Francesca Schiavone

Dust in the Wind: Schiavone and Kuznetsova Continue Their Downward Slides

Tennis is a cruel sport.

A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.

With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.

Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?

Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.

Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU

Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.

But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.

It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.

We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.

All Roads Lead to Rome: WTA Rome Draw Preview

Starting one day later than the simultaneous ATP tournament, the second WTA Premier Five tournament of 2013 brings all of the top ten women to the Foro Italico.  Many of them will seek a fresh start following weeks in Madrid that ended sooner than they had hoped, although the world No. 1 will aim simply to continue from where she left off.

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Serena Williams arrives in Rome on the heels of clay titles in Charleston and Madrid.  To continue her winning streak, Serena may need to survive some friendly fire from older sister Venus, who would meet her in the second round for the first time.  The all-Williams match might not happen if Laura Robson finds her footing on Monday against Venus, suffering from a back injury recently.   Robson displayed the confidence that she needs to defeat a star of this caliber when she upset Radwanska in Madrid.  Also impressive there was Ekaterina Makarova, the nemesis of Azarenka, who could meet Serena in the third round.  The clay skills of Robson and Makarova do not equal those of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, but the latter has struggled with injuries this spring.  In Miami, though, Cibulkova took a set from a disengaged Serena before fading sharply when the American awakened.

The only blot on Serena’s otherwise spectacular second half of 2012 came against Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in Cincinnati.  This German lefty reached the semifinals of Rome last year, an achievement that she can equal only by repeating her Cincinnati victory.  While those prospects seem slim, Kerber may fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals.  Nadia Petrova, the seed closest to her, has performed well below her ranking for most of 2013.  More threatening to Kerber are two women who have produced sporadically excellent results this year, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  This pair collided in the Portugal Open final, where Pavlyuchenkova prevailed, and they could meet again in the second round with the winner advancing to face Kerber.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  Two top-five women who combined to win one total match in Madrid both look to thrust that disappointment behind them by advancing deeper into the Rome draw.  Sporting a new blonde hairstyle, Agnieszka Radwanska likely will open against a woman who also has experimented with a variety of coiffures in Svetlana Kuznetsova.  More relevant to their meeting, Kuznetsova’s resounding victory over Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that her far superior clay talents could cause an upset.   The thirteenth-seeded Roberta Vinci performed impressively on hard courts this year, reaching the semifinals in Dubai and the quarterfinals in Miami, but strangely she has earned fewer successes on the clay that favors her playing style.  Perhaps the local crowd’s enthusiasm can spur this veteran with a strong Fed Cup resume.

Toppled in the first round of Madrid by a lucky loser, Li Na suffered her first unexpected reverse of an otherwise consistent season.  That shock may have spurred her to raise her vigilance for early tests in Rome, possibly highlighted by Jelena Jankovic.  The Serbian former No. 1 has not faced Li since 2009, when she won both of their meetings, and they have not met on clay for seven years.  After an eye-opening start to the spring, however, Jankovic reverted to her unreliable self when the action shifted to Europe, and she has lost all three of her clay matches against second-round opponent Caroline Wozniacki.  Hardly a dirt devil herself, Wozniacki defeated Li on a hard court last fall but has lost their most important meetings so far.  The Chinese star also has held the upper hand recently against both Radwanska and Kuznetsova, positioning her for another strong week at a tournament where she held championship point last year.

Semifinalist:  Li 

Third quarter:  No clear favorite emerges from a section with three members of the top ten and a former Roland Garros champion.  Again situated in the same eighth with Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova shares the Aussie’s 2013 pattern of stumbling into dismal setbacks just as momentum starts to swing in her favor.  Kvitova has won all four of their meetings, should that third-round match develop, and she also should feel confident in her ability to outshoot the equally erratic Sabine Lisicki.  Many of the matches in this section will feature short points punctuated by ferocious hitting, a contrast to what one normally expects from clay.  This seemingly benign early draw could allow Kvitova to settle into the tournament and find her baseline range, which she has showcased on clay before.

