Yanina Wickmayer

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Citi Open Wednesday Gallery: Isner, Haas, Stephens and More

DSC_97390001John Isner-3

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Play was derailed by play Wednesday evening, but not before plenty of action took place including Andrea Petkovic, John Isner, Tommy Haas, Grigor Dimitrov, Sorana Cirstea, Yanina Wickmayer, Marinko Matosevic, Jack Sock, Alex Kuznetsov, and even Sloane Stephens hit the practice courts.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

Can Cibulkova make it two straight titles with a Carlsbad defense?

As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts.  The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.

Carlsbad:

Top half:  World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season.  Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February.  Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week.  Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents.  An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika.  Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.  Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs

The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.  Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics.  Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb.  The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test.  Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals.  This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic.  The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

Bottom half:  Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati.  The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis.   A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round.  Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead.  A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far.  That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013.  An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.

The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances.  Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here.  She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically.  Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko.  That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

Top half:  Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard.  World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered.  Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford.  Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova.  Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.

Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss.  Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages.  The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then.  More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia.  These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend.  Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.

Bottom half:  Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections.  Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis.  Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May.  But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.

By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer.  American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago.  The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013.  Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries.  A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

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

Can anyone bring Radwanska to her knees at Stanford?

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

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

The End of the Red Brick Road: WTA Brussels and Strasbourg Previews

Success on clay has remained a bit beyond Caroline Wozniacki's reach so far.

One Premier tournament and one International tournament complete the Road to Roland Garros within striking distance of Paris.  None of the women involved are in serious contention for the clay season’s ultimate prize, but the absence of those elite names could lead to some tightly contested matches in playing fields without clear favorites.  I forwent predictions this time because your guess is as good as mine.  (Feel free to opine in the comments, as always.)

Brussels:

Top half:  Seven of the Brussels seeds will receive seeds in Paris next week, a strong statement considering the tournament’s placement on the eve of Roland Garros.  In need of a strong statement herself is top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who took a wildcard into the tournament following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome.  Wozniacki has struggled on clay for most of her career but should aim to halt her skid before dropping outside the top ten.  Unfortunately for her, recurrent nemesis Julia Goerges lurks in the quarterfinals.  This German notably defeated Wozniacki to win the Stuttgart clay title two years ago, and she has added two more victories over the Dane since then.  Since she has impressed hardly more than Wozniacki has recently, though, one can’t entirely discount Swiss clay specialist Romina Oprandi or the qualifiers who litter this section.

None of the women in the second quarter has distinguished herself consistently on clay, although Arantxa Rus does own a Roland Garros victory over Kim Clijsters.  Having reached the second week of Roland Garros last year, the fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens looks to build upon her modestly encouraging effort in Rome.  There, Stephens won consecutive matches for the first time since defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open.  Her depleted confidence resurfaced in a lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova, but a small tournament like Brussels offers a useful venue to rebuild that strength.  With fast-court specialists like Tsvetana Pironkova and Magdalena Rybarikova around her, Stephens might face her stiffest resistance from Peng Shuai.  The Chinese double-fister won their only previous meeting, also on clay, but Stephens has improved markedly in the two years since then.

Bottom half:  By far the most intriguing first-round match of the draw pits third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova against Kaia Kanepi.  This battle of 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalists will feature a contrast of styles between the compact, agile Slovak and the robust, heavy-hitting Estonian.  Never have they met on clay, while Kanepi has won two of three matches overall.  Of some lesser note is a potential second-round clash between Varvara Lepchenko and Stefanie Voegele.  The American upset Schiavone at Roland Garros last year and has continued the clay success atypical among her compatriots this year with two victories over Roberta Vinci.  For her part, Voegele reached the semifinals of Charleston on green clay, although she has won only one match on red clay.   Kanepi defeated Lepchenko last fall before the injuries that sidelined her for several months, so an upset of Cibulkova could open her draw.

Probably disappointing many Belgian fans, their two leading women would meet as early as the second round in their home tournament.  Both have achieved more success on grass and hard courts than on clay, and both open against rising American stars.  Having upset Li Na in Madrid as a lucky loser, Madison Keys will aim to snuff out home hope Kirsten Flipkens in a match of baseline first strikes against all-court craft.  Belgian No. 2 Yanina Wickmayer faces a somewhat easier assignment in the form of Jamie Hampton, who has not won a match in a clay main draw this year.  Awaiting one of the Belgians in the quarterfinals is second-seeded Roberta Vinci, an artisan of traditional clay-court tennis.  Vinci has not found her best form for much of the spring but did win a small event in Katowice, Poland.

