Garbine Muguruza

Coco Vandeweghe Breaks Out Into First Major Semifinal

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

CoCo Vandeweghe set up an all-American semifinal at the Australian Open on Tuesday as she easily dispatched the 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza in straight sets, 6-4, 6-0.

The other American she will face in the semifinal is seven-time major champion Venus Williams, who also won in straight sets over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-4, 7-6(3).

“It’s a dream to play someone you grew up watching. To play an unbelievable player, future hall of famer, to be on the court with her, I’ve only experienced it one time before,” said Vandeweghe, who lost that matchup on clay in Rome. “But to do it at this stage of a Grand Slam is kind of crazy.”

Vandeweghe has been playing the best tennis of her life this fortnight in Melbourne as she knocked out the No. 1 player in the world Angelique Kerber in the fourth round before following that up with a demolishing of the No. 7 seed Muguruza.

In the first set, the American had a look at seven break points before she could finally convert the break on her eighth attempt for a 4-3 lead. In her first four service games of the match, Vandeweghe only lost five points on serve, but when she went to serve out the set a few nerves may have crept into her mind. She fell to 30-40 as Muguruza had a chance to get back on serve, but the big hitting American fought off that break point before winning two more points to take the set.

That was the last change Muguruza would have in the match as Vandeweghe steamrolled through the second set, winning it 6-0. The Spaniard only won four points on serve in her three service games while the American only faced one break point and saved it, earning her a spot in the semifinals.

“It feels really good. It’s amazing to be in a semifinal, but not satisfying. I want to keep going,” Vandeweghe said. “There’s more things to do out on a tennis court that I’m hoping to achieve.”

The 36-year old Williams had a battle on her hands against Pavlyuchenkova, and had to battle back from a break down two separate times in the first set before she broke at love in the final game to steal it from the Russian.

In the second set, Williams once again battle back from a break down twice, but was unable to grab a third break this time, so the set went to a tiebreak. There, Williams fell behind 3-1, but was able to rattle off five points in a row to create three set points. She only needed one as she took the tiebreak 7-3, earning her spot in the semifinals.

“Today was such a hard fought match and she never let up,” Williams said.

“I’m sure she’s going to want to be in her first final,” Williams said about Vandeweghe. “I’m going to want to be in only my second final here. So it’s going to be a well-contested match.”

That semifinal matchup will take place on Thursday in Melbourne, with the winner heading to the Australian Open final.

French Open Champ Muguruza Falls at Wimbledon

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

Current French Open champion and 2015 Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza of Spain was shocked on Thursday at Wimbledon as she was taken out by the No. 124 player in the world, Jana Cepelova.

Cepelova, a 23-year old from Slovakia, grabbed the straight sets win in stunning fashion by a score of 6-3, 6-2.

Muguruza allowed Cepelova to get off to a confident start as the 23-year old broke the Spaniard in her first service game of the match before holding at love to consolidate for a 3-0 lead at the first sit-down of the match. Cepelova had difficulties serving out the set the first time as she broke Muguruza again for a double break lead at 5-2, but could not close out the set in her first attempt. The set was won two games later, though, as Cepelova was able to fight off a late burst from the French Open champion.

“From the beginning, I feel really good on the court,” said Cepelova.

That late burst from the first set could not be sustained in the second set as Cepelova quickly stamped her foot down and took control. Breaking in both of Muguruza’s first two service games of the set allowed the challenger to race out to a 4-0 lead. The match was done and dusted at that point as Cepelova was able to hold in her next two service games to close out the match and reach the third round of Wimbledon for the second time in her career.

“I am really surprised, I didn’t expect two sets…Last year I beat (Simona) Halep on this court and I had great memories,” said Cepelova, who surprised even herself with the impressive performance.

The Slovakian, who had to win three qualifying matches to get into the main draw, has a knack for major upsets as she has the aforementioned win over Halep in the first round of Wimbledon last year to go along with her win over Serena Williams in 2014. Cepelova’s three biggest wins of her career have given her wins over a No. 1 player in the world, a No. 2 player in the world, and a No. 3 player in the world.

“I have some great players beaten so I’m very satisfied,” said Cepelova, who was once ranked as high as No. 50 in the world.

“I like these courts. I like to play against the biggest stars, against the champions.”

