Saturday, March 31, 2012

Talk about "luck of the draw"

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
The main draw was held today on the Grand Lawn at the Family Circle Cup, and it turned out to be an unusually interesting occasion. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has replaced Julia Goerges as the 8th seed, was on hand to assist. Everything went well until right toward the end, when it was discovered that some player chips hadn't made it into the giant tennis ball from which names are drawn. At that point, the draw--with the exception of the placement of seeds--had to be done over.

In the first attempt, Venus and Serena Williams were scheduled to collide early, if they had both won their early matches, but that changed when the "real" draw was made. But here is the thing that is interesting: Both times, Jamie Hampton and Sloane Stephens were drawn to play each other. None of us was sure what type of mathematical odds would make that happen, but happen it did.

This is the 40th anniversary of the tour, and now--on the walkways--there are images of tennis balls with champions' names written on them. There are also some really nice (the one of Serena Williams looks real from a distance) cardboard cut-outs of  various Family Circle Cup champions scattered here and there. Beginning Tuesday, each Happy Hour will honor a decade, starting with the 70s, and a 40 Love cocktail (sweet tea is one of the ingredients) will be offered at the bars. There's also a new bar on the terrace level.

We spotted Sania Mirza practicing, and we also saw Irina Falconi watching some of the action in the stadium. The stadium court, according to one player, is kind of gritty, and is playing slower than the outer courts. Rain was an issue this evening, but the forecast from here on is for sunny weather.

Family Circle Cup qualifying begins

Today was the first day of qualifying at the Family Circle Cup, and with the qualifying draw expanded, matches were played in the stadium, which is usually reserved for practice. Top qualifying seed Iveta Benesova advanced, though she had to go three rounds against Andreja Klepac to do it. 2nd seed Alexandra Cadantu wasn't so lucky--she fell to Marta Domachowska in three sets, and one no games in the third.

Camila Giorgi won her first qualifying round
Camila Giorgi beat Grace Min 6-4, 6-4 in a high-quality match, but the big match of the day was one that was interrupted by rain and carried on into the night. Melanie Oudin defeated Heather Watson 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in a 2 1/2-hour contest in which Oudin held steady and relied on her backhand to overcome an inconsistent opponent. In the first set, Watson went for the winner too soon; after that, she waited patiently, but repeatedly hit the ball too long. When she moved Oudin forward, she was successful, but most of the match was played at the baseline, where Oudin nicely handled the long ralllies.

Both Pliskova sisters won today, as did Yaroslava Shvedova and Andrea Hlavackova.

Radwanska rules in Miami

Some of us used to say that if only Agnnieszka Radwanska had a good serve, she could make a bigger dent in the tour. In response, she developed a rather good first serve. Her second serve is still weak, but what with her improved first serve, her impressive court speed, and her ability to out-think many opponents, Radwanska continues to be on the rise. Today, she demonstrated her strengths by beating Maria Sharapova in straight sets in the Miami final.

Radwanska, who was seeded 5th in Miami, hit only six winners (a very small number, even for a defensive-minded player like Radwanska), but--more to the point--she made only ten unforced errors. Her opponent, on the other hand, couldn't find the court when she needed to, and frequently fell prey to Radwanska's steady, sometimes stealth, defense. The Russian star now has problems playing in finals, and her opponents know it. This was her fourth time to finish as a runner-up at the Sony Ericsson Open.

Radwanska's 7-5, 6-4 win gives her the biggest victory of her career. She is now on her way to Charleston, where she is the top seed.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Radwanska and Sharapova to meet in Miami final

There were constant breaks of serve. A limp-inducing injury foretold a possible retirement. The power went out and there were no lights. Any moment, I expected a storm to strike the stadium and for Jelena Jankovic to appear.

The drama revolved around the second semifinal match at the Sony Ericsson Open. Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli faced each other for a spot in the final but neither of them could hold serve. Finally, in the seventh game, Radwanska did hold, only to be broken when she served for the first set at 5-3. Unfortunately, Bartoli's lingering thigh injury returned, and it looked for a moment like the Frenchwoman would have to retire, but for the last year, she's been playing through injuries, and she did just that tonight.

Radwanska won, 6-4, 6-2, with Bartoli never holding serve. And though Bartoli appeared to be in considerably less pain as the second set wore on, she lost her edge. The first set, however, was quite entertaining, with Bartoli frequently "pulling a Radwanska" in order to get a point. We are so used to Marion Bartoli's relentless groundstrokes, we sometimes forget that she, too, can hit some keen angles and volleys.

The power outage didn't last too long, so the players left the court at a reasonable hour.

In the first semifinal of the day, Maria Sharapova came on very strong in the first set, going up 4-1, 40-30. But then she became a little shaky, which set off a run of five straight games from Caroline Wozniacki, who took the first set 6-4. The second set began like the first, with Sharapova going up 4-0, but this time, she kept the pressure on, winning the set 6-2.

Sharapova went up 5-2 in the third, and though Wozniacki fought back one of the breaks, Sharapova served the set out at 6-4. The match lasted over two and a half hours, and featured a bit of drama over a service call (Wozniacki left the court without shaking the chair umpire's hand).

Sharapova is a three-time runner-up in Miami. Previously, she was defeated by Kim Clijsters, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Victoria Azarenka.

