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Sorana Cirstea Talks About Her Early Career Struggles, and Dishes on Friendship with Ana Ivanovic

DSC_93020001Ms. Cristea-2

WASHINGTON, D.C. – By 16, she was a top 10 junior player in the world. Only three years later, she took the WTA Tour by storm, reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open en route taking out two top 10 players.

Romanian Sorana Cirstea is a seasoned tennis veteran despite being only 23-years-old. Her time in juniors combined with her quick ascension in the pro ranks primed her to succeed for years to come. But her good initial results in 2009 were clouded by injury and letdowns. It would be three more years before she found her best tennis and a ranking to go with it. Just last month, she reached her career-high ranking of world No. 22.

After her semifinal appearance in Stanford over the weekend, Cirstea had a quick turnaround into the humidity of Washington, D.C. to play in her first Citi Open tournament.

Following her first round win over Lesia Tsurenko, I chatted with the friendly, engaging Cirstea about the tough time her injury presented her with and how she bounced back, as well as her close friendship with Ana Ivanovic.

What is your most memorable moment on court?
Probably it would be when I won Orange Bowl when I was 13 because I was such a kid. Now, I’ve become a little more mature towards everything. I don’t get that excited or that down anymore. But when I was a kid, I was so excited. I felt like I could move mountains when I won the Orange Bowl. It was just pure euphoria. I think I will never experience that kind of feeling. That moment was one of the most important for me, and from there on (tennis) started to become a proper career.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
I loved school, so I was one of those kids that were really good students — like an ‘A’ student. Even when I playing tennis, I still went to school and had really good marks. I’m not sure what I would have pursued, but probably I would be really good in school in whatever subject I would choose; I was always a very disciplined student. For example, I like different areas now, but I’m not sure how my life would have turned out if I was not a tennis player. Maybe I would have been interested in politics, economics, languages, communications.

What is one thing that scares you?
Getting to the end of my life and not reaching the dreams that I have. Probably this is the thing that scares me the most.

You and Ana Ivanovic are very close. How did that friendship come about?
(Smiling) She is my best friend. We are like sisters. It’s so nice to have someone like that on tour. We actually discovered each other a little bit late. I think I was 19, she was 22 or something. So maybe like four years ago when we first started to train together because of the adidas team, and interact.

And suddenly we realized that we had the same values, same way of seeing life, same background, same kind of families, same education. Because we are so similar in everything, now a lot of times we don’t even have to speak, we know what we are feeling. It’s just so nice to have someone like her on the circuit and just be able to share this time together because we spend so much time at the tournaments. So it’s nice to have someone you can call almost family.

After a successful first season on the WTA Tour in 2009, there were some struggles for a couple of years. How did you deal with all the trials and what have you learned about yourself? 
I think I was a really good junior, so the transition to the WTA happened for me quite fast. I was quite talented. The first years on tour were very easy for me. Then players started to (know my game) a little bit. I had a very bad injury, I broke my heel, and that took me a little bit out of the game. So it was a little like a domino. It took me back and I fell in the rankings. And then it actually took me a while to get back. But I really really appreciate this time because I fell down to 100 and then I really had to work hard to get back.

Now I achieved my best ranking last month – I was 22 – so now I actually I feel that I do deserve to be here. I belong here; I worked hard to be here. I feel that I’m way more disciplined and appreciate things way more than I did when I was climbing the rankings. So I think it’s a learning process.

I’m very grateful for things good and bad that happened in my life because otherwise I wouldn’t be here today. So it’s a different way of thinking now than when I was 19. But, of course, everyone develops, gets experience and matures, and start seeing things different. But at the moment, I’m quite happy with the way things are going.

Challenge Accepted: My Workout with Vera Zvonareva

FIla and former World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva hosted a killer workout for the athlete looking for a leg up on the court.

The morning after Wimbledon’s now-infamous “Black Wednesday” was a hazy time for most; fans and pundits were trying to come out from beneath the rubble left by the shocking number of upsets.

It is often said that exercise can help clear the mind and aid in decision-making. However, burning calories (as well as one’s own sense of dignity) with former World No. 2 and two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva did little to restore normalcy to an already-crazy week.

