Christina McHale

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From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

Can Cibulkova make it two straight titles with a Carlsbad defense?

As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts.  The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.

Carlsbad:

Top half:  World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season.  Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February.  Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week.  Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents.  An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika.  Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.  Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs

The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.  Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics.  Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb.  The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test.  Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals.  This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic.  The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

Bottom half:  Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati.  The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis.   A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round.  Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead.  A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far.  That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013.  An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.

The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances.  Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here.  She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically.  Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko.  That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

Top half:  Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard.  World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered.  Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford.  Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova.  Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.

Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss.  Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages.  The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then.  More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia.  These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend.  Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.

Bottom half:  Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections.  Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis.  Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May.  But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.

By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer.  American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago.  The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013.  Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries.  A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

Future Stars Earning Their Stripes: Rising Americans in Stanford and Atlanta

Ryan Harrison flexed some muscle this week in Atlanta.

Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours.  The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting.  Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.

Atlanta:

Ryan Harrison:  He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand.  But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents.  He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis.  Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably.  A first career final is not inconceivable.

Christian Harrison:  Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament.  For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta.  While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher.  The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins.  Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.

Jack Sock:  A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo.  This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court.  Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament.  Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta.  Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.

Rhyne Williams:  Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him.  Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve.  He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces.  But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.

Denis Kudla:  The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club.  Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas.  He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.

Tim Smyczek:  Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer.  Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments.  Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey.  Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake.  At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.

Stanford:

Jamie Hampton:  Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.  A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier.  The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week.  She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors.  A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne.  She must clean up her game by then.

Madison Keys:  In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina.  Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year.  She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat.  Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.

Christina McHale:  A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers.  The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May.  McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year.  Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.

Coco Vandeweghe:  Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent.  The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough.  Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else.  She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.

Mallory Burdette:  Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener.  The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall.  Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss.  She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.

Nicole Gibbs:  The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university.  Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second.  But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor.  Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third.  Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.

The Series Is Open: Previewing WTA Stanford (and Baku)

Can anyone bring Radwanska to her knees at Stanford?

The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA.  In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments.  Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.

Stanford:

Top half:  Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford.  Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw.  The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon.  Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before.  She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year.  A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.

Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it.  American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years.  Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton.  Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs.  Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.

Semifinal:  Radwanska vs. Keys

Bottom half:  The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska.  Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis.  Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer.  Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.

The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges.  This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set.  Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round.  The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea.  A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open.  None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.

Semifinal:  Cibulkova vs. Stosur

Final:  Radwanska vs. Stosur

Baku:

Top half:  Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then.  Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then.  Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.

At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago.  Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers.  The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.

Bottom half:  Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku.  Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein.  Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog.  A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section.  Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.

The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals.  That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw.  She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic.  Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals.  A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.

Final:  Pliskova vs. Vekic

The End of the Red Brick Road: WTA Brussels and Strasbourg Previews

Success on clay has remained a bit beyond Caroline Wozniacki's reach so far.

One Premier tournament and one International tournament complete the Road to Roland Garros within striking distance of Paris.  None of the women involved are in serious contention for the clay season’s ultimate prize, but the absence of those elite names could lead to some tightly contested matches in playing fields without clear favorites.  I forwent predictions this time because your guess is as good as mine.  (Feel free to opine in the comments, as always.)

Brussels:

Top half:  Seven of the Brussels seeds will receive seeds in Paris next week, a strong statement considering the tournament’s placement on the eve of Roland Garros.  In need of a strong statement herself is top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who took a wildcard into the tournament following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome.  Wozniacki has struggled on clay for most of her career but should aim to halt her skid before dropping outside the top ten.  Unfortunately for her, recurrent nemesis Julia Goerges lurks in the quarterfinals.  This German notably defeated Wozniacki to win the Stuttgart clay title two years ago, and she has added two more victories over the Dane since then.  Since she has impressed hardly more than Wozniacki has recently, though, one can’t entirely discount Swiss clay specialist Romina Oprandi or the qualifiers who litter this section.

None of the women in the second quarter has distinguished herself consistently on clay, although Arantxa Rus does own a Roland Garros victory over Kim Clijsters.  Having reached the second week of Roland Garros last year, the fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens looks to build upon her modestly encouraging effort in Rome.  There, Stephens won consecutive matches for the first time since defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open.  Her depleted confidence resurfaced in a lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova, but a small tournament like Brussels offers a useful venue to rebuild that strength.  With fast-court specialists like Tsvetana Pironkova and Magdalena Rybarikova around her, Stephens might face her stiffest resistance from Peng Shuai.  The Chinese double-fister won their only previous meeting, also on clay, but Stephens has improved markedly in the two years since then.