Charleston qualifying starts Saturday

Charleston qualifying takes place this weekend, and with an expanded qualifying draw, it should be a very busy two days. There are many players to watch in this qualifying draw, including Iveta Benesova, Heather Watson, Caroline Garcia, and Grace Min.

Main draw play begins on Monday, April 2. It's going to be a bit strange this year because Patty Schnyder won't be there, and she has been such an intergral part of the tournament's culture for so many years. But there will plenty of great players to watch, and some really special guests who will be there to celebrate Charleston's 40th anniversary. Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Virginia Wade, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and Martina Hingis will all be on hand.

As always, Women Who Serve will cover the Charleston tournament from qualifying straight through the finals, so please visit this blog for daily reporting and updates. Six former champions are scheduled to play, and there will be an almost too-good-to-be-true exhibition night. If you have questions, feel free to post them here or email me. The Family Circle Cup is a major part of women's pro tennis history, and the atmosphere on Daniel Island is very exciting and very relaxing at the same time. The Family Circle Cup is the only green clay tournament played, the people in the stands know their tennis very, very well, and a lot of respect is given to doubles.

You can still buy tickets to the tournament, too. I've attended it for many years, and I recommend it as a first-rate sporting event in a lovely setting.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bartoli breaks Azarenka streak

When she's "on," Marion Bartoli is a veritable hitting machine. She was on tonight in Miami--so much so that she ended world number 1 Victoria Azarenka's win streak, which had stretched to 26 matches. This was a very enjoyable match, especially the first set. Azarenka looked tired and frustrated as the match went on, and even though she was usually spinning her serve in, she committed a lot of service faults.

Bartoli took the first set 6-3, then her level dropped a bit, and she went down a break in the second. But she put things right, broke Azarenka again, and won that set 6-3, also. Bartoli, known for her aggression, stands at or inside the baseline and takes the ball very early. The Frenchwoman described tonight's match as "almost table tennis."

Azarenka can now get a much-deserved rest and prepare for the European clay season.

In today's other quarterfinal, Agnieszka Radwanska took out an obviously weary Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-1. And while it was obvious that Williams wasn't herself, credit should go to Radwanska for playing at a high level.

We won't know for a while whether Williams' fatigue was caused by her illness, a lack of match play, or both. At any rate, it was great to see her back on the court, and to see her make a run to the quarterfinals.

In doubles, Vania King and Monica Niculescu advanced with a win over Anabel Medina Garrigues and Flavia Pennetta. In the other quarterfinal, Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova continued their winning ways by defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova.

One thing is certain: There will be a first-time winner in Miami. Tomorrow, Caroline Wozniacki plays Maria Sharapova, and Bartoli takes on Radwanska.

Passing shots

Rosie Casals, the Family Circle Cup's first champion, will be on hand for events in Charleston next week. Casals, known for both singles and doubles expertise (and a mighty on-court fashion sense), will be part of the Cup's 40th anniversary celebration.

On May 30th, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear the case of Yanina Wickmayer. The Belgian player is appealing a one-year ban placed on her in 2009 because she did not make available her whereabouts for drug testing. In the meantime, she has been permitted, through a Belgian court injunction, to continue playing on the tour. This matter has been hanging over Wickmayer's head for so long, it's hard to imagine how she has managed to cope with it.

If you've been watching the Sony Ericsson Open, you'll surely want to get to know Garbine Muguruza Blanco. The Spanish wild card had a very impressive run in Miami, and her victims included Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta.

Martina Navratilova's time on Dancing With the Stars has ended. A combination of judges' scores and audience voting knocked her out of the competition. The excessive, transparent "praise" she received for looking so "feminine" and "beautiful" was, in a word, sickening.

Dominika Cibulkova acknowledged to the press that she backed off from her aggressive play and then hoped Victoria Azarenka "would beat herself" in their three-set match in Miami. Cibulkova led 6-1, 5-2, but could not close the match. Beaten in several three-setters this season, Cibulkova said "It's just frustrating right now and pretty sad."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wozniacki defeats Williams in Miami

Tonight in Miami, for the first time in her career, Caroline Wozniacki defeated five-time Miami champion Serena Williams. Wozniacki, who won 6-4, 6-4, gets credit for serving extremely well and, of course, defending like the defense expert she is. Williams, on the other hand, could not stop making forehand errors. There were moments--especially toward the end--when a comeback seemed possible; Williams broke Wozniacki the first time she served for the match. But the player who served 20 aces in the fourth round was not the player on the other side of the net from Wozniacki this evening.

Wozniacki moved Williams around the court constantly, making her chase down ball after ball. Almost inevitably, Williams' forehand would then let her down. "Everyone I play always plays the match of the year," Williams said afterward. She also expressed regret over the number of errors she made, and said that there was "no excuse for that."

In the other quarterfinal match played today, Maria Sharapova was able to easily overcome Li Na with a 6-3, 6-0 victory. Li made 41 unforced errors.

In the second round of doubles, Australian Open champions Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova went out to countrywomen Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won their quarterfinal match against Ekaterina Makarova and Zheng Jie.

