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.

Pica Power: Monica Puig Impresses in Portugal

In a nation dominated by boxers and baseball players, Puerto Rico has never been a breeding ground for successful tennis players. Gigi Fernandez won 17 grand slam doubles titles and two Olympic medals representing the United States. The most successful women’s player to play under the Puerto Rican flag was Kristina Brandi, who peaked at a career high ranking of No. 27 in 2001, won one WTA singles title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1999 and represented her country in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

One of the leaders of the WTA’s current Generation Tweet, Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig first appeared on the radar for most tennis fans in January, when she qualified for the Brisbane International, gave Angelique Kerber all should could handle and held match point before Kerber rallied for the 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(7) win.

Also in January, she was incredibly candid in a sit-down with the WTA; her goals include finishing 2013 in the top 20, and she posed a frank and self-assured analysis of her game. “I wouldn’t say that I have that many weaknesses – all I know is that I have a lot of strengths.” While her more experienced (and to date, more successful) contemporaries including Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens have struggled under the weight of expectations and shied away from the media spotlight, Puig possesses confidence in droves. Her seemingly endless self-confidence (and dare I say swagger?) are all the more impressive when one considers that she has played a total of eight WTA main draws in her young career, and has never even qualified for the main draw in a major.

Well, we know Puig’s talked the talk, but can she walk the walk?

Much like any teenager in her early days, Puig’s 2013 results have been decidedly mixed. She pushed Kerber one week, then fell the Qiang Wang in the first round of Australian Open qualifying the next. She pushed Venus Williams too in a long three setter in Charleston, but then lost to Kurumi Nara in an ITF event in Pelham, Alabama and to Nastassja Burnett in Stuttgart qualifying while on the cusp of the top 100. Consistency is a key skill for any young player but especially for one with lofty goals for her second full WTA season.

This week in Oerias, however, that’s all changed.

Puig’s week in Portugal started as poorly as she could’ve possibly imagined when she found herself 0-6, 0-1 down to rising Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro Flor in the opening round of qualifying. It seemed as though she was headed into yet another valley in her roller-coaster 2013; however, Puig’s now trademark fighting spirit and feisty demeanor had other ideas, and she came away with a 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. After rolling over Claire Feuerstein in the second qualifying round, Puig fell at the final qualifying hurdle to Galina Voskoboeva. Nonetheless, she still found a way into the main draw as a lucky loser when Alize Cornet withdrew from the event. She defeated fifth-seed Julia Goerges in straight sets in the opening round, her career-best win in terms of ranking.

When Francesca Schiavone turned pro, Puig was five years old. When Schiavone won Roland Garros in 2010, Puig was the fifth seed in the girl’s event, and reached the quarterfinals; the following year, she was runner-up in the junior event. The gulf in experience didn’t seem to matter on Centralito on Wednesday as Puig systematically dismantled her veteran opponent 6-3, 6-2 to reach her first WTA quarterfinal.

As a result of her exploits in Portugal, Puig will finally break into the top 100 for the first time on Monday. At a slight (for women’s tennis standards) 5’7”, the Puerto Rican plays bigger than she is in more ways than one. A flat hitter who’s agile and can scramble when needed, she has all the tools to make inroads on the WTA. Couple that with a better than good head on her shoulders and some serious moxie, and Puig might be ready to embrace the big time when it comes to her.


The WTA’s Lost Girls

One of the things that makes tennis so unique is the ability to categorize periods in the sport by generations; the struggle of the “new guard” to take control from the “old guard” is a constantly recurring narrative. With the news Wednesday that Agnes Szavay has officially retired from professional tennis due to lingering back issues, it’s only right to take a look at the highest-profile players in what can be dubbed “The Lost Generation” of the WTA; each of these women, fairly close in age, all found success over a short period of time that all went away in an instant due to injuries, personal problems or both.

It all began with Nicole Vaidisova.

