Ekaterina Makarova

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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

Wimbledon Rewind: Murray Shines, Janowicz Soars, Kerber Crumbles, Ferrer Survives, Kvitova Wobbles on Day 5

Andy Murray might not be the only British quarterfinalist at this Wimbledon.

The rain continued to make its presence felt on Friday as a mixture of postponed second-round matches and third-round matches unfolded.  Here are the studs and duds from the fifth day of Midsummer Mayhem, where no seed is safe.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The tremors of Wednesday’s earthquakes have not quite left Wimbledon.  In his second-round match, David Ferrer split the first two sets with compatriot Roberto-Bautista Agut and needed a tiebreak to salvage the third.  Perhaps emboldened by the feats of other underdogs, Bautista-Agut battled deep into the fourth set before the last Spanish man left in the draw limped through.  After arduous four-set victories in the first two rounds, though, blood is in the water around Ferrer, the victim of multiple turf tumbles.  His future opponents await their chances to pounce.

Upset of the day:  This upset mostly happened yesterday, in fact, when Grega Zemlja and Grigor Dimitrov exited the court locked at 9-8 in the fifth set.  The longest final set of the tournament in terms of games ended with Dimitrov excused to join Maria Sharapova at a sunnier location.  Despite his enormous promise, he still has not reached the second week of a major and continues to struggle in the best-of-five format.

Gold star:  A non-entity a year ago, Jerzy Janowicz hammered 30 aces against the 15th-seeded Nicolas Almagro to reach the second week of a major for the first time.  Janowicz has not dropped a set in the tournament and should be considered the favorite to reach the (gasp) semifinals in the quarter vacated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  He has shown far more discipline this week than at most previous tournaments this year.

Silver star:  Last year’s runner-up has become the only top-15 man left in the bottom half of the draw.  Andy Murray dispatched Tommy Robredo methodically for a third consecutive straight-sets win.  He will enter every match until the final as an overwhelming favorite, adding to the pressure already on him at his home major.

One-hit wonder:  The man who slew Roger Federer fell victim just one round later, no more able to build on his accomplishment than the man who slew Rafael Nadal.  Sergiy Stakhovsky dropped a four-setter to Jurgen Melzer two days after Steve Darcis withdrew from the tournament with a shoulder injury.  But both of these men outside the top 100 will have a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

Question of the day:  Brought back today for the third and fourth sets of his second-round match, Jeremy Chardy returns tomorrow to face Novak Djokovic.  The French shot-maker reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year and could threaten the Serb on grass with his forward-moving attack.  But will he lack the energy to make a match of it?

WTA:

Upset of the day:  Six of the top ten women have started their midsummer holiday already, most exiting in uneventful fashion.  World No. 7 and 2012 semifinalist Angelique Kerber looked likely to survive the tsunami of upsets when she led the dangerous Kaia Kanepi, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, by a set and by 5-1 in the second-set tiebreak.  Undeterred by those odds, Kanepi swept five straight points and eventually the tiebreak.  She asserted control early in the final set against a reeling Kerber, who suffered the latest in a string of painful three-set losses this year.

Comeback of the day:  Still in the draw with Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal, Flavia Pennetta has made the most of the opportunity.  The Italian veteran had earned mostly tepid results since returning from injury this spring, but she now finds herself in the second week of Wimbledon.  Pennetta dropped a first-set bagel to fellow clay specialist Alize Cornet, only to wrest away the momentum in a second-set tiebreak and cruise through the third.  Call it Kanepi-Kerber Lite.

Gold star:   Depending on the result of a postponed match, Marion Bartoli might find herself the highest-ranked woman in the bottom half of the draw when Monday arrives.  The 15th seed and 2007 finalist notched another straight-sets win over another mediocre opponent.  It is possible that Bartoli could reach the semifinals without facing anyone ranked higher than No. 70 Christina McHale, but one cannot fault her for the shortcomings of those around her.

Silver star:  The adrenaline of playing a top-ten woman at Wimbledon probably carried Laura Robson to her first-round upset of Maria Kirilenko.  Another rush of adrenaline arrived when Robson stepped onto Centre Court for her next match.  She used it to her advantage in a comfortable victory over Mariana Duque Marino.  With no seed left in her vicinity, a quarterfinal berth would not come as a shock.