 In second round play yesterday, by the way, doubles partners Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova faced each other, with King and partner Monica Nisulescu winning. Shvedova's partner was Galina Voskoboeva. Obviously, the losing team was another Olympic Games preparation pairing, and I, for one, will be glad when doubles can get back to normal.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Venus Williams makes it to the Miami final 8

Venus Williams' return to the tour after a prolonged illness break has taken a dramatic turn this week, as she has fought her way to the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals. After a straight-set victory over Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round, Williams knocked out 3rd seed Petra Kvitova, handing Kvitova a 6-0 final set. In the next round, the former Miami champion was in visible pain as she struggled with a calf injury, but she got past Aleksandra Wozniak. Williams was down 2-4 in the third set, and she had to save a match point, but she prevailed, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 against the Canadian wild card.

Tonight, Williams' pain appeared to be a thing of the past as she hit 13 aces in her fourth round match against 15th seed Ana Ivanovic. This one went to three sets, too, and Williams advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-7, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Her next opponent will be Agnieszka Radwanska, and Williams will undoubtedly enjoy a wave of crowd support in Miami.

Azarenka advances to Miami quarterfinals

She hasn't had a good season so far, but when she's in form--like she was today--Dominika Cibulkova is one of the best baseline players on the tour. Like the hummingbird that isn't supposed to be able to fly but does so quite well, the comparatively short Cibulkova "isn't supposed to" be able to hit that hard or to move that well. In today's Sony Ericsson Open, Cibulkova served for the match twice against top seed Victoria Azarenka, but she couldn't quite get there.

This match had so much quality and tension, I wish it had been a final. Cibulkova made 53 unforced errors, but she also hit 46 winners. After taking the first set 6-1, she went up 4-0 in the second. But she started getting a bit too fancy with her shot-making, and Azarenka was able to work her way back in a bit. At 5-2, it still looked like an upset was brewing, but on her fifth set point, Azarenka forced a third set. The drama didn't let up at all in the third set, but finally, Azarenka served her way to a 1-6, 7-6, 7-5 victory. 

Serena Williams met Sam Stosur again, and this time, it was the former Miami champion who advanced, defeating the U.S. Open champion 7-5. 6-3. Maria Sharapova beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 7-6, and Li Na (remember Li Na?) beat Sabine Lisicki.

Garbine Muguruza Blanco--who made a name for herself in Miami by taking out Ayumi Morita, Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta--lost in straight sets to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Azarenka's next opponent is Marion Bartoli, who made easy work of Maria Kirilenko today. Bartoli had first and second service win percentages of 76 and 67. When the Frenchwoman serves this well, she's hard to beat.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Clijsters out of Sony Ericsson Open

On Friday, it was 3rd seed Petra Kvitova who left the Sony Ericsson Open in the second round, beaten 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 by wild card Venus Williams. Yesterday, it was Kim Clijsters who was defeated 6-4, 7-6 by countrywoman Yanina Wickmayer, though it took Wickmayer seven match points to get the job done.

Angelique Kerber is out, defeated by Zheng Jie, and Garbine Muguruza Blanco upset Vera Zvonareva on Friday. Ekaterina Makarova defeated Mona Barthel.

6th seed Sam Stosur was taken to the edge last night by Chanelle Scheepers. Scheepers served for the match twice in the second set, and was broken both times. Stosur ended up winning 2-6, 7-5, 6-2, after double-faulting ten times.

Today, top seed Victoria Azarenka plays Heather Watson, and Marion Bartoli plays Simona Halep. Assuming she wins, Azarenka will then get the winner of the match to be played between Zheng Jie and Dominika Cibulkova--a match that should be worth watching.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Quote of the day

"It's one thing to have ups and downs, but she isn't having any ups. "
Lindsay Davenport, on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Upsets abound in first round of Miami doubles

Though it didn't create a media moment, there was a major upset in Miami yesterday: The team of Julia Goerges and Samantha Stosur defeated top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond 6-1, 6-4 in the first round. Huber and Raymond have been on a major tear, winning 16 straight matches, and they had to lose some time, but they probably didn't expect to go out in the opening round of the Sony Ericsson Open.

The doubles draw, in fact, is already full of upsets. 4th seeds and 2011 French Open champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka went out in the first round, as did their countrywomen, Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. 2nd seeds Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik were upset, too, but that upset was not altogether unexpected, since they had not played in a while.

But there's more: 3rd seeds Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina were also upset in the first round, by wild cards Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova. The scoreline is worth mentioning, too: 1-6, 6-1, 11-9.

Defending champions Daniela Hantuchova and Agnieszka Radwanska will play Vera Dushevina and Shahar Peer in the second round, and Goerges and Stosur will play Anabel Medina Garrigues and Flavia Pennetta.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova both out in Miami 2nd round

Though it isn't surprising, it's a sign of the times that both 13th seed Jelena Jankovic and 19th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova were defeated today in Miami in the second round of play. Mona Barthel handily defeated former world number 1 Jankovic 6-0, 6-3, and Pavlyuchenkova fell 6-1, 6-2 to countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova. Jankovic's best days really do seem to be behind her, and Pavlyuchenkova's best days--well, I'm not sure we ever saw them.

Also going away was 2006 Miami champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who lost to the often-dangerous Iveta Benesova. Benesova defeated Kuznetsova 1-6, 7-6, 7-6, and she won both tiebreaks 9-7.

Qualifier Sloane Stephens took out Sara Errani, 2nd seed Maria Sharapova had to work to get rid of Shahar Peer, Petra Cetkovska beat Christina McHale, and Kim Clijsters defeated Julia Goerges. Serena Williams and Li Na also won their matches.