In a partnership with Fila, Zvonareva hosted a racquet sports oriented fitness class with Miami-based trainer Greg Corso in Manhattan, at the Upper East Side’s Sports Club LA. For the former Olympic Bronze medalist (and the group of reporters participating), the forty-five minute class was only a taste of the Russian’s off-court conditioning routine as she works towards a comeback from a shoulder injury.

“During the off-season, we train…probably four hours on the tennis court and at least two-three hours off the court,” Zvonareva remarked in a Q&A session following the class.

The course, held on the Sport Club’s roof, emphasized the importance of the full-body workout required by a professional athlete throughout the year. While most of the exercises were aerobic in nature, Corso and Zvonareva also made use of resistance bands and free-weights as heavy as ten pounds that morphed the burn into a small fire felt by the admittedly unprepared press core.

“To prevent [injuries], we do a full-body workout, but with lighter weights, with [exercise] bands just to keep ourselves conditioned.”

The workout was conceived with the help of videos taken during Zvonareva’s actual workouts with her coach, which adds a stamp of authenticity most fitness classes cannot boast.

“My job was to figure out how to adapt [those sessions] into a group exercise setting, with a big crowd and a limited space,” said Corso, who looked to the resistance bands (strapped to the ankles) as the key to making the class work for racquet-sport athletes who require practice with lateral movement.

Zvonareva agreed. “Using the bands helps a lot, because then you can do two steps, right/left, and you’re getting that movement that you want…you don’t need to run across the whole tennis court!”

The class required constant movement under the Manhattan sun, an essential feature for the athlete who will need to draw on that stamina over the course of a long tennis match.

“The thing about tennis is that you always have to give 100% every point, and it is very difficult because even if you’re tired, you still have to play the point at the professional level…you lose a couple of points, you lose your serve, you lose the game, it can cost you the whole match…[During this class], you have that hour but you have to keep pushing yourself.”

For the exhausted students, Zvonareva reminded us that it wasn’t always as effortless as she made the workout appear. On the exercise called the “Burpee,” she recalled, “I remember when I was 12 years old, my coach would do something like this and we were all dying…as soon as he turns away we’re like ‘stop it!’ It’s a very difficult one, but it helps a lot.”

The former Russian No. 1 has been off the court for nearly a year, last playing at the London Olympics. After getting surgery on her shoulder in February, she returned to school, and received a degree in International Economic Relations. She flew into New York the next day to conduct the class. Though looking in phenomenal shape, she admitted it was difficult to balance fitness with studying.

“I was studying so much that I had no energy to do fitness, it was so difficult for me…I was doing some, but not every day because once you start reading you keep going and going and it’s midnight already…when I’m playing tennis five hours a day, I still have energy to go and do fitness, but studying…it was so difficult!”

Keeping up with the Tour has been difficult for the college graduate, but she tries to keep in touch with friends like Elena Vesnina. For those wondering about that comeback, Zvonareva left the media in no suspense.

“I’m heading to Arizona, that’s where I will start my training. I’m meeting with my physiotherapist there and hopefully he will give me a green light to start training. I don’t know how long it will take but maybe three-four months before I can start playing at 100%.”

Zvonareva was a gracious host and encouraging teacher to her tired and, later, very sore students. The experience was a tremendous insight into the mind and work ethic of one of most disciplined and well-conditioned players on the WTA Tour, illustrating the key difference between “player” and “professional.”

WTA Nurnberg: Petkovic Ousts Jankovic as Halep Rallies Back to Defeat Safarova

Andrea Petkovic defetas Jelena Jankovic WTA Nurnberg_600

(June 14, 2013) Friday match play at Nurnberg saw German wild card Andrea Petkovic defeat top tournament seed Jelena Jankovic in a 90-minute match. Despite the 6-4, 6-3 score, Petkovic rallied from an early break in both sets and the two faced a combined 20 break point chances.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed right now,” Petkovic said. “I think I played a really great match today. I didn’t think it would be possible because I was really tired after yesterday, so I pulled all of my power and strength that was left together and managed to put in a good performance out there today.”