Strasbourg:

Top half:  Atop the draw is French No. 1 Marion Bartoli, who has emitted the occasional burst of inspiration on home soil.  The eccentric double-fister reached the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, although clay usually hampers her style of staccato points and quick strikes.  Two rising stars could challenge her in this section, compatriot Caroline Garcia and Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.  The former just won a clay challenger at Cagnes-sur-Mer, while the latter notched a significant victory over Laura Robson on the green clay of Charleston.  First-time champions in 2013, Memphis titlist Marina Erakovic and Florianopolis titlist Monica Niculescu will seek to end spring losing streaks when they meet in the first round.  Neither can match Bartoli’s talent, but either could befuddle one of the youngsters.

Another Frenchwoman holds the highest seed in the second quarter, and world No. 30 Alize Cornet’s game suits clay more effectively than Bartoli’s style.  The mixture of qualifiers and fellow Frenchwomen surrounding her will turn few heads, while Chanelle Scheepers will not overpower Cornet.  The latter two women bring similar patterns of results to Strasbourg.  Before she fell to Melanie Oudin in Rome qualifying, though, Scheepers did reach a clay semifinal in Marrakech and upset Jelena Jankovic on the surface in Madrid.  Last year’s runner-up here, Cornet reached a somewhat more significant clay semifinal in Acapulco this February but suffered a loss to an Italian wildcard in Rome.

Bottom half:  Following a mid-career surge, Hsieh Su-Wei has embedded herself within the top 50 and holds the fourth seed here.  An opening match against promising German talent Annika Beck intrigues, as does a possible quarterfinal meeting with the elegant Daniela Hantuchova.  Handed a wildcard into Madrid, Hantuchova made the most of the opportunity by upsetting Petra Kvitova en route to the final 16.  Also in this section is Karolina Pliskova, a heavy server who nearly won her first title this year at Kuala Lumpur and defeated Kanepi on the clay of Portugal.

Perhaps worth more attention than the seeds in the lowest quarter, some of the unseeded entrants could score an upset or two.  For the rest of her career, Virginie Razzano will struggle to trump the achievement of defeating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, which probably resulted in her wildcard here.  Aligned against Czech doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka in a first-round match to watch, Garbine Muguruza aims to notch her first clay main-draw win in a season when she has reached the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami.  In the shadow of compatriots like Stephens and Keys, sixth-seeded Christina McHale continues to seek traction in her comeback from mononucleosis.  Second-seeded Tamira Paszek has lost 11 of her last 12 matches and seems unlikely to increase that total suddenly here.

***

Capsules on the Roland Garros contenders will follow this week before the draws appear on Friday.

 

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

Will Serena make it two trophies in two weeks?

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

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Will Vika hang on to her hardware here as well as she did in Melbourne?

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

Maria Kirilenko: Not Another Dumb Blonde in Melbourne

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On behalf of blondes everywhere, the blonde jokes need to stop.

We don’t think the capital of California is the letter C. We don’t take an inordinately long time to finish puzzles because the boxes says “2-4 years.” We don’t peel M&Ms and we try not to get stuck on broken escalators.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ol4oWChjzk

Then again, maybe these jokes are for the best. They make you underestimate us, so you never see us coming. Maybe that’s how Maria Kirilenko was able to sneak into the fourth round of the Australian Open. The 25-year-old Russian is likely hard-pressed to ever go anywhere unnoticed, but the No. 14 seed has definitely been under the radar at the start of this year’s Australian Open.

It must be difficult to be Maria Kirilenko.

Not in the ways you would think. Indeed, the 25-year-old Russian does not need sympathy because she is blessed with stunningly good looks, the endorsements and photo shoots that come with that, and a hockey-playing fiancé who worships her.

No, take pity on her because she has all those things but still wants to let her game do the talking.

With every excuse to rest on her laurels, Kirilenko continues to put in the long hours to get the most out of her petite frame and (relatively) underpowered game. An all-court player with no standout weapon, the Olympic bronze medalist in doubles has been steadily improving in the last few years and emerged at the start of this season fitter and more ready than ever to make her mark on the singles court.

A fan favorite (for obvious reasons), Kirilenko is not without her critics. Those detractors would probably tell you that she is overrated, given special attention because of her looks and with her recent engagement to Alex Ovechkin, destined for a Kournikova-esque fade out of the tennis world.

To believe all of that is to assume Kirilenko is another dumb blonde. Take it from those who watched her third round encounter with Yanina Wickmayer; “Kiri” is a smart cookie.

She was smart enough to withstand the Belgian’s early barrage. She was cool enough not to panic when that relentless stream of winners caused her to fall behind an early break. Instead, the Russian steadied herself and stayed with Wickmayer, who continued to belt winners one minute and miss only by millimeters the next.

