Sesil Karatantcheva

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Acapulco, Florianopolis, and Kuala Lumpur

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?)

 

 

“Comeback Kid” Brian Baker trips up while Sloane Stephens through in first round of Citi Open

“Comeback Kid” Brian Baker trips up in first round of the Citi Open

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hot off his stellar fourth round appearance at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, Baker has failed to progress past the first round in his last two events in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and he can now add Washington, D.C. to this list.

Ranked outside of the top 300 just three months ago, and not having played a full ATP schedule since 2005 due to numerous injuries, the comeback kid’s dream to the top is taking a temporary detour this summer.

With such great results earlier in the year, the question arises whether it’s more of a physical or mental hurdle that is slowing him down currently.

“Fitness-wise, I was fine today. It wasn’t an issue. I definitely took some time off after Wimbledon – had some aches and pains. But it hasn’t been the physical aspect of [playing so much], it’s just been maybe more the mental aspect coming back after such a high [at Wimbledon], and then starting over… I definitely haven’t played my best tennis in all the last three weeks. I don’t think I’ve competed poorly, … I just haven’t given myself a lot of chances on the big points.”

Prior to Atlanta, Baker has had to go through qualifying matches in most of his Tour-level events and he admits that “I tend to play my best tennis if I get a couple of matches under my belt.” It seems that with every tournament, he needs to build his confidence and get familiar with his settings. But if he is to keep up his ranking at world No. 78 or better, he’ll have to get used to jumping into tournaments quickly and adjusting to the conditions. Otherwise, he’ll continue dropping in the first round of tournaments this summer.

Surprisingly, in the first set, Baker was up a double break and held easy to win 6-4. In the second set he admits to not being “very sharp the first couple return games” and Serra took lead, winning 6-3. During the third set, Baker simply couldn’t string enough points together and his served failed him, double-faulting three times. He only converted 3-of-16 break points for the match, and had 43 unforced errors. Baker commented on these gaping holes, and said that “it’s not typical of me to make so many unforced errors. All summer, I played pretty clean matches… I had three pretty good draws, I should have won all three matches. I think it’s just been more [that] I haven’t been playing great – the confidence wasn’t there.”

Whatever happens during the rest of the hard court season, there’s no doubt that Baker still has hunger for the game after being away for so many years. He’s ready to battle and says that it’s “sometimes nice to go in being the underdog … being the hunter.”

Sloane Stephens pushed by Karatantcheva, but prevails in three

American golden girl Sloane Stephens, currently ranked No. 50 in the world and seeded third here, was given a scare when six breaks of serve were exchanged with her opponent Sesil Karatantcheva in the second set that saw the two split sets. Despite some strange line calls on a court that doesn’t have the Hawkeye challenge system, Stephens luckily kicked it into high gear by straight way breaking her opponent twice at the start of the final set.

Always a personable character both on and off-the-court, Stephens is quick to sign autographs or chat with fans during her down time. But when it comes to her game on court, she has a personal motto she lives by. After losing in the first round of the last two tournaments she played in at Stanford and Carlsbad, she joked that “You just can’t ever lose three [first round matches] in a row — it’s not even an option.”

With that attitude and a steadily increasing ranking that makes her the second youngest in the top 100, Stephens is sure to make a lasting impact in American women’s tennis. Like her self-proclaimed “bestie” Serena Williams, Stephens carries a powerful forehand, immense athletic ability and has a passion for the sport of tennis that will no doubt help her break into the top 10 soon.

Mondays With Bob Greene: I am one of the top guys

STARS

Andy Murray won the Qatar Open, beating Andy Roddick 6-4 6-2 in Doha, Qatar.

Elena Dementieva beat Elena Vesnina 6-4 6-1 to win the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand.

Victoria Azarenka won the Brisbane International, her first WTA Tour title, by beating Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-1 in Brisbane, Australia.

Marin Cilic beat Somdev Devvarman 6-4 7-6 (3) to win the Chennai Open in Chennai, India.

Radek Stepanek beat Fernando Verdasco 3-6 6-3 6-4 to win the Brisbane International men’s singles.

