Far away from the spotlight and massive crowds of the biggest events in tennis, the sport’s other half lives. The second-tier of professional tennis features players with a variety of interesting histories, each one different from the next. There are the juniors looking to make the transition to the senior tour; the battle-tested journeymen who’ve slogged away at this level for one tournament too long; and finally, the veterans looking for their one shot back in the sun. Although they come from different places, they have one thing in common.
Often, the qualifying competition for main tour events takes place in the shadow of some of the world’s biggest stadiums. The average fan would do well to recognize more than a handful of names who compete week-in and week-out on the second circuit; these are players who first chase their dreams in the “tournament before the tournament.” Just getting in to the main event is enough for some of them, but not all of them.
Both Flavia Pennetta and Andrea Petkovic know what it’s like to win on the biggest stages. Combined, they have won 11 WTA singles titles, reached six quarterfinals in grand slam events and spent time in the world’s top 10. Both are also coming off of injury plagued 2012 seasons; Petkovic first suffered a back injury during the early part of the year, and then was sidelined with an ankle injury for much of the rest of it. Pennetta, who suffered from a wrist injury for the majority of the past year, tried to play through the pain to get one more chance at representing Italy at the Olympics. She did just that, and made the third round. However, she eventually decided to undergo surgery and missed the rest of the year.
Coming into this week, Petkovic was ranked 138 while Pennetta sat at 158. Both missed the first major of the year at the Australian Open, and their clay court preparation for the second major of the year brought them down decidedly different paths. Pennetta dropped nearly 50 places in the rankings after failing to defend last year’s quarterfinal showing in Rome. Neither woman’s current ranking would’ve been good enough to ensure a main draw place in Paris.
Despite the similarities, there is one notable difference between the two. Pennetta took advantage of a protected ranking, ensuring her entry into Roland Garros. As a result, she was able to enter the warmup event with arguably the weakest field this week in Strasbourg. Forced to qualify, the Italian went about her business to win three matches and make the main draw; she nearly didn’t, however, as she was forced to rally from a set down in her final qualifying match. She continued her solid week with wins over Elina Svitolina and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor. The weather wreaked havoc with the schedule, and Pennetta is the lowest-ranked, but by far the most accomplished, player in the quarterfinals. Having won just three singles matches since her comeback in Bogota, Pennetta’s five wins so far this week have given the Italian the crucial match practice that she needs coming off of an injury.
Unfortunately, Petkovic did not have that luxury. The German, who returned in Indian Wells, started her clay-court campaign with two wins in Charleston before giving a walkover to Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. A wildcard recipient in Stuttgart, Petkovic lost her opener to Ana Ivanovic and lost her first match in Madrid qualifying to the on-form Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Passed over for a wildcard into Rome, Petkovic arrived in Paris short on red-clay match play and this showed in her attempt to qualify. After defeating Nadiya Kichenok in straight sets in the opening round, she fell by a tough 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 6-4 decision to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou.
They say the last thing to come back after an injury layoff is match instincts. A player can do all the right things in practice, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate the tense situations that come with being down a set, or deep in a decider. When you’ve tasted great success, it’s only natural to desire more. However, big wins don’t come overnight. When you’re on the long road back, any win, even in the shadow of a major, means just as much.
During many a Real Housewives reunion special, a middle-aged, mildly affluent woman sits in a tight, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress (I’ve watched a couple in my day), and tells another similarly dressed woman to take responsibility for her actions. In other words, “own it.”
With this sort of cartoonishly glamorous set up unfortunately missing from the tennis world, it can be difficult to keep track of the daily drama, on both a macro (the game’s elite) and micro level (everyone else). Like those sage Bravo producers, we can often bow to clips conclusively showing Juan Martin del Potro dissing Andy Murray’s mother, or Jelena Jankovic imitating compatriot Ana Ivanovic’s signature fist pump.
But just like those bastions of reality television, it is almost always what happens “off-camera” that stirs up the most controversy. As a New Jersey housewife would probably say, “the fewer witnesses, the better.”
In tennis, nothing breeds isolation quite like a rain delay. With troubling forecasts predicting rain through early next week in Europe, qualifying matches in last minute warm-up tournaments like Brussels were driven indoors to ensure the event reaches completion. One such match was ripe for drama, rain or shine.
In one corner was 21-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe. A former US Open girls’ champion, the young American made a dream run to the Stanford finals last summer. Since then, however, she has struggled to reign in her high-octane game, and coming into Brussels had yet to win back-to-back matches this year. Granddaughter to a former Miss America, Vandeweghe’s senior career has been largely played under the radar, but she has had a “princess” moment or two, as evidenced by her twitter account.
Her opponent likely needs no introduction: the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva. After pushing Serena Williams to a tiebreak in Madrid, the teenaged Kazakh suffered a potentially soul-crushing loss in Rome, failing to convert a 5-1 final set lead to Madrid quarterfinalist Anabel Medina Garrigues. But whether you’re throwing drinks on someone at a party or playing a tennis match, it helps to be a little bit delusional. Shrugging off her fourth three-set loss (three of them from a set up) of the year, Putintseva crushed her first two opponents, including an equally offensive (though arguably less delightful) Michelle Larcher de Brito.
Playing on a surface that mitigates her weapons and exposes her suspicious movement, Vandeweghe had been surprisingly comfortable in Brussels, and took a tight first set from Putintseva with only one break separating the two. From there, Putintseva went on a tear, winning 12 of the next 14 games, and broke the big-serving American five times for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory.