One-hit wonder:  Like Stakhovsky, Michelle Larcher de Brito subsided meekly in the wake of her massive upset.  She fell to the equally unremarkable Karin Knapp, giving Italy at least two women in the second week pending Roberta Vinci’s match tomorrow.  The last supposedly rising star who defeated Maria Sharapova in the second round of Wimbledon, Alla Kudryavtseva, never went on to achieve anything more significant.  We will see whether Larcher de Brito can build something stronger from it.

Americans in London:  In a tale of two very different sets, No. 17 Sloane Stephens eked out a tiebreak against qualifier Petra Cetkovska—and then gulped down a bagel in the second set.  She will return tomorrow with one set to decide who reaches the second week.  If Stephens does, she would have advanced to that stage at every major this year, more than eight of the top ten women can say.  Meanwhile, Alison Riske avenged compatriot Mallory Burdette’s loss to Urszula Radwanska by battling past Agnieszka’s sister in three sets.

Question of the day:  Leading fellow lefty Ekaterina Makarova by a set and 2-1, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova lost seven straight games.  The easily flustered former champion now trails Makarova by a break in the final set as a golden opportunity to plow deep into a major draw threatens to slip away.  Can Kvitova collect herself when play resumes tomorrow?

Wimbledon Rewind: How the Mighty Have Fallen (And Who Might Reap the Rewards)

Maria Sharapova Wimbledon

A wild Wednesday swept through the All England Club.  We glance back through the avalanche of upsets that rendered some sections of both draws almost unrecognizable as a major.

Roger rolled:  36 straight quarterfinals at majors.  Seven Wimbledon titles in the last ten years.  None of his legendary opponent’s credentials mattered to the 116th-ranked Sergei Stakhovsky, who became the lowest-ranked man to defeat Roger Federer in a decade.  His moment of truth came in the fourth-set tiebreak, as crucial for the underdog as it was for the favorite considering the momentum that Stakhovsky had built by winning the second and third sets.  Federer had started to reassert himself late in the fourth, and he surely would have secured the fifth set if he had reached it.

Unlike Alejandro Falla in 2010, and Julien Benneteau in 2012, Stakhovsky made sure that the Swiss did not survive the crossroads.  A barrage of unreturnable serves early in the tiebreak, a clutch backhand down the line, and a sequence of magnificent lunging volleys brought him to match point on his serve.  Sure enough, Federer saved it with a pinpoint passing shot.  But Stakhovsky kept his composure through what felt like an interminable rally with the champion serving at 5-6 in the tiebreak.  Finally, a Federer backhand floated aimlessly wide as time seemed to stand still on Centre Court, where things like these never happen.

Maria mastered:  Off the WTA radar for years, former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito had gained most of her publicity from distinctively elongated yodels.  She entered the main draw as a qualifier, though, which meant that she had accumulated more grass matches than her heralded opponent.  Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova has stumbled early in the draw there more often than not in recent years.  Slipping and skidding around the site of her first major breakthrough, she never found her rhythm or range from the baseline in a loss that recalled previous Wimbledon setbacks to Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.

The finish did not come easily for de Brito, as it never does against Sharapova.  The girl who long has struggled with her serve deserves full credit for standing firm through deuce after deuce as five match points slipped past until the sixth proved the charm.

Vika victimized:  Injuring her leg during her first-round victory, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka never reached her scheduled Centre Court rendezvous with Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday.  Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon while blasting the All England Club for creating unsafe playing conditions.  She now needs only a retirement or walkover at Roland Garros to complete a career injury Slam, and she will hand the No. 2 ranking back to Sharapova after the tournament.

Jo-Wilfried jolted:  Also on the retirement list in a day filled with injuries, world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga handed Ernests Gulbis a ticket to the third round after losing two of the first three sets.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and at Queen’s Club, Tsonga had seemed one of the tournament’s leading dark horses at the outset.  But Gulbis, the most dangerous unseeded man in the draw, eyes an open route to a quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

Caro curbed:  An Eastbourne semifinal aside, Caroline Wozniacki has struggled without respite since reaching the Indian Wells final in March.  Another early loss thus comes as no great surprise for someone who lost in the first round of Wimbledon last year.  Wozniacki secured just four games from Petra Cetkovska, not the first upset that the Czech has notched on grass.