Petkovic admitted earlier this week that she contemplated retirement recently, and now she will vie for her third title after winning Bad Gastein in 2009 and Stasbourg in 2011.

“It’s really absurd – two weeks ago I was thinking about quitting tennis because I was playing so badly. I wasn’t feeling good on the court and I was doubting myself a lot. But here I am now. The good thing about going through all of that is I appreciate everything much more now. I’m very thankful and grateful for all of this. I never guessed I would get a second chance after all of my injuries, but here it is.”

Simona Halep, the No. 7 seed, took out Lucie Safarova in the other semifinal and will compete in her fourth final on Saturday, and will be looking for her first title.

Thursday and Friday gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

WTA Birmingham Gallery: Monday and Tuesday with Bouchard, Keys, Jovanovski

Eugenie Bouchard

(June 11, 2013) The WTA event in Birmingham kicks off the grass season this week, and first round notable winners from Monday and Tuesday include Madison Keys, Bojana Jovanovski, Mona Barthel, Yanina Wickmayer, Kristina Mladenovic and qualifiers Alison Riske and Maria Sanchez.

Also in today’s gallery: Eugenie Bouchard, Anne Keothavong, Yulia Putintseva, Tara Moore, Melanie South, and Melanie Oudin who was the defending champion but was knocked out by Croat Ajla Tomljanovic.

Photos by Christopher Levy

Get to Know … 19-year-old WTA Tennis Player Annika Beck

Annika Beck during her first round win in Nürnberg on Tuesday.

(June 11, 2013) Rising German star Annika Beck is having a breakthrough season on the WTA Tour. This week, the 19-year-old reached a career-high ranking of world No. 56 after her second round appearance at last week’s French Open. One year ago, she captured the Girls’ Singles title at the same prestigious Slam. [Tuesday Nürnberg gallery of Beck at bottom]

In April, the 19-year-old made the semifinals of the Katowice Open and in her following tournament, took world No. 8 Petra Kvitova to three sets.

Seeded eighth at this week’s WTA International event in Nürnberg, Beck won her first round match against Nina Bratchikova in just over an hour, and afterward answered some fun questions for Tennis Grandstand.

Get to know the bubbly German as she talks Serena Williams, getting her driver’s license and the one person she would most want to meet. Hint: it’s a pop singer!

What is your most memorable tennis moment?
I think it’s just from one week ago. I had a great match against Victoria Azarenka in Paris on Suzanne Lenglen Court. It’s a big feeling to play in front of such a big crowd. It was a great experience.

How did you first start playing tennis, or what is your earliest tennis memory?
I started when I was 5 years old at a tennis camp in my hometown. I did some other sports beside tennis, but now I’m just a professional tennis player.

What is your greatest strength?
On court, it’s definitely my movement. I move pretty well and fast. Of course, my groundstrokes as well. Off court, I would say, I’m just a sympathetic person and open for everything.

What is your biggest weakness?
I would say, it’s still my serve, but I am trying hard to improve it.

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
I would invite, of course, Roger Federer. He’s a really nice guy. He’s so relaxed and cool, and he’s just himself. Then I would invite Serena Williams because I didn’t have any [contact] with her until now, and I hope I can learn more about her. And who else would I invite? … Oh, I would invite Pete Sampras because maybe he could show me some tricks for my serve! 

If you were not a pro tennis player, what would you be doing?
I would think that I would be studying. Well, it’s still my aim to study medicine someday. I hope I can I do it the next few years, but it’s difficult with the tennis life, so I hope I can do it afterwards.

What is 1 thing that scares you?
I’m pretty afraid of spiders. I don’t like those crawly little animals.

What are 2 things you could not live without? 
I could not live without … my phone! It keeps me updated about everything. I tried a few weeks ago to stay away one day without my phone, and it was really terrible for me! I was really missing something to do! The other thing is my parents. They have been helping me a lot, financially and supporting me at every moment. It would be pretty hard for me if I don’t have them.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Once I said I want to change a day in my life with Jennifer Lopez, so maybe [her]. She’s a great singer. She looks unbelievable. She does great concerts. I’ve never been to her concert yet, but I really want to go one day, so I hope I can make it!

