttgart fit her game better than the outdoor terre battue here, and Li looked much crisper in her opener against Anabel Medina Garrigues than she had earlier this clay season.

Marion Bartoli vs. Mariana Duque-Marino:  Surviving the grueling three-hour trainwreck in her first-round match may have liberated Bartoli to swing more boldly henceforth.  Or Colombian clay specialist Duque-Marino might finish what Govortsova started, capitalizng on the double faults that continue to flow.  Bartoli cannot count on the Chatrier crowd to rescue her this time.

Ashleigh Barty vs. Maria Kirilenko:  Both women enter this match in excellent form, the Australian teenager having scored her first career victory at a major and the Russian having yielded just a single game.  This tournament has offered a fine showcase for some of the WTA’s rising stars, although Kirilenko’s consistency should leave Barty few options.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Garbine Muguruza:  Continuing her clay success this spring, Jankovic won more of the key points than she often does in fending off occasional nemesis Daniela Hantuchova.  A heavy-hitting Spaniard awaits in Muguruza, who knocked off another Slam-less No. 1 this year in Caroline Woznacki.  Consecutive fourth-round appearances at Indian Wells and Miami suggested Muguruza’s readiness to take the next step forward on a hard court, but her clay results have lagged behind.

Petra Kvitova vs. Peng Shuai:  Yet another three-set rollercoaster defined Kvitova’s path to the second round.  While she looks invincible at her best, seemingly anyone will have a chance against her on her vulnerable days.  Far from just anyone, Peng won a set from Kvitova on a hard court this year and another set on grass last year.  Last week, she reached a Premier final in Brussels, by far her most notable result since her career year in 2011.

ATP:

Lucas Pouille vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Never has Dimitrov advanced past the second round of a major.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, that streak of futility should end here.  Ranked outside the top 300, Pouille has spent most of his limited career at the challenger level, although he did win his first match in straight sets.  Dimitrov aims to set up a third-round rematch of his Madrid meeting with Novak Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal vs. Martin Klizan:  Unable to deliver a strong opening statement in his first match, Nadal instead revealed some notable signs of frailty.  He should settle into a groove more smoothly against a less explosive opponent, using the opportunity to reassert his clay supremacy.  Few players bounce back from a shaky effort better than Nadal.

Fernando Verdasco vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  In their most significant match to date, Tipsarevic held match points against Verdasco at the 2011 Australian Open before tanking the fifth set when the fourth slipped away. The Serb remains an enigmatic competitor who has struggled through a barren season, but he did win their two meetings since then.  Also in dismal form for most of 2013, Verdasco appeared to raise his confidence over the last month.  He demolished his first opponent and should hold a clear surface edge.

Tommy Haas vs. Jack Sock:  The raw American won his first main-draw match at Roland Garros in scintillaing fashion after notching three wins in qualifying just as easily.  Fourteen years his senior, Haas shares Sock’s preference for faster surfaces.  He has produced some solid clay results this year, though, whereas his opponent lost five straight matches before arriving in Paris.  If Sock maintains a high first-serve percentage, this match could become very competitive but still probably not an upset.

Lukas Rosol vs. Fabio Fognini:  With the winner almost certianly destined to face Rafael Nadal, this match bears the whiff of intrigue over the possibility of a Wimbledon rematch.  Fognini’s superior clay game should snuff out Rosol’s hopes for another chance at the Spaniard, especially across a best-of-five match.  The Italian reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in Monte Carlo, although his results have tapered since then.  For his part, Rosol won his first career title in Bucharest, defeating Gilles Simon en route.

Ryan Harrison vs. John Isner:  Rare is the all-American match in the second round of Roland Garros, created this time by an odd quirk of the draw.  Harrison defeated Isner at Sydney just before the older American withdrew from the Australian Open, the start of a disastrous season for him outside a small title in Houston.  Nor did the upset launch Harrison’s season in style, for he fell outside the top 100 this spring and has won just two main-draw matches since that January victory over Isner.  The latter can draw inspiration from his five-setter here against Rafael Nadal in 2010.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Horacio Zeballos:  One of these men barely finished off his match on Tuesday, while the other needed to return on Wednesday for two more sets.  Both Wawrinka and Zeballos defeated marquee Spaniards to win clay titles this spring, Zeballos stunning Nadal in Vina del Mar and Wawrinka dominating Ferrer in Portugal.  The Swiss No. 2’s achievement marked merely one episode in a general upward trend, though, whereas the Argentine’s breakthrough has remained an anomaly.