Venus Williams beat Vera Zvonareva 6-2 6-2 to lead Team Americas to victory in the World Team Challenge in Hong Kong.

Dominika Cibulkova and Dominik Hrbaty won their singles matches as Slovakia beat Russia in the Hopman Cup final in Perth, Australia

SAYINGS

“I love my job. I love hitting balls, running and jumping, chasing after that ball. I love what I do, so I think that’s what keeps me motivated.” – Venus Williams, saying she has no plans to retire from tennis.

“Everybody says the third time is the charm, but for me it’s the fifth. I’m just glad I finally got it!” – Victoria Azarenka, after winning her first WTA Tour title in her fifth final.

“I am one of the top guys, but I don’t know if I am the favorite at the Australian Open. There is Roger, Rafa and Novak, who won last year.” – Andy Murray, after beating Roger Federer in the semifinals and Andy Roddick in the final to win the Qatar Open.

“He’s in top form right now. I think he is capable of winning the big ones.” – Andy Roddick, on Andy Murray’s chances of winning the Australian Open.

“My shoulder is doing great but I just started training a few weeks ago and I am just not near the level I need to be to compete at the highest levels.” – Maria Sharapova, announcing she will not be defending her Australian Open women’s singles title.

“I had an almost perfect start to the match and I played well on most points. I didn’t allow him to settle down.” – Gael Monfils, after upsetting top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-4 at the Qatar Open.

“Today wasn’t my day. .. I knew it won’t be easy at the start of the season, but I am happy with my game.” – Rafael Nadal, after losing to Gael Monfils.

“I need more time to adjust, to get my rhythm and feel the court, feel the ball. You could see, I was very, very slow out there. My reactions were quite slow.” – Jelena Jankovic, after losing to Venus Williams in Hong Kong.

“I’m having acute pain in my left heel that flared up last week … I now need to fix this before playing any more tournaments. It’s obviously serious since I’ll even miss the Australian Open.” – Nikolay Davydenko, after pulling out of the Chennai Open and the Australian Open because of an injured left heel.

“It is probably one of my best wins, but best game I don’t think so. I have had some beautiful losses.” – Ernests Gulbis, after upsetting Novak Djokovic in the opening round at Brisbane, Australia.

“I have nothing to do with this. I’m Shahar Peer. I came here to play tennis. I know I’m from Israel and I’m proud of my country and that playing tennis is what I’m going to do tomorrow.” – Shahar Peer, rejecting calls for her to withdraw from the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, because of Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“I’m sure it was a tough day for her because of the situation in her country. I just know she can play better tennis next week.” – Elena Dementieva, saying protests by peace activists probably affected the play of Israel’s Shahar Peer, who lost 6-3 6-1 to the top-seeded Russian.

“Our only previous encounter was in the US Open, where I lost a very tight match to him after leading by two sets. I was confident from the beginning and knew that I could beat him.” – Flavio Cipolla, after upsetting second-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the opening round of the Chennai Open.

“I got in trouble in Moscow … I wasn’t in the right place at the right time, put it this way. I won the fight. I’m good, I’m OK.” – Marat Safin, explaining his condition after media in Perth, Australia, reported that Safin’s left eye was black and he had what appeared to be a cut near his right eye.

“I kind of took it for granted, you know the tournaments and everything. Then once you stop traveling you have to face a reality that I can’t do this any more. I was lucky that I was so young.” – Sesil Karatantcheva, who at 19 has returned to the WTA Tour following a two-year ban for testing positive for steroids.

“I sent a message to him that I just wasn’t going to go away.” – Somdev Devvarman, who upset Carlos Moya in the second round at the Chennai Open, 4-6 7-5 6-4.

“It’s a long time. I was thinking about it when I came off the court. It’s showing I’m still there.” – Amelie Mauresmo, after beating top-seeded Ana Ivanovic 6-3 6-2 in the Brisbane International for her first victory over a top 10 player in two years.

SHARAPOVA SITS

Maria Sharapova won’t be defending her Australian Open women’s singles title. The Russian right-hander withdrew from this month’s Grand Slam tournament, saying she took longer than expected to recover from a shoulder injury. She said she didn’t begin training until a few weeks ago and is unable to compete right now. The 21-year-old Sharapova won her first 18 matches in 2008 and rose briefly to the number one ranking before she hurt her shoulder. She also withdrew from the Beijing Olympics and the US Open.