The lanky Czech’s most significant clay win to date, the Madrid title in 2011, came at the expense of the woman whom she could meet in the quarterfinals.  During a string of marquee collisions that year, Kvitova regularly bested Victoria Azarenka on all surfaces, although they have not met since then.   The world No. 3 predictably lacked rhythm in Madrid, the first tournament that she had played since Indian Wells.  But the ankle that sidelined Azarenka seems healthy again, and she will need the mobility that it provides to weather a Serb surging with confidence.  A semifinalist in Madrid, Ana Ivanovic has reached that round in Rome as well, claiming an ailing Azarenka as one of her victims en route.  Vika won their 2012 meetings convincingly, taking command of a matchup that had troubled her before.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  The two-time defending champion in Rome, Maria Sharapova finds herself ideally situated to break Italian hearts.  As early as the third round, the world No. 2 could release her angst from another loss to Serena by pouncing on Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone.  An unfortunate quirk of the draw aligned these aging former Fed Cup teammates to meet in the second round, assuming that Sloane Stephens continues her post-Melbourne swoon.  Heavy hitters Garbine Muguruza (a qualifier, but a notable rising star) and Kiki Bertens round out a section through which Sharapova should cruise unless Pennetta can roll back the clock several years.

The world No. 2 also may look forward to a quarterfinal reunion with Sara Errani, the supporting actress on stage when Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam last year.  More than just the Roland Garros flavor of the year, the top-ranked Italian backed up her surprise fortnight with hard-court achievements yet still plays her best tennis on clay.  Last week, Errani even flustered Serena for a set despite the massive power differential, and she has grown more competitive with Sharapova in their latest meetings.  A quarterfinalist in Madrid and a qualifier in Rome, Anabel Medina Garrigues survived a three-hour epic against Yulia Putintseva to reach the main draw.  This Spaniard opens against Maria Kirilenko, less assured on clay, and could meet surface specialist Varvara Lepchenko afterward.  Throughout this quarter, contrasts of styles could unfold between Sharapova and the counterpunchers set to face her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

 

Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

Rare is the non-major that features every woman in the WTA top 10, but Madrid can lay claim to that honor this year.  In another rare quirk, all of the top three women arrive there on winning streaks.  Only one of those streaks can survive Madrid.  Whose will it be?  Or none of the above?  We take a look at each quarter of the draw.

First quarter:  Clearly the best women’s player of the last decade, Serena Williams won this title on blue clay last year but has not reached a final on red clay since she completed the career Grand Slam in 2002.  With her world No. 1 ranking somewhat at stake, Serena has landed in the more challenging half of the draw.  Her first two rounds should allow her to find some rhythm on the surface, for the green clay of Charleston offers only partial preparation for the European terre battue.  Seeking her third straight title, Serena could meet Maria Kirilenko in the third round, or perhaps Klara Zakopalova.  Both of those counterpunchers have troubled her on clay before, each extending her to three sets at Roland Garros.  Stiffer competition will arrive in the quarterfinals, though, where the draw has projected her to meet Stuttgart finalist and 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.

The fifth seed must overcome a few notable obstacles of her own to reach that stage, such as a second-round match with Serena’s sister.  Not at her best on clay, Venus Williams still should have plenty of energy at that stage, but she has lost all three of her career meetings with Li.  Surrounding world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki are heavy hitters Yaroslava Shvedova and Mona Barthel.  If neither of those knocks off the Dane, who lost her Stuttgart opener, she could attempt to build on her victory over Li last fall.   While Serena has dominated her head-to-head meetings with both Wozniacki and Li overall, she often has found them foes worthy of her steel.  On red clay, Li’s counterpunching talents and ability to transition from defense to offense could prove especially dangerous.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:   Returning from yet another of her injury absences, Victoria Azarenka barely has played since winning the Doha title from Serena in a memorable three-set final.  That February achievement preceded a shaky effort at Indian Wells curtailed by a sore ankle, so Vika enters Madrid with less match play than most other contenders.  Her bid for a third straight final here will take her through the teeth of some formidable early tests, including Portugal Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her opener.  The Russian took sets from Azarenka in two of their three previous meetings, while second-round opponent Lucie Safarova took her the distance here two years ago and impressed in a three-hour loss to Sharapova at Stuttgart.  Twice a finalist and once a champion at Roland Garros, Francesca Schiavone should pose less resistance to the third seed as her consistency has dwindled.  Nevertheless, an unexpected title in Marrakech might carry Schiavone to their projected clash in the fourth round, for the higher-ranked Marion Bartoli tends to struggle on clay.

