monica niculescu

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts.  The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.

Carlsbad:

Top half:  World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season.  Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February.  Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week.  Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents.  An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika.  Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.  Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs

The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.  Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics.  Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb.  The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test.  Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals.  This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic.  The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

Bottom half:  Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati.  The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis.   A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round.  Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead.  A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far.  That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013.  An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.

The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances.  Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here.  She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically.  Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko.  That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

Top half:  Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard.  World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered.  Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford.  Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova.  Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.

Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss.  Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages.  The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then.  More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia.  These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend.  Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.

Bottom half:  Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections.  Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis.  Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May.  But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.

By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer.  American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago.  The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013.  Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries.  A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

The 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.

 

Victorious Victoria Azarenka wins Luxembourg Open

Number one seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus won the Luxembourg Open on Sunday, beating  Monica Niculescu of Romania 6-2, 6-2.

The No. 3-ranked Azarenka didn’t lose a set all week and had no problems against a player who was in her first WTA Tour final.

It was the 22-year-old Azarenka’s eighth career title. The 34th-ranked Niculescu has spent most of her career on the ITF circuit but is enjoying her best month ever.

The win will boost Azarenka’s confidence as she heads to Istanbul to play the WTA Tour Championships starting October 25, 2011.

Doubles results

BENESOVA Iveta (CZE) / ZAHLAVOVA STRYCOVA Barbora (CZE) 7 6
HRADECKA Lucie (CZE) / MAKAROVA Ekaterina (RUS)                   5 3

A special thanks to our photographer Rick Gleijm who has covered the Luxembourg Open with his eyes and camera.

Photos  © Rick Gleijm

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Iveta Benesova ousted by Victoria Azarenka, Julia Goerges reaches semis in Luxembourg

Czech Iveta Benesova tried but failed to reach the semis at the Luxembourg Open.  Belrussian Victoria Azarenka defeated her in straight sets 6-3, 6-2.  Azarenka will now face Germany’s Julia Goerges whose opponent, Latvian Anastasija Sevastova, withdrew with a hip injury while being 5-2 behind in the first set.

In other quarterfinals, Monica Niculescu of Romania defeated lucky loser Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic 6-4, 6-4, and Anne Keothavong of Britain beat Bibiane Schoofs of the Netherlands 6-3, 6-2.

Photos by © Rick Gleijm

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Get to know surprise US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber

We’ve reached the final four on the women’s side of the draw at the US Open 2011 and if you’ve being keeping up, you know that there’s a rather unexpected name left on the bottom half. 23 year old German, Angelique Kerber, beat Flavia Pennetta in the quarterfinals to advance to her first career Grand Slam semifinal against Samantha Stosur.

To be perfectly honest, at the start of the tournament, I hadn’t given Angelique Kerber a second thought. Ranked 92 in the world, it seemed unlikely that she would cause any major damage. She played a very winnable first round match against American wildcard Lauren Davis, but then she was expected to bow out quietly to No. 13, Agnieszka Radwanska. Kerber made a few headlines by upsetting Radwanska, but there were several early exits by top seeds and Angelique Kerber once again became a footnote in the US Open story. However, unlike Simona Halep, who upset Li Na, or Alexandra Dulgheru, who took out Petra Kvitova, Kerber continued winning. Granted, she lucked out a bit with the draw, playing Alla Kudryavtseva in the third round, followed by Monica Niculescu in the fourth, before beating three time quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta.

Angelique Kerber, or Angie as her friends and family call her, was born in West Germany on January 18, 1988. She’s a lefty, who claims that she has no favorite surface, but cites the Australian Open as her favorite Slam and Indian Wells as her favorite tournament. Her highest career ranking came early this year when she reached No. 46 in the world, but she has since fallen to No. 92. She has never won a WTA singles title, but holds 11 ITF titles. Prior to the 2011 US Open, her best performance at any Slam was reaching the third round. In fact, she lost to Laura Robson in the first round of Wimbledon this year.

Kerber joins a growing number of talented young Germans making their mark on the tour, including Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki, and Julia Goerges. Three of them made it to the round of 16, two to the quarterfinals, and Angie is the last woman standing in the semis. While she is certainly considered the underdog in her next match, she’s on the right half of the draw to pull an upset. Samantha Stosur has only appeared in one final in thirty three Grand Slam appearances. Although Stosur has been playing some spectacular tennis over the last week and a half, Kerber has nothing to lose and everything to gain in this matchup. Plus, she has the element of surprise. When asked to assess her potential match against Kerber, Samantha Stosur responded, “ Well, I don’t actually know much about Kerber except that she’s a lefty.  That’s about it.  We’ve never played and never practiced together or anything like that.  Might be interesting to watch a little bit of that match.” Hopefully Sam at least sent her coach out to watch Flavia and Angelique because with the way things have been going in New York this week, anything could happen.

Estoril Open: Alisa Kleybanova has a hard day at the office

By Luís Santos

Another scorching day in Lisbon as second round action took place.

Top seed Alisa Kleybanova was first up on centre court but had a hard day the office by French Mathilde Johansson.

After losing the first game handily, Johansson regrouped and as Kleybanova struggled to find her serve and strokes, the French went up 3-1 with 40-15 on serve. The Russian held her own, however, and the expected happened as Johansson imploded quickly to get the score back on serve.

Players remained on serve up until 5-6 on Kleybanova’s serve. The Russian misfired repeatedly and Johansson took the first set on her first set point after yet another backhand error from Kleybanova.

As the second rolled on Johansson failed to hold serve as Kleybanova found a stranglehold on the french’s second serve winning 78% of the points. Despite being broken twice through the second set, the Russian still closed out comfortably 6-3 to level up the match.