What is the most extravagant things you have bought with your tournament prize money?
I paid my driver’s license with one of my prize money [winnings], but it’s not an extravagant thing. Others buy houses or cars, but I don’t have that kind of prize money to do it now.

What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
I don’t have any aims of the rankings because I just want to improve my game – get more variety in my game as well, and work on my serve and groundstrokes. And I hope everything will come with that.

Gallery from Nürnberg match play on Tuesday by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

Owning It: Vandeweghe Versus Putintseva

Yulia Putintseva is quickly developing a reputation for being one of the most outspoken players on Tour.

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:

https://twitter.com/CoCoVandey/status/336491458251091968

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,

https://twitter.com/Yulka1995P/status/336576876623577088

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:

https://twitter.com/Yulka1995P/status/336721573585223682

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.”

Dust in the Wind: Schiavone and Kuznetsova Continue Their Downward Slides

Once one of the game's best rivalries, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova struggle to find their footing on a Tour that has left them behind.

Tennis is a cruel sport.

A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.

With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.

Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?

Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.

Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU

Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.

But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.

It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.

We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.

Sloane Stephens Learns Lesson as Laura Robson Flies Free — The Friday Five

Laura Robson

By Maud Watson

Lesson Learned

At the start of the week, Sloane Stephens experienced some off court drama in addition to the woes she continues to suffer on court, thanks to the young American’s dumb decision to publicly call out Serena Williams, essentially branding the veteran a phony. Yes, a little bit of honesty is refreshing. Yes, many of Stephens’ comments regarding Serena’s friendliness or status as a mentor weren’t anything that many didn’t already suspect – after all, player like Clijsters are the exception rather than the norm. But Serena doesn’t owe anybody anything, including Stephens. There was no reason for Stephens to attack her compatriot in the manner in which she did, especially when the evidence to back up her claims amounts to nothing more than a social media snub or failure to sign a poster from when Stephens was 12. To her credit, Williams took the high road when questioned about Stephens’ comments, and Stephens has since admitted and apologized for her folly. It was an ugly incident that highlighted the fact that Stephens isn’t yet fully ready for the limelight, but with any luck, it’s a mistake she won’t make again in the future.

Watershed Moment

In virtually every brilliant career, there first comes that signature win that marks the start of something special. On Tuesday, Grigor Dimitrov may have just earned such a win with his shocking upset of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Federer,” has been on the radar for some time. He’s played the greats close before, including a near-upset of Nadal in Monte-Carlo. Here in Madrid, after failing to close it out in a tight second set tiebreak, Dimitrov look destined for another near miss. But unlike it Monte-Carlo, he held it together better both mentally and physically. He proved the steadier of the two in the deciding set, breaking Djokovic twice to secure a breakthrough victory. Dimitrov has stated he’s looking to shed his nickname, and if he can get himself in better shape and secure more wins like this one, it shouldn’t be long before more people know him for who he is and not who he reminds them of.

Complete 180

Bernard Tomic is no stranger to frequently making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His often cocky and careless attitude has made him a tough figure to tolerate, let alone like. But prior to the start of Madrid, something happened that changed much of that as news broke that his father, John Tomic, had head-butted and injured his hitting partner Drouet. Drouet then broke his silence and stated that John Tomic has also hit Bernard Tomic on more than one occasion. Suddenly Tomic has become a sympathetic figure and many of his previous actions have been cast in a new light. Thankfully, the ATP has banned his father from all ATP events, and both Woodbridge and Rafter are quickly stepping in to support the young Aussie. They’ll join him at the French Open and will attempt to set him up with Josh Eagle, who is already in Europe, as a temporary coach. Tomic possesses a lot of natural talent and plenty of upside. Now, with the proper support, tutelage, and less abuse, perhaps we’ll finally see him start to settle down and produce the kind of results that fans have been expecting.