There was a notable upset in doubles: Eva Birnerova and Klaudia Jans-Ignacik defeated 4th seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 6-4, 7-5.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Passing shots

Thanks to The Slice for this wonderful look at Ana Soler's Causa-Effecto installation at the Mustang Art Gallery in Alicante, Spain. Soler used 2,000 tennis balls to create the art. Be sure to check out the video of the artist hanging the tennis balls.

Beyond the Baseline reports that Venus Williams is relaunching her EleVen line of tennis clothing.

Of her first round Miami win, Alisa Kleybanova said: "For everyone else it's just the first round, but for me it's very emotional. I'll always remember it--it will always be the first match of my comeback."

Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Galina Voskoboeva helped put on a tennis clinic for children in Miami today.

Kim Clijsters says that her plan is to play for the entire 2012 season.

Charleston ready for 1,000,000th fan

Some time soon, the 1,000,000th Family Circle Cup fan will enter the gates of the Family Circle Cup. Right now,  there are only 12,326 fans to go until the lucky 1,000,000th appears. That individual will receive four box seats for April 2, plus two Bauer International Box Holder Appreciation Reception invitations for April 2. The reception will be held at the Daniel Island Club main ballroom, and top players will be attending.

The recipient of the prize will also get terrace level tickets for the remainder of the tournament, as well as valet parking. She or he will perform the coin toss for the fourth match on April 2, receive $250 to spend at any food vendor or concession stand, and $250 to spend in the Family Circle Cup Merchandise Tent. The winner will also get various items autographed by the top eight seeds, a month of tennis lessons from Instinctive Academy pros, and  a behind-the-scenes tour, including lunch in the Family Circle Cup Player Lounge.

The 2012 Family Circle Cup, which includes a 40th anniversary celebration attended by the Original 9, takes place March 31-April 8. Tickets are available here. The top seed is world number 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, and five former Charleston champions will be playing. Those on hand for an exhibition and other anniversary events will include Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Virginia Wade.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kleybanova wins opening match in Miami

Alisa Kleybanova, who has been off the tour for ten months getting treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, made a triumphant return to the tour today in Miami. She defeated her first round opponent, Johanna Larsson 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. For Kleybanova, a wild card, to be in Miami at all was a victory; for her to win her opening round match had to have been a great moment for both her and the crowd. In the second round, the former top-20 player will get countrywoman Maria Kirilenko.

Also of note today was the victory of another wild card--Heather Watson. Watson was down 0-5 in the third set, and saved two match points against Sorana Cirstea. Watson defeated Cirstea 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. The British player has been dealing with an ankle injury she sustained last fall, but says that she has fully recovered.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Will the streak go on?

World number 1 Victoria Azarenka has now won 23 straight matches in 2012, and this week, she'll be going for an Indian Wells/Miami back-to-back super-victory. Azarenka is the defending champion in Miami, and the way she's wearing her world number 1 confidence, an opportunity to defend a big title is probably a factor that's in her favor.

Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams will be there, too, though--right now--neither of them seems as threatening as she was in the recent past. Also, in Kvitova's case, the expected humid weather in south Florida does not bode well for her asthmatic condition. A return to form in Europe seems more likely for the world number 3, which means that Petra fans must continue to exercise patience, however weary we may be of waiting for the Czech star's resurgence.

Li Na and Sam Stosur run hot and cold, but it would be unwise to discount either of them. If her hip heals, Ana Ivanovic could be a factor, but that injury looked pretty painful when Ivanovic retired in Indian Wells.

Azarenka should have a pretty easy time of it in the early rounds of the Sony Ericsson Open. She has a bye in the first round, and she'll get either Michaella Krajicek or a qualifier in the second. She could run into Angelique Kerber again in the first 16, but if fatigue caused Kerber to deflate in the Indian Wells semifinals, one wonders how tired she'll be in Miami. A more in-form Kerber, however, would be motivated to take her best shot at the world number 1. Dominika Cibulkova, not a stranger to upsets, is lurking in that group, too, but so far, she hasn't had a good season.

Victoria Azarenka has embraced her superior 2012 run with an enthusiasm that has provided a real spark to the tour. She was "so close" for so long, but now that she's broken through, her attitude is the fuel that has powered her past her peers. All other things being more or less equal, confidence is the factor that makes a top player a champion, and Azarenka has a wealth of it.

The season is young, but Azarenka looks like she can hold onto the number 1 spot for a while. From a ranking point standpoint, she's far ahead. Her best competitors await her, however, in Miami and in Europe. For fans, the action can only get more exciting.

Passing shots

Martina Navratilova made her debut on Dancing With the Stars tonight, with Chris Evert in the audience to cheer her on. People on the show kept telling her--I mean, really kept telling her--how beautiful she looked. We got tthe message, ABC. But she didn't look beautiful. When she isn't on an ABC reality show--that's when she looks beautiful. Whoever took Martina, could you please give her back?

Jimmy Connors has withdrawn from 40 Love: A Night of Empowerment Celebrating 40 Years of the Family Circle Cup, a special evening presented by Dove. Connors has a hip injury and will have to have surgery. Replacing him in the event will be John McEnroe.

Speaking of the Family Circle Cup, Elle Brewer won this year's College of Charleston $5,000 scholoarship. You can read all about Elle here.

Venus Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm will meet again--this time in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Their second round match at Wimbledon last year was one of the best of the tournament. And--just to make it more interesting--the winner of the Miami match gets Petra Kvitova in the second round.