Robin Haase vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Haase recently collected the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost, halting at the same number as Roger Federer’s record of major titles won.  The floundering Dutchman might play a few more tiebreaks against a man who can match him hold for hold.  The clay-court savvy of both men languishes relatively low, causing them to battle the surface as well as each other.

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Federer, Azarenka, Serena Cruise, Monfils Leads French Parade on Day Four

Azarenka made her Roland Garros 2013 debut today after a four-day wait.

Profiting from more cooperative weather, Roland Garros produced a Day 4 replete with action.  Here’s the review of how it all went down.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Ah, the French in Paris.  Sometimes they dazzle, sometimes they implode, sometimes they puzzle, and sometimes they do all three.  Julien Benneteau achieved the trifecta in a five-set victory over Tobias Kamke, completing his first pair of consecutive victories since February.  En route to the third round, Benneteau a) won a 20-point tiebreak b) blew a two-set lead c) ate a bagel in the fourth set and d) won anyway.  Richard Gasquet, it’s your move.

Worth the wait:  After a 14-game fifth set, the epic between Horacio Zeballos and Vasek Pospisil finally ended a day and two sets after Zeballos could have ended it in a third-set tiebreak.  A young Canadian talent, Pospisil showed grit by rallying from the brink of a straight-sets loss to the brink of a five-set victory.  But Zeballos, who defeated Rafael Nadal to win a South American clay title this spring, relied on his greater experience to get the last word.

Comeback of the day:  Dutch heavy hitter Igor Sijsling looked ready to knock off the lowest men’s seed when he swept two tight sets.  Continuing a surprisingly solid clay campaign, Tommy Robredo surged through the next three sets for the loss of five total games.  The pattern of the scores recalled Roger Federer’s comeback over Juan Martin Del Potro here last year.

Surprise of the day:  Surely elated by his upset over Berdych in a first-round epic, Gael Monfils might have fallen victim to a hangover against the dangerous Ernests Gulbis.  Although he dropped the first set for the second straight match, Monfils outlasted his fellow erratic shot-maker for another quality win that jangled the nerves of his compatriots a bit less.  Up next is a more compelling test of his consistency against Robredo.  Check out the more detailed recap of Gael’s win on this site by colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg.

Gold star:  A few of the less notable home hopes fell today, but all of the leading French men prevailed.  Like Monfils, Benoit Paire completed a comeback from losing the first set to win in four.  Gilles Simon hurled three consecutive breadsticks at clay specialist Pablo Cuevas after he too spotted his opponent a one-set lead.  Jo-Wilfried Tsonga roared through in straight sets for the second consecutive match, as did Jeremy Chardy.  And don’t forget the wacky win by Benneteau explored above.  Plenty of reason remains for French patriots to return as the third round unfolds.

Silver star:  Struggling to win matches this year, Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki both survived potentially tricky encounters.  Tipsarevic cruised past local hero Nicolas Mahut, perhaps helped by the schedule shift away from Court Philippe Chatrier after the rain.  Troicki weathered five taxing sets and two tiebreaks against clay specialist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who had upset 17th seed Juan Monaco.

Marathon man:  For the second straight round, Andreas Seppi prevailed in five sets.  Halfway to defending his fourth-round points from last year, Seppi seemed to have a stranglehold when he bageled Blaz Kavcic in the first set.  He later would allow a two-set lead to escape before regrouping when the match hung in the balance.

Stat of the day:  All 15 men’s seeds in action today advanced, eight in straight sets.

American in Paris:  After winning just one match in his first six Roland Garros appearances, top-ranked man Sam Querrey has won two in his seventh trip here without losing a set.

Question of the day:  Second seed Roger Federer entered this tournament as a distant third favorite for the title after Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.  Looking at least as sharp as either of them, Federer now has lost just 12 games in two matches, albeit against weak competition from two qualifiers.  Should we start taking his title hopes more seriously?

WTA:

Match of the day:  After Victoria Azarenka outlasted her in a long match at the Australian Open, Jamie Hampton secured a happier ending to another three-setter at a major.  Hampton stunned 25th seed Lucie Safarova after winning the first set in a tiebreak, withstanding Safarova’s second-set surge, and closing out a 9-7 final set.  That 16-game affair was the longest set of the women’s tournament so far.

Worth the wait:  Delayed by rain, world No. 3 Azarenka did not start her Roland Garros campaign until Wednesday.  Needing to issue a strong statement, as all of her rivals had, Azarenka delivered with a resounding victory over former doubles partner Elena Vesnina.  None of the top four women has lost more than five games in a match so far.