The loss for Muguruza means she became the ninth consecutive first-time major winner to fail to reach the quarterfinals of the next major tournament.

“I think she played great…she was trying a lot of stuff that was working. My energy was not really there. I was trying, but it didn’t work at all,” said Muguruza.

Cepelova has now won eight of her last nine matches and will look to continue her good run of form in the third round of Wimbledon where she will take on another major finalist in Lucie Safarova, the No. 28 seed in this year’s event who reached the final of the French Open in 2015.

MuguruzaLossWimby

Shelby Rogers Is New American Tennis Cinderella

by Ashley Brownstein

 

With the clay season complete and another French Open in the books we get that rare time to reflect on the two weeks in Paris before we start up again with a new major. We now know the obvious headlines, Serena Williams falling short again of slam twenty-two and Novak Djokovic completing his career grand slam. But for American tennis it was especially exciting as one of our own, whose name wasn’t Williams, made it to the quarterfinals. Shelby Rogers, 23, was the American that cemented herself as the one making a lasting impression.  Rogers entered the French Open ranked 108 in the world but took out three seeded players before falling to Garbine Muguruza who became the eventual champion.

Now we turn our attention to grass as we prepare for the road to Wimbledon. Shelby is looking to expand on her success from Paris while in Mallorca, Spain as she tunes up on grass. With the change of scenery (not just sunny skies rather than consistent rain) comes the switch to a new surface. But that doesn’t seem to faze Shelby; rather she finds that grass is better suited to her game. With a big serve and powerful groundstrokes she feels she can carry the success from clay to grass.

“I served especially well in Paris so that’s definitely a positive,” she said. “It gives me pretty high confidence to take from the French that I can carry over here.”

Confidence she has but what about pressure?

“No I don’t really feel any right now,” she said. “Especially being in Europe it’s not as big of a deal. Maybe if I was in the states I’d feel it more but I’m really enjoying being here. You see different players and feel a different dynamic with the grass but I’m just trying to push myself and also be realistic. My goal at the beginning of the year was to make it into the slams this summer, which I’ve already achieved so I’m proud of that. I want to finish the year definitely in the top seventy-five so again realistic but there are always things I can improve on.”

Shelby seems to possess the type of realistic stamina that will keep her in the game for some time. And while she “of course” wants to reach number one in the world one day she does find this time for women’s tennis very exciting. Who wouldn’t? The past three slam winners have all been first time champions. Add to that the support coming from the locker room itself. As Shelby describes “it’s really an amazing thing to be a part of American tennis. We’re all cordial, all friends and give each other friendly competition. We genuinely want each other to do well, I’m so happy to be a part of that.”

Of course it is too soon to tell and no one really knows what will happen in the future. But if I had to guess Shelby Rogers is going to do everything she can to make sure that she is a part of the future of American tennis. Even though we were gifted with one “Cinderella story” perhaps we can get a second at Wimbledon. Shelby even said “on any given day it could be your time in women’s tennis” so why not hers?

Garbine Muguruza Claims Maiden Major Beating Serena Williams For French Open Title

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

Garbine Muguruza of Spain won her first major title Saturday defeating defending champion and world No. 1 Serena Williams 7-5, 6-4 in the French Open women’s singles final.

The Spaniard, who was the No. 4 seed in the tournament, gave Williams a taste of her own medicine as she was able to completely outhit the 21-time major champion, blasting winner after winner.

Muguruza came into the match on a roll, having won 10 sets in a row and nine of her last 10 matches. The 22-year old, after dropping her first set of her French Open, was able to grow in confidence throughout her run in Paris, beating the 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and the 2010 French Open runner up Sam Stosur along the way, while also losing more than three games only three times in 10 sets, as well as winning two sets at 6-0.

Not only was her recent run of form a reason to feel confident heading into this match, but so was the fact that she had already defeated Williams at the French Open, coming in the second round of the 2014 edition of the tournament.

The confidence of Muguruza carried over into the final and never wavered throughout the match despite how many opportunities she had to crumble under the pressure of playing in just her second major final, the previous coming in 2015 at Wimbledon where she lost to her opponent on Saturday.

Williams, who was the defending French Open champion, started off well, dropping just one point in her first two service games and forcing Muguruza to save two break points in just her second service game of the match. Saving those break points proved to be a turning point for the Spaniard, though, as she was able to break in the next game, eventually holding a 4-2 lead.