The eventual tiebreaker was a tense affair, for it promised a massive momentum boost to its winner. Unwilling to crack beneath the weight of the moment, Kirilenko stuck to her game plan and mixed expert defense with intelligent offense, all in the effort to keep her emotional foe off-balance.Her patience was rewarded when she nabbed an essential mini-break to take the first set, but Wickmayer would not go away quickly. She persisted early in the second set with her signature aggression as a means of pegging the crafty Kirilenko to the back of the court, and began sneaking up to the net with unheard of efficiency.

But by that point, it was too late. The Russian was already dialed in and ending points earlier and earlier thanks to some flawless angles, and ran away with the second set to set up a meeting with presumptive favorite, Serena Williams.

Many will write off this match before it even begins. Kirilenko lacks the punch to keep up with the American powerhouse who has only lost one match since Wimbledon. But to underestimate the Russian would be a grave error in judgment. Be smart.

Kirilenko certainly is.

Quarters for Our Thoughts (II): Australian Open Women’s Draw Preview

Who gets to kiss Daphne this year/

After the mega-preview of the Australian Open men’s draw appeared yesterday, we take the same type of look at the women’s draw.

First quarter:  Like fellow defending champion Djokovic, Azarenka cruised through the first week of last year’s tournament.  Also like Djokovic, she should do so again this year against an early slate of opponents that features nobody more remarkable than Radwanska’s younger sister.  Urszula Radwanska recently lost to Wozniacki, which should tell you all that you need to know about her current form, and her sister can offer her little advice on how to solve Azarenka’s ruthless baseline attack.  The world #1 has taken the sensible position that this year’s tournament is a new opportunity for triumph rather than a chunk of territory to defend, an attitude that should help her advance deep into the draw.  While the quirky game of Roberta Vinci might bemuse her temporarily, Azarenka probably has less to fear from any opponent in her quarter than from the Australian summer heat, which has proved an Achilles heel for her before.

Among the most plausible first-round upsets in the women’s draw is Lisicki over the reeling, tenth-ranked Wozniacki.  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki continued her 2012 slide by losing two of her first three matches in 2013, while she has failed to solve the German’s mighty serve in two of their three meetings.  Lisicki usually lacks the steadiness to string together several victories in a marquee draw away from grass, but Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova might build upon her upward trend if she escapes Lisicki in the third round.  Although the seventh-seeded Errani reached the quarterfinals here last year, she fell to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and might exit even before she meets the young Russian to the veteran Kuznetsova.  The most intriguing unseeded player in this section, the two-time major champion showed flashes of vintage form in Sydney and eyes an accommodating pre-quarterfinal draw.  She could battle Pavlyuchenkova for the honor of facing Azarenka, who would feel intimidated by neither Russian.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Player to watch:  Pick your ova between Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova

Second quarter:  In a sense, all that you need to know about this section is that it contains Serena.  Case closed, or is it?  Conventional wisdom would say that a player of Serena’s age cannot possibly sustain the brilliance that she displayed in the second half of 2012 much longer, but she has built a reputation upon defying conventional wisdom.  An intriguing third-round rematch with Shvedova beckons just two majors after the Kazakh nearly upset her at Wimbledon, the tournament that turned around Serena’s comeback.   Mounting an inspired comeback herself last year, Shvedova has stalled a bit lately while suffering some dispiriting three-set losses.  Serena can outserve, outhit, and generally out-compete players like Kirilenko and Wickmayer with their limited range of talents.  Last year, though, Makarova delivered the shock of the Australian Open by ambushing her in the fourth round, reminding us that underdogs sometimes can jolt Serena before she settles into a tournament.

By the quarterfinals, the American usually has accumulated a formidable tide of momentum that compensates for the spiking quality of competition.  Considering the eighth-seeded Kvitova’s recent struggles, the quality may not spike so dramatically.  But Kvitova, who has lost seven of her last ten matches, may not reach that stage and may have her work cut out against Schiavone in the first round or ambitious American teen Sloane Stephens in the third round.  Stephens broke through at majors last year by reaching the second week of Roland Garros, just as British teen Laura Robson did by reaching the second week at the US Open.  An early upset of Kvitova, perhaps even by Robson in the second round, would result in an intriguing battle between these two rising stars with a berth in the second week at stake.  There, they could meet the evergreen veteran Petrova, who becomes dangerous just when one discounts her.  Kvitova’s compatriot Safarova also lurks in this area but blows too hot and cold to produce a deep run.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Player to watch:  Stephens

