Tenaciously Tennis


Indian Wells 2012: A Fearsome Flu and Fresh Faces

It’s been a weird few days at Indian Wells with a ferocious flu taking down scores of players, trainers, and even journalists, while new American talent has been breaking through to the final few days of action in the California heat. The stomach viruses’ victim count so far is estimated at approximately 30, including stars Vera Zvonareva and Gael Monfils.

The flu’s latest casualty? American wild card Jamie Hampton, 22, who couldn’t deal with the cramps and fatigue. She retired during the third set versus World No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska. It’s too bad; Hampton seemed to find her game despite trailing 3-0 in the final set. She enjoyed the momentum by taking the second set 6-4. Ultimately, illness proved too much. Hampton should leave feeling proud. Ranked No. 99, she’s making a serious breakthrough into the big leagues and the third-round is a quality advance. Hampton took out former World No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in round one and Jarmila Gajdosova in the second.

Said Hampton: “At the end of the second [against Radwanska] it hit me and I knew it was coming. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.” And this type of thing has happened in the past for the up-and-comer; she’s suffered from cramps five times already in her young career, forcing her to quit the match. Yet she says she “hydrates and eats the right way, according to a Ticker post on Tennis.com. A visit to a specialist  is in her future, which is a good call for a player who can definitely do major damage if she keeps the fuel going for further upward trajectory.

Bowing out in another close match was the No. 32 seed and New Jersey-native Christina McHale. The giant killer — think Cincinnati 2011 and my shameless self-promotion here — added Petra Kvitova to her list, taking out the World No. 3 in round two. The 18th-seeded Angelique Kerber, the surprise 2011 US Open semifinalist, however, proved to be a little too much to handle, edging past the 19-year old 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(4). McHale, although not quite as new a face as Hampton, summons the fresh and hopeful feelings of where American women’s tennis is going in a time of crisis. The Williams sisters aren’t getting any younger, and their typical absence at Indian Wells this week always makes it even more pronounced. Regardless, expect a top 20 ranking for McHale by the year’s end (if not by the time Roland Garros rolls around).

In other WTA news, Ana Ivanovic has pushed past the stomach bug and her own insecurities, downing former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets with her huge forehand. The No. 15-seeded Serb might finally be ready to go on a roll and reclaim her rightful place in the Top 10 after confidence issues sapped her game post-Roland Garros victory 2008.

On the men’s side, American Ryan Harrison, 19,  has advanced to the final 16. He’s had huge success at Indian Wells in the past, advancing to the fourth round last year after securing a solid win over Canadian Milos Raonic (before losing to Roger Federer in straights). This year, it’s been more of the same. He took out Guillermo Garcia-Lopez just like in 2011, while also claiming solid wins over Viktor Troicki and Flavio Cipolla. Up next: the No. 13 seed Gilles Simon, who’s entirely beatable if Harrison can keep calm and not let the Frenchman’s tricky counter-punching style unsettle his power.

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Of Margaritas, Money and Mayhem at the WTA Championships

Put down the margarita next time, Maria. It seemed like your time to shine and reclaim the World No. 1 ranking at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, which began on October 25. That, however, was not to be with Petra Kvitova claiming the title over Victoria Azarenka. After dropping her first two matches in round robin play, the Russian withdrew from the event citing a left ankle injury she sustained in Japan weeks before.

As current World No. 2 Maria Sharapova, this year’s Wimbledon finalist, recently told reporters before the retirement: “I think I’m just fortunate enough to say that I’m here and I’m going to be competing. That, to me, is a big accomplishment by itself. The last couple of years at this time I was sipping a margarita on the beach and now I have another tournament.”

She continued: “It’s tough to talk about [No. 1] coming off the [ankle] injury in Tokyo and not even knowing if I’d be able to compete for the rest of the year.

At Istanbul, Sharapova had the chance to snatch the title from current top player Caroline Wozniacki. But by pulling out, the Dane, who’s been dating US Open golf champion Rory McIlroy, enjoys the achievement for the second year in a row.