Relatively open is the lower area of this quarter, where Sara Errani looks to rebound from an early Stuttgart exit.  Last year’s Roland Garros finalist will appreciate the absence of a powerful shot-maker in her vicinity, allowing her to slowly grind down opponents vulnerable to erratic stretches.  Rising stars Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea fit in that category, as does enigmatic German Julia Goerges.  Eranni has faced doubles partner Roberta Vinci in two key matches over the past several months, a US Open quarterfinal and a Dubai semifinal, emerging victories both times on those hard courts.  Clay could prove a different story, especially with Vinci’s recent fine form.  But Errani’s veteran compatriot will meet last year’s Madrid quarterfinalist Varvara Lepchenko in the first round a few months after losing to her in Fed Cup.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  In the section without any of the WTA’s three leading ladies, the eye pauses on two unseeded figures who could produce deep runs.  One of them, 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, submitted indifferent results in Portugal last week and has played little since a strong start to the year.  This Russian has collected many of her best victories on clay, including Roland Garros upsets of Serena and Radwanska, building on the affinity of her athletic, forehand-centered game for the surface.  Less impressive is Kuznetsova’s focus, which undermined her in a fourth-round match in Paris against Errani last year and could cost her in a third-round meeting with Angelique Kerber.  While the indoor clay of Stuttgart differs significantly from outdoor clay conditions, the world No. 6 still may have gained confidence from nearly reaching a final on her worst surface.  The eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova has generated few headlines of late, and slow-court specialist Alize Cornet rarely makes a statement in a draw of this magnitude.

The other unseeded player of note here, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, burst back into prominence when she reached the Miami semifinals this spring and backed it up with a finals appearance in Charleston.  Jankovic defeated no opponent of note there or in her Bogota title run a month before, but she did win a set from Serena and generally looked at ease on her favorite surface.  Looming for her is yet another clash with her compatriot and fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who also showed encouraging recent form by defeating Kerber in Fed Cup and testing Sharapova in a Stuttgart quarterfinal.  The Serbs have split their two meetings on red clay, both of which lasted three sets, but Ivanovic prevailed comfortably in their only encounter from the past two years.  Scant reward awaits the winner, aligned to face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in a matchup that has befuddled both of them through long losing streaks to the Pole.  Like Kerber, Radwanska would consider clay her worst surface, so a quarterfinal between them could tilt either way.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  The majors, Premier Mandatory tournaments, Premier Five tournaments, and year-end championships form a group of fourteen elite events that overshadow the WTA calendar.  Accustomed to (literally) overshadowing her opponents, Maria Sharapova has reached the final at thirteen of those—all but Madrid.  This year’s draw offers the world No. 2 some assistance in correcting that omission, for only one player who has defeated her in the last twelve months appears in her half.  And that player, grass specialist Sabine Lisicki, hardly poses a formidable threat on clay.  By contrast, potential third-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova has defeated Sharapova on this surface before and seems a more plausible candidate to end her red-clay streak.  Injuries have troubled Cibulkova during her most productive time of the year, however, whereas Sharapova has evolved into a far more dangerous clay threat since that 2009 loss.

One of two one-time major champions stands poised to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but their uneven form this year opens this section for one of its several unseeded talents.  A champion here two years, eighth seed Petra Kvitova could meet ninth seed and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round.  Troubled by a leg injury in recent weeks, though, the latter faces a difficult opening assignment in rising Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.  This clay specialist with an Henin-esque one-handed backhand will bring momentum from reaching the Portugal Open final, while Stosur fell to Jankovic in her Stuttgart opener.  Mounting a comeback from injury is 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who also produced solid results last week.  Flavia Pennetta’s comeback has progressed less promisingly, but she too has plenty of clay skills.  Meanwhile, can Sloane Stephens rediscover some of the form that took her to the second week in Paris last year?  Many questions arise from this section that only matches can answer.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Final:  Li vs. Sharapova

Champion:  Li Na

Check back tomorrow for a preview of the ATP draw in Madrid.

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Portugal Open Preview

Sandwiched between busy weeks in Stuttgart and Madrid is a lovely smaller event between Lisbon and the ocean.  Formerly known as the Estoril tournament, the Portugal Open has moved to nearby Oeiras and a location more convenient for those traveling from the capital.  It lacks top-ten entrants or other names familiar to the casual fan, but the tennis aficionado will appreciate the mixture of clay specialists and rising stars on display.

