WTA Premier

The Series Is Open: Previewing WTA Stanford (and Baku)

The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA.  In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments.  Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.

Stanford:

Top half:  Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford.  Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw.  The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon.  Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before.  She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year.  A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.

Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it.  American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years.  Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton.  Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs.  Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.

Semifinal:  Radwanska vs. Keys

Bottom half:  The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska.  Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis.  Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer.  Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.

The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges.  This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set.  Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round.  The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea.  A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open.  None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.

Semifinal:  Cibulkova vs. Stosur

Final:  Radwanska vs. Stosur

Baku:

Top half:  Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then.  Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then.  Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.

At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago.  Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers.  The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.

Bottom half:  Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku.  Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein.  Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog.  A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section.  Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.

The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals.  That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw.  She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic.  Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals.  A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.

Final:  Pliskova vs. Vekic

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Charleston and Monterrey

In a quiet week for the ATP outside Davis Cup, the WTA features a Premier tournament on the unique green clay and the only Mexican hard-court tournament on the calendar.  An old event and a new event, Charleston and Monterrey feature fields surprisingly strong in view of the two marquee tournaments that filled last month.

Charleston:

Top half:  A moment of silence, please, for Mandy Minella and Camila Giorgi.  These two women, who have struggled in recent moments, battle for the honor of sharing a court with world No. 1 Serena Williams.  Fresh from her Miami triumph, the defending champion in Charleston might face her first meaningful test in 2009 Charleston champion Sabine Lisicki.  The German has struggled to gain traction outside the grass season, though, as her unreliable groundstrokes undo the contributions of her explosive serve.  A rematch of last year’s Charleston final could await against Lucie Safarova in the quarterfinals, although Sorana Cirstea will aim to build upon her fourth-round appearance in Miami, where she upset world No. 6 Angelique Kerber.

The fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens has struggled to profit from the favorable draws that she has received with a ranking inflated by her Australian Open semifinal appearance.  Although she won a set from Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, she has not won more than one match at any tournament since that Melbourne breakthrough.  In her vicinity stand two compatriots at opposite ends of their careers, the veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands and the teenage star Madison Keys.  The formidable serves of either or both women could threaten Stephens more than Tamira Paszek, a grass-court specialist mired in yet another slump.  Three more Americans will vie to become her quarterfinal opponent, including the first-round winner of a contest between Varvara Lepchenko and Christina McHale.  Both Lepchenko and McHale could use a strong result to boost their confidence, but the real name to note here is Venus Williams.  A finalist in Charleston four years ago, Venus needs to conserve her energy with comfortable wins in the early rounds.

Semifinal:  Serena vs. Venus

Bottom half:  Another former Charleston champion, Sam Stosur, aims to kick off her clay campaign in style as she recovers from an Indian Wells injury.  Her closest challengers range from the aging but still elegant Daniela Hantuchova to Laura Robson, the latter of whom urgently needs some positive energy.  Robson has lost demoralizing three-setters early in each of her last three tournaments, two after winning the first set, in a test of her volatile temper.  Another woman with mercurial tendencies, Jelena Jankovic hopes to prove that her unexpected surge to the Miami semifinals  marked more than a mirage.  Jankovic excelled on clay when at her peak but has landed in a challenging section near March sensation Garbine Muguruza and the heavy-hitting German Mona Barthel.  A surface faster than its red counterpart, green clay has rewarded such power hitters before.

Arguably the weakest quarter of the draw offers Caroline Wozniacki an opportunity to recapture her former mastery of this surface.  A former champion both here and at the defunct companion event in Amelia Island / Ponte Vedra Beach, the second seed probably eyes her last chance to leave an impact until the US Open Series.  Much happier for the clay season’s arrival is Carla Suarez Navarro, well inside the top 25 now and likely hoping to rise even higher on her favorite surface.  Near her lie both the fiery young star Yulia Putintseva and the dormant Julia Goerges, who has recorded several upsets on clay with her elongated but penetrating groundstrokes.  Wozniacki may feel grateful to avoid Goerges, her nemesis more than once, but she could face an even more talented German in her second match.  Still rebuilding her confidence following a series of debilitating injuries, Andrea Petkovic hopes to justify her wildcard in this soft section and string together some victories.

Semifinal:  Jankovic vs. Wozniacki

Final:  Serena vs. Wozniacki

Monterrey:

Top half:  The only top-ten player in the field, Angelique Kerber did not waste the opportunity to collect a few more points on her favored hard courts before the clay season arrives.  Gifted uneventful early matches, she could face top-ranked Japanese woman Ayumi Morita in the quarterfinals.  This double-fister recently reached the semifinals at Kuala Lumpur and delivered a competitive effort against Serena in Miami, not long after she had upset top-seeded Ivanovic in Pattaya City.  While she has split her four previous meetings with Kerber, the German won the last two comfortably and has not lost to Morita since 2007.

Several potential future stars occupy the second quarter, such as USC women’s star Maria Sanchez.  Struggling to emerge from qualifying draws at most of the tournaments that she has played, Sanchez did register a key main-draw victory at Indian Wells.  Halted by Agnieszka Radwanska there, she faces the Pole’s less renowned sister, Urszula, in a match after which the winner might meet Donna Vekic.  Still early in the evolutionary process, this teenager won main-draw matches at the Australian Open and Miami, the latter over fellow rising star Yulia Putintseva.  The question remains whether any of these women can threaten third-seeded Maria Kirilenko, who exited Miami early after reaching an Indian Wells semifinal.  Among the best results of her career, that accomplishment built upon a Pattaya City title and second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Curiously, Kirilenko never has faced Kerber.

Bottom half:  Accepting a wildcard at the last moment, former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic represents the tournament’s most compelling attraction for fans.  Her early draw looks tranquil, although she sometimes has failed to take care of business in these situations.  The hard-serving Hungarian Timea Babos will pose her most credible pre-quarterfinal challenge, but she has won only a handful of matches since the US Open. A more intriguing series of tests lie ahead for the sixth-seeded Yanina Wickmayer, who could meet Kimiko Date-Krumm in the second round.  The Japanese veteran with the knack for creating uncanny angles nearly stunned Venus in Miami, revealing strong form ahead of a clash with Florianopolis champion Monica Niculescu.  Either of those women could disrupt Wickmayer’s rhythm with their idiosyncratic play but would struggle to protect their serves from Ivanovic.

The woman whom Niculescu defeated in the Florianopolis final, Olga Puchkova, finds herself sandwiched between two talented but slumping seeds.  Despite starting the year by reaching the Brisbane final, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has sunk back into her dismal slump since then with opening-round losses in five of six tournaments.  At a tournament where she has won two of her three carer titles, she will need to draw confidence from those memories.  The second-seeded Marion Bartoli has displayed form more encouraging but has not won more than two matches at any tournament this year as uncertainty has swirled around her coaching situation.  In addition to Puchkova, young Americans Lauren Davis and Coco Vandeweghe lurk in her vicinity, while Pavlyuchenkova may encounter top-ranked junior Daria Gavrilova in the second round.  This event provides an excellent opportunity to catch a glimpse of developing talents like Gavrilova.

Final:  Kirilenko vs. Ivanovic

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?)