And while the Russian chatted about drinking booze on beaches, Wozniacki offered more sober remarks about the top spot: “Of course when you’ve been No. 1 the whole year, you’d like to finish the last week as number one as well. That would mean a lot to me since not a lot of people have finished the year two times in a row as No. 1.” Congratulations, Wozniacki, for doing just that.

But this year’s WTA Championships, which saw the absence of this year’s Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters and 16-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, wasn’t only about Wozniacki and, previously, Sharapova. The competition was fierce and the predictions wonky as a cast of talented, but by no means dominating, women took to the courts.

Along with Wozniacki, reigning Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, who’s claimed three titles this year, 2011 French Open champion Li Na, two-time Grand Slam runner-up Vera Zvonareva, US Open titlist Samantha Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska, who’s won three tournaments since August and Marion Bartoli, after Sharapova’s exit, all vied for a chance at the year’s final trophy.

Azarenka looked to have the most solid chance of taking the title out of the above cast of women with a win in Luxembourg without dropping a set.

Plus, she made some noise off-court, too. She told reporters before the event kicked off: “[Money is] a good motivation and I’d be lying if I said that we just play for the love of the game and the points. You know when you’re down you think that it could be a bit more money and it might pump you up a bit.”

Well, it’s no margarita, but that kind of cash could be enough reason for the Belarusian to notch the biggest win of her young (and loud) career one day. This just wasn’t quite her year.

Congratulations to Kvitova on a huge win after a wonderful Wimbledon. Let’s see how the current World No. 2 fares in 2012.

2011 French Open Predictions: WTA Tour

With the first matches of the 2011 French Open underway, here are some last minute predictions on who will hoist the title with a number of key players, including Serena and Venus Williams, out with injury. Maria Sharapova looks confident as ever, breaking back into the top ten. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki’s consistency might just prove enough to win her a title in the weakened field. Last year’s winner Francesca Schiavone also has a chance, although she faces a tough first round against the American sweetheart, Melanie Oudin.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Section: This tough first section features a lot of talented players, many of whom have seen a recent drop in the rankings. As typical of her game, Wozniacki has proven tremendously solid in her last few clay tournaments, winning in Brussels and Charleston. She’ll take that same consistency to Roland Garros, and hopefully make that next leap by getting to her second Grand Slam final. At least, it seems highly likely that she can break past last year’s finalist Sam Stosur this year, for a spot beyond the quarters. Quite notably, Stosur had a strong clay season, making it to the finals against Sharapova in Rome before falling to the Russian in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.

Ones to Watch: Again, this top section is laden with a multitude of talent, including Daniela Hantuchova, Shahar Peer, Aravane Rezai, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Marion Bartoli. I’ll go with Kuznetsova to make a strong showing from these players.

Bottom Line: This is Wozniacki’s tournament to win on the women’s side. She’s proven she has the capability, it’s just a matter of translation to the Grand Slams at this point, especially when the field is relatively wide open. The bottom section of the draw, however, is very heavy, trying to prevent her from hoisting that maiden title.

Vera Zvonareva’s Section: Here’s another heavy section of the draw, featuring last year’s surprise champion, Schiavone. After a strong stretch on clay, however, the no. 3 seed Zvonareva hasn’t been looking as sharp on the clay court circuit thus far. It looks like Schiavone might have the chance to put together some of last year’s confidence to produce the magical, fairytale story that won her a first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros. In the end, however, I’m going against her from winning again.

Ones to Watch: Another heavy part of the draw, this section holds players, including Sabine Lisicki, Nadia Petrova, Alize Cornet, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Flavia Pennetta, Peng Shuai, and Melanie Oudin (who gets Schiavone first). Of these names, Jankovic, who made the semifinals last year before falling to Stosur 6-1, 6-2, stands out most. Look for her to make the upset against Schiavone in the fourth round.

Bottom Line: Zvonareva battles through her section and the tough Pavlyuchenkova. There she’ll meet Jankovic in the quarterfinals (the winner over 2010 champion Schiavone).

Victoria Azarenka’s Section: The number four player in the world looks poised to go deep at this year’s French Open, having dropped her first round match against Gisela Dulko last year. Her biggest competition comes with Australian Open finalist Na Li and Serbia’s resurgent Ana Ivanovic.

