Daniela Hantuchova

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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

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

Adidas Women’s Fall Preview: Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Laura Robson and More

adizero and Stella McCartney 2013 US Open Ivanovic Petkovic

Adidas tennis has come out with their women’s US Open series line for both their Adizero kit worn by Ana Ivanovic and Angelique Kerber, as well as their Stella McCartney line worn by Caroline Wozniacki, Laura Robson and Andrea Petkovic.

Here’s a breakdown of all the styles you will see on the adidas ladies this fall.

Ana Ivanovic, Daniela Hantuchova: The adizero line has already looked beautiful at Wimbledon in all-white, and the brand continues the bold lines in their adidas Women’s Fall Adizero Dress. The added color palette of Hero Ink Blue and Hi-Res Red/Orange bring a stunning and eye-catching design to the mesh fabric.

adidas Women's Fall Adizero Dress Ana Ivanovic US Open 2

adidas Women's Fall Adizero Dress Ana Ivanovic US Open

Thanks to @Curtos07, we now have a photo of Ivanovic in the adizero dress.

Ana Ivanovic in adizero US Open dress

Angelique Kerber, Christina McHale, Francesca Schiavone: Adidas extends the colorful design into their adidas Women’s Fall Adizero Tank, though the mesh doesn’t cut nearly as low as on the dress. The top comes in White with Hero Ink and Hi-Res Red/Orange.

adidas Women's Fall Adizero Tank Angelique Kerber US Open

Flavia Pennetta: Adidas has lifted it’s mesh cutout even further in their adidas Women’s Fall Adizero Cap-Sleeve. It features a crew neck with contrast binding, mesh insert at right shoulder, a slight cap-sleeves, and comes in Hi-Res Red/Orange, Hero Ink and White with Hero Ink.

adidas Women's Fall Adizero Cap-Sleeve Flavia Pennetta US Open

Adizero Line Skirt and Shoes: All of the adizero ladies will also be sporting the simple and elegant adidas Women’s Fall Adizero Skort in Hero Ink Blue or Hi-Res Red/Orange, and the adidas adizero CC Tempaia II Women’s Shoe in either White/Red or White/Blue/Red.

adidas Women's Fall Adizero Skort

adidas adizero CC Tempaia II Women's Shoe US OpenMaria Kirilenko, Andrea Petkovic: As big of a hit as the adizero line looks, the Stella McCartney line leaves one feeling confused. The numerous cutouts, mesh and color combinations and layers overdo the look a bit, but the materials are definitely breathable. The adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall Tank 1 features a scoop neck, racerback straps, mesh inserts at neck and upper back for increased ventilation, and colorblocking. It comes in Ultra Green, Ultra Bright Orange and White.

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Tank 2013

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Tank 2013 2

Caroline Wozniacki: Stella continues the intense colorblocking in their adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall Tank 2 which has the same features as above but additionally has a large back opening. It comes in Shell Beige with Ultra Bright Orange, and White with Ultra Bright Orange, and is paired with a similarly colored sports bra which shows through the mesh.

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Tank Wozniacki

Laura Robson: The Brit will be adorned in the adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall Cap Sleeve, and comes in Ultra Bright Orange, Ultra Green and Whtie.

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Cap Sleeve Robson 1
adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Cap Sleeve Robson 2

Stella McCartney Line Skirt: Though the athletes have the adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall Short in taffeta fabric available to play in, most of the adidas ladies will most likely be wearing the flattering style of the adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall Skort in Shell Beige, Ultra Green, Ultra Bright, or White.

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Skort 1
adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall Skort 2An additional fall top is also available for those chilly evenings, and the adidas Women’s Stella McCartney Fall LS Top continues the colorblocking, re-introducing what looks like last fall’s adidas colors again. It features a wide scoop neck and back, three-quarter sleeves and mesh panel on back.

adidas Women's Stella McCartney Fall LS Top

 

What do you think of adidas’ Fall and US Open series styles?

Wimbledon Rewind: Favorites and Fifth Sets (Mostly) Dominate on Day 2

Yes, British tennis does extend beyond Andy Murray.

The first round concluded at Wimbledon today without any seismic shock similar to Day 1 but with many more tightly contested matches than yesterday.  Check out the intriguing events below.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The top-ranked American squared off against the top-ranked Australian in a five-set rollercoaster of two giants.  After Bernard Tomic eked out the first two sets in tiebreaks, he characteristically lost the plot and allowed Sam Querrey to win two routine sets.  But Tomic got the last word, repeating his 2012 Australian Open victory over the American by zoning back into the action for the final set.  When he catches fire, he can ignite a draw.

