yulia putintseva

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Federer, Serena, Venus, Headline Day 1

Today features the first edition of a daily Roland Garros preview series that offers a few notes on the next day’s most interesting matches.  After each day ends, moreover, a recap of similar length will guide you through the key headlines.

ATP:

Pablo Carreno-Busta vs. Roger Federer:  This qualifier reeled off a long winning streak at lower-level events over the last year and reached the Portugal semifinals, also as a qualifier, with victories over Julien Benneteau and Fabio Fognini. Carreno-Busta also upset defending champion Pablo Andujar in Casablanca, shortly before the latter stormed to the Madrid semifinals, and won a set from Stanislas Wawrinka in Portugal.  Paris is not Portugal or Casablanca, though, nor is it even Bordeaux, where Carreno-Busta lost in the first round of a challenger.

Gilles Simon vs. Lleyton Hewitt:  This tournament might mark Hewitt’s final appearance at Roland Garros.  If it does, a match on a show court against a fellow grinder, likely with a strong crowd, seems a fitting way to go.  Simon has flown under the radar for most of the year, stringing together some victories at small events and upsetting two top-ten opponents.  He reached the second week at the Australian Open despite largely unimpressive form, so he should muddle through here too.

Andreas Seppi vs. Leonardo Mayer:  The Italian must defend fourth-round points at Roland Garros, where he won two sets from Novak Djokovic last year.  Seppi’s 14-14 record this year does not bode well, and he has survived his first match at only one of six clay tournaments.  Fortunately for him, Mayer lost his only clay match this year.

Marcel Granollers vs. Feliciano Lopez:  A quarterfinalist in Rome, Granollers owes Andy Murray twice over in recent weeks.  First, the world No. 2 retired from their match there, allowing the Spaniard to gobble extra ranking points.  Then, Murray’s withdrawal nudged Granollers into a seeded position at Roland Garros.  He should take advantage of it against the fading serve-volley specialist Feliciano Lopez, although matches between two Spaniards often get trickier than expected.

WTA:

Serena Williams vs. Anna Tatishvili:  Everyone remembers what happened to Serena in the first round here last year.  Nobody remembers it more clearly than Serena does.  Expect her to put this match away early, exorcising Razzano’s ghosts.

Urszula Radwanska vs. Venus Williams:  Both of these women must cope with being the second-best women’s tennis player in their respective families.  Hampered by a back injury, Venus has played just one match on red clay this year, losing routinely to Laura Robson.  Urszula is not quite Robson at this stage, but she recorded clay wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic this year.  Venus should pull through in the end after some edgy moments.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Andrea Hlavackova:  When Pavlyuchenkova gets through her first match, she has reached the semifinals at four of five tournaments this year, winning two.  The problem is that she has lost her first match no fewer than seven times against opponents of varying quality. (Azarenka and Ivanovic are understandable, Lesya Tsurenko and Johanna Larsson less so.)  Since reaching the second week of the US Open, Hlavackova has won one main-draw singles match,  over the hapless Melanie Oudin. Surely Pavlyuchenkova won’t double that total?

Kiki Bertens vs. Sorana Cirstea:  Their big weapons and questionable movement would seem better designed for fast-court tennis.  But both of them have found their greatest success on clay, Cirstea reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals four years ago and Bertens winning her only WTA title so far at Fes last year.  This match looks among the most evenly contested of the day with plenty of heavy groundstrokes to go around.

Mallory Burdette vs. Donna Vekic:  One of the top American collegiate prospects, Burdette left Stanford last fall to turn pro and has reaped some solid results.  Her victims so far include Lucie Hradecka, Ksenia Pervak, and Sabine Lisicki as well as fellow American rising star Madison Keys.  Burdette will train her vicious backhand on Croatian rising star Donna Vekic, who reached her first WTA final last year as a qualifier.  Vekic has not accomplished much above the challenger level since then, losing her only clay match this year to Chanelle Scheepers in Madrid.

Ayumi Morita vs. Yulia Putintseva:  Is Paris ready for Putintseva?  The volatile French crowd pounced on fellow pocket rocket Michelle Larcher de Brito, but the distant venue of Court 7 should take some of the scrutiny off the strong-lunged youngster.  Putintseva took Serena to a first-set tiebreak in Madrid but will have her work cut out with Morita’s double-fisted strokes.  Unlike Coco Vandeweghe, the Japanese star will win points with more than her serve.