Ones to Watch: Ivanovic, the champion in 2008, obviously has the talent to win on the biggest courts. As of late, however, she seems to have returned to a slump in play, falling early in Rome and Madrid. As the no. 20 seed, however, look for her to find some of her form to get a match against Azarenka in the fourth round. Petra Kvitova, the no. 9 seed, also looks ready to roll in this section, potentially defeating Li to do much better than last year’s disappointing first round loss. Additionally, Kvitova’s fresh off a win in Madrid against Azarenka, beating the Belarussian, 7-6(3), 6-4 and also making the final in Prague more recently. Also, props to American Sloane Stephens for battling her way through to the qualifying. A personal favorite, she meets up with Elena Baltacha first.

Bottom Line: Azarenka advances to the quarterfinals over Ivanovic, meeting Kvitova (the winner over Li).

Kim Clijsters’ Section: Since winning the Australian Open, Clijsters hasn’t played much tennis. Meanwhile, Sharapova has just the opposite experience, claiming her biggest career title since succumbing to a shoulder injury in 2008 with a title in Rome over Stosur. Look for Sharapova to defeat Clijsters, who may lose earlier due to her ankle injury, in the quarterfinals.

Ones to Watch: But before we go claiming a Sharapova victory, it’s important to note the wide range in talent that appears in this section of the draw. Players of particular note include: Yanina Wickmayer, Sania Mirza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Andrea Petkovic, Jarmila Gajdosova, Bojana Jovanovski, and Maria Kirilenko. Look for Wickmayer to give Sharapova trouble, while Petkovic has the potential to defeat the injured Clijsters.

Bottom Line: Sharapova keeps stringing the wins together on clay to defeat Clijsters in the quarterfinals.

In the Quarterfinals: Given the above predictions, we’ll see Wozniacki take on Stosur; Zvonareva against Jankovic; Kvitova versus Azarenka; and Sharapova versus Clijsters.

In the Semifinals: Look for Wozniacki to defeat Stosur; Jankovic to beat Zvonareva; Azarenka to win against Kvitova; and Sharapova to defeat Clijsters.

Hisense’s Dead Spot and Wozniacki’s Wacky Personality

It’s been an intense  few days at the Australian Open with chaos and comedy abound. Agnieszka Radwanska’s racket snaps (see below), Kim Clijsters jokes about pregnancy with Tom Woodbridge, last year’s finalist Justine Henin bows out to Svetlana Kuznetsova in a straight sets upset, and much more.

To begin, a dead spot was found on Hisense Arena as Maria Sharapova and Julia Goerges got ready to start play. With tournament staff in a frenzy, the players retreated back to the locker room, awaiting a fix to the curious on-court dilemma. It all came across pretty comical as none of the ESPN commentators could quite figure out what to make of the ball, which — when dropped — died completely. In the end, however, workers drilled small holes, trapped air was released from the court, balls bounced once more, and play resumed.

See below for a clip of the ball being dropped, and not bouncing at all.

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Australian Open 2011 Predictions: WTA Tour

Note: Please see my most recent predictions for the WTA tour’s 2011 Australian Open here.

Serena Williams is out of her second consecutive major, and that means only one thing: the draw opens up substantially. Who can rise to the occasion with the favorite out of the mix? Will it be Kim Clijsters, who comes fresh off wins at the US Open and the year-ending championships, and has done well so far in 2011? There’s also Caroline Wozniaki trying to prove her number one ranking by her maiden Grand Slam title. Last year’s finalist Justine Henin must be mentioned, while Venus Williams plays after a knee injury kept her off tour. The Australian Open this year is bound for some surprises. Here’s a breakdown of the brackets.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Section:

The top seed should make it to the fourth round with Wozniacki’s toughest competition being Dominika Cibulkova. The 29th-seed recently scored a straight sets win over the Dane in Sydney. In the bottom of that portion of the draw, Yanina Wickmayer could very well defeat Marion Bartoli with confidence inspired by her finals showing in Auckland. Bartoli, however, does enjoy a 2-0 head-to-head record over Wickmayer.

In the bottom half, last year’s finalist Henin looms as the 15th-seed with Svetlana Kuznetsova as a potential third round match. The reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone also looks promising to advance. Henin, however, has won seven of eight matches against the Italian.