Williams, who was seeking her fourth French Open title, was able to break back later in the set, but Muguruza continued to go for her shots and asserted herself on the court, allowing her to break in the 11th game of the first set before fighting off two more break points in the next game to take the one set lead.

That run continued for Muguruza as she was able to break Williams in her first two service games of the second set, allowing the American to win just two points on serve, but those two breaks bookended a run of three consecutive breaks overall, meaning Muguruza only had a one-break advantage to work with.

With Muguruza holding a break lead at 2-1, it was a test of nerves for the rest of the match as the whole tennis world waited to see how long it would be before she would falter. That moment never came, though, as Muguruza only lost a total of four points on serve in her final four service games.

When Williams served to stay in the match at 3-5, Muguruza looked poised to take the title in that game as she had a look at four championship points in a 16-point game, but Williams showed her tenacious spirit that she has become known for, fighting them all off and extending the match.

The feeling was present that Williams would be able to apply pressure on Muguruza as she served for the title, especially after saving those four championship points, but the Spaniard was having none of that as she held at love to win her first major title, sealing the deal with a lob winner that landed on the baseline.

Muguruza, who will now reach a new career high ranking and become the No. 2 player in the world, has proven to the tennis world that she will be a major threat on the WTA Tour for a long time.

This title makes her the third consecutive first time major champion as Flavia Pennetta won the US Open last year and Angelique Kerber won the Australian Open earlier this year, both being first time winners.

Muguruza also tied the record for fewest titles owned when winning her first major title, as she had only won two titles on the WTA Tour coming into this event.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Sharapova, Li, Stosur, Nadal, and More Set to Shine on Day 5

Our Thursday preview discusses eight matches from each singles draw, starting this time with the WTA.

WTA:

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Her opening victory over Kimiko Date-Krumm looked impressive on paper with the loss of just two games.  Now, however, Stosur must face a Frenchwoman much more worthy of her steel.  Mladenovic caught fire on home soil in February when she reached the semifinals of the Paris Indoors, although she faces an uphill battle against an opponent more accomplished on clay and much more experienced at this level.

Maria Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard:  Teenagers have troubled Sharapova in the first week of majors before, from the Melanie Oudin catastrophe at the US Open to a hard-fought encounter with Laura Robson at Wimbledon and a narrowly avoided stumble against Caroline Garcia here.  Bouchard reached the semifinals of Strasbourg last week, where she threatened eventual champion Alize Cornet.  On the other hand, the 19-year-old Canadian eked out only two games from the woman who designs her Nike outfits when they met in Miami this spring.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  Logic suggests that the second round marks the end of the road for Schiavone, who faces a seeded opponent there.  Her history at this tournament suggests that we should not lean too heavily on logic and give her a fighting chance against a young Belgian more successful on faster surfaces.

Li Na vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands:  When they met in Stuttgart this spring, the 2011 Roland Garros champion eased past her fellow veteran.  Mattek-Sands pulled off a series of impressive victories that week, reaching the semifinals as a qualifier.  The indoor conditions in Stuttgart fit her game better than the outdoor terre battue here, and Li looked much crisper in her opener against Anabel Medina Garrigues than she had earlier this clay season.

Marion Bartoli vs. Mariana Duque-Marino:  Surviving the grueling three-hour trainwreck in her first-round match may have liberated Bartoli to swing more boldly henceforth.  Or Colombian clay specialist Duque-Marino might finish what Govortsova started, capitalizng on the double faults that continue to flow.  Bartoli cannot count on the Chatrier crowd to rescue her this time.

Ashleigh Barty vs. Maria Kirilenko:  Both women enter this match in excellent form, the Australian teenager having scored her first career victory at a major and the Russian having yielded just a single game.  This tournament has offered a fine showcase for some of the WTA’s rising stars, although Kirilenko’s consistency should leave Barty few options.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Garbine Muguruza:  Continuing her clay success this spring, Jankovic won more of the key points than she often does in fending off occasional nemesis Daniela Hantuchova.  A heavy-hitting Spaniard awaits in Muguruza, who knocked off another Slam-less No. 1 this year in Caroline Woznacki.  Consecutive fourth-round appearances at Indian Wells and Miami suggested Muguruza’s readiness to take the next step forward on a hard court, but her clay results have lagged behind.