Tall men toppled:  Their opponents had nothing to do with it, but the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic and American No. 2 John Isner added themselves to the exodus of retirements.  While Isner did not harbor real hopes for a deep run, Cilic reached the final at Queen’s Club barely a week ago and had reached the second week of Wimbledon last year.  Of the top-16 seeds in the bottom half of the men’s draw, only Murray and Nicolas Almagro remain.

Serbs swiped:  More comfortable on slower surfaces, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic departed in straight sets on Wednesday.  Ivanovic’s loss came at the hands of rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who may rival Laura Robson (or Larcher de Brito?) for the breakout story of the women’s tournament.  The proudly patriotic Jankovic may take some comfort in the fact that her misfortune came at the hands of a fellow Serb.  Her conqueror, Vesna Dolonc, is the only Serb left in the women’s draw.

Hewitt halted:  The 2002 champion soared to a straight-sets victory over the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round, only to tumble back to earth against flashy Jamaican-turned-German journeyman Dustin Brown.  Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat leaves Novak Djokovic as the only former champion and only No. 1 in the Wimbledon men’s draw.

And more…:  The seeded casualties did not stop there.  Fernando Verdasco bounced No. 31 Julien Benneteau in straight sets, No. 22 Sorana Cirstea lost two tiebreaks to Camila Giorgi, and No. 27 Lucie Safarova let a one-set lead get away against another Italian in Karin Knapp.  Nadal’s nemesis, Steve Darcis, also withdrew from Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Hanging on tight:  In the women’s match of the day, No. 17 Sloane Stephens narrowly kept her tournament alive against Andrea Petkovic by surviving an 8-6 third set.  Stephens will have a real chance to reach her second semifinal in three 2013 majors with both top-eight seeds gone from her quarter.  Also extended to a third set were No. 19 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 25 Ekaterina Makarova, the latter of whom overcame rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza.  Meanwhile, men’s 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny needed five sets to survive Canadian youngster Vasek Pospisil as hardly anyone escaped at least a nibble from the upset bug.

Rising above the rubble:  But a few contenders did.  Extending his winning streak to seven, second seed Andy Murray notched another routine victory as he becomes the overwhelming favorite to reach a second straight Wimbledon final.  Murray’s pre-final draw might pit him against a succession of Tommy Robredo, Youzhny, Gulbis, and Benoit Paire or Jerzy Janowicz—hardly a murderer’s row, although the Gulbis matchup might intrigue.

In the wake of a difficult first-round victory, 2011 champion Petra Kvitova caught a break today when Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew.  Kvitova becomes the only top-eight seed to reach the third round in the bottom half of the women’s draw.  She could face a compelling test from Makarova on Friday, but her most significant competition might come from Stephens or Marion Bartoli in the semifinals.  Struggling mightily for most of the spring amid coaching turmoil, 2007 finalist Bartoli has picked an ideal time to find some form again.  She ousted Christina McHale in straight sets today and has become the highest-ranked woman remaining in her quarter.

Snakes in the Grass: Previewing the Wimbledon 2013 Dark Horses

Sabine Lisicki has defeated five top-ten women in her last three Wimbledon appearances.

With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention.  This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week.  On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.

ATP:

John Isner:  Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey.  His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points.  Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run.  The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors.  But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced.  His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass.  Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.

Julien Benneteau:  He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away.  Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam.  His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010.  Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.

Lukas Rosol:  His presence on this list should need little explanation.  Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention.  As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50.  Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny.  He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.

Ernests Gulbis:  Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch.  Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year.  More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove.  He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events.  Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.

Feliciano Lopez:  The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros.  Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents.  His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil.  Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.

Daniel Brands:  Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition.  He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros.  Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years.  Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return.  That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.

WTA:

Ekaterina Makarova:  Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13:  not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova.  This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date.  Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points.  Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.

Sabine Lisicki:  Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion.  She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title.  In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011.  An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli.  Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.

Tamira Paszek:  A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros.  She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results.  The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.

Venus Williams:  Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition.  Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form.  To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska.  Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight.  But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.

Laura Robson:  Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion.  Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne.  Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year.  Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.

Zheng Jie:  If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course.  As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass.  This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008.  Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title.  The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010.  Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year.  A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much.  Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch.  Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.

Roland Garros Rewind: Monfils Stuns, Nadal Survives, Sharapova and Radwanska Cruise

Of the Frenchmen who shone on Day 2, Gael Monfils shone most of all.

Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Five sets and four hours.  Three tiebreaks and a 7-5 final set.  A two-set lead squandered by the man who eventually won—after saving triple break point midway through the fifth.  A home underdog firing 26 aces and 66 winners on his nation’s biggest stage to upset a top-eight seed who hit 72 winners of his own.  Rarely is the match that looks like the best of the day in the first round actually the best of the day, but Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych put on perhaps the best show of any men’s match that we will see all week.  The section has opened a bit for Monfils if he can defuse the equally dangerous dark horse Ernests Gulbis in the second round.  That match looks like the highlight of Thursday, although it has a hard act to follow.

Comeback of the day:  Last week’s Dusseldorf champion Juan Monaco looked well on his way to a routine victory when he won the first two sets by single-break margins and reached a tiebreak in the third.  Perhaps aided by his opponent’s fatigue, Daniel Gimeno-Traver thrust himself back into the match by snatching that tiebreak and stormed all the way back to an upset over the seventeenth seed.

Surprise of the day:  It was not an upset in the end,  but Daniel Brands surely turned more heads than anyone when he came within a tiebreak of leading Rafael Nadal by two sets to love.  The master of Roland Garros had not lost the first set in a first-week match there since 2006, although he once  survived a five-setter against John Isner.  Brands channeled his inner Soderling in explosive serving and bullet forehands that thrust Nadal on his heels for far longer than anyone could have expected.

Gold star:  Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios gave his nation something to cheer amid the latest Bernard Tomic controversy.  Kyrgios defeated veteran Radek Stepanek in three tiebreaks, saving several set points in each of the last two.  The 53 total tiebreak points played might survive as a tournament record.

Silver star:  Allez les bleus.  While Nadal battled with Brands on Philippe Chatrier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rolled through in straight sets on Suzanne Lenglen.  Later in the day, second-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasquet did the same, and even Julien Benneteau won a match on clay for just the second time this year.  Combined with the Monfils upset, these victories added up to an excellent day for the hosts.

Wooden spoon:  When Andy Murray withdrew, Marcel Granollers moved up from unseeded to seeded position.  That promotion served him no benefit as he lost his first match to countryman Feliciano Lopez in five sets and two days.  By contrast, Tommy Robredo profited from the seed that he received with Juan Martin Del Potro’s withdrawal by advancing further into the section vacated by Berdych.

Americans in Paris:  John Isner and Ryan Harrison, both of whom have struggled for most of the year, each notched comfortable straight-sets victories.  Assigned Nice champion Albert Montanes, Steve Johnson battled gallantly into a fifth set as he had against Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.  American men have no reason to feel shame so far at historically their worst major.

Question of the day:  Who comes out of Berdych’s section of the draw to reach the quarterfinals?

Question of the day, II:  Does Nadal’s first-round frailty reduce your confidence in him as a title threat?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None could compete with Berdych-Monfils or with Urszula-Venus the day before.  This award goes to a battle between two clay-courters who have produced outstanding recent results.  Rome semifinalist Simona Halep won the first set from world No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the Spaniard rallied with the form that brought her to two clay finals this year.  A pity that the draw forced them to meet in the first round, and a pity that the match was not scheduled on a televised court.

Comeback of the day:  Channeling a little of her inner Monfils, Garbine Muguruza scorched 46 winners and dropped serve just twice in three sets to ambush fellow power-hitter Karolina Pliskova.  The Venezuelan-born citizen of Spain recorded her first career win at Roland Garros barely a year after her first appearance in a WTA main draw.

Statements of the day:  Although they fell a bit short of Serena’s suffocating brilliance, top-four seeds Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska started the tournament in emphatic style.  Defending champion Sharapova conceded just three games to top-50 opponent Hsieh Su-wei, while Radwanska yielded just two games to former top-15 player Shahar Peer.  The latter result came as a mild surprise because of the newly blonde Pole’s struggles on clay this year.

Gold star:  Everyone thought that Laura Robson would knock off world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round, and everyone thought very wrong.  Wozniacki ended a five-match losing streak by dominating the British teenager from start to finish.  Perhaps a movie night with Rory McIlroy the day before (they saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained) allowed her to forget her recent futility.