Ones-to-Watch: Australian Jarmila Groth recently won the Hobart tournament and may pose trouble for Wickmayer in the first round. The two met only once in 2009 with Wickmayer pulling through in three sets. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Wimbledon semifinalist, who has been struggling since the result, also appear in Wozniacki’s bracket.

Bottom Line: Wozniacki has some tough tests, but I believe she’ll advance to the quarterfinals over Wickmayer. Henin shouldn’t have a problem against Schiavone.

Venus Williams’ Section:

Here’s home to the fourth-seed, Venus, who faces a couple tests before the fourth round. In the third round, Andrea Petkovic could push her. The two have never met, and Petkovic looks confident with a recent string of wins in Brisbane. In the fourth round, however, Venus potentially meets Maria Sharapova. The head-to-head makes the Russian’s  possible success slim as Venus leads 5-3 in their head-to-head. She’s also won the last three matches in straight sets.

It’ll be a toss-up between 2010 semifinalist Na Li and the ever spirited Victoria Azarenka in their probable fourth round match.

Ones-to-Watch: The other seeded players, Kaia Kanepi (no. 20), Aravane Rezai (no. 17) and Daniela Hantuchova (no. 28) also appear here.

Bottom Line: Venus will likely defeat Sharapova, while Li can take out Azarenka in a battle.

Kim Clijsters’ Section:

Possibly the most open part of the draw belongs to Clijsters, where she’ll no doubt benefit. Competition comes in the form of Nadia Petrova and Ana Ivanovic. Clijsters, however, should get through to the quarterfinals unless Ivanovic can out-perform her in the fourth round. It’ll be an interesting match between Clijsters and Dinara Safina in the first round.

With a struggling Jelena Jankovic as the seventh-seed (she’s lost eight of her last matches, including six straight) at the top, the section looks perfect for an up-and-comer to make a move. Agnieszka Radwanska (no. 12), although she’s battling some injury, might do well. Jankovic can also squeak through the bracket as she has before. One never knows with the former world number one.

Ones-to-Watch: Personal favorite Patty Schnyder could meet Ivanovic in the second round. Greta Arn, the surprise winner of Auckland, also appears in this section, facing the 26th-seed, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in the first round.

Bottom Line: Jankovic looks like a big question mark, while Clijsters should sail through to the second week.

Vera Zvonareva’s Section:

One of the strongest sections of the 2011 Australian Open on the WTA tour, this bracket is home to the second-seeded Zvonareva and home-favorite Sam Stosur (no. 5). These two names stand above the rest, although there are some, such as Petra Kvitova (no. 25), Shahar Peer (no. 10), and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (no. 16), who serve as fierce competition.

In a potential fourth round match, Kvitova, who won Brisbane — but lost in a walkover at Sydney — would face Stosur. The Australian hasn’t been quite up to form as she lost to Kuznetsova in Sydney’s second round.  Israel’s Peer would probably face the victor. Zvonareva lost to Flavia Pennetta — also of this bracket — early in Sydney. Zvonareva should, however, shake off the loss to make a run to the quarterfinals.

Ones-to-Watch: American Melanie Oudin might make a move in her section of the draw, where she’d face Zvonareva in a potential third round match. There’s also Maria Kirilenko (no. 22) and Anna Chakvetadze.

Bottom Line: It looks like Zvonareva and Stosur get through to the quarterfinals, but not without some strong tests from a number of good competition.

In the Quarterfinals: With the above predictions, the quarterfinals will showcase Wozniacki against Henin; Venus against Li; (potentially) Jankovic against Clijsters; and Stosur versus Zvonareva.

In the Semifinals: Watch for Henin to face Venus and Clijsters against Zvonareva in the final four.

Predictions for Wozniacki Versus Dementieva

While I haven’t been following too much of the tennis post-US Open, the Pacific Pan Open has had a lot of great tennis and compelling stories in the past few days.

There’s Maria Sharapova’s early exit, the strong showing by the now 40-year old Kimiko Date Krumm, Coco Vandeweghe’s trip to the quarters, and more. It’s nice to see the mix of familiar faces and newcomers making a push towards success as the season comes to a close.