Petra Kvitova vs. Peng Shuai:  Yet another three-set rollercoaster defined Kvitova’s path to the second round.  While she looks invincible at her best, seemingly anyone will have a chance against her on her vulnerable days.  Far from just anyone, Peng won a set from Kvitova on a hard court this year and another set on grass last year.  Last week, she reached a Premier final in Brussels, by far her most notable result since her career year in 2011.

ATP:

Lucas Pouille vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Never has Dimitrov advanced past the second round of a major.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, that streak of futility should end here.  Ranked outside the top 300, Pouille has spent most of his limited career at the challenger level, although he did win his first match in straight sets.  Dimitrov aims to set up a third-round rematch of his Madrid meeting with Novak Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal vs. Martin Klizan:  Unable to deliver a strong opening statement in his first match, Nadal instead revealed some notable signs of frailty.  He should settle into a groove more smoothly against a less explosive opponent, using the opportunity to reassert his clay supremacy.  Few players bounce back from a shaky effort better than Nadal.

Fernando Verdasco vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  In their most significant match to date, Tipsarevic held match points against Verdasco at the 2011 Australian Open before tanking the fifth set when the fourth slipped away. The Serb remains an enigmatic competitor who has struggled through a barren season, but he did win their two meetings since then.  Also in dismal form for most of 2013, Verdasco appeared to raise his confidence over the last month.  He demolished his first opponent and should hold a clear surface edge.

Tommy Haas vs. Jack Sock:  The raw American won his first main-draw match at Roland Garros in scintillaing fashion after notching three wins in qualifying just as easily.  Fourteen years his senior, Haas shares Sock’s preference for faster surfaces.  He has produced some solid clay results this year, though, whereas his opponent lost five straight matches before arriving in Paris.  If Sock maintains a high first-serve percentage, this match could become very competitive but still probably not an upset.

Lukas Rosol vs. Fabio Fognini:  With the winner almost certianly destined to face Rafael Nadal, this match bears the whiff of intrigue over the possibility of a Wimbledon rematch.  Fognini’s superior clay game should snuff out Rosol’s hopes for another chance at the Spaniard, especially across a best-of-five match.  The Italian reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in Monte Carlo, although his results have tapered since then.  For his part, Rosol won his first career title in Bucharest, defeating Gilles Simon en route.

Ryan Harrison vs. John Isner:  Rare is the all-American match in the second round of Roland Garros, created this time by an odd quirk of the draw.  Harrison defeated Isner at Sydney just before the older American withdrew from the Australian Open, the start of a disastrous season for him outside a small title in Houston.  Nor did the upset launch Harrison’s season in style, for he fell outside the top 100 this spring and has won just two main-draw matches since that January victory over Isner.  The latter can draw inspiration from his five-setter here against Rafael Nadal in 2010.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Horacio Zeballos:  One of these men barely finished off his match on Tuesday, while the other needed to return on Wednesday for two more sets.  Both Wawrinka and Zeballos defeated marquee Spaniards to win clay titles this spring, Zeballos stunning Nadal in Vina del Mar and Wawrinka dominating Ferrer in Portugal.  The Swiss No. 2’s achievement marked merely one episode in a general upward trend, though, whereas the Argentine’s breakthrough has remained an anomaly.

Robin Haase vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Haase recently collected the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost, halting at the same number as Roger Federer’s record of major titles won.  The floundering Dutchman might play a few more tiebreaks against a man who can match him hold for hold.  The clay-court savvy of both men languishes relatively low, causing them to battle the surface as well as each other.

 

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

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?

The End of the Red Brick Road: WTA Brussels and Strasbourg Previews

One Premier tournament and one International tournament complete the Road to Roland Garros within striking distance of Paris.  None of the women involved are in serious contention for the clay season’s ultimate prize, but the absence of those elite names could lead to some tightly contested matches in playing fields without clear favorites.  I forwent predictions this time because your guess is as good as mine.  (Feel free to opine in the comments, as always.)

Brussels:

Top half:  Seven of the Brussels seeds will receive seeds in Paris next week, a strong statement considering the tournament’s placement on the eve of Roland Garros.  In need of a strong statement herself is top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who took a wildcard into the tournament following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome.  Wozniacki has struggled on clay for most of her career but should aim to halt her skid before dropping outside the top ten.  Unfortunately for her, recurrent nemesis Julia Goerges lurks in the quarterfinals.  This German notably defeated Wozniacki to win the Stuttgart clay title two years ago, and she has added two more victories over the Dane since then.  Since she has impressed hardly more than Wozniacki has recently, though, one can’t entirely discount Swiss clay specialist Romina Oprandi or the qualifiers who litter this section.

