While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions. Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.
Acapulco: One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final. Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup. Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals. Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface. She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.
Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed. The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her. The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second. Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.
An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco. Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks. Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed. Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter. Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.
Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories. The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface. Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement. Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.
Final: Errani vs. Begu
Florianopolis: In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy. The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages. While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman. Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.
In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open. Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest. Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity. Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.
Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers. When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks. The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer. With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.
Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points. Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her. Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.
Final: Williams vs. Mladenovic
Kuala Lumpur: With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100. Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10. After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013. Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel. Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.
Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur. Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe. Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open. Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.
Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant. The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami. This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter. She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers. But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.
When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results. Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play. Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable. While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.
Final: Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova
(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)
By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand
If Caroline Wozniacki represents the proverbial tragedy mask, then Marion Bartoli, intentionally or otherwise, is at the US Open to provide a healthy dose of comic relief.
The early days of the year’s final Slam are filled with tension around the grounds; while the top seeds are blowing past under-ranked and overmatched opponents on Ashe, the magnitude of the moment seems that much greater on the smaller courts, which makes for some compelling drama. All players react to the resulting stress differently: Maria Sharapova puts her back to her opponents, Novak Djokovic will bounce the ball 20 or more times before a serve. Marion Baroli, already a standout with her two-fisted groundstrokes, will engage in a series of massive high jumps and a most intense game of shadow tennis before approaching the baseline to receive serve, all the while bobbing and weaving like a prize fighter.
Yes, Bartoli is taking the moment very seriously, but that doesn’t mean her unorthodox methods and physical comedy don’t provide a deflation in tension for fans that would otherwise be gripping their benches after a long day of tennis.
With a win over Romina Oprandi, Bartoli would book a spot in the third round, but more importantly, she would re-enter the top 10 at the expense of her tragic counterpart, Wozniacki. During the first set, it was apparent that the Frenchwoman was brutally aware of all the circumstances and subtext of the match. Besides wanting to get back with the game’s elite, Marion has something to prove at this tournament; she’s had mediocre Slam results in 2012 and has to be looking at the US Open, played on one of her best surfaces, as a golden opportunity.
Oprandi, a player who has struggled with injury for most of her career, arrived on the court tape-free for the first time in a while. As the match got underway, she tried to use her signature drop shot to keep Bartoli off balance, but to no avail. The Bartoli rituals were in full effect and her eyes were on stalks; as she wrapped up the first set 6-2, it was refreshing to see a player so determined and unafraid of the moment, even if the moment was taking place far from the stadium courts.
But Bartoli, for her cartoonish nature, is still very much human, who can be inspired to play unbeatable tennis during a Wimbledon semifinal just because she sees Pierce Brosnan in the stands, and one who can become distracted upon hearing shocking news. Court 11 may be metaphorically far from the stadiums, but is physically much closer, and we could all hear Kim Clijsters’ last singles match unfold with the help of the booming loud speaker. Suddenly, Bartoli was on the backfoot and Oprandi began to dominate.
Perhaps it sounds illogical, but it’s happened before, even to Clijsters herself; the Belgian wasn’t the same in a Wimbledon quarterfinal she had been dominating after the scoreboard announced Venus Williams’ shock loss to Tsvetana Pironkova. Whatever the reason, Bartoli’s unique rhythm had been severely interrupted, and things became just a little less comedic on Court 11 as Oprandi ran away with the second set 6-1.
Entering a third set always seems like a dicey proposition for someone whose unorthodox game and style translates to some questionable off-court training. But the Frenchwoman’s unshakable belief often makes up for any other shortcomings, and she was able to once again grind her way to victory, even if it took until 7-5 in the third. Match point was typical Marion, who couldn’t resist taking an exaggerated practice swing off between serves before blasting a forehand into the Oprandi backhand, provoking the error.
On behalf of fans everywhere, Marion, never change.
David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.