Portugal:

Top half:  Least comfortable on clay among all surfaces, the top-seeded Marion Bartoli seems ripe for an upset in view of her recent struggles.  Bartoli fell in her first match at each of her last two tournaments and has lost five of her last six matches on clay.  Opening against fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, she could face a compelling in the quarterfinals against the winner of an intriguing first-round encounter.  Varvara Lepchenko, the sixth seed, achieved her breakthrough on clay last year with a Madrid quarterfinal and an upset over Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Continuing that trend for her in an otherwise poor 2013 were victories in Fed Cup over both Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, two of the WTA’s leading clay specialists.  But Lepchenko faces the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw to start the week in 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Although she has cooled over her last few events, Kuznetsova signaled a resurgence with an outstanding start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  She also reached the second week of Roland Garros in her last tournament on the terre battue.

Less intriguing is a second quarter stacked with three qualifiers, grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek, and two inconsistent Russian seeds.  A champion in Monterrey and a finalist in Brisbane, the third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has wobbled through five first-round losses as well.  This former Roland Garros quarterfinalist has lost two of three on clay this year.  Perhaps buoyed by Russia’s Fed Cup comeback, to which Pavlyuchenkova did not contribute, compatriot and fellow seed Elena Vesnina looks to exploit this soft section.  Vesnina raced to a 10-1 start this year, including her first career title, but she won just four games in her first-round Stuttgart loss and has struggled overall since that initial spurt.  Also winning her first career title this year, Romanian junkballer Monica Niculescu rounds out this section.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Pavlyuchenkova

Bottom half:  Scoring a mini-upset over Caroline Wozniacki in Stuttgart, Carla Suarez Navarro started her favorite span of the year with modest success.  With a ranking near its career high, the fourth seed will showcase her elegant one-handed backhand and agile defense against a group of heavier hitters.  Foremost among them is Julia Goerges, who has proved that she can win on clay with a Stuttgart title two years ago.  Those two years feel like an eternity ago sometimes, but Goerges did stir to life with a strong effort at that tournament against Petra Kvitova.  She faces a challenging second-round match against one of the two Marrakech finalists.  Having faced each other on Sunday, Francesca Schiavone and Lourdes Dominguez Lino will meet again on Tuesday or Wednesday.  The 2010 Roland Garros champion and 2011 finalist, Schiavone seemed to hover near the verge of retirement when she struggled to win a match earlier this year.  One wonders whether her week in Marrakech will have boosted her confidence a bit.

Initially projected as the top seed in that Moroccan event, Dominika Cibulkova withdrew from it in the wake of Slovakia’s Fed Cup catastrophe.  Her team became the first in Fed Cup history to lose a World Group semifinal after leading 2-0, a collapse that began with her loss to Maria Kirilenko.  Cibulkova owns the best clay skills of anyone in her immediate vicinity, for she upset Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros last year en route to the quarterfinals and also reached the semifinals there four years ago.  A pair of young players, Urszula Radwanska and Laura Robson, hope to gain traction at a small event without any notable names.  Robson in particular could use an injection of morale after dropping six three-setters since the Australian Open, having won the first set in three.  Elsewhere in this section, another 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist in Kaia Kanepi aims to accelerate a comeback in its third tournament.  She might face the fifth-seeded Sorana Cirstea in the second round, or ageless Spanish clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues.  Cirstea has trended upward recently and benefits from the extra time on the surface to prepare her savage forehand.

Semifinal:  Suarez Navarro vs. Cirstea

Final:  Kuznetsova vs. Suarez Navarro

Since Madrid starts on Saturday, May 4, my Friday article will preview the two draws rather than offering a viewpoint on a current issue.  I might write that type of article for the following Monday, depending on whether something arises.  Apologies for any confusion caused by the scheduling switch.

 

WTA Plotlines to Ponder: Clay Season Edition

Two weeks ago, on the eve of Monte Carlo, my column offered some thoughts on intriguing storylines to follow during the ATP clay season.  Midway through the first key WTA tournament on clay, Stuttgart, this companion article discusses a group of narratives that could prove crucial to the next several weeks in the women’s game.