Bottom half:  By far the most intriguing first-round match of the draw pits third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova against Kaia Kanepi.  This battle of 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalists will feature a contrast of styles between the compact, agile Slovak and the robust, heavy-hitting Estonian.  Never have they met on clay, while Kanepi has won two of three matches overall.  Of some lesser note is a potential second-round clash between Varvara Lepchenko and Stefanie Voegele.  The American upset Schiavone at Roland Garros last year and has continued the clay success atypical among her compatriots this year with two victories over Roberta Vinci.  For her part, Voegele reached the semifinals of Charleston on green clay, although she has won only one match on red clay.   Kanepi defeated Lepchenko last fall before the injuries that sidelined her for several months, so an upset of Cibulkova could open her draw.

Probably disappointing many Belgian fans, their two leading women would meet as early as the second round in their home tournament.  Both have achieved more success on grass and hard courts than on clay, and both open against rising American stars.  Having upset Li Na in Madrid as a lucky loser, Madison Keys will aim to snuff out home hope Kirsten Flipkens in a match of baseline first strikes against all-court craft.  Belgian No. 2 Yanina Wickmayer faces a somewhat easier assignment in the form of Jamie Hampton, who has not won a match in a clay main draw this year.  Awaiting one of the Belgians in the quarterfinals is second-seeded Roberta Vinci, an artisan of traditional clay-court tennis.  Vinci has not found her best form for much of the spring but did win a small event in Katowice, Poland.

Strasbourg:

Top half:  Atop the draw is French No. 1 Marion Bartoli, who has emitted the occasional burst of inspiration on home soil.  The eccentric double-fister reached the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, although clay usually hampers her style of staccato points and quick strikes.  Two rising stars could challenge her in this section, compatriot Caroline Garcia and Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.  The former just won a clay challenger at Cagnes-sur-Mer, while the latter notched a significant victory over Laura Robson on the green clay of Charleston.  First-time champions in 2013, Memphis titlist Marina Erakovic and Florianopolis titlist Monica Niculescu will seek to end spring losing streaks when they meet in the first round.  Neither can match Bartoli’s talent, but either could befuddle one of the youngsters.

Another Frenchwoman holds the highest seed in the second quarter, and world No. 30 Alize Cornet’s game suits clay more effectively than Bartoli’s style.  The mixture of qualifiers and fellow Frenchwomen surrounding her will turn few heads, while Chanelle Scheepers will not overpower Cornet.  The latter two women bring similar patterns of results to Strasbourg.  Before she fell to Melanie Oudin in Rome qualifying, though, Scheepers did reach a clay semifinal in Marrakech and upset Jelena Jankovic on the surface in Madrid.  Last year’s runner-up here, Cornet reached a somewhat more significant clay semifinal in Acapulco this February but suffered a loss to an Italian wildcard in Rome.

Bottom half:  Following a mid-career surge, Hsieh Su-Wei has embedded herself within the top 50 and holds the fourth seed here.  An opening match against promising German talent Annika Beck intrigues, as does a possible quarterfinal meeting with the elegant Daniela Hantuchova.  Handed a wildcard into Madrid, Hantuchova made the most of the opportunity by upsetting Petra Kvitova en route to the final 16.  Also in this section is Karolina Pliskova, a heavy server who nearly won her first title this year at Kuala Lumpur and defeated Kanepi on the clay of Portugal.

Perhaps worth more attention than the seeds in the lowest quarter, some of the unseeded entrants could score an upset or two.  For the rest of her career, Virginie Razzano will struggle to trump the achievement of defeating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, which probably resulted in her wildcard here.  Aligned against Czech doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka in a first-round match to watch, Garbine Muguruza aims to notch her first clay main-draw win in a season when she has reached the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami.  In the shadow of compatriots like Stephens and Keys, sixth-seeded Christina McHale continues to seek traction in her comeback from mononucleosis.  Second-seeded Tamira Paszek has lost 11 of her last 12 matches and seems unlikely to increase that total suddenly here.

***

Capsules on the Roland Garros contenders will follow this week before the draws appear on Friday.

 

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Charleston and Monterrey

Will Serena make it two trophies in two weeks?

In a quiet week for the ATP outside Davis Cup, the WTA features a Premier tournament on the unique green clay and the only Mexican hard-court tournament on the calendar.  An old event and a new event, Charleston and Monterrey feature fields surprisingly strong in view of the two marquee tournaments that filled last month.

Charleston:

Top half:  A moment of silence, please, for Mandy Minella and Camila Giorgi.  These two women, who have struggled in recent moments, battle for the honor of sharing a court with world No. 1 Serena Williams.  Fresh from her Miami triumph, the defending champion in Charleston might face her first meaningful test in 2009 Charleston champion Sabine Lisicki.  The German has struggled to gain traction outside the grass season, though, as her unreliable groundstrokes undo the contributions of her explosive serve.  A rematch of last year’s Charleston final could await against Lucie Safarova in the quarterfinals, although Sorana Cirstea will aim to build upon her fourth-round appearance in Miami, where she upset world No. 6 Angelique Kerber.

The fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens has struggled to profit from the favorable draws that she has received with a ranking inflated by her Australian Open semifinal appearance.  Although she won a set from Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, she has not won more than one match at any tournament since that Melbourne breakthrough.  In her vicinity stand two compatriots at opposite ends of their careers, the veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands and the teenage star Madison Keys.  The formidable serves of either or both women could threaten Stephens more than Tamira Paszek, a grass-court specialist mired in yet another slump.  Three more Americans will vie to become her quarterfinal opponent, including the first-round winner of a contest between Varvara Lepchenko and Christina McHale.  Both Lepchenko and McHale could use a strong result to boost their confidence, but the real name to note here is Venus Williams.  A finalist in Charleston four years ago, Venus needs to conserve her energy with comfortable wins in the early rounds.

Semifinal:  Serena vs. Venus

Bottom half:  Another former Charleston champion, Sam Stosur, aims to kick off her clay campaign in style as she recovers from an Indian Wells injury.  Her closest challengers range from the aging but still elegant Daniela Hantuchova to Laura Robson, the latter of whom urgently needs some positive energy.  Robson has lost demoralizing three-setters early in each of her last three tournaments, two after winning the first set, in a test of her volatile temper.  Another woman with mercurial tendencies, Jelena Jankovic hopes to prove that her unexpected surge to the Miami semifinals  marked more than a mirage.  Jankovic excelled on clay when at her peak but has landed in a challenging section near March sensation Garbine Muguruza and the heavy-hitting German Mona Barthel.  A surface faster than its red counterpart, green clay has rewarded such power hitters before.

Arguably the weakest quarter of the draw offers Caroline Wozniacki an opportunity to recapture her former mastery of this surface.  A former champion both here and at the defunct companion event in Amelia Island / Ponte Vedra Beach, the second seed probably eyes her last chance to leave an impact until the US Open Series.  Much happier for the clay season’s arrival is Carla Suarez Navarro, well inside the top 25 now and likely hoping to rise even higher on her favorite surface.  Near her lie both the fiery young star Yulia Putintseva and the dormant Julia Goerges, who has recorded several upsets on clay with her elongated but penetrating groundstrokes.  Wozniacki may feel grateful to avoid Goerges, her nemesis more than once, but she could face an even more talented German in her second match.  Still rebuilding her confidence following a series of debilitating injuries, Andrea Petkovic hopes to justify her wildcard in this soft section and string together some victories.

Semifinal:  Jankovic vs. Wozniacki

Final:  Serena vs. Wozniacki

Monterrey:

Top half:  The only top-ten player in the field, Angelique Kerber did not waste the opportunity to collect a few more points on her favored hard courts before the clay season arrives.  Gifted uneventful early matches, she could face top-ranked Japanese woman Ayumi Morita in the quarterfinals.  This double-fister recently reached the semifinals at Kuala Lumpur and delivered a competitive effort against Serena in Miami, not long after she had upset top-seeded Ivanovic in Pattaya City.  While she has split her four previous meetings with Kerber, the German won the last two comfortably and has not lost to Morita since 2007.

Several potential future stars occupy the second quarter, such as USC women’s star Maria Sanchez.  Struggling to emerge from qualifying draws at most of the tournaments that she has played, Sanchez did register a key main-draw victory at Indian Wells.  Halted by Agnieszka Radwanska there, she faces the Pole’s less renowned sister, Urszula, in a match after which the winner might meet Donna Vekic.  Still early in the evolutionary process, this teenager won main-draw matches at the Australian Open and Miami, the latter over fellow rising star Yulia Putintseva.  The question remains whether any of these women can threaten third-seeded Maria Kirilenko, who exited Miami early after reaching an Indian Wells semifinal.  Among the best results of her career, that accomplishment built upon a Pattaya City title and second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Curiously, Kirilenko never has faced Kerber.

Bottom half:  Accepting a wildcard at the last moment, former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic represents the tournament’s most compelling attraction for fans.  Her early draw looks tranquil, although she sometimes has failed to take care of business in these situations.  The hard-serving Hungarian Timea Babos will pose her most credible pre-quarterfinal challenge, but she has won only a handful of matches since the US Open. A more intriguing series of tests lie ahead for the sixth-seeded Yanina Wickmayer, who could meet Kimiko Date-Krumm in the second round.  The Japanese veteran with the knack for creating uncanny angles nearly stunned Venus in Miami, revealing strong form ahead of a clash with Florianopolis champion Monica Niculescu.  Either of those women could disrupt Wickmayer’s rhythm with their idiosyncratic play but would struggle to protect their serves from Ivanovic.