Silver star:  The most unsurprising surprise of the day came when the 2009 Roland Garros champion dispatched compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.  In Serena’s quarter, Kuznetsova could meet Wozniacki in a rematch of their Australian Open three-set thriller.  Sveta bounced back impressively from one of the worst losses of her career in Rome.

Wooden spoon:  Outstanding performances on grass last year meant that Tamira Paszek received a seed at Roland Garros despite winning only one match in 2013.  When the slightly less moribund Melanie Oudin dispatched her with ease, Paszek will head to the grass season with the vast majority of points at stake.  Early losses at Eastbourne and Wimbledon will push her ranking down an elevator shaft.

Americans in Paris:  In addition to the aforementioned Oudin, several other women from the United States fared well on Day 2.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands set up a second-round meeting with Li Na, while newer talents Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys cruised.  Vania King also advanced in straight sets to complete a perfect record today for the USA.

Question of the day:  Which American woman of those who won day will go furthest?

Question of the day, II:  Should we feel more impressed by Wozniacki or more disappointed by Robson?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Li, Wozniacki, Berdych Face Intriguing Tests on Day 2

Tomas Berdych can't afford to take his eye off the ball against Gael Monfils.

As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests.  Let’s start with the women this time.

WTA:

Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues:  Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore.  Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals.  Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome.  She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson:  When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round.  Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role.  (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.)  Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.

Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber:  The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player.  Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts.  Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski.  Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.

Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists.  Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier.  Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals.  Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova:  An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces.  Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal.  Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring.  Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.

ATP:

Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils:  Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman.  Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week.  His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd.  The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish.  But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.

Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis:  In singles, Benneteau is known for two things:  never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side.  He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent.  Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February.  It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.

Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner:  This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American.  Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation.  Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches.  While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.

Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman?  Maybe you should think again.  Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions.  For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major.  He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.

Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes:  The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals.  The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable.  Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.

 

The Fed Cup Dilemma

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The argument about whether tennis belongs in the Olympic Games has been hotly debated in tennis and sporting circles for the past decade. For athletes in most other sports, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers. To an outside observer, however, this might not seem to be the case for tennis players. Four times a year, they have a chance to contest in the biggest tournaments in their sport; winning multiple slam titles etches their names into the tennis history books much more than Olympic gold.

Despite having either their flag or their country code etched next to their name on every tournament scoreboard, the only other time players theoretically get the chance to represent their country is in Fed Cup. Some crack under the pressure; Lesia Tsurenko, Ukraine’s new No. 1, lost all three of her matches en route to a 3-2 defeat to Canada. Tsurenko made a staggering 91 unforced errors in a three-set loss to Sharon Fichman, a match she and a tie Ukraine was heavily favored to win.

Others rise to the occasion. Australian wunderkind Ashleigh Barty defeated Stefanie Voegele in her Fed Cup singles debut to send Australia into the World Group in 2014. Roberta Vinci delivered the clinching 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 win over Lucie Safarova to send Italy into the Fed Cup final; on the other side of the world, Ekaterina Makarova capped Russia’s stunning comeback against Slovakia by rallying from 4-2 down in the final set against Daniela Hantuchova to knot the tie at 2-2. She and Elena Vesnina later rallied from a set down in the doubles to put Russia into the finals against Italy.

In an individual sport like tennis, where so much emphasis is placed on singles achievements, players still rate playing for their country incredibly high. But does this national success come at a cost?

Samantha Stosur, who has been carrying the remnants of a calf injury since Indian Wells, went 2-0 in her Fed Cup ties for Australia; she lost in the opening round in Stuttgart to Jelena Jankovic. Vinci, Italy’s heroine, looked listless in a 6-4, 6-2 opening round defeat to Yaroslava Shvedova in Stuttgart as well; the top seeds in the doubles event, she and Sara Errani later pulled out of the doubles event due to Vinci’s shoulder injury. Vesnina slumped to a shocking 6-0, 6-4 defeat to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Makarova dueled with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, her Fed Cup teammate, in the opening round; Makarova slipped up from a winning position, and seemed to run of gas late in the third set.

In Marrakech, Dominika Cibulkova was set to take a wildcard and be the top seed in the event; however, she apparently picked up an injury after playing three rubbers against Russia and was forced to withdraw from the event anyway. As rain wreaked havoc in Chiasso, the Australia-Switzerland tie did not commence until Monday; Romina Oprandi, Switzerland’s No. 1, was scheduled to compete in Marrakech but she also withdrew before play began.