SERBIAN SICK

Jelena Jankovic pulled out of her only warm-up event before the Australian Open, citing the flu. Ranked number one in the world, Jankovic lost in straight sets to Venus Williams in her opening singles, then struggled visibly through a doubles match before pulling out of the event in Hong Kong. “I have been trying my best to get on the court, but I feel slow, I have no reactions and it has been a struggle for me,” Jankovic said.

SKIPPING MELBOURNE

An injury will cause Nikolay Davydenko to skip the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. Ranked fifth in the world, Davydenko withdrew from the Chennai Open, where he was the top seed, because of acute pain in his left heel. He said the injury also bothered him last season, but it became acute the week before Chennai. “I need to check my heel, and that’s why I’m going home to see what’s happening and what’s wrong,” Davydenko said. “The problem started last year, but I thought I could still continue playing. It was (painful) even when I played the Shanghai Masters in November.”

SUCCESS, FINALLY

It was the fifth time she had played in a final, but Victoria Azarenka came away with her first WTA Tour title, beating Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-1 at the Brisbane International. The Belarusian completely dominated the third-seeded Bartoli, breaking serve six times and needing only 71 minutes to wrap up the crown. “The way I was thinking on court was very different from before. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was playing in a final,” said Azarenka, who was seeded second. “I was thinking it was a regular match, regular points.”

SUCH SUCRE

Because of the global financial crisis, the singles finalists at this year’s Australian Open will find a bonus in their paychecks. Tournament officials said they are increasing total prize money for the event to $23.4 million Australian (USD $15.7), with the bulk of the increase going to the singles finalists. Both men and women champions will receive $2 million Australian, while the runners-up with earn $1 million Australian. Organizers had announced in October that they were increasing the first prize from $1.37 million Australian to $1.62 million, but decided to raise it again to counter the drop in exchange rates.

STAYING PUT

Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer refused to withdraw from the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, because of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. A New Zealand protest group, Peace and Justice Auckland, wrote to Peer asking her to withdraw from the WTA Tour event. But Peer said that while she is proud of her country, she takes no responsibility for her nation’s military action. She said this was the first time she had been the focus of protests and noted that she was the first Israeli to play in the Muslim country of Qatar, where she was warmly received. Yet she noted that the protesters had the right to express their view. “It’s their choice and they are choosing what they want to do,” she said. Peer eventually lost to top-seeded Elena Dementieva 6-3 6-1.

SEEKING THE TOP

Instead of considering retirement, Venus Williams says she wants to regain the top spot in women’s tennis. Currently ranked sixth in the world, Williams has won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including five Wimbledon crowns. “This year I feel I’m in a great position to move forward to number one, but of course I’ve got to do it, and that will be the fun part,” she said. “I will try to get there.” Dismissing thoughts of retirement, Venus said she plans on playing at least until the 2012 London Olympics. And she said she and her sister, Serena, will play doubles this year in all four Grand Slam tournaments. “We love winning those titles and I think if we could play more often we could just keep getting them,” Venus said.

SIGNED

Jelena Dokic has been named to Australia’s Fed Cup team, which has been called one of the strongest squads in recent years. Dokic last played for Australia in April 2000 against Russia in Moscow. Then, after her father Damir moved his family back to Belgrade in 2001, she played for Serbia-Montenegro in 2004 in the Europe-Africa zone. Also selected to represent Australia in the February 4-7 Group II round-robin competition at Perth are Sam Stosur, the country’s highest-ranked woman, Casey Dellacqua and Rennae Stubbs. Besides Australia, other nations participating will be Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and Uzbekistan.

SHIKHA GONE

Shikha Uberoi, who has played 21 matches for India’s Fed Cup team, won’t be allowed to compete this year. The reason? She’s a citizen of the United States, and new rules by the Indian government bar non citizens from competing. Uberoi says she’s “eating too many chocolates out of depression from not being allowed to play for India.”