Comeback of the day:  An Eastbourne semifinalist last week, Ivan Dodig fell behind 16th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber two sets to none and came within a tiebreak of losing in straights.  Dominating that tiebreak, Dodig carried that momentum through the fourth set and reaped the reward of his perseverance when Kohlschreiber retired early in the fifth.

Trend of the day:  The first day featured only one five-setter, but the second day brought fans no fewer than nine.  Five Americans played fifth sets.  In four of those nine matches, one player won the first two sets before letting the opponent back into the match.  None of the nine extended past 6-6 in the final set, however, and two ended in fifth-set retirements, a strange anticlimax.

Symmetry of the day:  On the same day that Tomic defeated Querrey, a different American defeated a different Aussie in the same manner.  Denis Kudla won the first two sets, lost the next two, and then recovered to win the fifth from James Duckworth.  Taken together, those results accurately reflect the superior promise of Australian tennis at the top and the superior depth of American tennis overall.

Gold star:  A three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a champion at Eastbourne, Feliciano Lopez plays his best tennis on grass.  He extended his winning streak to the All England Club by knocking off the tenacious Gilles Simon in straight sets.  The upset recalled Lleyton Hewitt’s victory over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, in which an unseeded grass specialist also defeated a seeded counterpuncher.

Silver star:  The volatile game of Florian Mayer does not make the easiest way to settle into a major, especially for a man who had not played a match on grass this year.  In his first match since the epic Roland Garros loss to Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic stood tall as the Wimbledon top seed in dispatching Mayer uneventfully.

Americans in London:  Beyond the previously noted Querrey and Kudla, the stars and stripes produced mixed results on Tuesday.  Ryan Harrison unsurprisingly fell to Jeremy Chardy, although he did win a set, while James Blake unexpectedly dominated Thiemo de Bakker for the loss of just six games.  Bobby Reynolds cannibalized Steve Johnson, who now has lost a five-setter in the first round of every major this year.  Court 9 saw the little-lamented departures of Wayne Odesnik and Michael Russell to a pair of fellow journeymen.

Question of the day:  While rivals Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro all advanced in straight sets, David Ferrer struggled through a four-setter against an unheralded South American.  He also lost his opener last week at the Dutch Open.  Do these struggles suggest an early exit for the other Spanish finalist at Roland Garros, or will Ferrer find his grass groove with time?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi sought to continue building her momentum in a comeback from a long injury absence.  Home hope Tara Moore sought to justify her wildcard and earn her first main-draw victory at Wimbledon.  The two waged a relentless 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 duel in the confines of Court 17, which ended in hope for Kanepi and familiar heartbreak for Moore.

Comeback of the day:  The pugnacious Barbara Zahlavova Strycova refused to fade after dropping a tight first set to Magdalena Rybarikova.  Over the next two sets, the Czech yielded one total game to the Slovak who had reached the Birmingham semifinals (and won that tournament before).  Compatriot and Birmingham champion Daniela Hantuchova also fell to a Czech opponent in Klara Zakopalova as the western half of the former Czechoslovakia held their neighboring rivals in check.

Upset of the day:  Not the highest-ranked player to lose today, Nadia Petrova suffered the most surprising loss in falling to Katerina Pliskova in two tepid sets.  Petrova owes her top-15 status to a series of strong results last fall, but she could not consolidate them this year and now has little margin for error in the second half.

Gold star:  Thorny draws often have awaited Laura Robson at Wimbledon, and this year proved no exception with world No. 10 Maria Kirilenko awaiting her on Court 1.  The leading British women’s hope delighted her compatriots with her second victory over a top-ten opponent at a major this year.  Robson now eyes a relatively open draw after that initial upset, although she cannot relax her guard.

Silver star:  Both of last year’s finalists advanced with ease, Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska losing six games between them.  But perhaps even more impressive was the double breadstick that Li Na served to Michaella Krajicek, a player whose massive weapons could threaten on grass.  Li has struggled for most of the spring, and she has not shone on grass since 2010, so this victory might raise her spirits for the challenging road ahead.

Wooden spoon:  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Tamira Paszek fell in the first round this year to the anonymous Alexandra Cadantu.  She has dropped nearly 1,000 points in two weeks, combining Eastbourne with Wimbledon, and will plummet from the top 30 in May to outside the top 100 in July.

Americans in London:  Outside Serena, most of the main American threats are (or were) in the other half of the draw.  Two youngsters suffered contrasting fates on Tuesday, Madison Keys dismissing British talent Heather Watson and Mallory Burdette falling short in a tight three-setter to Urszula Radwanska.  The only other American woman in action, Birmingham semifinalist Allison Riske, earned an upset of sorts over clay specialist Romina Oprandi when the latter retired in the third set.