At the end of the day, however, two of the top women have advanced to the finals: Caroline Wozniacki, the world number two, who is poised to take the number one ranking from Serena Williams, and Elena Dementieva, the seventh seed.

Both overcame tough opponents in the semifinals to grab their spots in the final. For Wozniacki, it was a real test from Victoria Azarenka. She needed three sets to advance, eventually closing out the feisty Belorussian 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-4. At the same time, I could see the fight being a real positive for Wozniacki, who only played five games in her win over Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska retired with a left foot injury after trailing in that first set.

For Dementieva, US Open and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva and French Open champion Francesca Schiavone stood in her way. Like the veteran and champion that she is in her own right, Dementieva won both matches with poise, experience, and the brand of shot-making that seems so capable of winning her a major title. Regardless of her disappointing inability to win  a major, she advanced in both rounds in straight sets, defeating Zvonareva 7-5, 6-2, and Schiavone 6-4 7-5.

Given the last two rounds, their results so far this year, and their match history, this is a truly compelling final. Both have played a somewhat even amount of tennis in the quarters and semis. Fitness won’t really be a factor, although Dementieva’s arguable playing stronger tennis given her easy advances.

On the other hand, pressure could very well be a factor: Wozniacki needs to win this event and reach the quarters in Beijing next week to secure the world’s top ranking. She would also walk home from the event with her sixth title of the year.

The head-to-head record of Wozniacki and Dementieva is also noteworthy: It’s currently locked at 3-all. In this regard, I give Wozniacki the edge as she won the last meeting, during a high-energy and high-drama semifinal match at New Haven. In the final tournament of the US Open Series, Wozniacki prevailed in three sets, winning 1-6 6-3 7-6 (5).

I’m going with Dementieva to pull-off the upset and win the tournament. She’s on a roll, the pressure’s on Wozniacki, and I don’t think there will be much to stop the Russian from exacting revenge after a disappointing loss in New Haven.

US Open Predictions – WTA Tour

The action at the US Open has begun. Without Serena Williams and Justine Henin, the year’s final major looks open for the taking. Here are my thoughts on the tournament.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Quarter:

Wozniacki looks sharp as the number one seed. She’s won three US Open Series titles in a row, capturing the Pilot Pen Tournament just a few days ago. She won the Series and could very well dominate the competition on her way to a major title. But before we look that far ahead, Maria Sharapova looms in her future as a potential fourth round match.

In that set-up, I take Wozniacki’s consistency over Sharapova’s experience, drive, and power. Plus, Sharapova needed three sets in her first round win to advance. I say Wozniacki wins in three sets.

Other notables: Aravane Rezai, the 18th seed, is one to watch, possibly meeting Sharapova in the third round.

Na Li’s Quarter:

The highest seed in this section of the draw got knocked out early on. Therefore, the stage is set for Svetlana Kuznetsova to get to the quarterfinals. Maria Kirilenko, however, recently got the the semifinals at the Pilot Pen Tournament. Can she make another big move at a major, like this year’s Australian Open?

Other notables: Kateryna Bondarenko beat Li. Will her form continue against a tough Dominika Cibulkova in the next round? If so, a fourth round result might just be in the cards for her.

Jelena Jankovic’s Quarter:

Jankovic isn’t a threat for the title in my opinion. She’s coming off of injury and needed three sets to get to the second round. If the seeding stays true to form, she could very well lose to Yanina Wickmayer, the 15th seed, in the fourth round.

Other notables: Kaia Kanepi, the Wimbledon quarterfinalist, might make some noise against Jankovic in a possible third round match. Personal favorite and veteran Patty Schnyder gets a shout-out for her dominating 6-1, 6-3 win over Kirsten Flipkins in the first round.

Vera Zvonareva’s Quarter:

This is a tough section with Zvonareva and Agnieszka Radwanska heading the field. Zvonareva, this year’s Wimbledon finalist, should get to the fourth round without a problem. I see her playing against Radwanska to decide the quarterfinal spot.

Radwanska wins that match in three, using finesse, tactics, and superb counter-punching consistency to get inside Zvonareva’s head.