Alisa Kleybanova will be in Miami. She says thank you.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Azarenka does it again

She beat Maria Sharapova easily in the Australian Open final, and today, top seed Victoria Azarenka beat 2nd seed Sharapova 6-2, 6-3. Once again, Sharapova never appeared to have a chance, as Azarenka controlled the rallies with ease and precision.

Azarenka is now on a 23-match win streak. Next week, she will be in Miami, where she is the defending champion. In last year's final, the world number 1 defeated Sharapova in straight sets.

What's next for Sharapova? She just didn't look comfortable today, facing the world number 1. She wasn't able to take control, and taking control is Sharapova's style of play.

Huber and Raymond win Indian Wells championship

Top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond defeated defending champions Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina in straight sets last night to take the 2012 BNP Paribas doubles championship. Huber and Raymond are now on a 16-match, four-tournament win streak.

Mirza and Vesnina had plenty of  break chances in last night's match, but were able to convert only once. However, they were broken four times, resulting in a 6-2, 6-3 victory for the top seeds.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Azarenka and Sharapova to play for Indian Wells title

Victoria Azareka increased her match win streak to 22 yesterday by defeating Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-3 in the BNP Paribas Open semifinals. It should have been more of a contest, in my opinion, but Kerber just wasn't there much of the time; I suspect fatigue of some sort. Top seed Azarenka will play 2nd seed Maria Sharapova in the final. Sharapova defeated Ana Ivanovic when Ivanovic retired in last night's match. Sharapova won th first set 6-4, and Ivanovic had just won the opening game of the second set when she stopped playing. Her left hip was injured, and she said she could no longer push off from it. She was obviously in quite a bit of pain.

In doubles, top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond defeated Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-1, 6-2, which is a surprising scoreline. On Thursday, defending champions and 2nd seeds Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina saved five match points and went on to defeat the other Czech team--3rd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka--5-7, 7-5, 10-3. Hlavackova and Hradecka led 5-2 in the second set. Mirza and Vesnina beat the same team in the opening round in Indian Wells last year, and lost to the Czechs in the 2011 French Open final.

We don't see this too often, but in both singles and doubles, the two top seeds will compete in the finals. The doubles final will be played today, and the singles final will take place tomorrow.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Old guard" vs. new in Indian Wells

Though it feels a bit strange to categorize Ana Ivanovic as a "past champion," that's what she is. Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, and since then, has undergone a series of coaching changes, physio changes, confidence dips, injuries, and what has appeared from the outside to be general chaos. But here she is in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open, and one can't help but ask: Has Ivanovic found her way back?

The Serbian player, known for her crack forehand, holds eleven singles titles. When she's in form, she's aggressive and hard to beat. If she stays healthy and her confidence continues to increase, we could see her make yet another climb up the rankings.

Ivanovic's "old guard" opponent in the semifinals will be Maria Sharapova, who has struggled against all kinds of odds to return to the top of the game, and is currently ranked number 2 in the world. Watching them compete for a spot in the final will feel kind of like old times. Sharapova has a 3-2 record against Ivanovic, but they haven't played each other for four years.

In the other semifinal, it's "new guard" all the way, with world number 1 and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka competing against Angelique Kerber. Azarenka is the favorite to win, of course, but suddenly, Kerber doesn't look like a stranger at the business end of a tournament. Often, when a player comes out of "nowhere" to reach a major quarterfinal or semifinal, it makes for a nice moment, but then the player goes back to her usual spot in the scheme of things. But not Kerber. Kerber's U.S. Open run was more of an announcement than a novelty, and she provides more evidence that the German contingent is serious about shaking up the status quo.

Can Azarenka win Indian Wells and Miami? Stay tuned.

Ivanovic and Sharapova advance to Indian Wells semifinals

15th seed Ana Ivanovic beat 7th seed Marion Bartoli in 6-3, 6-4 today at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. I wasn't able to watch it all, but it was obvious that Ivanovic's serve was really working, and it was also obvious that Bartoli wasn't feeling too well. The illness at this tournament has, unfortunately, been a major part of the narrative.

I was around long enough to get an earful of sexism from Ivanovic's coach, Nigel Sears, who suggested she "wear the pants" because "you like to wear the pants." Commentators on Tennis Channel thought it was funny; I don't find anything amusing at all about the assumption that taking charge is a male quality.

In the second of today's quarterfinal matches, Maria Sharapova defeated Maria Kirilenko, but only after they played for over three hours and five minutes, and broke each other twelve times. For quite a while, Sharapova played into Kirilenko's fondess of hitting sharp forehands up the line. Eventually, Kirilenko fell apart. She put herself  back together toward the end of the match, but it was too little, too late; Sharapova won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.

There was some drama in this match. Ever since the 2011 U.S. Open final, chair umpires appear to have discovered the hindrance rule. Kirilenko broke it by cracking her racquet on the court three times to propel herself on--only she did it during a point. It didn't seem (to me) like a conscious hindrance, but it was not an appropriate thing to do. The umpire called it, and then proceeded to just chew Kirilenko out. Kirilenko had to serve after that, and she had a surprisingly good hold.

