Samantha Smith

For Calleri and Garbin, Clay Season Is Not Over

Last week on the challenger circuit, clay-court specialists prevailed in the biggest red dirt events on the men’s and women’s side, while we also got a sneak peek of coming attractions for Wimbledon at the first grass court tune-up of the year.

The $150,000 challenger in Prostejov, Czech Republic, has always attracted a strong field and this year was no exception. Top-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic is ranked among the world’s top 15 and all the seeded players were ranked in the top 100. In the end, Agustin Calleri of Argentina used his clay court prowess to overwhelm Martin Vasallo-Arguello of Spain 6-0, 6-3. The win propels Calleri back among into the top 50 in the rankings.

Daniel Kollerer of Austria, known as “Crazy Dani” on the ATP Tour, has attracted an infamous reputation for his bad attitude on the court and was even suspended from playing ATP tournaments for six months. He’s finally starting to become known for his tennis, winning his first title of the year at the $50,000 challenger in Furth, Germany, with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. This result takes some of the sting out of Giraldo’s Roland Garros performance, where he had match points to qualify for the main draw before losing to Frederico Gil of Portugal.

The $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, Great Britain, featured a top 20 entry in Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, but he withdrew from his second round match with an injury. Frank Dancevic of Canada, always a dangerous threat on the grass with his serve, won a hard fought 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 contest over Kevin Anderson of South Africa. Both Dancevic and Anderson are competing at the ATP tour event in London this week.

In other results on the men’s side, Michael Yani of the United States came through qualifying to win the $50,000 challenger in Yuba City, California, while Frederico Gil of Portugal won the $35,000 challenger in Sassuolo, Italy.

On the women’s side, Tathiana Garbin of Italy delighted the home crowd by winning the $75,000 event in Rome, Italy, rallying from being an early break in the final set to defeat Yvonne Meusburger of Austria 6-4, 4-6 7-6. This tournament also snapped a four-match losing streak for Garbin and a six-match losing streak for Meusburger.

At the $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, United Kingdom, Marina Erakovic of New Zealand continued her strong form by defeating Anne Keothavong of Great Britain 6-4, 6-2. Erakovic, who gave Jelena Jankovic a tough match in the second round of Roland Garros, could truly break through at Wimbledon on a surface which is tailor made for her game. Despite the loss, Keothavong has much to be proud about, becoming the first British woman to crack the world’s top 100 since Samantha Smith in 1999.

After coming close twice this year, Patricia Mayr of Austria finally broke through and won her first title at the $25,000 event in Grado, Italy, narrowly beating Jasmina Tincic of Croatia 6-4, 7-6. Mayr is now on track to compete in her first ever Grand Slam qualifying event at the US Open this summer. We could be hearing more from Tincic in the future though; this was only the fifth professional event she has ever played in.

Marseille, France hosts the top event on the women’s side this week as Martina Muller of Germany leads the way at the $75,000 event held there. Yvonne Meusburger of Austria is the top seed at the $75,000 event in Zlin, Czech Republic, Lauren Albanese of the United States leads the way at the $25,000 challenger in El Paso, Texas, and Ana Vrljic of Croatia takes top billing at the $25,000 challenger in Campobasso, Italy.

On the men’s side, Adrian Cruciat of Romania is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Sofia, Bulgaria. Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Milan, Italy, while Eric Prodon of France leads the way at the $35,000 challenger in Kosice, Slovakia.

Dokic and Massu Take First Steps to Former Glory

Last week on the challenger circuit, two former top 10 players struggling with injuries and motivation took their first real steps to reclaiming their former glory, while two players on the men’s side continued their hot streaks on the circuit.

Jelena Dokic of Australia has had more than her share of personal problems. The former world No. 4 has defected from her family, switched nationalities several times, and attempted multiple half-hearted comeback attempts. However, it looks like that Dokic is serious this time around after winning her first event in six years at the $25,000 event in Florence, Italy, dominating Lucie Hradecka of Czech Republic 6-1, 6-3 in the final. The win moves Dokic up to No. 325 in the rankings (after just four tournaments) and she has contacted the All England Club for a qualifying wild card into Wimbledon.

At the $75,000 event in Zagreb, Croatia, Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden won her first title of the year by beating former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Severine Bremond of France 7-6, 6-2. The 24-year-old Swede, who has recorded high-profile scalps over Anna Chakvetadze and Marion Bartoli this year, used her aggressive groundstrokes to wear Bremond down throughout the match. Despite the loss, Bremond has been on a hot streak as of late with a 10-4 record on the challenger circuit in her last four events.

At the $50,000 tournament in Jounieh, Lebanon, players had to endure the fighting that has plagued the country, confining them to their hotel rooms and the tennis courts for the week. Anne Keothavong of Great Britain weathered her surroundings and won the first clay court of her career, defeating Lourdes Dominguez-Lino of Spain 6-4, 6-1. The win moved Keothavong up to a career high ranking of No. 102 and allows her direct entry into Wimbledon this summer. The last British player to get direct entry into Wimbledon was Samantha Smith in 1999.

In other results on the women’s side, Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium won the $50,000 event in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. Petra Cetkovska of Czech Republic prevailed at the $50,000 challenger in Bucharest, Romania, and Tomoko Yonemura of Japan won at the $50,000 challenger in Fukuoka, Japan. Ksenia Milevskaya of Belarus won at the $25,000 challenger in Antalya, Turkey, Yan Ze-Xie of China took home the winners trophy at the $25,000 event in Changwon, Korea, and Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia prevailed at the $25,000 event in Irapuato, Mexico.