Other notables: Nadia Petrova, the Pilot Pen Tennis finalist, already lost to Andrea Petkovic, while Bethanie Mattek-Sands should find strong support at her home major.

Francesca Schiavone’s Quarter:

In what I view as the hardest section of the field, the French Open winner won’t live up to expectations. Instead, I’m rooting for Melanie Oudin, last year’s fairytale story, to get to the fourth round. Against her could be either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sania Mirza, or Victoria Azarenka. The seeding says Azarenka, but I’ve been seeing great things from Pavlyuchenkova lately. Then again, Mirza’s back in action, and looked sharp in her qualifying matches and especially against Michelle Larcher de Brito in the first round.

Other notables: Can Alona Bondarenko find some surprise honeymoon success?

Venus Williams’ Section:

Okay, so the draw doesn’t get much easier in this section. Shahar Peer, Flavia Pennetta, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Venus are all contenders. I’ll take Venus to exact revenge over Pironkova, who beat her in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in straight sets during potential third round action.

The winner of that match could face Pennetta, although I’m a fan of Peer’s game.

Other notables: Can Pironkova bring the same amount of trickery against Venis this time around? Probably not.

Sam Stosur’s Quarter:

Elena Dementieva immediately comes to mind as the winner for this part of the draw. Stosur did well to get to the French Open final, but her form has suffered since then. Dementieva lost in a close match against Wozniacki and will bring that same drive and intensity in search of her first major title. She wants it badly. I’ll predict she advances in straight sets to the quarterfinals.

Other notables: I’m curious to see if Vania King can beat Daniela Hantuchova, who defeated an ailing Dinara Safina, in the second round. I hope King gets a lot of love from the New York City crowd.

Kim Clijsters’ Quarter:

Clijsters is likely to dominate this field. While Petra Kvitova plays a big, athletic game that got her all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals, she doesn’t have the experience to beat last year’s champion. Clijsters’ opponent for a spot in the quarters, however, is by no means locked. Ana Ivanovic, Marion Bartoli, and Jie Zheng are all big threats. Regardless, I’m not overly worried.

Other notables: Ivanovic versus Zheng should be an interesting match. Is the Serb ready for the top tier once more? I hope so. She looked promising in Cincinnati before withdrawing from injury against Clijsters in the semifinals.

The Quarters and Semis:

In the top half, Wozniacki beats Kuznetsova in two sets to make the semis. She’ll face the winner of Radwanska and Wickmayer. I like the chances of Wozniacki versus Radwanska. who takes out Zvonareva, in this semifinal section.

In the other matches, Azarenka loses to Venus, while Clijsters and Dementieva battle it out. Clijsters prevails in three sets.

The final four: Wozniacki against Radwanska, and Venus versus Clijsters.

The Cincinnati Final Four — A Welcome Surprise

It’s been a shocking week in Cincinnati, current high-profile players, such as Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki dropped-out early. Former number ones Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, and Kim Clijsters, however, are in top form getting to the semis, while Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova surprised many to also make the final four.

Kim Clijsters:

Clijsters, the defending US Open champion, looks sharp in her return to play after a disappointing loss to Vera Zvonareva in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Her draw hasn’t been an easy one, either. To make it to the semis, she’s won against former world number one Dinara Safina, the young upstart American Christina McHale, and Flavia Pennetta, who took out Zvonareva. Clijsters won against Pennetta in a close 7-6 (4), 6-4 match.

Ana Ivanovic:

It’s great seeing Ivanovic back. Her draw really opened up after Jelena Jankovic lost to Akgul Amanmurdova in the third round. Instead of Ivanovic playing her compatriot, the world’s second-ranked player,  she fended off the 114th Amanmuradova. Ivanovic won 6-1, 6-3 to get to her first semifinal since the Rome clay tournament in May. Can the Serb take out Clijsters to get to her first final in over a year? I don’t think so. Her last final: Indian Wells in 2009, where she lost to Vera Zvonareva as the sixth player in the world. It’s been a long road for Ivanovic both mentally and in her ranking slide these past few months. She has a lot to prove going into this semifinal. I think her mental game and, therefore, athletic game will break down under the pressure of playing a confident Clijsters.