Owning It: Vandeweghe Versus Putintseva

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.”

WTA Charleston Tuesday Gallery: Williams, Jankovic, Lisicki and more

CHARLESTON, SC (April 2, 2013) — Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy captured all the action from the Family Circle Cup on Tuesday, including players Serena Willaims, Andrea Petkovic, Jelena Jankovic, Melanie Oudin, Sabine Lisicki, Lucie Sararova, Yulia Putintseva, Jessica Pegula, Anna Tatishvili and Kristina Mladenovic.

[nggallery id=94]

Sony Open In Photos: Robson, Tursunov win, Lisicki, Putintseva, Sock out

MIAMI, FL (March 21, 2013) — Wednesday at the Sony Open was filled with great three-set wins, tumultuous matches and even some rain. Here is your full breakdown of results and a “best shots of the day” gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy at bottom.

Notable winners on Wednesday:

WTA
Donna Vekic (CRO) d Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) 76(4) 60
Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) d Mallory Burdette (USA) 62 64
Laura Robson (GBR) d Camila Giorgi (ITA) 62 46 63
Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) d Shahar Peer (ISR) 46 61 64
Simona Halep (ROU) d Sabine Lisicki (GER) 62 36 75
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) d Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL) 62 64
Madison Keys (USA) d Allie Kiick (USA) 60 60

ATP
[WC] L Hewitt (AUS) d J Sousa (POR) 61 76(3)
[Q] D Tursunov (RUS) d [Q] T Smyczek (USA) 76(4) 75
M Llodra (FRA) d B Paire (FRA) 76(7) 62
[WC] J Blake (USA) d R Harrison (USA) 62 62
J Melzer (AUT) d R Berankis (LTU) 36 63 76(1)
L Rosol (CZE) d G Muller (LUX) 75 64
S Devvarman (IND) d E Donskoy (RUS) 46 76(5) 62

A Low Roar: Putintseva Steels Past Robson in Dubai

Patient. Poised. Polite.

Few who have watched the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva Show would use any of those words to describe the demonstrative Kazakh’s on-court demeanor. But as the 18-year-old calmly broke Laura Robson to serve for the match in the final set, many were wondering where the drama had gone.

One day earlier, a shuddering tennis world braced itself for the notoriously over-the-top teenager’s debut. Known for her multilingual affirmatives and incendiary celebrations, Putintseva has set herself apart as her generation’s cartoon villain. To be fair, something like this is, to a slightly lesser degree, what audiences are used to seeing at any given moment from the Putintseva Show. Her wildcard into Dubai’s main draw (at the expense of former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova) seemed as much a nod to her perceived entertainment value as her talent; assigning her Center Court against Robson, a peer with whom Putintseva had had history in juniors, put the Kazakh in primetime.

Anticipation had reached a fevered pitch as the match got underway. Diehard tennis fans, hip to the often circus-like atmosphere of Yulia Putintseva matches, expected a verbal bloodbath between the youngsters. As the match wore on, it became clear that the Show had undergone drastic retooling. Perhaps knowing the world was watching, the young Kazakh was shockingly quiet in showing off deft feel and exposing her rival’s weaker movement en route to winning the opening set. Drawing errors from the hyper-aggressive Robson, Yulia forced viewers to watch her for her tennis, without any antics to serve as diversions. Some were put off by this unplugged, otherwise weaponless Putintseva; others had signed on too long ago to jump ship now.

Despite making vast improvements after an off-season at the Mourataglou Academy, the diminutive Putintseva still struggles with consistency. To play her brand of brash defense, she must stand close to the baseline so she might successfully absorb pace from players like Robson. As the British phenom edged the match towards a deciding set, Putintseva was falling farther and farther behind the baseline, allowing her taller, more powerful opponent to dictate. Fans who were looking for jubilation when she was winning were equally disappointed to find no histrionics when she was losing. No racquets were smashed. No heavens were screamed up to. When the match reached equilibrium, it had caught up with Yulia Putintseva.

Instigators looking for a boiling point were hopeful in the third set. Putintseva, ostensibly unable to accuse officials of conspiring against her with incorrect calls, challenged a shot that had been called wide. When Hawkeye overturned the call, umpire Kader Nouni called for a replay rather than awarding her the point. Robson had no play on the ball; even British commentators David Mercer and Annabel Croft felt the hitherto reserved Putintseva had been wronged. But rather than theatrically arguing the decision, Yulia politely asked for confirmation, won the replayed point, and proceeded to break Robson a few points later.