This was a cranky umpire. She got testy with Sharapova over the Spidercam, then was unpleasant again with Kirilenko over a coaching request. And then there was the fact that Kirilenko virtually disappeared after the second set, which probably didn't do much to endear the chair umpire to her.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Was it "a mighty and raging fury" that took over Victoria Azarenka today in Indian Wells when she played Agnieszka Radwanska, or was it just one of those things? Things have been pretty chilly between the two  players lately, and you have to wonder to what degree this chill motivated Azarenka to pretty much run over Radwanska. The top seed took the first set 6-0. At 5-0 in the second set, Radwanska broke her, and good-humoredly encouraged the crowd in its cheering. She then held at love and looked much more like herself, but it was too late, and Azarenka won the second set 6-2.

Angelique Kerber didn't have to come back from the brink tonight like she did in her last two matches. She defeated Li Na 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open. This was Kerber's first win over Li. Any discussion of top German players now has to include Kerber, who has followed up her U.S. Open semifinal appearance with some excellent tennis and a lot of determination. Unlike Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki, Kerber has stayed healthy, and unlike Lisicki and Julia Goerges, she has stayed calm and consistent.

In doubles, 3rd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka defeated 5th seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, and 2nd seeds Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina defeated wild cards Gisela Dulko and Paola Suarez. The other semifinalist teams are top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond (def. Jarmila Gajdosova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands), and Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (def. Casey Dellacqua and Sam Stosur).

Tomorrow, the other two singles quarterfinals will be played. Marion Bartoli plays Ana Ivanovic, and Maria Kirilenko plays Maria Sharapova.

Defending champion out of Indian Wells

Ana Ivanovic, of all people, defeated defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in the 4th round of the BNP Paribas Open last night. Ivanovic, whose career has been all over the place since she won the French Open in 2008, beat Wozniacki 6-3, 6-2. Wozniacki will now fall out of the top five, and Ivanovic will now play Marion Bartoli in the Indian Wells quarterfinals.

Nadia Petrova's new-found success didn't last, though she fought very hard against countrywoman Maria Kirilenko, breaking her both times that she served for the match in the second set. Kirilenko's 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 victory gives her a quarterfinal match against yet another countrywoman, Maria Sharapova.

If there was a "player of the day" yesterday, though, it had to be Angelique Kerber, who came back from 1-4 in the third round and saved three match points against Christina McHale. Kerber won 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. In the match before that one, she came back from 1-5 down and saved two match points against Sloane Stephens. At this point, I suspect that mental fatigue may be Kerber's worst problem; she'll have a chance to tough it out again against Li Na in the quarterfinals.

The remaining quarterfinal features top seed Victoria Azarenka playing once more against Agnieszka Radwanska. There's a lot we can read into this match. Radwankska is 3-8 against Azarenka, and recently, she has been very critical of Azarenka's on-court behaviors. It's not unreasonable to suggest there may be some tension in the air (though it pales when compared to an upcoming Indian Wells ATP 4th round contest).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Passing shots

Apparently, Serena Williams has not yet confirmed that she will play mixed doubles with Andy Roddick at the Olympic Games. Several players have stated that it may be next to impossible to play in all three events because there is so little time scheduled for the matches.

You can now get to know Sofia Arvidsson.

Note to the sexist headline writer at It's not "Mr. Mom"--we call it "a father."

Andrea Petkovic has begun hitting again.

Petra Kvitova has been hit with the stomach flu bug and she and Azarenka have withdawn from doubles competition in Indian Wells.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Indian Wells can make you sick

One of the biggest opponents at this year's BNP Paribas Open, it turns out, is a stomach virus. Francesca Schiavone, Vera Zvonareva, Vania King, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and several other players--as well as officials and volunteers--have become very ill, resulting in a higher than usual number of retirements and walkovers.

Sam Stosur didn't get stomach flu, but she did get some big-time payback from Nadia Petrova. Stosur and Petrova engaged in the longest women's match ever played at the U.S. Open. Stosur won that one, but today, Petrova beat the seed 6-1, 6-7, 7-6. The match lasted over two hours and 47 minutes, and Petrova hit 15 aces. Three of those she hit consecutively to win the first set. 

Petrova, by the way, has applied for U.S. citizenship. She owns a house in Miami. 

Fans who are relatively new to professional tennis may not realize that Petrova was considered by many to be "the one" when the post-Morozova players first hit the tour. In 2006, she looked like she might be headed for a French Open victory, but she sustained an injury while practicing before the tournament even started. The talented Russian's career has been marked not only by injury, but also by the kind of mental fragility and self-criticism that we have, unfortunately, come to associate with some of the better Russian players. 

Last year, Petrova suffered from dizzy spells, but that problem appears to have been solved. The intelligent and good-humored Russian, who turns 30 later this year, has won ten singles titles and has had an outstanding doubles career, also. She looks healthy right now, and it will be interesting to see what she does this season.

Marion Bartoli, Maria Kirilenko, Maria Sharapova, and Roberta Vinci all advanced; Vinci defeated 16th seed Dominika Cibulkova. 

Party central

Who you gonna dance with in here?
It depends on how much I have to drink.
Nadal will be here. You can dance with him.
Well, that depends on how much he has had to drink, too.
Vania King

McHale upsets Kvitova in Indian Wells

Watching Petra Kvitova shouldn't be the nerve-wracking event that it sometimes is. The world number 3 has plenty of ups and downs no matter where she plays, but when she plays in this country and I see her go for the asthma inhaler, I lower my expectations. Tonight in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, Kvitova played a very good first set against Christina McHale, but then the trouble began. Kvitova lost her way and subsequently lost the second set.