Maria Sharapova:

Coming off a 6-4 6-1 drubbing by Victoria Azarenka in the final at Stanford, Sharapova is playing with a new confidence. That loss, along with some close wins over Elena Dementieva and Agnieszka Radwanska to get to her fourth final of the season, further fired up the powerful game of the former Russian teenage phenom (she won Wimbledon at just 17). Sharapova’s serving embodies this renewed confidence. In a recent statement, Sharapova said, “I’m actually serving a lot better than I did last summer. Hitting bigger serves — maybe I’m missing a few more first serves and second serves, but not hitting second serves 70 miles an hour.” That’s a good sign for the three-time major champion, and a scary one for the rest of the field.

At this tournament, she’s continued to claw her way to the top, taking out a recently victorious Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round. In the second, she easily handled the tennis media sensation Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-1. Next, she outhit Radwanska 6-2, 6-3, improving her head-to-head to a dominating 6-1 record. In the quarters, she beat Marion Bartoli 6-1. 6-4.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova:

Rounding out the final four is the teenager Pavlyuchenkova, who’s been playing some strong tennis this season. She’s won two titles already, including her last at the end of July in Istanbul. With a ranking of 25th in the world — close to her career-high of 24 — things are looking good for the former girl’s champion. To make it to the semis, she’s been some fantastic players, including: Elena Dementieva, Shahar Peer, and Yanina Wickmayer (all top twenety talent).  Her next opponent, however, has the experience and drive to handle even Pavlychenkova’s big game, easily.

Predictions:

I’m going by the rankings (and my past prediction, which you can read here) to make it to the final. I see Clijsters taking out Ivanovic easily, just like their last match three years ago on carpet in the quarterfinals of Antwerp. There, she beat Ivanovic 6-2, 6-1. I think the sets will be closer, but not by much.

For Sharapova versus Pavlyuchenkova — the two haven’t played one another yet — I’m going with Sharapova, assuming her serve stays on track. If it does, and she plays the game that’s carried her through the past few tournaments during the US Open Series, she should advance comfortably with a chance to take on Clijsters.

In the end, I’m banking on Sharapova to win — she has a 3-1 record against Clijsters (although it’s been about three years since the last match).

Soderling, Jankovic Upset; Sweet Victories for the Unexpected

Watch out tennis world, there’s a dangerous floater in David Nalbandian in the field. The Argentine most recent win: over world number five Robin Soderling in three sets, including a dominant performance in the third. He won4-6, 6-4, 6-1 over the fifth seed.

After missing the last six major events, Nalbandian is back. After taking out Marcos Baghdatis last week to win his 11th title in Washington, Nalbandian improved his current match winning-streak to 11. With that win, he surged through the rankings by 72 spots and is currently ranked 45th. With the win over Soderling, he’s poised to be seeded once the US Open begins in two weeks.

Although fitness has been a problem for Nalbandian in the post, according to ESPN commentator and former player and coach Brad Gilbert, he’s in pretty good shape after the injury layoff. In the match versus Soderling, the backhand was spot on, too. Nalbandian would hit a blister backhand crosscourt, nailing Soderling into the corner, and then surprise with a world-class down-the-line backhand for a crisp winner. With this shot-making capability, and the belief that comes along with such results, Nalbandian can beat any player on any given day. In fact, over at ESPN, they were calling him one of the favorites at the US Open, behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but potentially before Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the number two and four ranked player in the world, respectively.

And while Soderling was simply outplayed in that match, he wasn’t the only one. Top seed Jelena Jankovic in the Cincinnati tournament was ousted by qualifier and 114th-ranked Akgul Amanmuradova in a lopsided 7-6 (2), 6-4 in the third round. The Serb is back after taking time off to heal her ankle, an injury sustained during the second round of the tournament in Slovenia. It seems like she’ll be needing some more time to recover physically and mentally after this tough defeat. Adding insult to injury, the win was Amanmuradova’s first over a top ten player.

Also losing in the third round in Cincinatti, third-ranked Caroline Wozniacki succumbed to Marion Bartoli 6-4, 6-1. Bartoli’s impressive play is highlighted further by the fact that Wozniacki is coming straight off a win in her home country last week. She should, therefore, be in strong form. Could it be the jet-lag? Bartoli simply being the better player? Who knows. The question now: Can the 2009 US Open finalist put together another deep run this year? That remains to be seen.

