Simona Halep’s Steady Rise

The transition from the junior to the professional circuit in tennis is never an easy one. Aside from the daunting physical transition between the two circuits, the tennis itself could classify as a different sport. Strategies that are successful on the junior circuit rarely, if ever, translate to winning matches on the WTA and ATP tours. Over the past half-decade, many of the most successful juniors have been relegated to nothing more than journeyman status on the big stage.

Removed from the constraints of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rules in 2009, Simona Halep made her first career WTA final in 2010, her first top 100 season, but came up short against Iveta Benesova in Fes; she returned to the finals in Fes the following year, but also came out second-best against Alberta Brianti. Halep’s breakthrough began to take shape in the middle of last season, as she reached her biggest career final to date at the Premier event in Brussels before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska; she ended 2012 inside the top 50 at No. 47.

Long considered yet another talented and successful junior whose level on the professional tour had stagnated, Halep’s 2013 has been a revelation. The 21-year-old Romanian, who was the Roland Garros junior champion in 2009, is currently at a career-high ranking of No. 30 in the world and is projected to rise even higher on the back of her performance in Budapest this week.

Halep arrived in 2013 when she had the tournament of her career to date at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. She recorded three of the biggest scalps of her career there, as she qualified and defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and two-time champion Jelena Jankovic to reach the semifinals. Following that performance, Halep finally came out on top in not just one WTA final, but two; her first title came on clay in the inaugural event in Nürnberg and the second came less than a week later on the grass courts of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Although she has, to this point, mathematically risen just 17 spots in the rankings since the beginning of the year, Halep’s transformation has been more impressive than the numbers suggest.

Having been well-known for what she removed, rather than added, to her game to compete with the big girls, Halep’s on court mentality has undergone a revolution in 2013. The Romanian had previously been at her most content camped out behind the baseline, running corner to corner until her opponent self-imploded. Over the past 12 months, Halep has evolved into more of a classic counterpuncher; she possesses some of the most cleanly produced and technically sound groundstrokes on the WTA Tour. As she is slight of stature, she will never be in complete control of all of the matches she plays, but she now recognizes when she has opportunities to take matches into her hands.

Previously known as a clay-court specialist, Halep’s unwillingness to take the initiative in matches proved to be her undoing on faster surfaces. Winning two titles in less than two weeks on two different surfaces is impressive at any level, but particularly when making the transition from clay to grass. Halep’s most impressive performance during that streak came in the second round in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, when she defeated top-seeded Roberta Vinci while dropping only one game.

Halep might not have the flashy weapons or media attention of some of her contemporaries, but her rise has been the result of nothing more than hard work. However, she has been hindered by unkind draws in slams. First, Halep drew Carla Suarez Navarro in the opening round at Roland Garros. In the most open section of the draw, either player had a chance to make the second week; it was Suarez Navarro who came out on top in a tough three-set affair, and she eventually made the fourth round. Having just missed out on a seeding at Wimbledon, Halep reached the second round before falling to Li Na in another three-set battle.

One impressive run does not a season make, as the WTA rankings reward a balance between consistent performances and notable success. Halep will pass Sorana Cirstea in the rankings on Monday, and will be the Romanian No. 1 for the first time in her career. With a legitimate chance to add to her title haul this weekend in Budapest and going forward, and with two-thirds of the 2013 season in the rearview mirror, Halep’s steady rise makes her one of the leading contenders for the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.


Another favorite of mine has left the building. Caroline Wozniacki lost against Na Li in the fourth round of the Australian Open. With a 6-4, 6-3 loss she was sent home but will hopefully return stronger than before.

When asked why she has lost on the last two occassions the two have met she answered:

Q. Li has beaten you the last two occasions. What does she have that you find difficult playing against?

CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: I don’t know. I had chances in both my matches and I didn’t take them. Against her, you need to just play on your highest level the whole match through and keep concentrated and keep a lot of balls in play.

Today I was playing well at some points, less good at some others. I need the consistency.

I don’t know about you but I get the feeling that these two’s matches are legendary matches in the making.