The woman whom Niculescu defeated in the Florianopolis final, Olga Puchkova, finds herself sandwiched between two talented but slumping seeds.  Despite starting the year by reaching the Brisbane final, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has sunk back into her dismal slump since then with opening-round losses in five of six tournaments.  At a tournament where she has won two of her three carer titles, she will need to draw confidence from those memories.  The second-seeded Marion Bartoli has displayed form more encouraging but has not won more than two matches at any tournament this year as uncertainty has swirled around her coaching situation.  In addition to Puchkova, young Americans Lauren Davis and Coco Vandeweghe lurk in her vicinity, while Pavlyuchenkova may encounter top-ranked junior Daria Gavrilova in the second round.  This event provides an excellent opportunity to catch a glimpse of developing talents like Gavrilova.

Final:  Kirilenko vs. Ivanovic

Blake, Hewitt, McHale take part in Sony Open Lindt Kids’ Day

Lleyton Hewitt, Christina McHale, James Blake_600

MIAMI, FL (March 19, 2013) — More than 1500 children from Miami-Dade and Broward county public schools descended on the Sony Open today for the annual Lindt Kids’ Day. The children participated in a tennis clinic and received encouraging words from WTA doubles’ team Abigail Spears and Raquel Kops-Jones; as well as James Blake, Christina McHale and former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. The players not only spoke with the children, but joined the kids on court to hit around with them.

At the conclusion of the day, the children were showered with goodies from Buddy Fruits, Head Penn and of course delicious Lindt Chocolates!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Will Vika hang on to her hardware here as well as she did in Melbourne?

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

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!

Australian Open in Photos: Vekic, Watson, Robredo and more

Heather Watson wins at the Australian Open

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 is back and today’s featured gallery includes Heather Watson, Donna Vekic, Tommy Robredo, Jesse Levine, Garbine Muguruza, Christina McHale, Olivia Rogowska and Josselin Ouanna.

American McHale Runs Into The Putintseva Show

Yulia Putintseva

By David Kane

It has been a rough couple of months for American upstart Christina McHale.

After a promising 2011 that saw her topple then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the New Jersey native began 2012 in bright fashion, taking out Petra Kvitova in three grueling sets in Indian Wells and achieved a box set of third round finishes at the majors by Wimbledon. By the summer, though, her results began to tail off and it was revealed that McHale was suffering from a prolonged case of mononucleosis.

Having famously felled Justine Henin in the mid-2000s, “the kissing disease” sent McHale into a tailspin of form that arguably reached its nadir on her home court. During her rise, the American had credited training sessions at the National Tennis Center. But at the US Open, she failed to make it past an even sicker Kiki Bertens, who ran off the court mid-game to seek relief.

It may be a new year and McHale is mono-free, but things have yet to brighten for the American on the tennis court. Unseeded and overshadowed by compatriots like Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis, McHale was excluded from an ESPN graphic featuring “Young Americans” as the Australian Open got underway.

But the worst was yet to come.

McHale could have drawn anyone in the first round: a Williams sister or perhaps Maria Sharapova. But instead, she was slated to face World No. 125 and the poster girl of “Generation Spitfire,” Yulia Putintseva. Putintseva earned her place in the main draw at the end of last year, and spent the off-season training at the Mourataglou Academy where she hit with big names like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Despite dropping her first match of the year in Auckland, Putintseva came into 2013 ready to play.

For a player recovering from mononucleosis, McHale could not have drawn a more ironic opponent. Standing at 5’1”, Putintseva may lack many things, but one thing on which she is never short is energy. Playing in her debut Slam on the senior level, Putintseva unleashed a sampling of that effusive energy as she romped through the first set and a half, dropping a mere handful of points on her serve. McHale had played precious few matches in the last few months, and even fewer matches where she played the role of veteran to Putintseva’s newcomer. Yet, it must have been that veteran sense that allowed the American to take advantage of a weak moment from the Kazakh to level the match.

Unfortunately for McHale, Putintseva has come a long way in just a few months. Notoriously volatile, she remained positive after an embarrassing tiebreaker score of 7-0 and continued serving well to open the third. Faced with an opportunity in the fourth game, Putintseva broke the American and never looked back. ESPN hardly had time to send a camera out to untelevised Court 7 for the match’s hurried conclusion:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_63gPctanLk&w=560&h=315]

Putintseva’s celebration is not only one of legend, but it also signified the dramatic shift in fortune for these two women. McHale looked exhausted and well beyond her years at the end of a brutal effort. Putintseva smiled broadly as she skipped to the net to shake the American’s hand. As a viewer it was a bittersweet moment; as nice as it was to see Putintseva shake some of her demons and close out the biggest win of her career, one could not help but feel for the young American, once on the rise, future unknown.

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