None of the women in the second quarter has distinguished herself consistently on clay, although Arantxa Rus does own a Roland Garros victory over Kim Clijsters.  Having reached the second week of Roland Garros last year, the fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens looks to build upon her modestly encouraging effort in Rome.  There, Stephens won consecutive matches for the first time since defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open.  Her depleted confidence resurfaced in a lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova, but a small tournament like Brussels offers a useful venue to rebuild that strength.  With fast-court specialists like Tsvetana Pironkova and Magdalena Rybarikova around her, Stephens might face her stiffest resistance from Peng Shuai.  The Chinese double-fister won their only previous meeting, also on clay, but Stephens has improved markedly in the two years since then.

Bottom half:  By far the most intriguing first-round match of the draw pits third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova against Kaia Kanepi.  This battle of 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalists will feature a contrast of styles between the compact, agile Slovak and the robust, heavy-hitting Estonian.  Never have they met on clay, while Kanepi has won two of three matches overall.  Of some lesser note is a potential second-round clash between Varvara Lepchenko and Stefanie Voegele.  The American upset Schiavone at Roland Garros last year and has continued the clay success atypical among her compatriots this year with two victories over Roberta Vinci.  For her part, Voegele reached the semifinals of Charleston on green clay, although she has won only one match on red clay.   Kanepi defeated Lepchenko last fall before the injuries that sidelined her for several months, so an upset of Cibulkova could open her draw.

Probably disappointing many Belgian fans, their two leading women would meet as early as the second round in their home tournament.  Both have achieved more success on grass and hard courts than on clay, and both open against rising American stars.  Having upset Li Na in Madrid as a lucky loser, Madison Keys will aim to snuff out home hope Kirsten Flipkens in a match of baseline first strikes against all-court craft.  Belgian No. 2 Yanina Wickmayer faces a somewhat easier assignment in the form of Jamie Hampton, who has not won a match in a clay main draw this year.  Awaiting one of the Belgians in the quarterfinals is second-seeded Roberta Vinci, an artisan of traditional clay-court tennis.  Vinci has not found her best form for much of the spring but did win a small event in Katowice, Poland.

Strasbourg:

Top half:  Atop the draw is French No. 1 Marion Bartoli, who has emitted the occasional burst of inspiration on home soil.  The eccentric double-fister reached the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, although clay usually hampers her style of staccato points and quick strikes.  Two rising stars could challenge her in this section, compatriot Caroline Garcia and Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.  The former just won a clay challenger at Cagnes-sur-Mer, while the latter notched a significant victory over Laura Robson on the green clay of Charleston.  First-time champions in 2013, Memphis titlist Marina Erakovic and Florianopolis titlist Monica Niculescu will seek to end spring losing streaks when they meet in the first round.  Neither can match Bartoli’s talent, but either could befuddle one of the youngsters.

Another Frenchwoman holds the highest seed in the second quarter, and world No. 30 Alize Cornet’s game suits clay more effectively than Bartoli’s style.  The mixture of qualifiers and fellow Frenchwomen surrounding her will turn few heads, while Chanelle Scheepers will not overpower Cornet.  The latter two women bring similar patterns of results to Strasbourg.  Before she fell to Melanie Oudin in Rome qualifying, though, Scheepers did reach a clay semifinal in Marrakech and upset Jelena Jankovic on the surface in Madrid.  Last year’s runner-up here, Cornet reached a somewhat more significant clay semifinal in Acapulco this February but suffered a loss to an Italian wildcard in Rome.

Bottom half:  Following a mid-career surge, Hsieh Su-Wei has embedded herself within the top 50 and holds the fourth seed here.  An opening match against promising German talent Annika Beck intrigues, as does a possible quarterfinal meeting with the elegant Daniela Hantuchova.  Handed a wildcard into Madrid, Hantuchova made the most of the opportunity by upsetting Petra Kvitova en route to the final 16.  Also in this section is Karolina Pliskova, a heavy server who nearly won her first title this year at Kuala Lumpur and defeated Kanepi on the clay of Portugal.