SESIL’S BACK

At the age of 19, Sesil Karatantcheva says she feels like a grandmother. The Bulgarian has returned to the WTA Tour after serving a two-year ban for testing positive for steroids. Then 16, she tried to blame the positive test on being pregnant. Karatantcheva says it was her own stupidity that helped her make it through the suspension. “In my case, I had nothing else to do, so I just kept practicing. It takes to be kind of stupid,” she said. While she reached a career-high ranking of 35 in the world, Karatantcheva has never played many of the women now on the tour. “As much as I feel like a rookie, I feel like a grandmother on tour – you know, seeing all these 14- and 15- year-olds coming. I remember when I was 14, 15. They probably think I’m slow and old. But I still have some time left.”

STRAIGHT IN

Eight players have won wild card spots in the main draw of the Australian Open, including Yuan Meng of China, Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan and Adrian Mannarino and Kristina Mladenovic of France. Earlier, Americans John Isner and 16-year-old Christina McHale won wild-card berths into the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. The wild cards were granted under exchange agreements with tennis federations from the United States, France and Asia. Colin Ebelthite and former Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Dokic won the Australian wild-car tournament. Istomin, who will be playing in his third Australian Open, is hoping for a better draw. He lost to Roger Federer in his debut in 2006, then to Lleyton Hewitt in a second-round match last year. Yuan qualified for last year’s Australian Open before losing to Serena Williams in the second round. Also awarded wild cards were Australian teenagers Brydan Klein and Isabella Holland.

SCHUETTLER HURT

Citing a wrist injury, Rainer Schuettler withdrew from his semifinal match against Somdev Devvarman at the Chennai Open. “During yesterday’s doubles match, I started feeling pain in my left wrist,” the German said. “As I warmed up for the semifinal, I wasn’t able to hit a double-handed backhand. I felt a strong pain. I would only be able to slice and I am also afraid that the injury would get worse.” A semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, Schuettler also withdrew from the Medibank International this week in Sydney, Australia.

SELECTED

Racquet Sports Industry magazine has selected Dave Haggerty as “Person of the Year” in its January issue. Haggerty is chief executive officer of Head USA, president of Penn Racquet Sports and just beginning a two-year term as vice president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Haggerty led off the magazine’s eighth annual “Champions of Tennis Awards,” which honors people and organizations dedicated to improving the sport and business of tennis.

SORELY MISSED

The father of former world number one Kim Clijsters is dead. Lei Clijsters was 52 when he died after a year-long battle with lung cancer, according to Derniere Heure newspaper. Clijsters played 40 matches for Belgium’s national soccer team, participating in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. In 1986, Belgium reached the semifinals. He captained FC Mechelen when it won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988. After retiring from soccer in 1993, Clijsters managed his daughter’s tennis career until she retired in 2007. Kim Clijsters won the US Open in 2005.

Sidney Wood, who in 1931 became the only uncontested winner of a Wimbledon final, has died in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 95. Wood won Wimbledon when he opponent, US Davis Cup teammate Frank Shields, was unable to play the final because of an ankle injury. Wood, who made history four years earlier when at age 15 he became the youngest male to ever play Wimbledon, losing in straight sets to French great Rene Lacoste, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. He had been the oldest living Hall of Famer.

SHARED PERFORMANCES

Auckland: Nathalie Dechy and Mara Santangelo beat Nuria Llagostera Vives and Arantxa Parra Santonja 4-6 7-6 (3) 12-10 (match tiebreak)

Doha: Marc Lopez and Rafael Nadal beat Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic 4-6 6-4 10-8 (match tiebreak)

Brisbane (women): Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Vania King beat Klaudia Jans and Alicja Rosolska 3-6 7-5 10-5 (match tiebreak)

Brisbane (men): Marc Gicquel and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Fernando Verdasco and Mischa Zverev 6-4 6-3

Chennai: Eric Butorac and Rajeev Ram beat Jean-Claude Sherrer and Stanislas Wawrinka 6-3 6-4