Free Swinging

Laura Robson has opted to split with Coach Krajan after nine months, and based on what we saw in Madrid, it looks like the switch may already be agreeing with her. The young Brit has yet to give a reason as to why she split from Krajan, but many speculate that it was simply a matter of his coaching style. Robson initially blossomed with him in her box, putting together a thrilling run at last year’s US Open with wins over Clijsters and Li. But her results have been predominantly dismal since then. Couple that with Krajan’s reputation for being overly tough with his charges, and the split isn’t that surprising. She certainly appeared to swing more freely in Madrid with Krajan absent, and it paid off with her securing two wins, including a routine victory over No. 4 seed Aga Radwanska. She really should have gone one further after leading Ivanovic 5-2 in the deciding set of their third round clash. If she can gain more consistency, especially on the serve, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing her at the business end of tournaments with greater frequency in the future. She just needs to find the right coach, and with her abilities, there should be no shortage of qualified candidates willing to take the reins.

Wise Decision

The WTA appears to be taking a page out of the ATP’s book with the news that the WTA has inked a five-year deal to stage the season-ending championships in Singapore in 2014-2018. The new deal will be worth a total of more than $70 million, which translates into financial stability and growth in prize money. It also allows the WTA to put yet another premiere event in the growing Asian market. Additional welcomed news is the decision to include more doubles entrants, staging exhibitions with past stars, and putting on music concerts and fan festivals. So, though there’s still plenty to play for in 2013, fans should already have a reason to look forward to next season.

Bridging the gap at the new WTA 125 Tournaments

Andrea Petkovic in Pune, India

By David Kane

For a tour that rose to its peak in the late 90s on the talented backs of young players like Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, the WTA has had a difficult time grooming its young ingénues in the last few years. The age eligibility rule named for famed burnout victim Jennifer Capriati has done well to keep players from the depression and drug use she suffered, but has also seemed to curb the number of prodigies making early breakthroughs on the senior tour.

With Maria Sharapova being the last teenager to win a major title and compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova the last teenaged Slam debutante in 2004, the Tour’s biggest tournaments appear to be checking for ID at the door. That does not mean, however, that the WTA is averse to successful teens. The Tournament of Champions, albeit a Year-End Championships with the volume turned all the way down, was founded as a way to reward top 30 players who take home International (formerly Tier III and IV) titles throughout the year.

But if veterans have been dominating the higher-end events in the last decade, they have been equally successful in the ostensibly more accessible ones as well. The average age for the Sofia semifinalists 26.5, with 30-year-old Nadia Petrova taking the title. It has been a good time to be a fan of sentimental favorites, to be sure, but much tougher to pick out up-and-comers as they make the transition from the juniors.

Enter the WTA125, the ultimate tournament category for the “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman” subset of players. Bridging the gap between the ITF 100Ks and the lowest level International WTA events, the WTA125 debuted in the two weeks following the two Year-End Championships. With most of the big names finished for the season, players who would have dropped down to the lower level ITFs have one last chance to rack up big points and prize money in 2012.

Two players to take advantage of the opportunity were those thought to be extinct prodigies, Kristina Mladenovic and Elina Svitolina. Each have a junior Roland Garros title to their name (Mladenovic in 2009, Svitolina in 2010). The two are feisty competitors with big forehands and bigger personalities. Despite success among their peers, competing in the big leagues has been a more challenging endeavor.

After relatively quiet fall seasons, the two entered the WTA125 events, one in Chinese Taipei and the other in Pune, India, as under the radar as any former junior champion. Proven up-and-comers like Donna Vekic and dangerous veterans like Kimiko Date-Krumm were abound in each event, yet Mladenovic and Svitolina took home the titles with as little fanfare at the end of the week as the beginning.

At the first WTA125 event in Taipei, Mladenovic blew away Chang Kai-Chen, the Taiwanese player who was edged out of the Osaka final by Heather Watson a few weeks earlier. The Frenchwoman was equally dominant in the doubles, completing the sweep and undoubtedly sealing her spot as an answer on a WTA trivia question.

The tournament in Pune started out as another chapter of the beleaguered Andrea Petkovic’s comeback tour. The German had spent most of 2012 sidelined with various and sundry injuries before having a good run in Luxembourg and cruising into the semifinals this week. The run, however, came to an abrupt end against none other than Svitolina, who advanced to the biggest final of her career.

