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What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Acapulco, Florianopolis, and Kuala Lumpur

While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions.  Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.

Acapulco:  One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final.  Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup.  Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals.  Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface.  She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.

Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed.  The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her.  The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second.  Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.

An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco.  Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks.  Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed.  Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter.  Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.

Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories.  The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface.  Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement.  Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.

Final:  Errani vs. Begu

Florianopolis:  In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy.  The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages.  While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman.  Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.

In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open.  Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest.  Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity.  Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.

Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers.  When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks.  The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer.  With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.

Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points.  Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her.  Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.

Final:  Williams vs. Mladenovic

Kuala Lumpur:  With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100.  Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10.  After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013.  Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel.  Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.

Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur.  Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe.  Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open.  Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.

Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant.  The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami.  This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter.  She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers.  But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.

When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results.  Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play.  Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable.  While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova

(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)

 

 

Estoril Open: A doubles report

By Luís Santos

Early Sunday afternoon at the Estoril Open final day and it was time for the men’s doubles’ final.

Defending champions and fourth seeds David Marrero and Marc Lopez were up against Eric Butorac and Jean-Julien Rojer, the third seeds this week.

Butorac is a former Estoril Open champion, having won the event in 2009 alongside Scott Lipsky. This week, Butorac and Rojer powered their way through the draw, never dropping more than six games in each match. In the semifinals they took out top seeds Bopanna/Qureshi in just 63 minutes.

The Spanish tandem of Marrero/Lopez had early struggles in the earlier rounds being taken to match tiebreaks twice.

It was no surprise when Butorac/Rojer claimed the match in straight sets, a break on each of them being enough to secure the win.

Rojer was grateful for the welcoming at the tournament and complimented his opponents: “I would like to thank all of you for coming out here, this is all me and Eric do for a living, so thank you. Our opponents today are always tough on every surface, so I’m happy for the win. I would also like to thank the sponsors, Banco Espírito Santo and Turismo de Portugal, without them this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Eric Butorac mainly agreed with his partner saying: “Jean-Julien said it all. I’m very thankful for the sponsors and tournament organizers, they were fantastic all week. It’s always good to come to Portugal, it’s a very nice country and I hope more people can come here and enjoy it.”

Yesterday afternoon Alisa Kleybanova and Galina Voskoboeva also took home the women’s doubles crown after they defeated Greek Eleni Daniilidou and Dutch Michaella Krajicek 6-4 6-2.

“Alisa and I enjoy each other’s company. We’ve known each other for a long time,” Voskoboeva said. “Every time we play well together, but we’ve never won before – here our game was solid and we really knew each other on the court.”

“I’m really happy because I didn’t do so well in the singles,” Kleybanova said. “It was important for me to play some more matches and have some good wins in doubles. It instills confidence. Another title can never be bad, always good!”

Step Forward Kaia Kanepi

2010 has seen many “tennis firsts” typified with Francesca Schiavone becoming the first Italian lady to lift a major at Roland Garros.

Last week landed us with another – an Estonian’s name etched on to a WTA title for the first time. That name is Kaia Kanepi as she lifted the Palermo Open much to her country’s delight. This isn’t just a flash in the pan either. She is the only Estonian woman to have reached the WTA Top 20 players in the world (ranked at 18 in May 2009) and she also became the first Estonian woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter final at the 2008 French Open, a feat she repeated at Wimbledon this year.

She rates clay as her best surface so it will be no surprise to those following her career that Palermo is her first tour victory. But for those who do not, let us give you another insight in to a first-timer in the WTA winners’ circle.

Kanepi was born June 10, 1985 in Haapsalu, Estonia to her real estate broker father Jaak and homemaker Anne who both also played tennis. She began playing aged 8 and topped the ITF Junior Rankings before turning pro in 2000. She still lives in Haapsalu and currently plays without a full-time coach or agent. Her former coaches include Luca Appino and fellow Estonian player Mait Kunnap.

After plying her trade and learning her sport on the circuit for six years she began to taste her first real success in 2006. At the Gaz de France Stars tournament in Hasselt, Belgium, she came through three qualification rounds before defeating Anne Kremer, Nathalie Dechy, Eleni Daniilidou, Francesca Schiavone and Michaella Krajicek before eventually succumbing to Kim Clijsters 3-6, 6-3, 4-6.

Rather than resting on her laurels Kanepi pushed on. Starting the 2007 season in Australia she reached the second round of the Open, defeating Italy’s Flavia Pennetta before losing to local girl Alicia Molik. The rest of her season was mixed but she recorded some impressive results over a few of the world’s top players including Patty Schnyder at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida.

2008 saw that impressive run at the French which was eventually halted in the quarters by Svetlana Kuznetsova while she pushed Serena Williams hard in their first round encounter at Wimbledon before falling 5-7, 3-6.

Another quarterfinal followed after qualifying for the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo where Dinara Safina halted her progress and she followed that up with a semifinal defeat to top seed Maria Kirilenko at the Hansol Women’s Open in Seoul.

She capped off a highly impressive end to 2008 with her second WTA Tour final appearance. After seeing off Lucie Safarova, Yanina Wickmayer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Aleksandra Wozniak but it was the Dane Caroline Wozniacki who this time left her broken hearted with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win.

For her exploits throughout the year the Association of Estonian Sports Journalists named Kanepi their Best Female Estonian Athlete of 2008. Kanepi was really starting to make waves.

After a career-best third round at the 2009 Aussie Open Kanepi was part of the Estonian Fed Cup team that caused a stir during the 2009 tournament.

Another semifinal appearance surfaced at the Dubai Tennis Championships including a victory over Jelena Jankovic who, being ranked at No. 3 in the world at the time, provided Kanepi with her biggest scalp yet on the tennis circuit. After another quarterfinal at the Rome Masters, 2009 quietened down somewhat for the youngster.

2010 has seen Kanepi looking in much better physical condition than ever before and she has been playing much more powerfully and confidently. This was evident in the Fed Cup matchup between Estonia and Belgium earlier this year when Kanepi defeated returning star Justine Henin on the clay in Belgium 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3.

She won her seventh and eighth ITF tournaments in May and then shocked Sam Stosur in the first round at Wimbledon. This proved to be her second Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance where she even had two match points before eventually losing 6-4, 6-7, 6-8 to Petra Kvitova of Czechoslovakia.

And so we came to Palermo where the 25-year-old didn’t drop a set throughout the whole tournament on her way to victory. Her two-hand backhand is proving useful on the pro circuit and is proving a useful weapon against some of the biggest stars of the game.

With much of clay tennis over for 2010 we may need to wait till next year to see her true potential but there are some who will really fancy to cause a few upsets in New York in September.

Whatever happens, keep an eye out for Kaia on a court near you soon.