Perhaps worth more attention than the seeds in the lowest quarter, some of the unseeded entrants could score an upset or two.  For the rest of her career, Virginie Razzano will struggle to trump the achievement of defeating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, which probably resulted in her wildcard here.  Aligned against Czech doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka in a first-round match to watch, Garbine Muguruza aims to notch her first clay main-draw win in a season when she has reached the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami.  In the shadow of compatriots like Stephens and Keys, sixth-seeded Christina McHale continues to seek traction in her comeback from mononucleosis.  Second-seeded Tamira Paszek has lost 11 of her last 12 matches and seems unlikely to increase that total suddenly here.

***

Capsules on the Roland Garros contenders will follow this week before the draws appear on Friday.

 

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

 

Serena Williams and Li Na Survive to Meet in Quarterfinals of Sony Open Tennis

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 25, 2013 )Li Na was up 5-1 in the first set against Spanish teen and wildcard, Gabine Muguruza, before she started to think. To think about what it would be like to win the match — she was in a good spot, or so she thought.

“I was feeling pretty good. (I) should continued,” Li said. “Maybe I think too much of other things, like after court, blah blah.”

Before Li knew it, they were playing a first set tiebreak — the riskiest crossroads for a player.

Li initially cruised to go up 6-1, and, yet again, the lead slipped out of her hands like a slippery rope on a rain-soaked sailboat.

“I told myself don’t do the same thing (as earlier in the set),” she said, laughing. “But same thing come back. Okay, 6-6 in tiebreak I have to calm down.”

She recalled advice from her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, that even if she lost the set there were two more. Either player had to win two sets. That notion lifted her confidence enough to finally close the first set, 7-6(6).

Similarly, Serena Williams was in a funk during her post-match press conference after she defeated Dominika Cibulkova is three rollercoaster sets. She said she was stressed, but didn’t reference the source. Her head drooped more than a hound dog’s, as she trudged from point to point.

Across the net was a furiously fit and confident Cibulkova. What she doesn’t have in size, she makes up in tracking down balls. She had Williams on the run and headed in the opposite direction from a tournament record-breaking sixth Miami title.

“Mentally, I was just fried,” she said, her eyes cast downward. “I was just thinking about everything but tennis.”

The stress, come to find out, was not about anything in particular. She did, though, have a conversation with her alter ego. The one that criticizes and yanks her around mentally.

“Yeah, I’m talking to myself inside and she’s talking back and giving me lip,” Serena admitted. “I give her a little attitude, and then I tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up.”

The mental holiday left both Williams and Li, who were on track to meet in the quarterfinals, in uncomfortable positions. The difference between the two comebacks — because they both did pull rabbits out of their hats and won their matches — was in their tennis.

Li Na had to concentrate on her game and block out the extraneous mumblings. Her rest and recovery from a left ankle injury after the Australian Open plus her continued fitness regime were key to her victory today.

After Melbourne, Li spent a couple of weeks in China before heading to Germany for three weeks. There she saw a doctor with whom she has seen since 2007. A ligament had been torn, and a nearby bone was in question. Her doctor was concerned about the fascia muscle, which was also impinged.

“Then I went back to China to train with Carlos,” she began. “He didn’t know how tough he could push. So, at first, we hit softly. We talked about our schedule and plan. I had to tell him how I was feeling from yesterday. We always talk before training.”

Li Na’s improvement on court can be partially attributed to her conversations with Carlos. Nothing more.

“I really (am) happy I can work with him,” she continued. “He never gives me pressure. Chinese (are) a little bit different than Western, for me. I didn’t speak out. I hold for myself. The team didn’t know what I was thinking for the match. Now I feel comfortable or happy, and I can speak out.”

In the second set, Li found herself again in a similar spot; she was up 5-2 on Muguruza’s serve. Luckily for Li, Muguruza’s mind lapsed with a double fault.

“I was thinking (about) what I am going to serve,” Garbine said, laughing. “(Li) is one of the best. I think I do really good points and play a good match.”

Although on her way to Charleston, S.C., for the Family Circle Cup, Muguruza remained upbeat especially about the improvement in her return of serve, which pressured Li as she escaped mentally. “I’m really happy. I had good rhythm against those girls. (I have) lots of confidence for these types of matches.”