Question of the day:  It’s grass season, which means that it’s Tsvetana Pironkova season.  The willow Bulgarian, twice a quarterfinalist or better at Wimbledon, routed top-25 opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for the loss of just one game.  How far can Pironkova’s grass magic carry her?

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.

Best Photos from Aegon Classic Days 3, 4 and 5

Kristina Mladenovic WTA Birmingham_600

(June 15, 2013) There has been plenty of great play and memorable moments at the WTA Aegon Classic, and we’ve compiled the best photos from days 3, 4 and 5 around the grounds.

Players include Daniela Hantuchova, Kristina Mladenovic, Heather Watson, Sabine Lisicki, Sorana Cirstea, Maria Sanchez, Magdalena Rybarikova, Kristen Flipkens and Ajla Tomljanovic.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Azarenka, Kvitova Start Campaigns on Day 3

The world No. 1 is racing toward a revenge match with Grigor Dimitrov.

Here’s the breakdown of matches to watch as the first round concludes.

ATP:

Novak Djokovic vs. David Goffin:  The baby-faced Belgian spurred a flurry of headlines last year when he reached the second week of Roland Garros and took a set from Roger Federer there.  Goffin has mustered barely any quality wins since then, losing to Grega Zemlja in Dusseldorf last week.  An enigmatic Masters 1000 clay season behind him, Djokovic hopes to resemble the man who defeated Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo more than the man who lost to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid.

Nicolas Mahut vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Just about anyone has managed to knock off Tipsarevic this year, from Dmitry Tursunov to Guido Pella.  Struggling for confidence and fitness, the Serb briefly slumped outside the top 10 before currently returning to its edge.  Mahut has not won a main-draw match at the ATP level all season, losing to such unremarkable figures as Laime Ouahab and Romain Jouan.  An ugly encounters on both sides could ensue, in which Mahut could gain strength from the vigorous show-court crowd.  A second top-ten upset by a Frenchman in two days still seems like a long shot.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Thiemo De Bakker:  An untimely muscle tear in Wawrinka’s thigh cast his participation here into doubt.  The Madrid finalist has defeated four top-eight opponents on clay this spring, and his high volume of matches might have contributed to his injury.  De Bakker should not challenge a healthy Wawrinka, so this match will offer a barometer for the Swiss No. 2’s health.

Jack Sock vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez:  On Sock’s shoes are written the names of two friends who recently passed away, extra motivation for him this fortnight.  He will look to extend the encouraging and unexpected trend of American success here against Bucharest finalist Garcia-Lopez, less of a clay threat than most Spaniards.  Big servers also have fared well here in general from Querrey and Isner to Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson.

Bernard Tomic vs. Victor Hanescu:  Without his father to monitor him relentlessly, Tomic enjoys his first taste of independence.  Off-court distractions should undermine his focus on his weakest surface, though, and he is still nowhere near the player outside Australia that he is on home soil.

Mikhail Youzhny vs. Pablo Andujar:  On the heels of reaching the Madrid semifinals as a wildcard, Andujar reached the semifinals of Nice as well.  He did not defeat anyone more notable than Gilles Simon at either tournament, but he will hold the surface advantage against Youzhny.  The Russian did win a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo before recording consecutive victories over clay specialists Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro in Madrid.

Alejandro Falla vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Despite the increasing threat that he poses to the ATP elite, Dimitrov never has won more than one match at a major.  Questionable fitness may cost him in the best-of-five format, or these events may expose his lack of experience more starkly.  A duel with a Colombian dirt devil could test Dimitrov’s resilience two rounds ahead of a rematch with Djokovic.

WTA:

Elena Vesnina vs. Victoria Azarenka:  With the other top-four women’s seeds advancing so convincingly, Azarenka needs to keep pace with a statement of her own.  After a 10-1 start to 2012, Vesnina has cooled off and lost in the first round at three of four clay tournaments.  Azarenka started cooling her off by dismissing her in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Vesnina lacked the weapons to threaten her.  Never past the quarterfinals in Paris, Vika should conserve energy with some quick early wins in a weak section of the draw.

Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai:  Three long years have passed since Rezai won the Premier Mandatory title in Madrid over Venus Williams.  The fiery Frenchwoman with a fondness for flamboyant outfits has won just one main-draw match since last year’s clay season.  Kvitova has made a habit of struggling at the most unexpected moments against the most anonymous opponents, so a three-setter would not surprise in this slugfest of wildly erratic shot-makers.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova:  This match struck me as the most interesting of the women’s first round, partly because of the history between them.  Meeting more than once in the fraught environment of Fed Cup, the two have collaborated on several tight encounters and have played their last five matches on clay.  Jankovic has regained traces of her vintage clay form by winning Bogota and upsetting Li to reach the Rome quarterfinals, while Hantuchova upset Kvitova in Madrid.  Both lost to Simona Halep in the wake of those top-ten ambushes, though, showing how much they struggle to sustain momentum as they age.

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Lauren Davis: After American women posted a perfect record on Day 2, Davis hopes to continue that trend despite winning just two clay matches this year (one against Christina McHale).  That task will prove difficult against a Frenchwoman who shone on home soil in February, reaching the semifinals of the Paris Indoors.  Mladenovic has struggled almost as much on clay as Davis has, but she won sets from Maria Kirilenko and Dominika Cibulkova in difficult early-round draws.

Klara Zakopalova vs. Kaia Kanepi:  A tireless counterpuncher with a vulnerable serve, Zakopalova has extended both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to final sets at Roland Garros.  She came closer than anyone to threatening Sharapova’s surge to the career Slam, and her retrieving should test Kanepi’s patience as well.  Returning impressively from injury last month, Kanepi won Brussels on Saturday after collecting six wins at her two previous tournaments.  To continue defending her quarterfinal points, she will need to take control of rallies immediately with serve and return.

Jamie Hampton vs. Lucie Safarova:  The small American won three consecutive three-setters over higher-ranked opponents, including Roberta Vinci, to earn a semifinal berth in Brussels.  Limited in her clay experience, Hampton attracted international attention by severely testing Azarenka in the first week of the Australian Open.  Flaky Czech lefty Safarova also arrives with momentum after winning her home challenger in Prague and taking a set from Sharapova in Stuttgart.

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: Stuttgart and Marrakech Previews

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

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

 

Stuttgart:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. Kerber, Errani vs. Li

 

Final:  Sharapova vs. Li

 

Marrakech:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Final:  Bertens vs.  Cornet

How Djokovic, Azarenka, Hantuchova and Others Prepared for the BNP Paribas Open

The 9th Annual K-Swiss Desert Smash Charity Tennis Event Benefiting Variety - The Children's Charity Of The Desert

The BNP Paribas Open is just under way, and with all the recent tennis festivities including the BNP Paribas Showdowns and K-Swiss Desert Smash, tennis players have been preparing for Indian Wells in a variety of fun and entertaining ways. We’ll give you the full run down on Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Caroline Wozniacki, Mardy Fish, Jack Sock, Daniela Hantuchova and many more!

At the K-Swiss Desert Smash, Novak Djokovic practiced his victory celebration when he partnered up with actor Jeremy Piven, while also striking some Madonna-like poses during play.

Mardy Fish and Djokovic practiced their “hanging out” skills on-court to the delight of fans.

The Bryan Brothers and Sam Querrey played some tennis, while Fernando Verdasco attempted his best Ray Charles impression.

No tennis party would be complete nowadays without some RedFoo action, so Jack Sock, Paul Henri Mathieu and French DJ Bob Sinclair posed with RedFoo for some photos after playing.

Daniela Hantuchova stood uncomfortably with the Party Rock Crew during the K-Swiss Desert Smash Player’s Party arrivals. Standing through a unique photo-op like this should prepare her for ANY awkward battles on the tennis court this week.

Speaking of Hantuchova, she and Melanie Oudin helped with the women’s main draw ceremony at the BNP Paribas Open, while Tommy Robredo helped with the men’s draw. That’s some heavy lifting of giant tennis balls there!

On the East Coast in New York City, Juan Martin del Potro gave his arm muscles a workout as he hoisted the most adorable (and talented) little girl during the BNP Paribas Showdown. The pair teamed up to play a few entertaining points against Rafael Nadal and actor Ben Stiller. (Full video here.)

Meanwhile during the Hong Kong edition of the BNP Paribas Showdown, Caroline Wozniacki improved her footwork by dancing with a dragon and a ballboy.

In London, Johnny Marray practiced his mini-tennis skills in prep for the big stage at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Two days later after participating in the BNP Paribas Showdown in New York City, Azarenka took to the Indian Wells practice courts with her boyfriend RedFoo and chatted up a storm on the sidelines.

And last, but certainly not least, Andy Murray also hit the Indian Wells practice courts for some good preparations. We can now checkmark the “Prepare” from off his t-shirt and get ready to “Attack” and “Destroy” next!

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