In 2004, her first full season as a professional, Vaidisova became the sixth-youngest champion in WTA at the Tier V event in Vancouver, aged 15 years, three months and 23 days. Behind her strong serve and attacking baseline game, Vaidisova looked to be the next champion who had been groomed of the courts of the Bollettieri academy.

Despite being born in 1989, Vaidisova was a force on the senior circuit while her contemporaries were still playing juniors. When she made the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2006, defeating Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams along the way, Caroline Wozniacki was the second seed in the junior event, players including Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova were unseeded there, and Agnieszka Radwanska won the title; in addition, Victoria Azarenka was the 2005 ITF Junior World Champion. Vaidisova reached her second Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2007, and peaked at No. 7 in May of that year.

Also in 2007, the trio of Anna Chakvetadze, Tatiana Golovin and Szavay arrived.

Golovin burst on to the scene very early in her professional career, reaching the fourth round in her debut at the 2004 Australian Open and winning the mixed doubles with Richard Gasquet at their home slam in Paris later that year. She boasted an impressive all court game, also highlighted by a lethal forehand. Inconsistency followed, but Golovin found form late in 2006, when she reached her first, and only, Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. She captured her two career WTA titles in 2007, finished runner-up to Justine Henin in two big events in the fall indoor season, and ended that year as World No. 13.

At her peak, Chakvetadze was perhaps the only player with legitimate claim to the (oft-misguided) comparison to Martina Hingis; Hingis herself affirmed the comparisons, once stating, “She’s very smart around the court and she has good vision. You don’t see anything specific that she’s winning matches [with] so I definitely see some similarities.” The Russian burst on the scene in 2004 as well, when she qualified and defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in the first round of the US Open. Following a steady rise, she won her biggest career title at the Tier I event in Moscow in late 2006; on the back of a quarterfinal in Australia in 2007, she made her top 10 debut in February. Another quarterfinal at Roland Garros, a semifinal at the US Open and four titles put her among the elite at the 2007 Year-End Championships in Madrid. She is one of only a handful of players who can boast a win over both Williams sisters.

Possessed with a strong serve and elegant two-handed backhand, Szavay rose from obscurity to “destined for stardom” in a matter of a few months in 2007. As a qualifier at the Tier II event in New Haven, she reached the final, where she was forced to retire against Svetlana Kuznetsova up a set due to…a lower back injury; looking back, an injury which had originally been attributed to a taxing week may have been a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, Szavay reached the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she was again stopped by Kuznetsova. The Hungarian pulled off a lot of upsets in 2007, but perhaps greatest of these was her 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Jelena Jankovic in the Tier II event in Beijing; at a set and 5-1 down, Szavay hit a second serve ace down match point en route to one of the greatest WTA comebacks in recent memory.

After starting the season ranked No. 189, Szavay ended it ranked No. 20. For her efforts, she was named the 2007 WTA Newcomer of the Year.

With the good, sadly, came all the bad. Vaidisova suffered from mononucleosis in late 2007 and her form took a nosedive; she officially retired in 2010, as her stepfather stated she was “fed up with tennis” and that it was “understandable” because “she started so young.” Chakvetadze, after being tied up and robbed in 2007, dealt with a whole host of injuries; she too is currently sidelined with a recurring back injury. Having made a foray into Russian politics in 2011 with the Right Cause Party, and being a featured commentator on Russian Eurosport for the 2013 Australian Open, it’s unclear when or if she will return to competition. After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 12 in early 2008, Golovin has been inactive since due to chronic lower back inflammation, and has ruled out a return. Whilst still being troubled by her back, Szavay showed only flashes of her best form in the seasons since, including upsetting then-World No. 3 Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. 2010 was her last full season; a failed comeback in 2012 concluded with a retirement loss to countrywoman Greta Arn in the first round of the US Open, her last professional match.

It’s hard to say if this quartet could’ve taken the next step into legitimate slam contenders, or even champions, more than five years removed from their days in the sun. But largely due to matters outside their control, we’ll never even know.