In the third set, Kvitova found herself one point away from being down 1-5. At that moment, she turned on the mysterious switch that enables her to get out of profound trouble. But at 3-4, she double-faulted twice in a row,  and--down a break at a very crucial time--could do nothing to stop McHale from serving out the match. McHale did that in style, too, hitting a lovely drop shot at match point, and posting a 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Kvitova hasn't played much this season. She was injured, then she was sick, and even in Indian Wells (where she has never advanced beyond the third round), she struggled with the effects of asthma. Then there's the fact that the Czech star sometimes just "goes off," and none of us knows why. The season is still quite young, but, so far, Kvitova is just not showing us her great wealth of talent. At her best, she's extremely difficult to beat. But right now, Kvitova's "best" is absent.

McHale, on the other hand, did a great job of absosrbing her opponent's power and even showing some of her own finesse. She also does a really good job of staying calm and weathering the rough times during a match. It's no wonder she pulls as many upsets as she does.

Meanwhile, top seed Victoria Azarenka easily defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Li Na defeated Zheng Jie. And though she got off to an excellent start with a 3-0 lead, Flavia Pennetta lost in straight sets to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Pennetta, by the way, went out in the first round of doubles, losing to her very good friend and doubles partner, Gisela Dulko. Dulko is playing as much as she can this year with former doubles star Paola Suarez, as they prepare for the Olympic Games. Pennetta's partner in Indian Wells was Anabel Medina Garrigues. Dulko and Suarez are wild cards.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Azarenka escapes upset in Indian Wells

Mona Barthel served for the match twice, but both times she was broken by top Indian Wells seed Victoria Azarenka tonight in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open. Until the match was on the line, the German's serving was superb, but the closer she got to victory, the more trouble she had getting her first serve in. The third set went to a tiebreak, and that, too, contained the kind of momentum swings that characterized the match. But in the end, not surprisingly, it was Azarenka who pulled through, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6. It took her three hours to do it, but she won.

Azarenka and Barthel played each other in the Australian Open and also in Doha, and Azarenka won both of those matches, also.

Also getting herself out of a tough spot was Angelique Kerber. Kerber was down a set and 2-5, with wild card Sloane Stephens serving for the match. But Kerber broke, then went on to win the whole thing, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Wild card Jamie Hampton beat 12th seed Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 6-2 today. Jankovic won the tournament in 2010.

Also out are Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daniela Hantuchova and Yanina Wickmayer, defeated by Vania King, Klara Zakopalova and Jarmila Gajdosova, respectively. King also beat Pavlyuchenkova in Tokyo last year.

There have already been several retirements in Indian Wells. Greta Arn hurt her neck, Alexandra Dulgheru injured her knee, Jelena Dokic injured her wrist, and Timea Bacsinszky retired with a forearm injury.

On Saturday, defending champion Caroline Wozniacki plays Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Quote of the week

"I think I will be more sure to play the Olympics inside my home garden putting in the nets on my own grass than play the real one in Wimbledon."
Marion Bartoli
(thanks to Beyond the Baseline)

Passing shots

Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova participated in the March 5 BNP Paribas Showdown in Madison Square Garden. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were also part of the exhibition event.

A doubles team to watch in Indian Wells is the wild card team of Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova. In the first round, they face the experienced team of Natalie Grandin and Vladimira Uhlirova.

You can now get to know Hsieh Su-Wei, Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino and Mona Barthel.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands will host a two-day "Workout With Bethanie Mattek-Sands" event at the Family Circle Cup, which runs from March 31 through April 7. You can place your bid here to be the individual who spends time on the court while Mattek-Sands prepares for competition, followed by a private lunch. The winner will also get an autographed racquet, and will do the coin flip for Mattek-Sands' first match. All proceeds go to Charleston's MUSC Children's Hospital.

Irina Falconi is blogging from Indian Wells.

Wild card Sloane Stephens and qualifier Aleksandra Wozniak played for almost three hours and thirteen minutes in the first round of Indian Wells last night. Both held match points, but Stephens ended up the winner, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The vanishing act of Aravane Rezai

Yesterday, Aravane Rezai lost to Kristina Barrois in the first round of Indian Wells qualifying. The Frenchwoman's attempts to return to her former status have repeatedly failed, and I, for one, think that women's tennis is all the worse for it. There are fans who "don't like" Rezai, but I'm not one of them. If I used words like "spunky" and "feisty," I'd use them to describe the small (as tennis players go) woman in the sometimes bizarre metallic tennis outfits who can hit harder than almost anyone on the tour.

It was only 2010, but it seems like so long ago that Rezai won the Madrid title, beating Venus Williams in the final. Prior to winning the championship, Rezai took out Justine Henin, Klara Zakopalova, Andrea Petkovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Lucie Safarova (who retired in the semifinals). At that time, the Frenchwoman looked like a force to be reckoned with--a player who could will herself past her shorter stature, smaller frame, and sometimes-inconsistent shot-making.

But even then, it was well known that Rezai's father--accused of being an abusive taskmaker when his daughter was a child--was a troublemaker on the tour. He had a reputation for being not only inappropriate, but also a bully. In 2006, he physically attacked Elena Vesnina's father, and eventually, the French Tennis Federation (a body that is undoubtedly accustomed to dealing with very strong personalities) hired bodyguards to protect people from Arsalan Rezai.