Third quarter:  The ultra-steady Radwanska finds herself surrounded by an array of stunning talents with a penchant for getting in their own way.  Leading the pack is the sixth-seeded Li Na, who has reached the semifinals or better twice at the Australian Open.  Although she won a home title in Shenzhen, Li played generally shaky tennis during her week in Sydney before an error-strewn loss to Radwanska that ended her 2012 momentum against the Pole.  Close behind Li in ranking and self-destructive potential is Stosur, who already has imploded twice on Australian soil this year.  The ninth seed probably deserves some forgiveness for those losses in view of her recent ankle surgery, but the fact remains that she has lost six of her last seven matches at home in an illustration of her frailty under pressure.  Stosur narrowly avoided an early date with Cirstea, her nemesis in the first round last year, and may meet Zheng Jie in the second round a week after she lost to her in Sydney.  For her part, Li must hope to reverse her loss to Cirstea at Wimbledon last year if that third-round meeting materializes.

Nearer to Radwanska lies another opponent of the same model as fellow one-time major champions Li and Stosur:  the charming and charmingly fragile Ivanovic.  Five years after her trip to the Melbourne final, she has not reached the quarterfinals there since.  The former #1 might face the other former #1 from her own country in the third round, resuming her sometimes bitter rivalry with Jankovic.  Although both Serbs accumulated success against Radwanska earlier in their careers, neither has conquered her as they have declined.  The fourth seed thus will feel confident of extending her nine-match winning streak from titles in Auckland and Sydney deep into Melbourne.  Perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of Sydney champion Azarenka last year, or in those of Sydney champion Li the year before.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Player to watch:  Li

Fourth quarter:  When Sharapova entered the Melbourne field without any match practice last year, she showed no signs of rust in sweeping to the final.  In the same situation, she will aim to produce the same result on a surface where the high bounce suits her playing style.  Sharapova could face Venus Williams near the end of the first week, assuming that the American survives the heat and her spells of uneven play to that point.  Away from grass, she has accumulated a far better record against the elder than the younger Williams, and one would favor her in that matchup considering the relative conditions of each career.  Either of these tall women would hold a significant advantage in power and serve over Dominika Cibulkova, the Sydney finalist who devoured three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel in the final.  Rarely at her best in Melbourne, she faces an intriguing opener against local prodigy Ashleigh Barty but otherwise looks likely to enter the second week.

Somewhat more uncertain is the identity of this section’s other quarterfinalist, for Kerber looked only moderately convincing in Brisbane and Sydney.  A heavy hitter can outslug the German or frustrate her, a role that second-round opponent Lucia Hradecka could fill with her thunderous serve.  Principally a threat on grass, Tamira Paszek remains unpredictable from one week to the next and could meet Sydney sensation Madison Keys in a second round.  A 17-year-old with precocious poise, Keys may vie with Stephens for the brightest star in the future of American women’s tennis.  The eleventh-seeded Bartoli opens against Medina Garrigues, who played inspired tennis at the Hopman Cup, and will hope to break away from a series of unremarkable efforts in Melbourne.  While Kerber defeated Sharapova early last year, the world #2 squashed her in their other three meetings, nor has any of the other players in this section often threatened her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Player to watch:  Venus

Final:  Serena vs. Radwanska

Champion:  Serena Williams

Excited for the start of the 2013 Australian Open?  I will run a live chat during many of the matches at newyorkobservertennis.com.  Check it out if you want to chat with me, some of my colleagues, and fellow fans while you watch the action in Melbourne.

WTA Bad Gastein – Cornet prevails over Wickmayer, as Goerges and Craybas take doubles title

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By Romi Cvitkovic

Although the WTA tournament in Bad Gastein started off with days of rain, the tournament ended in tears of joy for one of its winners, Alize Cornet. In just her second career title, she dispatched of Yanina Wickmayer 7-5, 7-6(1) in just over two hours.

“It has been four years I haven’t won a singles title, so it’s just happiness now. I’m so happy,” Cornet said. “It’s been a super week. I really love this tournament. I love the people here and I feel everybody loves me as well. I’m not Austrian, but I feel like I’m Austrian when I’m here. It’s my favorite tournament … What more can I ask for than winning it?”

After struggling for most of the season, Cornet made a breakthrough in Stuttgart this April, blasting through the qualification rounds before retiring to Maria Sharapova in the second round. She then bested her results by losing in the finals of Strasbourg to Francesca Schiavone in two tights sets.

The doubles final featured the standout duos of Julia Goerges and Jill Craybas defeating Petra Martic and Anna-Lena Groenefeld, 6-7(4), 6-4, 11-9. Although Goerges was the number one singles seed and Martic the fifth seed, both fell out in the first round only to enjoy Bad Gastein a little longer and meet in the doubles finals.

Check out the full gallery of the singles and doubles matches, as well as both awards ceremonies. All photo credit to Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

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