[nggallery id=16]

Martin Edges Krickstein; To Vie For Fourth Straight Charlotte Final

CHARLOTTE, N.C., September 24, 2009 – Todd Martin defeated fellow American Aaron Krickstein 2-6, 7-6(3), 11-9 (Champions Tie-Breaker) Thursday to advance into the semifinals of the $150,000 Breezeplay Championships at The Palisades at The Palisades Country Club in Charlotte, N.C.  Martin, a singles finalist at the Outback Champions Series event in Charlotte for all three years of the tournament’s existence, will look to advance to a fourth straight final when he next plays the winner of Friday’s quarterfinal between Jim Courier and Mikael Pernfors.

In 2006, in the first-year of the event in Charlotte, Martin reached the tournament final, falling to Courier 5-7, 7-6 (6), 10-4 (Champions Tie-Breaker). In 2007, Martin lost to Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-4 in the championship match, while last year, Martin reached the final at The Palisades for a third straight year, losing to Courier again 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 (Champions Tie-Breaker).

Against Krickstein, Martin had his serve broken twice in the first set as Krickstein surprised Martin with penetrating forehand returns and consistent play from the baseline. Martin appeared frustrated and flustered on court and struggled with his consistency, but was able to hold serve six times in the second set to force the tie-breaker. Martin connected on some strongly hit forehands and timely first serves to win the tie-breaker 7-3 and force the first-to-10-point “Champions Tie-Breaker,” played in lieu of the third-set. Martin jumped out to an 8-4 lead and appeared ready to cruise to the come-back win but Krickstein rallied to win five straight points to hold match point at 9-8. Martin, however, rallied to save the match point and win the next two points to close out the match.

“The match for me was horrible in the beginning,” said Martin. “I knew it couldn’t get any worse. I always play my best when I’m not playing to win. At one point tonight I was just trying to lose gracefully. The courts are very slow which doesn’t suit me well. I rushed an awful lot in the first set and Aaron played really well.”

Martin will have Friday off as Courier and Pernfors play to determine who will play the 1999 U.S. Open singles finalist in the semifinals. Courier and Pernfors, however, were on the court Thursday night as both players competed in a special celebrity match that opened up the evening session, with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory pairing with Pernfors to defeat Olympic Gold Medalist Skater Dan Jansen and Courier 6-4.

The remaining schedule of play for the tournament is as follows:

Friday, Sept. 25
Starting at 7 pm
Jim Courier vs. Mikael Pernfors
Followed By
Pat Cash vs. Jimmy Arias

Saturday, Sept. 26
Starting at 2 pm
Doubles Match
Followed By
Pete Sampras vs. Pat Cash/Jimmy Arias winner
Starting at 7 pm
Doubles Match
Followed By
Todd Martin winner vs. Jim Courier/Mikael Pernfors winner

Sunday, Sept. 27
Starting at 2 pm
Third Place Match
Followed by
Championship Match

Sampras won the opening event on the 2009 Outback Champions Series, defeating John McEnroe in the final of the Champions Cup Boston in February. McEnroe won the second event of the year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, defeating Courier in the final. Sampras won his second title of the year at the Del Mar Development Champions Cup in Los Cabos, Mexico, defeating Patrick Rafter in the final. Courier won his first title of the 2009 season in April at the Cayman Islands, defeating Arias in the final. Cash successfully defended his title on the grass courts at the Hall of Fame Champions Cup in Newport, R.I. in August, defeating Courier in the final. Following Charlotte, the next event on the Outback Champions Series will be held in Surprise, Ariz., where Andre Agassi will make his debut Oct. 8-11.

Founded in 2005, the Outback Champions Series features some of the biggest names in tennis over the last 25 years, including Andre Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, Courier and others. To be eligible to compete on the Outback Champions Series, players must have reached at least a major singles final, been ranked in the top five in the world or played singles on a championship Davis Cup team. The Outback Champions Series features seven events on its 2009 schedule with each event featuring $150,000 in prize money as well as Champions Series points that will determine the year-end Champions Rankings No. 1.

InsideOut Sports + Entertainment is a New York City-based independent producer of proprietary events and promotions founded in 2004 by former world No. 1 and Hall of Fame tennis player Jim Courier and former SFX and Clear Channel executive Jon Venison. In 2005, InsideOut launched its signature property, the Outback Champions Series, a collection of tennis events featuring the greatest names in tennis over the age of 30. In addition, InsideOut produces many other successful events including “Legendary Night” exhibitions, charity events, corporate outings and tennis fantasy camps such as the annual “Ultimate Fantasy Camp”. Through 2008, InsideOut Sports + Entertainment events have raised over $4 million for charity. For more information, please log on to or

Consistency Is Key To Being No. 1

NEW YORK – OK, so what if Serena Williams has won the women’s singles at the three of the last four Grand Slam tournaments. Who cares that Serena is the defending champion here at the US Open. After all, we’re talking consistency, and that’s what really counts on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

“If you play consistent, you can be very highly ranked,” said Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister. “I guess it’s all about playing consistent these days.”