Eventually, there was a public fight between Rezai's father and her significant other, and things got very ugly. Rezai, who asked fans to just get past the incident because she planned to, hasn't been the same since. Two years ago, she was ranked number 15 in the world; today, she is ranked number 125.

Rezai lost in the first round of the Australian Open to Peng Shuai--a tough opponent for anyone. Recently, she lost in the first round of qualifying in Acapulco. Next week, Rezai will observe her 25th birthday. There is still time for a comeback. In the meantime, Rezai's disappearance is the WTA's loss.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Errani wins it all in Acapulco

Yesterday, Sara Errani won both titles at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL in Acapulco. She defeated countrywoman Flavia Pennetta 5-7, 7-6, 6-0 in the singles final, and she and partner Roberta Vinci defeated Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Arantxa Parra Santonja 6-1, 6-2 in the doubles final. Errani was seeded third in singles and she and Vinci were seeded first in doubles.

This was Pennetta's seventh trip to the Acapulco final. She has reached the final every time she has entered the tournament except for her first time, in 2003, and she won the title on two of those occasions. Yesterday, physical fatigue got the better of her, however. Pennetta's run of seven consecutive finals at one event matches the run that Martina Hingis had in Tokyo.

This is Errani's third title, and her first one since 2008 (she won both titles in Palermo, too). The Italian player enjoyed unusual prominence at the 2012 Australian Open, when she reached the quarterfinals, defeating Sorana Cirstea and Zheng Jie along the way.

Meanwhile, in rain-soaked Kuala Lumpur, qualifier Hsieh Su-Wei won the title when Petra Martic retired from heat illness in the third set (2-6, 7-5, 4-1). The second semifinal, featuring Martic and Jelena Jankovic, had to be played on the same day as the final. Martic and Jankovic went at it for three hours and eight minutes, with Martic saving a match point and scoring a 6-7, 7-5, 7-6 victory.

With her victory at the Malaysian Open, Hsieh became only the second player from Chinese Taipei to win a WTA singles title. Two of her countrywomen, Chang Kai-Chen and Chuang Chia-Jung, won the doubles title. Chang and Chuang defeated top seeds Casey Dellacqua and Jarmila Gajdosova 6-4, 6-0.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Looking forward--Fed Cup semifinals

For the first time in its history, the Russian Fed Cup team has elected to play on a clay court. The team has chosen the Sports Palace Megasport in Moscow as the site of the upcoming semifinal contest between Russia and Serbia. This is the sixth consecutive year that Russia has appeared in the Fed Cup semifinals. The last time Russia won Fed Cup was in 2008.

The Czech Republic has selected the CEZ Arena in Ostrava as the site of the Czech team's semifinal against Italy. The last time the two teams met in a semifinal, in 2010, Italy won 5-0. The CEZ Arena features an indoor court, which is, of course, ideal for Petra Kvitova. The Czech Republic's top player is currently on a 27-match indoor streak.

The semifinals will be held April 21-22. The Czech Republic is the defending Fed Cup champion.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Radwanska withdraws from Malaysian Open

Top seed Agnieszka Radwanska withdrew from the Malaysian Open today because of a right elbow injury. Her withdrawal gave Shieh Su-Wei a walkover into the semifinals. Also, 3rd seed Peng Shuai lost to 5th seed Petra Martic.

In Acapulco, top seed Roberta Vinci lost to Sara Errani in the semifinals. In the second semifinal, 2nd seed Flavia Pennetta defeated 4th seed Irina-Camelia Begu 6-2, 6-2.

Paola Suarez--making her comeback in advance of the Olympic Games--and partner Gisela Dulko lost in the semifinals to 2nd seeds Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Arantxa Parra Santonja.

Friday cat blogging--view from the top edition

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Quote of the week

"Unfortunately, I don't have vodka-flavored gummi bears--yet."
Maria Sharapova, on her upcoming Sugarpova line of gummi candies

Radwanska to play in Charleston

World number 5 Agnieszka Radwanska will return to Charleston in April to play in the Family Circle Cup. Radwanska will join previously announced players Sam Stosur, Vera Zvonareva, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. Also competing this year are 2009 champion Sabine Lisicki, 2007 champion Jelena Jankovic, world number 7 Marion Bartoli, Julia Goerges, Lucie Safarova, Yanina Wickmayer, and Zheng Jie. Here is the complete 2012 draw.

Exhibition play participants include Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Rennae Stubbs, and Tracy Austin. Jimmy Connors will also be on hand to play in the exhibition. The Family Circle Cup's 40th anniversary will include a tribute to the Original 9.

The qualifying draw has been expanded this year from a field of 32 players to a field of 48.

Six former champions will play in this year's tournament:
Venus Williams--2004
Nadia Petrova--2006
Jelena Jankovic--2007
Serena Williams--2008
Sabine Lisicki--2009
Sam Stosur--2010

Zvonareva was twice a finalist, in 2008 and 2010.

Caroline Wozniacki won the 2011 Family Circle Cup. The doubles title went to Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina (Vesnina was also the singles runner-up).

Radwanska won the tournament in Dubai last week and is now enjoying her highest ranking ever. Last year, she won the title in Carlsbad, then went on to win back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing. She was  named the 2011 WTA Fan Favorite Singles Player.

The Family Circle Cup is the largest women's-only tennis tournament in the world.