A fellow spectator and blogger tweeted me about Putintseva, how her faultlessly calm disposition was, well, boring:

https://twitter.com/anna_tennisfan/status/303576333638844416

To which I responded:

https://twitter.com/ovafanboy/status/303576554565423104

It is evident that Yulia Putintseva talks a big game. She is on record as having aspirations of winning a major title and being No. 1 (in 2013). But she has yet to assert herself as a clutch match-closer. In her two matches in Australia, she served for the both in the second set, only to lose both sets in tiebreakers. As if on cue, Putintseva sensed the moment and froze. The young woman who is “never scared to lose” did little to silence a talented opponent, and found the set leveled at 5-5, winning only 2 points in 3 games.

Serving to avoid a heartbreaking loss, Putintseva played an inspired game to hold at love. The ensuing tiebreaker that I had promised forty minutes earlier was ugly, one of those tired affairs played on guts alone. Putintseva began the season losing one such sudden death game. But she somehow parlayed the momentum from that revitalizing hold into an 8-6 squeaker.

As Robson’s final forehand sailed long, it became apparent to both the crowd in Dubai and fans around the world that the fiery Kazakh had saved her best reaction for last. Celebrating a win that will propel her into the game’s top 90, Yulia Putintseva unleashed those expertly contained emotions and showed us how much this victory truly meant.


(GIF courtesy of @TheGrandSlams)

Wizards of Oz (IV): Tomic, Gasquet, Raonic, Kvitova, Wozniacki, And More on Day 4

Leaving Federer vs. Davydenko for a special, detailed preview by one of our colleagues here, we break down some highlights from the latter half of second-round action on Day 4.

ATP:

Brands vs. Tomic (Rod Laver Arena):  A tall German who once caused a stir at Wimbledon, Brands has won four of his first five matches in 2013 with upsets over Chardy, Monfils, and Martin Klizan among them.  As sharp as Tomic looked in his opener, he cannot afford to get caught looking ahead to Federer in the next round.  Brands can match him bomb for bomb, so the last legitimate Aussie threat left needs to build an early lead that denies the underdog reason to hope.

Lu vs. Monfils (Hisense Arena):  Is La Monf finally back?  He somehow survived 16 double faults and numerous service breaks in a messy but entertaining four-set victory over Dolgopolov.  Perhaps facilitated by his opponent’s similar quirkiness, the vibrant imagination of Monfils surfaced again with shot-making that few other men can produce.  This match should produce an intriguing contrast of personalities and styles with the understated, technically solid Lu, who cannot outshine the Frenchman in flair but could outlast him by exploiting his unpredictable lapses.

Falla vs. Gasquet (Court 3):  The Colombian clay specialist has established himself as an occasional upset threat at non-clay majors, intriguingly, for he nearly toppled Federer in the first round of Wimbledon three years ago and bounced Fish from this tournament last year.  A strange world #10, Gasquet struggled initially in his first match against a similar clay specialist in Montanes.  He recorded a series of steady results at majors last year, benefiting in part from facing opponents less accomplished than Falla.  The strength-against-strength collision of his backhand against Falla’s lefty forehand should create some scintillating rallies as Gasquet seeks to extend his momentum from the Doha title two weeks ago.

Mayer vs. Berankis (Court 6):  While Berankis comfortably defeated the erratic Sergei Stakhovsky in his debut, Mayer rallied from a two-set abyss to fend off American wildcard Rhyne Williams after saving multiple match points.  He must recover quickly from that draining affair to silence the compact Latvian, who punches well above his size.  Sometimes touted as a key figure of the ATP’s next generation, Berankis has not plowed forward as impressively as others like Raonic and Harrison, so this unintimidating draw offers him an opportunity for a breakthrough.

Raonic vs. Rosol (Court 13):  The cherubic Canadian sprung onto the international scene when he reached the second week in Melbourne two years ago.  The lean Czech sprung onto the international scene when he stunned Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last year.  Either outstanding or abysmal on any given day, Rosol delivered an ominous message simply by winning his first match.  For his part, Raonic looked far from ominous while narrowly avoiding a fifth set against a player outside the top 100.  He needs to win more efficiently in early rounds before becoming a genuine contender for major titles.