But it was after the match where the drama (allegedly) reignited.
With no one reporting more than the score of “Brussels QR3 Vandeweghe/Putintseva,” Vandeweghe took to Twitter to enlighten the public to that which many already consider to be obvious:
From there, CoCo outlined an exchange following the match’s conclusion where the victorious Putintseva allegedly told her, “You are a terrible player only serve. I win all the rallies.” The American went on to accuse Putintseva’s father/coach, Anton, of not only condoning, but also “clapping” as his daughter made these biting observations.
Hours later, Putintseva popped up on Twitter herself, at first to nonchalantly express her satisfaction at qualifying for the main draw, then to give us a “No comment,” re: CoCo. Elaborating for a fan, she said,
which appears to imply whatever occurred was a two-way street. But why many flocked to Putintseva’s support in the immediate aftermath of this bizarre incident was the same reason why reality TV fans love Nene Leakes and Caroline Manzo: Putintseva appeared to take ownership of what many would consider a gauche act of gamesmanship. In its own way, that was breath of fresh air in a sporting world that can often feel stilted and devoid of cadence. It keeps us from our own delusion that everyone on the Tours is there to make friends. Because they’re not, they’re here to win.
And thus would have ended this episode of The Real Tennis Players of Brussels, until Putintseva took to Twitter again early this morning. After tacitly accepting Vandeweghe’s version of events, she made a complete about face when asked about the incident directly:
In barely 140 characters, the teenager took her ownership, and sold it back to the American, who has already rallied support from the American media.
Is Putintseva a cult hero for telling it like it is, or a spoiled brat deflecting blame? Is Vandeweghe a victim of needless trash talk, or a bully for inciting an angry mob on an 18-year-old? For a Tour that peaked in the late 90s because of exchanges like these, it might behoove us all not to ask too many questions, sit back, and “watch what happens.”
For the majority of the past decade, the blue and yellow banner of Ukraine was carried by the Bondarenko sisters on the WTA Tour. Alona and Kateryna were the 2008 Australian Open champions in doubles, and each had a noteworthy career in singles in her own right. Alona peaked at No. 19 in 2008, won two career titles and recorded career wins over Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Kateryna, the younger of the two, reached the quarterfinals at the 2009 US Open, won her only WTA title at Birmingham in 2008 and recorded wins over Venus Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na.
However, with Alona suffering multiple injuries and requiring surgeries over the past two seasons and Kateryna marrying and becoming pregnant, 2012 marked the first time in 10 years that no Ukrainian woman finished in the top 100 in the WTA rankings.
Enter Lesia Tsurenko.
The 23-year-old from Vladimirec was born in 1989, grouping her with higher-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova and Sabine Lisicki; however, unlike her peers, she only turned professional in 2007. Tsurenko doesn’t come from a sporting family; in fact, she comes from the polar opposite. Her father Viktor used to work in international relations for a nuclear power plant before retiring; her mother Larisa is an economist; her older sister Oxana is a lawyer. Lesia herself studied at Ukraine’s National University of Physical Education and Sports and speaks three languages.
A journey woman of sorts for the early part of her WTA career, Tsurenko began to make strides in 2012. She played in the main draw of all four Grand Slams for the first time and she reached her first career WTA quarterfinal in Memphis. Behind her great two-handed backhand, she was the #1 for Ukraine’s Fed Cup team for the first time in her career in a tie against the United States, and defeated Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani on clay. She finished the year just outside of the top 100 at No. 102.
Tsurenko travelled to Brisbane to open 2013 and lost in the final round of qualifying; however, she was granted entry into the main draw when Maria Sharapova withdrew with a collarbone injury.
It was made known afterwards that Tsurenko received the lucky loser spot because the two higher-ranked losers in qualifying did not sign in by the deadline. As the underdog in all of her Brisbane matches, Tsurenko defeated both Jarmila Gajdosova and Daniela Hantuchova on her way to the semifinals; she would take the first set from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova before the Russian would rally for the three set win. As a result of her first career WTA semifinal, Tsurenko broke back into the top 100 at No. 83 – a new career high.
As the entry deadline for the Australian Open had already passed, Tsurenko still needed to play qualifying, but would now be the top seed.
While some players might have had difficulty playing in qualifying with a ranking high enough for the main draw, Tsurenko put her nose to the grindstone and just went about business. She received perhaps the toughest opening round draw against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former top 30 player coming back from injury. Tsurenko won the match in three sets and had little difficulty in her other two matches to make the main draw.
She was drawn in the only qualifier spot that opposed a seeded player and would face off against Pavlyuchenkova for the second time in almost as many weeks. This time, however, Tsurenko would get her revenge against the higher-ranked Russian, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. In the second round, she faced off against teenaged qualifier Daria Gavrilova in the sweltering heat on Thursday; after falling behind *4-0 in the opening set, Tsurenko won seven of the next eight games to take command of the match and would pull out the 7-5, 6-3 win.
Tsurenko’s hot start to 2013 is proving that the hand you’re dealt is close to irrelevant if you don’t know how to play your cards. Whatever the result of her third round match against Caroline Wozniacki, she’ll rocket past her previous career-high when the new rankings are released. A stroke of good fortune kicked off her 2013, but hard work and dedication has allowed her to take advantage of it. If you’re not convinced, you can take her word for it.
“I have a boyfriend and his name is tennis. It takes all my time.”