Even in the final, Svitolina read like the supporting act when paired with the illustrious veteran, 42-year-old final Kimiko Date-Krumm. Despite a tough year, the Japaneswoman had been solid all week, and was looking for the second title in her “second” career. Playing against a style that she was hardly old enough to watch on television, Svitolina had no letdown and gamely silenced the veteran in straight sets.

Is this an awful lot of fanfare for two events that barely count as WTA titles? Perhaps. But if this trend continues, the WTA may have finally found a formula to allow up-and-comers to smoothly transition onto the senior tour without sacrificing the abundant confidence they took with them from the juniors. In other words, the WTA125’s potential lies in helping the prodigies, young guns, whatever you want to call them, to begin realizing their potential, and if that succeeds, these podunk post-season tournaments could become the real tournaments of champions.

Back to the Future on the WTA Tour

Nadia Petrova finishes her season with the WTA title in Sofia.

By David Kane

Weeks like the one the WTA Tour had at its Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria are a blatant mockery to the act of making predictions before they even begin.

First of all, who predicted that Caroline Wozniacki, who started 2012 at No. 1, would find herself at a Year-End Championships for the Tour’s B-squad? The Dane, who now has more singles than Slam titles (a charity song “Oxygen” and a campy music video to go with it) has endured a fall from grace that felt oddly symmetrical as she played her semifinal against hometown favorite Tsvetana Pironkova. After all, Wozniacki played the Bulgarian floater at the first tournament of the year, the usually star-studded Hopman Cup in Perth. Ten months that feel like an eternity later, Wozniacki is the one looking decidedly out of place.

Subtext aside, it would have then appeared easy to predict a rebound victory for the Dane. Playing a tournament comprised of players that the former No. 1 had beat handily during her rise to the game’s elite, “Karolina” could not have felt too intimidated to take on names like Su-Wei Hsieh or Roberta Vinci. Furthermore, she had recently won tournaments in Seoul and Moscow, taking out tough opponents like Kaia Kanepi and Sam Stosur en route. The Dane was not a celebrity wildcard; she had earned her place into this event with her first titles since August of last year.

Who, then, would have predicted that No. 2 seed Nadia Petrova would turn the tables on Wozniacki and decisively beat her in a 6-2, 6-1 final?

Yes, the Russian is a dangerous opponent, and with a title in Tokyo that saw her claim the scalps of top ten stalwarts Sara Errani, Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska, she has obviously played well of late. But for a player for whom much must be perfect, a tournament full of tricky opponents a mere days after winning the Istanbul Championships doubles title sounded like a big ask. Indeed, she played the role of the tired veteran, trudging through three tight matches on her way to the final. Combine that with Petrova’s pitiful 1-4 head-to-head against Wozniacki (one win coming when the Dane retired in 2008), who wasn’t predicting victory for the woman who had clinched a year-end top 10 ranking just by reaching the final?

Seemingly out of nowhere, Petrova recalled the game plan that saw her take out Radwanska in Tokyo, but unlike that three-set final, there was no lapse from the Russian. For about 90 minutes, Wozniacki had no answer to Petrova’s laser-like groundstrokes, flawless serving and inspiring net prowess, and was forced into her fair share of uncharacteristic errors as a result.

During the Russian’s extended slump, her formerly reliable serve was often the cause of her worse losses; her first serve percentage would drop, and she would get broken too often for a perennial Tour ace leader. That she didn’t lose serve in either match played this weekend speaks volumes to explain her recent success, and spells bad news for future rivals should she maintain this form. When her serve is working, the rest of her game loosens up, and even the most expert retrievers and returners are driven to fits under the pressure of the Russian’s powerful game.

Beyond that, not enough can be said about her newfound positivity on the court. After being fired by Wozniacki herself, Ricardo Sanchez began working with Petrova and has been a great influence on her on-court demeanor, striking an encouraging figure from the stands. There will be no Serena-esque shrieks or Sharapova-style fist pumps from Petrova, but quietly celebrating a well-struck ball illustrates her marked emotional growth.

Petrova mentioned that the promise of a rapidly approaching off-season got her through these tough matches, so the question remains as to whether she will be able to dig as deep when the 2013 season begins, and she will have to figuratively start over again.

At the risk of making any wild predictions, it might be best to end this article sooner rather than later.

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