SITES TO SURF

Sydney: www.Medibankinternational.com.au

Hobart: www.hobartinternational.com.au

Auckland: www.heinekenopen.co.nz/1/home

Melbourne: www.australianopen.com/

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

ATP

$484,750 Medibank International, Sydney, Australia, hard

$480,750 Heineken Open, Auckland, New Zealand, hard

WTA TOUR

$600,000 Medibank International, Sydney, Australia, hard

$220,000 Moorilla Hobart International, Hobart, Australia, hard

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

ATP and WTA TOUR

Australian Open, Melbourne, Australia, hard

Pavlyuchenkova Rises As Echagaray Rebounds

On the challenger circuit this week, a former number one junior continues to live up to the hype, a former top 35 player proves she’s well on her way to a comeback, and Mexico’s top ranked male player completely turns his year around.

Being successful on tour as a teenager is difficult. Just ask Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who’s been limited to 13 tournaments in the last year until she turns 17 this May. However, Pavlyuchenkova has simply milked the most out of the few events she can play. After winning the $25,000 tournament in Minsk earlier this month, she prevailed at this week’s $25,000 event in Moscow, dominating Ekaterina Dzehalevich of Belrarus 6-0 6-2 in the final. With this victory, Pavlyuchenkova’s ranking should be high enough to contest in the qualifying rounds at Roland Garros. Despite the loss, Dzehalevich has also been in a stretch of good form over the last six months as well. She won her first WTA doubles title at Tashkent last fall and won her first challenger singles title earlier this month in New Delhi.

At the $50,000 event in Latina, Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic stormed through the draw this week. She dropped a total of 10 games on her way to the title, including an overwhelming victory over Sesil Karatantcheva of Bulgaria 6-0 6-2 in the final. With form like this, it shouldn’t be long before Benesova her former place among the world’s top 35. Despite the loss, Karatantcheva has had an extremely successful start to 2008. Since returning from a two year drug suspension, she’s posted a 27-3 record on the challenger circuit and won two events so far.

At the $25,000 event in Jersey, Elena Baltacha of Britain satisfied the home crowd by winning her 18th career title with a 6-1 6-3 defeat of Croatian Ana Vrljic. After enduring everything from financial hardships to a recurring liver problem that limits her playing schedule, the 25 year old is still determined to crack the main draws of Grand Slams on her own ranking, a pursuit that she filmed a documentary for the BBC in 2005 entitled “Project 104.”

In other challenger news on the women’s side, Kristina Barrois of Germany won her first title in over two years at the $25,000 event in La Palma, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium won the $25,000 event in Tessenderlo, and American Carly Gullickson capped off a comeback from an injury which sidelined her for eight months by winning the $25,000 event in Pelham.

On the men’s side, Mikhail Kukushkin of Russia won his first challenger title of the year at the $50,000 event in Barletta by beating Boris Pashanski of Serbia 6-4 6-4. The Russian teenager showed his fortitude by coming through qualifying and prevailing in several tough three set matches throughout the week. This was also Pashanski’s best week of the year by far; he had endured a lackluster 2-7 record on the ATP Tour before turning the corner in his first challenger event of the year.

At the $50,000 event, Bruno Echagaray of Mexico won a thrilling 6-0 3-6 7-6 final over Ricardo Mello of Brazil. Prior to this week, Echagaray was winless so far in 2008, having lost in the first round of all seven events he played this year. The tournament also played host to former French Open finalist Guilermo Coria, who continues to try and come back from a career threatening shoulder injury. He lost in the first round to top seeded Werner Eschauer of Austria. Coria also received a wildcard into the challenger event in Napoli this week.

The men are hosting the biggest event next week with the $100,000 event in Napoli. Potito Starace of Italy will be the top seed there. Marcels Granollers of Spain also takes top billing at the $35,000 tournament in Saint Brieuc. On the women’s side, Petra Cetkovska of the Czech Republic leads the way at the $75,000 event in Torhout. Tzipi Obziler of Israel is the top seed at the $50,000 event in Patras, which will also host an exhibition match featuring Daniela Hantuchova. China’s Meng Yuan continues her strong 2008 campaign as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Pelham, Olivia Sanchez of France is top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Civatecchia, and Angelique Kerber of Germany hopes to bring her best out for the home fans at the $25,000 tournament in Hamburg.