Li won the match 7-6(6), 6-2.

Serena, though, had to quash her rabid racing mind and kick-start her feet. Like so many other times in her stellar career, though, the 15-time major winner came to the net, took balls early, and mixed up her game enough to disrupt Cibulkova’s baseline rhythm.

Serena’s aggression paid off.

“I feel like coming to the net helped me to just play a little better and play more aggressive and just play my game,” she began. “I was not feeling my game today, you know, but for me it’s getting through those matches when you don’t feel great and then you’re still able to come through them and survive and play for another round.”

Scoreline for Serena’s mental battle and win … 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Serena Williams and Li Na each survived their scares today. Their broad experiences, acuity as world-class athletes and tennis players, plus that intangible element which spurs champions to will their way through the finish line, clicked even though moments of doubt crept in view to challenge them both.

Monday Mayhem: Miami WTA Fourth-Round, ATP Third-Round Matches Previewed

On a busy Monday in Miami, all of the women’s fourth-round matches unfold.  You can find a preview of all eight here in addition to a few of the remaining men’s third-round encounters.

Garbine Muguruza vs. Li Na:  Into the fourth round for the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, the Spanish rising star continues to consolidate her position as a player to watch this year.  Indian Wells finalist Caroline Wozniacki became the latest player to learn about Muguruza’s ascendancy the hard way, thoroughly dismantled on Sunday.  A day later, the youngster trains her weapons on Li Na, who has produced consistently outstanding tennis in the few tournaments that she has played this year.  The Australian Open runner-up has lost only to Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka in 2013, although a knee injury sidelined her for several weeks after Melbourne.  When she returned this week, her ball-striking looked as clean if not as audacious as it had in January.  Never at her best in Miami, Li could turn a page now.

Serena Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova:  Awaiting the winner of the previous match in the quarterfinals is the world No. 1, assuming that she can survive the test posed by the shortest woman in the top 30.  Cibulkova vanished from relevance after reaching the Sydney final, where Radwanska double-bageled her, but she pushed Serena’s predecessor in the spot to the brink in the same round here a year ago.  That match against Azarenka, for which she served twice, revealed how much her explosive forehand can threaten taller opponents with more effortless power.  Against a server like Serena, who struck 20 aces against her at Wimbledon in 2010, Cibulkova’s short wingspan may prevent her from creating pressure in return games and exploiting the erratic baseline play that Williams showed in the last round.

Grigor Dimitrov vs. Andy Murray:   The memory of what unfolded when he faced Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells may reverberate through Dimitrov’s mind if he takes a lead against Murray.  Serving for the first set that time, he conceded four double faults in a painful display of nerves.  Dimitrov also took Murray to a first-set tiebreak wen they met in the Brisbane final this year, only to lose the tiebreak decisively and fade thereafter.  Much more impressive than he looked at Indian Wells, Murray showed minimal mercy to another rising phenom in Bernard Tomic. His two-handed backhand should break down Dimitrov’s one-hander unless the Bulgarian enjoys an excellent serving day that allows him to dictate points with his forehand.

John Isner vs. Marin Cilic:  Among the stranger statistics of the ATP is Cilic’s undefeated record against Americans, which includes victories over playesr like Roddick and Querrey.  That perfection might continue against a giant exhausted from his epic victory over Ivan Dodig in the sweltering Miami heat.  Mired in a slump for the last several months, Isner will have gained confidence from winning the type of close match that he so often plays, but he generally does not recover well after winning them and does not have an impressive history in Miami.  The slow surface will blunt the serves of both men, a greater concern for Isner than the more balanced Cilic.

Maria Sharapova vs. Klara Zakopalova:  The only woman in the lower half of the women’s draw who has defeated Sharapova on a hard court, Zakopalova halted the other Russian Maria in the wake of the latter’s strong fortnight at Indian Wells.  That sole victory came a decade agao at the Australian Open, however, and the Czech subsided uneventfully when they met in Doha this February.  Sharapova struggled on serve when Zakopalova took her to a third set at Roland Garros last year, and she struggled on serve again on the windy afternoon of her previous match.  But she should break Zakopalova’s serve frequently with her rapier-like returns, keeping this counterpuncher on her heels from the outset.