Comeback of the day:  For the second straight tournament, Svetlana Kuznetsova ate a first-set breadstick from an unseeded opponent.  Whereas the Rome breadstick from Simona Halep preceded another breadstick, the Roland Garros breadstick from Magdalena Rybarikova spurred the 2009 champion into action.  Kuznetsova dropped just four games over the next two sets, responding much more forcefully to adversity.

Surprise of the day:  Surviving a first-round flirtation with disaster boded well for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s chances here.  She almost always has ventured deep into draws this year when passing her first test.  This time, though, Pavlyuchenkova fell short in the second round to Petra Cetkovska in another tight three-setter.  The victim of painful losses here as well, coach Martina Hingis can empathize.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Unseeded 2012 quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi continued her momentum from winning a Premier title in Brussels last week.  Kanepi dispatched 23rd seed Klara Zakopalova in straight sets on a difficult day for Czechs.

Gold star:  Famous forever after what happened last year, Virginie Razzano technically surpassed that performance this year.  Razzano more than justified her wildcard by reaching the third round, perhaps bolstered by the memories of her landmark victory over Serena Williams.

Silver star:  In the first match of her career at Roland Garros, promising Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty made her presence felt.  Barty stunned last week’s Strasbourg runner-up Lucie Hradecka in three sets, overcoming dramatic disparities in power, experience, and clay expertise.

Marathon woman:  Eight of Petra Kvitova’s last nine matches have reached a third set, the latest against the fossilized Aravane Rezai today.  That recent capsule from clay reflects a trend typical for Kvitova overall, for she has played 18 three-setters this year and a staggering 39 in 2012-13.  Whether caused by slow starts or mid-match hiccups, those rollercoasters illustrate her unreliability.

Stat of the day:  Bojana Jovanovski has won three matches since January, two of which have come against Caroline Wozniacki.  The Dane predictably became the first top-ten woman to lose at Roland Garros as Jovanovski accomplished what the more talented Laura Robson could not.

Americans in Paris:  Blasting past Caroline Garcia today, Serena Williams has lost just four games in two matches and 18 games in seven matches since Rome started.  While the top seed continues to look every inch the title favorite, several other American women acquitted themselves well.  Varvara Lepchenko notched a second straight routine victory, while women’s wildcard Shelby Rogers swiped a set from 20th seed Carla Suarez Navarro despite the gap between their relative credentials.  On the other hand, Madison Keys dropped a winnable match to Monica Puig, and Mallory Burdette could not find any answers to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Question of the day:  All of the top four women have roared through their early matches, confirming their elite status.  Outside that group, who has impressed you the most so far?

WTA Charleston Wednesday Gallery: Petkovic, Stosur, Robson, Bouchard and more

Genie Bouchard

CHARLESTON, SC (April 4, 2013) — Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy was on hand Wednesday for all the action at the Family Circle Cup. Players on court that day included Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki, Sam Stosur, Eugenie Bouchard, Laura Robson, Caroline Garcia, Mallory Burdette, Anastasia Rodionova and Ashleigh Barty.

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Acapulco, Florianopolis, and Kuala Lumpur

Can Errani carry her success from one surface and hemisphere to another?

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?)

 

 

Fill Their Cups: Fed Cup World Group Quarterfinal Preview

Just three months after they celebrated, the Czechs must prepare to defend.

One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations.  We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition.  Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?

Czech Republic vs. Australia:  The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend.  But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January.  The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile.  An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty.  Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line.  The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb.  But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.

Pick:  Czech Republic

Italy vs. USA:   To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma:  no Williams, no Stephens, no chance.  Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed.  Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open.  Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved.  That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting.  Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci.  The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup.  Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.

Pick:  Italy

Russia vs. Japan:  Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance.  Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan.  All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals).  And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then.  At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium.  Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1.  One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents.  But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.

Pick:  Russia

Serbia vs. Slovakia:  This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova.  Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination.  When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites.  Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight.  Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis.  A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic.  She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers.  Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.

Pick:  Slovakia

Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.

Wizards of Oz (XII): Previewing Murray vs. Federer and the Women’s Doubles Final

Only one of these men can get some hardware on Sunday.

Read about what to expect from the marquee match in the second men’s semifinal and the intriguing clash of storylines in the women’s doubles final.