WTA:

Robson vs. Kvitova (RLA):  Finally starting to string together some solid results, the formerly unreliable Robson took a clear step forward by notching an upset over Clijsters in the second round of the US Open.  Having played not only on Arthur Ashe Stadium there but on Centre Court at the All England Club before, she often produces her finest tennis for the grandest stages.  If Robson will not lack for inspiration, Kvitova will continue to search for confidence.  She found just enough of her familiarly explosive weapons to navigate through an inconsistent three-setter against Schiavone, but she will have little hope of defending her semifinal points if she fails to raise her level significantly.  That said, Kvitova will appreciate playing at night rather than during the most scorching day of the week, for the heat has contributed to her struggles in Australia this month.

Peng vs. Kirilenko (Hisense):  A pair of women better known in singles than in doubles, they have collaborated on some tightly contested matches.  Among them was a Wimbledon three-setter last year, won by Kirilenko en route to the quarterfinals.  The “other Maria” has faltered a bit lately with six losses in ten matches before she dispatched Vania King here.  But Peng also has regressed since injuries ended her 2011 surge, so each of these two women looks to turn around her fortunes at the other’s expense.  The Russian’s all-court style and fine net play should offer a pleasant foil for Peng’s heavy serve and double-fisted groundstrokes, although the latter can find success in the forecourt as well.

Wozniacki vs. Vekic (Hisense):  Like Kvitova, Wozniacki seeks to build upon the few rays of optimism that emanated from a nearly unwatchable three-set opener.  Gifted that match by Lisicki’s avalanche of grisly errors, the former #1 could take advantage of the opportunity to settle into the tournament.  Wozniacki now faces the youngest player in either draw, who may catch her breath as she walks onto a show court at a major for the first time.  Or she may not, since the 16-year-old Donna Vekic crushed Hlavackova without a glimpse of nerves to start the tournament and will have nothing to lose here.

Hsieh vs. Kuznetsova (Margaret Court Arena):  A surprise quarterfinalist in Sydney, the two-time major champion defeated Goerges and Wozniacki after qualifying for that elite draw.  Kuznetsova rarely has produced her best tennis in Melbourne, outside a near-victory over Serena in 2009.  But the Sydney revival almost did not materialize at all when she floundered through a three-setter in the qualifying.  If that version of Kuznetsova shows up, the quietly steady Hsieh could present a capable foil.

Putintseva vs. Suarez Navarro (Court 7) / Gavrilova vs. Tsurenko (Court 8):  Two of the WTA’s most promising juniors, Putintseva and Gavrilova face women who delivered two of the draw’s most notable first-round surprises.  After Suarez Navarro dismissed world #7 Errani, Tsurenko halted the surge of Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova in a tense three-setter.  Momentum thus carries all four of these women into matches likely to feature plenty of emotion despite the relatively low stakes.

American McHale Runs Into The Putintseva Show

By David Kane

It has been a rough couple of months for American upstart Christina McHale.

After a promising 2011 that saw her topple then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the New Jersey native began 2012 in bright fashion, taking out Petra Kvitova in three grueling sets in Indian Wells and achieved a box set of third round finishes at the majors by Wimbledon. By the summer, though, her results began to tail off and it was revealed that McHale was suffering from a prolonged case of mononucleosis.

Having famously felled Justine Henin in the mid-2000s, “the kissing disease” sent McHale into a tailspin of form that arguably reached its nadir on her home court. During her rise, the American had credited training sessions at the National Tennis Center. But at the US Open, she failed to make it past an even sicker Kiki Bertens, who ran off the court mid-game to seek relief.

It may be a new year and McHale is mono-free, but things have yet to brighten for the American on the tennis court. Unseeded and overshadowed by compatriots like Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis, McHale was excluded from an ESPN graphic featuring “Young Americans” as the Australian Open got underway.

But the worst was yet to come.

McHale could have drawn anyone in the first round: a Williams sister or perhaps Maria Sharapova. But instead, she was slated to face World No. 125 and the poster girl of “Generation Spitfire,” Yulia Putintseva. Putintseva earned her place in the main draw at the end of last year, and spent the off-season training at the Mourataglou Academy where she hit with big names like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Despite dropping her first match of the year in Auckland, Putintseva came into 2013 ready to play.