On the men’s side, it’s been a while since we heard from Nicolas Massu. The former top 10 player and reigning Olympic gold medalist has been struggling with injuries, but took a step in the right direction by winning the $30,000 event in Rijeka, Croatia. His 6-2, 6-2 win in the final over Christophe Rochus of Belgium gives the Chilean his first title in over two years.

Ivan Miranda of Peru is continuing to ride his hot streak on the challenger circuit with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Carsten Ball of Australia at the $50,000 challenger in Tunica, Mississippi. Miranda has now reached the championship round in three of the last four challengers he has played. His experience clearly was a factor against Ball, who was competing in the first challenger final of his career.

Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil is a name that has repeatedly come up in this column, but it’s only a matter of time before he moves to the ATP Tour on a full-time basis. He won his fourth challenger title of the year (and third in a row) at the $42,500 challenger in Rabat, Morocco, rolling over Martin Vasallo-Arguello of Argentina 6-2, 6-2. Expect Bellucci to potentially do some damage at Roland Garros in just a few weeks.

In other results on the men’s side, Andreas Beck won the $42,500 challenger in Dresden, Germany, while Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia won the $30,000 event in Telde, Spain. Jiri Vanek also won the $42,500 event in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Fabrice Santoro of France highlights the challenger circuit this week as the top seed at the $75,000 event in Bordeaux, France, while Gael Monfis of France leads the way at the $75,000 challenger in Marrakech, Morocco. Several $50,000 events will also be contested this week; Robert Kendrick of the United States is the top seed at the one in Bradenton, Florida, Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei will lead the way in New Delhi, India, and Denis Gremelmayr of Germany takes top billing in Zagreb, Croatia. Oscar Hernandez of Spain is top seed at the $42,500 event in Aarhus, Denmark, while Santiago Ventura of Spain is the top seed at the $30,000 challenger in San Remo, Italy.

On the women’s side, Petra Cetkovska of Czech Republic is top seed at the $50,000 event in Saint Gaudens, France. Melanie South of Great Britain leads the way at the $50,000 challenger in Kurume, Japan, Tetiana Luzhanska of Ukraine is the top seed at the $25,000 challenger in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Jorgelina Cravero of Argentina takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Caserta, Italy. Finally, Renata Voracova of Czech Republic is top seed at the $25,000 event in Szczecin, Poland.

Starace Lives Up to Top Billing; Baltacha Breaks Through

The challengers circuit was graced with the presence of a top 50 player on the men’s side who hoped to get an early start to the clay court season, while several women followed up their victories on the challenger circuit last week with repeats this week.

The clay court season is about to get underway next week, but two players have already shown their intentions to leave a mark on it this season. At the $100,000 event in Napoli, Italy, Potito Starace won a nail-biting final in front of his local fans by beating Marcos Daniel of Brazil 6-4 4-6 7-6. Daniel was coming of a win at the $125,000 tournament in Bogota, Colombia last month, and came within two points of the biggest win of his career against the 36th ranked Starace. However, Starace fought back from 5-6 down in the final set and won the last three points of the tiebreak to win his first title of the year. Two other prominent players, French Open finalist Gullermo Coria and Olympic gold medalist Nicolas Massu, took part in the tournament, but failed to get past the first round.

At the $35,000 tournament in St. Brieuc, France, Christophe Rochus of Belgium took the title with a 6-2 4-6 6-1 over Marcel Granollers of Spain. Granollers has had a fine start on the clay this year by winning a challenger event in Morocco and reaching the quarterfinals at the ATP event in Acapulco, Mexico, but ran out of gas in the end against the experienced Belgian. Rochus is a long way from his career high ranking of #38, but winning his first title in three years is certainly a step back in the right direction.

There inevitably comes a time for any good player to graduate from the futures circuit, and it seems that Rui Machado of Portugal has more than worn out his welcome at this level. His win at the $15,000 event in Loja, Spain, is his fifth futures title of 2008.

On the women’s side, British tennis has been in dire straits for almost two decades now. The last woman to be in the top 100 was Samantha Smith in 1999. However, Elena Baltacha demonstrated this week that she might be ready to finally break through at the level. She won her second challenger title in a row, and the biggest of her career, at the $75,000 event in Torhout, Belgium, with a 6-7 6-1 6-4 over Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic. Benesova has also been a hot streak as of late, having won the $50,000 event in Latina, Italy last week. Her characteristically fragile nerves got the better of her though as she was broken in the final set at 4-4, allowing Baltacha to serve out the win.

Magdalena Rybarikova also won her second title in a row at the $50,000 tournament in Patras, Greece, defeating Great Britain’s Anne Keothavong 6-3 7-5 in the final. The win puts her inside of the top 150 for the first time in her career, and with minimal points to defend until late this fall, she looks poised to break through into the top 100 by then.

After struggling with injuries and poor form through 2007, Kristina Barrois of Germany has finally turned her game around. She won her second title in a row at the $25,000 event in Hamburg, Germany, taking the title when Ana Vrljic of Croatia retired with a leg injury after losing the first set 6-2. The win puts Barrois back in the top 200 and guarantees her spot in the qualifying for Roland Garros this spring.

In other challenger news, Betima Jozami of Argentina won the $25,000 event in Civatechia, Italy, and Raquel Kops-Jones of the United States won the $25,000 event in Pelham, Alabama.

The spotlight turns over to the women at the $75,000 event in Monzon, Spain, where American Lilia Osterloh is the top seed. Martina Muller of Germany is the top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Biarritz, France, while Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada hopes to continue her strong form as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Jackson, Mississippi. On the men’s side, professional tennis finally returns to Puerto Rico with former Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuttler playing top seed at the $50,000 event in Humacao. Albert Montanes of Spain is also the top seed at the $35,000 event in Monza, Italy.