Granted, not every player was negatively affected by her participation in Fed Cup this week. Ana Ivanovic is into her first clay-court quarterfinal since Rome in 2010. Angelique Kerber, who went 1-1 in Fed Cup, is also into the quarterfinals in Germany. Carla Suarez Navarro led Spain back into the World Group and knocked off Caroline Wozniacki in the first round in Stuttgart. Shvedova, who was mired in a dreadful slump, advanced to the quarterfinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

There have been murmurs that players are largely unhappy with the increase in mandatory Fed Cup participation for the next Olympic cycle. These players put so much heart, effort and passion into playing for their countries, yet are still put in a bind because of the scheduling issues. In a sport where players are constantly representing their nations, it seems like they still end up with the short end of the stick. In certain instances, it’s almost as though a player needs to choose between national glory and individual success.

ITF Release 2012 Testing Summary

Testing

By Lisa-Marie Burrows

“Last year, through the Dubai, Rotterdam and Indian Wells swing where I won all three, I didn’t get tested once. That shouldn’t be OK.”

At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Roger Federer once again shared his thoughts about doping and testing. He revealed that in 2012, there was a lack of frequent and consistent testing for doping whilst he was competing, despite having won three consecutive tournaments.

This week, the ITF (International Tennis Federation) have shared their plans for biological passports. They have been busy of late redesigning their Davis Cup and Fed Cup websites and their latest relaunch has been the official website of its Anti-Doping department.

The website aims to share detailed information on the Tennis Anti-Doping programme and it has uploaded many PDFs from recent years of blood testing which has been carried out on the athletes.

A summary of testing conducted under the 2012 ITF Tennis Anti-Doping Programme is now available on their website of all players who hold an ATP or WTA ranking. The results show the amount of times the athletes have been tested during the year whilst competing and also when they are out of competition. The results do not include samples collected during the London Olympics by the National Anti-Doping Organisations.

During 2012, the statistics show that a total of 1727 in-competition urine specimen samples were taken from male and female athletes and 124 specimens of blood.

Out of-competition testing was slightly lower with 271 specimens for urine and 63 for blood. Overall, 2185 total specimens were taken and it is interesting to see how consistently players were tested, particularly the higher ranked players.  I have put together a table of results for the current top 20 ATP and WTA players.

ATP Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the ATP rankings as of this week.

The samples are fairly consistent with Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, Del Potro, Tsonga. Tipsarevic, Gasquet, Cilic, Wawrinka and Seppi all tested on seven and above occasions, whilst the other players were largely tested four to six times.

The only exceptions are Rafael Nadal, who due to injury was not tested for in-competition as frequently and therefore has a higher out-of-competition sample compared to his colleagues. Milos Raonic was also tested on one to three in-competition occasions.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

WTA Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the WTA rankings as of this week.

Half of the WTA top 20 players were tested during competitions on seven or more occasions and surprisingly four out of the current top 5 have been tested fewer times than some of their counterparts. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Na Li have been tested on one to three occasions and four to six occasions respectively.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

Over the next few years, expect the number of overall testing to rise, as the ITF have made it clear that they are going to increase the number of blood tests done each year under its anti-doping programme.

Federer was pleased by the announcement and said at the BNP Paribas Open:

“I think tennis has done a good job of trying everything to be as clean as possible but we are entering a new era. We have to do everything to ensure our tour is as clean as it possibly can be.”

 

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!

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Dubai, Memphis, and Bogota

Who will the genie visit this year?

Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week.  In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces.  Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.

Dubai:  Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012.  She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani.  Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka.  Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential.   If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals.  The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami.  But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.

Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field.  The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum.  While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American.  Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge.  Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon.  Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.

Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking.  Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward.  Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska.  In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate.  If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year.  Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.

Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai.  Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court.  So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success.  The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Memphis:  Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years.  Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States.  This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring.  Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.

Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court.  Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month.  Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals.  Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.

Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine.  Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline.  Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again.  Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court.  But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw.  Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.

Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans.  While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil.  Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.

Final:  Lisicki vs. Hradecka

Bogota:  Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting.  Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years.  She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here.  In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber.  As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant.  Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta.  Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.

The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet.  Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve.  For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus.  Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork.  Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation.  Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?

Final:  Jankovic vs. Schiavone

Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!

 

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