For a player recovering from mononucleosis, McHale could not have drawn a more ironic opponent. Standing at 5’1”, Putintseva may lack many things, but one thing on which she is never short is energy. Playing in her debut Slam on the senior level, Putintseva unleashed a sampling of that effusive energy as she romped through the first set and a half, dropping a mere handful of points on her serve. McHale had played precious few matches in the last few months, and even fewer matches where she played the role of veteran to Putintseva’s newcomer. Yet, it must have been that veteran sense that allowed the American to take advantage of a weak moment from the Kazakh to level the match.

Unfortunately for McHale, Putintseva has come a long way in just a few months. Notoriously volatile, she remained positive after an embarrassing tiebreaker score of 7-0 and continued serving well to open the third. Faced with an opportunity in the fourth game, Putintseva broke the American and never looked back. ESPN hardly had time to send a camera out to untelevised Court 7 for the match’s hurried conclusion:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_63gPctanLk&w=560&h=315]

Putintseva’s celebration is not only one of legend, but it also signified the dramatic shift in fortune for these two women. McHale looked exhausted and well beyond her years at the end of a brutal effort. Putintseva smiled broadly as she skipped to the net to shake the American’s hand. As a viewer it was a bittersweet moment; as nice as it was to see Putintseva shake some of her demons and close out the biggest win of her career, one could not help but feel for the young American, once on the rise, future unknown.

Wizards of Oz (II): Murray, Tomic, Tsonga, Wozniacki, Kvitova, and More from Day 2

Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.

ATP:

Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena):  When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead.  Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead.  This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure.  Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.

Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA):  Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open.  Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst  chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer.  But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.

Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense):  A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline.  Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it.  Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys.  Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.

Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena):  Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history.  Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings).  Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments.  Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.

Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA):  The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds.  Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book.  Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power.  Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance:  not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.

Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3):  Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200.  Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers.  Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.

WTA:

Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense):  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors.  Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety.  Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode.  Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon.  In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.

Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA):  A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them.  Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year.  Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.

Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA):  This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January.  At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney.  Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game.  Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.

Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3):  Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions.  While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early.  A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open.  Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?

Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6):  Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes.  As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.

Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7):  As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva.  The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.

Introducing the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva

By David Kane

An easy way to write about anything is to opine about what is wrong with it, and tennis is no exception. “Women Grunt Too Loudly.” “Men Aren’t Paid Enough.” “Slamless Player Ascends To No. 1.” Nearly every week, tennis writers straddle a fine line between loving their sport enough to criticize it and tearing down the very thing that they are meant to promote.

I wonder what they will say about new WTA standout and world No. 106 Yulia Putintseva.

Last week, the nationally-Russian, fiscally-Kazakh Putintseva barreled into the finals of an ITF event in Dubai, guaranteeing a spot in her first senior Slam main draw. Along the way, she upset Bojana Jovanovski and junior contemporaries Elina Svitolina and Kristyna Pliskova before losing to the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm in three tight sets. Putintseva described the experience like this: “It felt like I have just been beaten by my grandmother.” Comments like that are only a taste of the Yulia Putintseva Show.

If most critical Op-Eds on tennis are to be believed, then Yulia Puntintseva represents everything that is wrong with the game today. She fist pumps opponent’s double faults. She screams “Come on!” in up to five different languages (sometimes all at once). She argues even the most obvious of calls. For a young woman only 5’1”, Putintseva has one of the most offensive games this sport has ever seen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYK1X-mvi-E

For many, this year’s Australian Open Girls’ final was Yulia’s introduction to the tennis world. The match was streamed live on ESPN3, and viewers were shocked by the Kazah’s on-court ferocity. For me, however, the Yulia Putintseva Show was nothing new. In some ways, I feel like I personally discovered her, as I was in attendance for her first junior Slam final at the 2010 US Open. I was there to watch her compatriot (at the time) Daria Gavrilova, but Yulia undoubtedly stole the show. She is reported to have thrown her destroyed runner-up trophy in the garbage.