Kim Clijsters knows something about being ranked number one in the world. She held that lofty spot herself some six years ago.
“It’s just a matter of consistency,” Clijsters said. “It’s the biggest key.”

If nothing else, Dinara Safina is consistent. She entered the US Open with the best main draw match winning percentage on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour with a 52-12 win-loss record. The Russian is one of four players to have won three titles this year, and she has reached the semifinals or better in the last four Grand Slam tournaments.

She also has consistently failed to come away from one of the sport’s four major tournaments with the championship bling. And that’s why there is controversy about her number one ranking.

“The poor girl, she’s trying her best,” said someone who should know, Marat Safin, Dinara’s brother and a former number one on the men’s tour. “She gets the attention, but not the kind of attention that a person deserves, especially when you’re number one in the world.

“Everybody is giving her hard time about, ‘Are you really number one in the world?’ Yes, yes, she’s really number one in the world. Go check on the ranking. She didn’t do the ranking.”

The burden of expectations proved Thursday to be almost heavier on Safina than the weight of her opponent’s shots. For her second straight match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Safina fought through her nerves as well as over-matched opponents.

She advanced to the third round by outlasting Germany’s Kristina Barrois 6-7 (5) 6-2 6-3, but instilled no fear in her future foes. As she did in her opener, another three-setter, Safina survived her own twin terrors of double faults and unforced errors.
“She was playing better at the end, serving better,” said Barrois, who turns 28 at the end of this month but has been a professional player for only three years. “I’m disappointed I came close. It was close, but not close enough.”

Barrois was playing in just her second US Open, losing in the opening round a year ago. Safina, on the other hand, was a finalist at both the Australian and French Opens earlier this year, falling to Serena Williams “Down Under” and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Paris.
That history made no difference under the bright skies and strong sunshine at Louis Armstrong Stadium. For most of the match, Barrois played Safina evenly, for better or worse. The world’s top player had 38 unforced errors, five fewer than her opponent; Barrois had six double faults, Safina 15.

“In the first set I played on my highest level,” the German said. “At the end she was serving well. The important thing is how you play the important points.”

For the second straight match, Safina was forced to go three sets. For the second straight match, she emerged the winner. That’s what number ones do.

American teen-ager Melanie Oudin pulled off the tournament’s first big upset, knocking off fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva 5-7 6-4 6-3. The 17-year-old is no stranger to the big stage, having reached the fourth round at Wimbledon earlier this summer.

“I played with no fear today,” said Oudin, a 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia. “She’s expected to win and I just went out there and played my game and I came out with a win.”

Sixth-seeded Jelena Jankovic followed Dementieva out of the tournament, falling to Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 6-3 6-7 (4) 7-6 (6). Jankovic, who held the world number one ranking at the beginning of this year, said the death of her grandmother Wednesday night was uppermost in her mind rather than the match.

Safina may have been able to have had a much easier day. She had two set points in the 12th game of the opening set, when Barrois double-faulted to 30-40 and again at ad point following a razor-sharp backhand pass down the line. But Barrois was able to hold and send the set into a tiebreak.

Of the 12 points played, seven went against serve. Barrois took the lead when Safina double-faulted at set point. Safina wasted no time moving out front in the second set. But Barrois broke back in the fourth game.

“I play a lot of slice,” Barrois said. “She likes a heavy ball, so I play slice to her and short.”

That strategy worked until unforced errors began overwhelming the German’s game. At the same time, Safina finally was able to quiet her nerves and cut down on her mistakes.

After Safina took a 4-3 lead in the final set, breaking her opponent in the seventh game at 30, Barrois jumped out to 0-40 advantage, triple break point, thanks to two double faults and a wild forehand that sailed wide. Safina won the next two points before Barrios had an open court but sailed a backhand long.

She bent over and buried her head into her hands, knowing her best chance at an upset had disappeared.

Safina finally held to 5-3 , then broke Barrois at love to advance to a third-round meeting against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, who beat Italy’s Tathiana Garbin 6-1 6-3.