Murray vs. Federer:  Preparing for their 20th career meeting, these two familiar foes have battled nearly neck and neck through their first nineteen with Murray holding a slim 10-9 edge.  Perhaps more relevant, however, is the advantage that Federer claims at majors, where he has won three finals from the Scot for the loss of one total set.  On the other hand, one could argue that this trend derives from Murray’s initial futility in major finals, where the pressure of snapping Great Britain’s drought unnerved him repeatedly until his breakthrough last fall.  Among the key turning points that spurred him to that US Open title was his victory over Federer in the gold-medal match at the Olympics, attributable in part to the Swiss star’s fatigue but still a vital confidence surge for Murray.

Claiming his revenge over his Olympics nemesis at the year-end championships in November, Federer recaptured the momentum in their rivalry on a relatively fast surface that suits his game better than Murray’s style.  Still a natural counterpuncher despite his improved aggression, the US Open champion may find the faster court on Rod Laver Arena a disadvantage in this matchup with a man who prefers to shorten the points and force the issue.  (Less consequential, one suspects, is the somewhat contrived issue of his night matches, or lack of them, which he addressed by practicing on Hisense in the evening.)  But Murray encountered no difficulty on the faster outer courts here while winning all of his first five matches in straight sets.  He enters this semifinal fully rested, essential to execute his grinding game plan of wearing down Federer.  He also enters this semifinal largely untested by an opponent worthy of his steel and will need to adjust quickly to the steep spike upward in competitive quality across the net.

Handed a much more challenging draw than Murray, Federer needed five sets to thwart an inspired challenge from Tsonga that forced him to unleash his full array of artistry.  Before then, the formidable serves of twin giants Tomic and Raonic could not trouble the Swiss, who held serve relentlessly until the Frenchman cracked him four times in the quarterfinals.  Likely to lose at least a few service games to Murray, an outstanding returner, Federer will need to convert more of his own break points.  An anemic 4 for 18 against Tsonga, he let several opportunities slip away early in sets that would have eased his progress.  While they did not cost him in that match or in those that preceded it, when he also struggled in that category, Federer cannot offer Murray additional lives and expect to escape.

Another question of note concerns his backhand, which has looked sharp this tournament but has not always shone when tested by the Scot’s superior two-hander.  If Federer can dominate on serve and step inside the baseline to finish points, his groundstroke consistency may not matter.  And Murray has looked uneasy for much of the fortnight with his timing from the baseline as well as his serve, under threat more often than one would expect from his outclassed opponents so far.  All the same, this battle for the right to challenge the defending champion promises greater suspense than Djokovic’s demolition of Ferrer.

Errani/Vinci vs. Barty/Dellacqua:  Champions at Roland Garros and the US Open last year, the Italians who long have dazzled in Fed Cup duty ended 2012 as the best doubles duo in the WTA.  Errani and Vinci also reached the final here last year, falling to Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in a minor upset, so they will aim to reverse that result.  Littered with obstacles, their route so far has required all of their teamwork, ingenuity, and veteran experience to survive.  After they came within three points of defeat against Hsieh and Peng in the quarterfinals, the Italians trailed Venus and Serena by a set and a break in the semifinals.  One would think that deficit insurmountable, but Errani and Vinci pounced on a late second-set lull to turn around the match despite their disadvantage in overall power.

Their lengthy annals of experience together offer them a crucial edge over the Australian hopes of Barty and Dellacqua, who surely stunned even their most ardent fans by reaching this final without losing a set.  Defeating Schiavone and her partner in their opener, the Aussies delivered their most significant upset over third seeds Kirilenko and Raymond.  Nor have Barty and Dellacqua looked back from there as they plowed through a section of the draw riddled with upsets.  For the 16-year-old novice and the injury-troubled lefty, Friday presents a golden opportunity to earn the most significant accomplishment of their careers so far, a great leap forward for Barty in particular.  For the Australian fans, meanwhile, the chance to support their players in doubles after most of their singles threats exited early should not go unnoticed.

 

Photos: Australian Open Doubles with Hlavackova, Schiavone, Mirza and more

Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka

Our esteemed tennis photographer is currently at Melbourne Park and will be providing daily tennis galleries from the 2013 Australian Open. Make sure to check back each day for a new gallery and don’t miss the fun from down under!

January 15, 2013 — Our Tennis Grandstand photographer has today’s featured gallery which includes a unique doubles set, featuring Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka, Ashleigh Barty, Casey Dellacqua, Sania Mirza, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Francesca Schiavone, Christina McHale and many more! Enjoy!

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