It has been said that players who engage in Putintseva’s on-court aggression are insecure and afraid of losing. As often as her bite matches her bark, and as legendary as some of her three-set victories have been, there have been other days where the moment overtook her and she was not able to “DAVAI-COME ON-ALLEZ!” her way out of it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WK7g-ibb234

No better (or more painful) example of such a moment comes to mind than her loss from 6-1, 5-1 up at this year’s US Open qualifying. As the match slipped away, she seemed to be trying to employ various breathing techniques in the futile attempt to quell her rage, but to no avail. Moments like these force the reader to question whether she is really the pure evil many would paint her, or perhaps just a young woman coping with a stressful sport as best she can.

For all the visceral reactions she at least appears to provoke on purpose, there are many (including myself) who would consider themselves fans of Putintseva’s brand of brashness. What makes this contradiction stranger is that she does indeed display the kind of behavior I am known to abhor in other players like Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic.

Yet, there is something comically Napoleonic about someone being so tiny yet so terrifying. She gives death glares to any linesperson foolhardy enough not to call the lines as she sees them. She celebrates even the smallest victories like a football fan in a sold-out arena. That level of excitement, I believe, can draw out even the most cynical of critics. Vera gets weepy, Victoria gets sarcastic, and Ana certainly fist pumps too much. But beyond all of that, Yulia gets positively enraged. And that makes her thoroughly entertaining.

So to tennis writers who would be quick to claim they found the witch among us in Yulia Putintseva: consider the possibility that she transcends “offensive,” and is instead “delightfully offensive.” She may, willfully or otherwise, be the tennis equivalent of a cartoon villain, but no one can deny that she loves this sport. Also, winning. Yulia really enjoys winning.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKqCwvb2gfQ

Donna Vekic: All grown up and searching for her tennis destiny

By David Kane

Sometimes on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tennis Tour, fans find that their favorite rising stars really grow up fast. One minute, they’re teenagers struggling to qualify for major tournaments; the next, they’re making tour finals in countries like Uzbekistan and you’re left wondering where the time went.

Such is the case for the young 16-year-old Croatian, Donna Vekic. If you have never heard of her, fear not. Although she has competed on the junior circuit, the descriptors “prodigy” or “junior champion” are withheld because, to be fair, her junior results have been quite middling in a division where success and failure is simply foreshadowing.

Before this summer, I had only known of Vekic in passing as the player against whom controversial fireball Yulia Putintseva had audibly and turbulently fought back at during the 2011 Junior Wimbledon.

Despite Vekic’s relative anonymity, when I posited to my twitter followers which players I should be on the lookout for during the US Open qualies, many were quick to point me towards the promising talent.

When I got to Court 6, I could see why; the tall blonde in the flowing Nike dress cut an impressive figure for a 16-year-old. While most of the top junior girls look like girls, Vekic already looked the part of a woman looking to break through on the woman’s tour. More importantly, she played like a woman; with a big serve and equally ferocious groundstrokes, this ready-for-primetime player looked decidedly out of place on such a small outer court.

Unseeded in qualifying, the Croat had a good week in Flushing before her age and inexperience reared at a most unfortunate time; two games from the US Open main draw, Vekic wilted in the New York heat and veteran Edina Gallovits-Hall took care of the rest, winning the last 10 games and making the youngster look out of place all over again.

What could have been a disappointing end became that crucially aforementioned foreshadowing when she arrived in Tashkent a week later, again as a qualifier. In seven matches, she only dropped one set, and claimed decisive victories against No. 4 seed Magdelena Rybarikova and No. 6 seed Bojana Jovanovski en route to her first WTA tour final. Despite losing to Caroline Wozniacki’s US Open conqueror Irina Camelia Begu at week’s end, Donna Vekic had arrived, in fairly emphatic style given the dearth of prior results pointing to said arrival. It just over one year, Vekic has risen over 700 ranking spots and hit a career-high No. 121 this past Monday.

Given how past players have made the junior to WTA transition over the last few years, Vekic’s run has many scratching their heads. Junior results aren’t a fluke; a look at the last 10 US Open girls’ singles champions reads like a “Who’s Who” of the WTA (both today and tomorrow). Her talent cannot be denied, and the main (albeit bizarre) question that seems to be at hand is how Vekic’s WTA-friendly game failed to translate in the junior ranks.

One need only look to the Williams sisters for the answer; the two had abstained entirely from junior tournaments and their father had been heavily criticized at the time for doing so. Venus turned pro the year Meilin Tu won the girls’ US Open, and Tara Snyder the next when Serena entered the pro ranks. With that perspective, suddenly an aberration looks like destiny.

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