1.      Will Serena atone for last year’s embarrassment? 

On the eve of her spectacular second half, she suffered one of her most ignominious setbacks ever at Roland Garros.  French wildcard Virginie Razzano became the first woman to topple the American in the first round at any major, extending a nine-year stretch during which Serena has failed to reach the final in Paris.  While clay remains her weakest surface, most had expected better—if not a title—from her after she shredded the competition in Charleston, Madrid, and Rome.  Similar murmurs have started to rise again as Serena has begun a second straight bounceback from a disappointing start to a season.  The Razzano debacle might motivate her, for the US Open loss to Stosur seemed to spur her in last year’s title run.  Or Serena might just follow her frequent pattern of using a Paris stumble as a catalyst for Wimbledon

2.      Does Sharapova take a step back?

At her most lethal when she has something to prove, the woman once known as a “cow on ice” conquered the clay in style last year.  Sharapova managed to do what even Justine Henin struggled to do in her prime by going undefeated on the red dirt with titles in Stuttgart and Rome before completing the career Grand Slam in Paris.  Sharapova owns the best clay winning percentage of any active woman, but she has struggled throughout her career at defending titles.  The challenge of clay may inspire her less once conquered, and she has named Wimbledon and the US Open as her key goals this year.  Still, she looked even more convincing through three months of 2013 than she did at the same stage in 2012.

3.      Can Azarenka get/stay healthy?

Like Serena, the woman who lost the No. 1 ranking to her finds clay the surface least suited to her strengths.  But Azarenka’s first priority must be recovering from the latest of the injuries that have made her notorious for retirements.  She cannot threaten on clay with an ailing ankle, so she will need to stay patient in planning her schedule and goals.  At the same time, few players can succeed at Roland Garros with minimal match practice, suggesting that she may need some preparation to mount a challenge.  If she can get it, Azarenka can gain plenty of ground in the rankings.  She nearly reached the semifinals in 2009, although even the more limited shot-makers can penetrate the surface better than she can.

4.      Which way will Li trend?

Another woman who struggled with injury earlier this year, she scorched through Australia in one of her torrid stretches, which was not surprising, and then regrouped smoothly from a long injury absence, which was.  Among Li’s greatest enemies is herself, for her inconsistency subjects her to jagged peaks and valleys that coach Carlos Rodriguez has attempted to smoothen.   Her greatest peak came when she defeated four straight top-ten opponents to win Roland Garros two years ago, and she seemed positioned to repeat that feat when she hovered on the verge of winning Rome last year.  Then, Li imploded there and again in Paris.  History suggests that we can expect something memorable from the veteran, while leaving few hints about whether a peak or a valley awaits.

5.      Forza Italia?

Three years ago, Francesca Schiavone led their charge by claiming the Roland Garros title after never reaching the semifinals at any major.  Not content with that fortnight, she came within one victory of a title defense in 2011.  When Schiavone finally faded, Sara Errani stepped almost as unexpectedly into the breach by reaching last year’s final with victories over Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber, and Sam Stosur.  Errani’s compatriot and doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, has achieved a Schiavone-like resurgence late in her career that has lifted her into the top 15.  The drop shots of Errani and the biting slices of Vinci could wreak havoc on the clay again, as shown by the titles that each has won on the surface already this year.

6.      Will there be a new flavor of the year in Paris?

After Justine Henin won her last title here in 2007,  five different women have raised the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in triumph.  All five captured Roland Garros for the first time, and three of the five (Ivanovic, Schiavone, Li) never had won a major before, or has since.  The other two champions, Kuznetsova and Sharapova, had gone over four years since their last major titles.  Add to this list three runner-ups in those five years who never had reached a major final before:  Dinara Safina, Stosur, and Errani.  This recent history suggests that at least one woman will achieve a breakthrough in Paris, or exploit the chaos of a crumbling draw.  Keep an eye on overachievers at the earlier events for glimpses of trendy dark horses.

 

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Stuttgart and Marrakech Previews

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

My Friend, My Foe, My Countrywoman

Flavia and Francesca.

While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.

Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.

They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU&feature=youtu.be

Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP7CnDWIhyQ&feature=youtu.be

In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.

In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.

On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.

Together.

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

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 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?)

 

 

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

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!