Richard Gasquet vs. Mikhail Youzhny:  These two men have developed a reputation for suffering ignominious meltdowns, including an occasion here when Youzhny drew blood from his head by smashing his racket against it.  Another of those occasions featured the Frenchman surrendering a two-set lead to his fellow headcase at the Australian Open.  Well past his prime, the Russian still can uncork one-handed backhands scarcely less lovely than Gasquet’s signature shot.  Moreover, Youzhny has won four of their seven career meetings, surprising considering his opponent’s superior weapons.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sloane Stephens:  The defending champion has suffered a lull in form since winning consecutive titles to start 2013, dominated by Li and Petra Kvitova before Kirilenko upset her at Indian Wells.  Radwanska dropped a set in the third round to Magdalena Rybarikova, a talented player but still a journeywoman, so she must raise her level against an Australian Open semifinalist.  That said, Stephens ate a bagel from Olga Govortsova in her first set of the tournament, and she had lost four of her previous five matches before that victory.  At Cincinnati last summer, she extended Radwanska to a third set despite lacking the firepower that normally troubles the Pole.  Something similar could happen here in a match filled with long rallies.

Milos Raonic vs. Sam Querrey:  Meeting for the fourth time since the start of 2012, these two giants play essentially the same styles in a matchup determined by execution on the day.  In that regard, one must give the edge to Raonic, who defeated Querrey comfortably at San Jose last month in avenging two losses to the American last year.  The slow outdoor courts of Miami favor the Canadian’s massive weapons and preference for short points much less than does the indoor arena in San Jose.  In rallying past former nemesis Lukasz Kubot, Querrey continued to look vulnerable in a year when few victories have come easily.  (Or, the more pessimistic might say, at all.)  This match should come down to first-serve percentage and focus, critical in a match that hinges upon a tiny handful of points and in which any mistake can prove fatal.

Ajla Tomljanovic vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  Recovered from a serious issue with blood clots last year, Flipkens reached the second week of the Australian Open and upset Kvitova yesterday in an oddly oscillating three-setter.  Some of her better results have come on grass, which showcases her biting slice and her fine hands at net.  Aligned opposite her is a Croat who clawed past Petkovic in a third-set tiebreak after upsetting Julia Goerges in the previous round.  Like Flipkens, Tomljanovic has struggled with sporadic injuries, and she has played only a handful of WTA tournaments in the last several months.  Transitioning overnight from the underdog to the favorite, the Belgian should fancy her chances to reach the most significant quarterfinal of her career.

Roberta Vinci vs. Alize Cornet:   In a section that imploded, either of these women plausibly could reach a semifinal and collect the valuable ranking points that come with it.  The main question regarding this match concerns whether Cornet can recover in time from a three-set victory that forced her to leave the court in a wheelchair.  On the other hand, Vinci needed plenty of energy to grind through a three-setter of her own against Suarez Navarro, testing the veteran’s stamina.  Her backhand slices could prove vital in testing the patience of an ever-edgy Cornet.

Sara Errani vs. Ana Ivanovic:  After the Serb had won their two previous meetings, the Italian turned the tables at Roland Garros last year in a match that Ivanovic controlled initially before letting it slip away.  The steadiness of Errani has allowed her to outlast streaky shot-makers like the former Roland Garros champion over the last year, but the latter displayed her best form in several months during her two victories here.  For her part, Errani has lost just five games in two matches, the fewest of any woman left in the draw.  If Ivanovic bursts to a fast start and sustains it, as she did against Kuznetsova, she could overwhelm this opponent before she settles.  If Errani can find her footing and extend the rallies, meanwhile, she could complicate the plot for a woman who prefers her matches straightforward.

Sorana Cirstea vs. Jelena Jankovic:  Until Jankovic won their most recent encounter in Dallas last summer, Cirstea had swept all of her meetings against an opponent consistently ranked higher than her, although each stretched into a final set and none came on an outdoor hard court.  The Romanian brunette managed to upset Kerber a round after barely eking out a victory over Silvia Soler-Espinosa, a pair of results that illustrates how wide her range of form extends.  Almost as impressive as the Kerber upset was Jankovic’s victory over Nadia Petrova, her seventh win in her last eight matches with the only loss coming in an airtight clash with Kuznetsova.  Both women thus should enter this match with confidence, and they eye a similar opportunity to Vinci and Cornet, the winner of whom would meet the winner of this match in the quarterfinals.