In other matches:

  • Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova ousted Israel’s Shahar Peer 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
  • Roger Federer fended off a tricky Michael Llodra, who employed an underhanded serve during the second set. Federer won 7-6 (2), 6-3 after a slow start and inspired play from his long-time friend, the veteran Frenchman.
  • Kim Clijsters easily advanced against the struggling Dinara Safina 7-5, 6-2. Will the former world number one ever get back on track?
  • Ana Ivanovic, another former top player, continued her good form by beating Elena Vesnina 6-0, 6-3.
  • Maria Sharapova didn’t waste time in her win against Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, who’s been having an excellent summer so far. She looked confident serving and powering the ball in the quick 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Pavlyuchenkova Win Big

Coming fresh off a big seesaw victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova advanced easily over Andrea Petkovic to get to the round of 16 at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s event in Cincinnati, Ohio. She won 6-3, 6-1 in the dominating performance. Other strong performers included Ana Ivanovic, who knocked out Victoria Azarenka in the previous round, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the winner over third-seeded Elena Dementieva in two sets.

Sharapova’s last two victories prove she’s regaining the top form that others on the WTA tour should fear. With every match, there’s more of that champion’s spark that brought her to three major titles, beginning at 17. I’ve hinted at it in the past few weeks, but this win only solidifies my sentiments: Sharapova’s prepared to go deep at the US Open. She’ll be seeded well within the top 20, and I see her taking out some other big-time threats to get to the major’s second week.

Her results this year are on an upward trend: first round at the Australian Open, third round at Roland Garros, and a tough loss to Serena Williams in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Here’s her chance to break through past the quarterfinals since her 2009 French Open showing. Sharapova’s next opponent? The tricky shot-maker, Agnieszka Radwanska, who’s having a great US Open Series so far, having made it to the semifinals and final of her last two events. I don’t see Sharapova letting up against Radwanska. She’ll win in two close sets.

Compared to Sharapova, Ivanovic’s results at the majors seem wildly unexceptional. She’s only made it to the second rounds at the Australian and French, falling in the first round at Wimbledon. And, yet, things are looking up (even if just slightly) with that win over Azarenka. She followed the upset with a straight sets victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, a quarter-finalist at this year’s French Open, and the winner of the doubles title with American Vania King at Wimbledon. Ivanovic needs to soak up the win and channel the confidence in her next round. She faces Elena Vesnina, the winner over a struggling Francesca Schiavone. I’m taking Ivanovic over Vesnina in three sets.

Pavlyuchenkova’s drubbing of Dementieva secures a huge step for the younger Russian to get to the semis of this event. That is, if she can take out Israel’s Shahar Peer in the quarterfinals. I see Pavlyuchenkova winning that match in three sets. She has the bigger game, and a good deal of experience so far throughout this summer season.

Bracket Breakdown:

In the top half, Jelena Jankovic will get to the semis despite some shaky play. She’ll potentially face Ana Ivanovic in the quarters.

In the bottom half, we see the return of Kim Clijsters, and an impressive showing from the American teenager Christina McHale — the winner against Nadia Petrova. Clijsters easily beat an ailing Dinara Safina 7-5, 6-2. For McHale, her win over Ayumi Morita means she’ll probably face the Belgian. There, I see her getting overwhelmed by the shots and experience of Clijsters in straight sets. I’m calling Vera Zvonareva to meet Clijsters in the quarterfinals.

On the other side of the draw, I like Pavlyuchenkova to make the semifinals in the top half, although she has stiff competition by facing either Na Li or Yanina Wickmayer to make it there.

In the bottom section, look for Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki to battle it out for the last spot in the final four. I’m predicting Sharapova overwhelms Wozniacki in three sets.

Final Predictions:

Jelena Jankovic defeats Ana Ivanovic in the quarters; Clijsters gets revenge over Zvonareva, who defeated her at Wimbledon in the other match.

Pavlyuchenkova surprises to make the semis, where she’ll face a fiery Sharapova.

The last two standing: Clijsters and Sharapova — a dream match.

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