Third set saw Kleybanova opening up a 3-0 lead despite struggling to find her range on the backhand wing. Johansson pounded that side with her flat forehand but failed to be consistent enough to stay competitive. At 5-1 up Kleybanova served for the match but the backhand errors creeped in once again and she dropped serve to 30.

Johansson dutifully lost her serve – and consequently the match – after the Russian set up match point with an unorthodox two-handed backhand. Final score: 5-7 6-3 6-2. Kleybanova now meets Kristina Barrois. The German stopped beautiful Elena Vesnina in straight sets 6-4 6-3.

Elsewhere on court 2, the battle of aussies saw the higher ranked Jarmila Gajdosova defeat comeback kid Casey Dellacqua in straight 6-2 6-4. The second seed has booked her place in the quarterfinals, the fourth this season, after Brisbance, Hobart and Kuala Lumpur.

Gajdosova now meets Monica Niculescu of Romania who sliced her way through American young hope Sloane Stephens 6-4 6-4.

Dropshot queen Romina Oprandi was up against Alla Kudryavtseva today on amazing Centralito. Kudryavtseva’s pace, however, did enough damage on Oprandi’s game to allow a narrow straight sets win as the Russian prevailed 6-4 7-6(3). Kudryavtseva will meet Swede’s Johanna Larsson, who overcame Urszula Radwanska despite hitting nine double-faults.

To the dismay of the Portuguese fans – and press – Portuguese conqueror Greta Arn retired today from her match against Anabel Medina Garrigues. Arn strained the muscles on her left tigh early in the second set. Medina Garrigues was leading the 2007 champion 6-2 1-0.

 

Estoril Open: Alisa Kleybanova breezes to the next, Portuguese mix up ends in win for Joao Sousa

By Luís Santos
After a dreadful weekend where the rain and wind delayed the qualifying draws it was all sunny  in Lisbon at the Estoril Open, as qualifiers made their way into the main draw and first rounds got underway.

The women of the Estoril Open

On the women’s side, Alisa Kleybanova, top seed at the 2011 Estoril Open women’s event, jumped off to a great start breezing past Olga Govortsova 6-2 6-2 in just 67 minutes.

The Russian was tied 2-2 in the head-to-head record against the Belrussian. But today her superior hitting and serving was too much to handle even for big-hitting Govortsova. Govortsova only managed to win 12 points on Kleybanova’s serve. The top seed now plays french Mathilde Johansson who beat Ksenia Pervak 6-4 6-3.

For 2006 champion Jie Zheng things didn’t go as smoothly, as she ran into Romina Oprandi of Italy. Oprandi is famous for her dropshots and has had good results on clay. The Chinese ended up losing in straight sets by the score of 6-4 6-2. Oprandi now plays Alla Kudryavtseva, who edged Anastasia Rodionova in three sets.

The Chinese contingent was out of luck as Shuai Zhang also went out at the hands of comeback girl Casey Dellacqua. Dellacqua is playing only her first WTA tournament since Wimbledon 2010.

Elsewhere, fifth seed Bethanie Mattek-Sands fell short today at the hands of Romanian Monica Niculescu. Mattek-Sands never let go, however, as she pushed Niculescu into a three-hour and six minute marathon before losing.

Tomorrow, 2007 winner Greta Arn will open her campaign against gutsy Portuguese hope Maria João Koehler. Arn knows how to win in Estoril but will MJK prove too determined for the Hungarian?
Also taking the court tomorrow are Melanie Oudin, recent Fes finalist Simona Halep, fourth seed and defending champion Anastasija Sevastova who opens the tournament against Urszula Radwanska. Klara Zakopalova and Australian Jarmila Gajdosova will also be in action.

The men of the Estoril Open

Over at the men’s side of the tournament, only four main draw matches took place with seventh seed Kevin Anderson proved to be resilient by pulling off a win over flyind dutcman  Thiemo de Bakker 5-7 6-3 6-2.

In an all Portuguese first round match up between João Sousa and Gastão Elias, it was the Sousa prevailing after a tense and at times excellently played match on Centre Court. Sousa drew first blood 7-6 after being a break down with Elias serving for the first set. The Bradenton based Elias regrouped and as Sousa grew increasingly exasperated he capitalized to take the second 6-2. In the third, Sousa jumped to a 4-1 lead and Elias started showing signs of cramping. Elias held for 4-2 and players were tied at deuce on Sousa’s serve when Elias fell to the ground after spanking a forehand. Unable to continue and down on the floor due to cramps he was forced to retire but was walked off the court by Sousa.

Sousa now meets the winner of the match between Milos Raonic and Igor Andreev.

Not so lucky was countrymen Rui Machado. The twenty seven year-old Portuguese, ranked number 102, drew former top 30 player Victor Hanescu and was all out of sorts for most of his encounter with the Romanian as he went out quietly 6-3 6-3.

Over on the last round of men’s qualifying, history was made as Portuguese tennis hope Pedro Sousa qualified for an ATP main draw for the first time in his young career, and at his home tournament nonetheless.

The 488th ranked had already been in the last round of qualifications twice before this year but the third time proved to be a charm as he passed Albert Ramos’ test. Ramos was the top seed and after splitting sets, the Spaniard went up 5-2. When it appeared the more experienced ATP-level player would prevail, Sousa battled back to claim the last five games with an arsenal of scorching winners and classic dropshots. In this stretch of the match, Pedro Sousa allowed a mere five points go the way of the 116th ranked Spaniard.
The Portuguese standout will now play former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.