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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Australian Open: Aussie's Own Changing of the Guard

When Kim Clijsters cracked an untouchable forehand winner to set up match point against Caroline Wozniacki, there was a moment of impassioned beauty. Her eyes snapped shut as she clenched her first beside her face, chest heaving with excitement, nerves and exhaustion. She appeared near tears, understanding the terrible importance of the point she was about to play, but when she stepped back to the baseline, she appeared calm—her veteran grace shining through. Moments later a desperation lob from Wozniacki fluttered skyward, and with one clean swing, Clijsters batted the match-ending volley into the court, solidifying her place in the semifinals and ensuring Wozniacki's drop from the top spot.

And now it's official. The WTA will have a new no. 1 player after the Australian Open, ending the Dane's 67 week "domination" of the women's tour. Three standout players are vying for the spot, and all are worthy, but who will it be?

Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova each have a chance, and the dogfight will begin with today's semifinals. Sharapova must win the title while Azarenka need only stay one step ahead of Kvitova (meaning she must win if she faces Petra in the final). Should the Czech advance to the championship without Azarenka, but lose, she will still earn enough points to claim the rank.

Azarenka will take on Clijsters in her semifinal match, looking to advance to her first major championship. The Belarusian hits the ball flat and hard from both sides, but she'll need to do more than thump the ball up the court to keep Clijsters off balance. Azarenka is best when she's at full flight, taking on physical rallies with her much-improved fitness. She's consistent, strong-willed and isn't afraid to get scrappy, and what makes her more of threat against Clijsters than Wozniacki is that she can strike winners at will.

Having won three slams (including the 2008 Australian Open) Sharapova has the most impressive resume of the three no. 1 contenders. She needs to deliver her best tennis, however, as she takes on Petra Kvitova—a Wimbledon final rematch that will undoubtedly showcase some of the biggest hitting on tour. Sharapova seems to have contained her service woes, and will need to continue that trend against a free-swinging opponent who enjoys obliterating slow second serves. Kvitova will need to maintain focus and prevent any dips in quality (something we have seen too often in earlier rounds) or else Sharapova will have an easy time finding her range.

Regardless of the outcomes, however, the WTA will have a new leader in the rankings, something many critics of the sport  having been begging for for months. In an interview, Wozniacki said she is confident she will reclaim the top spot, but something tells me it won't be so easy. Her fellow young-guns are starting to relish their time on the big stages and thrive in high-pressure moments. Defending powerful blows, Wozniacki's greatest talent, won't hold up much longer if these talented opponents stop choking and start winning.

The question is no longer when will Wozniacki consolidate her no. 1 ranking, it's will she ever get it back?

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor

Monday, January 23, 2012

Australian Open: Quarterfinals Fully Loaded

Quarter 1: Wozniacki v. Clijsters

Aussie Kim is at it again Down Under, overcoming a rolled ankle and four match points in her sweet-16 marathon against Li Na. The four-time grand slam champion and former no. 1 will hit the court against the world's current no. 1 in hopes of defending her title in Melbourne, but winning will be no easy feat. Still looking for her first slam title, Wozniacki will be just as determined, if not more so than the Belgian veteran.

Photo by Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
While Clijsters' tiebreak heroics against Li Na will surely be one of the tournament's biggest stories, Wozniacki's strong performances can't be overlooked. She hasn't dropped a set in her first four matches and she even earned a bagel against Jelena Jankovic— an opponent who once dominated the pair's head-to-head 4-0 (now leveled 4-4).

In her semifinal match last year, Wozniacki held match point but watched her Aussie dreams crumble as Li pummeled a short Wozniacki forehand down the line. This year, the Dane has been pushing shots deeper and trying to add the aggression her game has lacked but so desperately needs. Still, her forte is defense, and she will need to be on-point against Clijsters. The Belgian might not always hit the ball as hard as the Sharapovas of the WTA, but she can light up the court with brilliant movement and deadly precision. Should Wozniacki choose to play too passively, Clijsters will surely fire winners at will.

The big question: what's the status of Clijsters' ankle?

Prediction: Clijsters in 3.

Quarter 2: Azarenka v. Radwanska

Victoria Azarenka has all but coasted into the quarterfinals this year, steamrolling an unlucky string up opponents along the way. The Belarusian has dropped a total of 12 games in four matches (losing more than 2 games in a set only once, against a hot-handed Barthel) and looks deadly from both wings. She has had a number of grand slam runs crushed in the quarters, meeting against Serena Williams on multiple occasions, but she snapped the curse at last year's Wimbledon and has a good shot of going forward in Melbourne.

Her opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska, is sure to put up a fight, but lacks any sort of firepower of her own. The Pole will look to use rock-solid defense to ricochet Azarenka's blasts back into the court, waiting for errors or the occasional short ball. Unfortunately for Radwanska, Azarenka seems to have reeled in her aggression, keeping unforced errors to a minimum and building momentum with controlled offense. Agnieszka will have to work the angles to bully Azarenka around the court and, when possible, lay-in to the backhand that has given Radwanska such great success.

The last time these two met was in this year's Sydney tournament, where Azarenka prevailed despite dropping a set 6-1. In Melbourne, Radwanska has seesawed between lackluster (round 1 v. Mattek-Sands) and brilliant (round 4 v. Goerges), but she'll need to be perfect to beat Azarenka. Otherwise, she's going to get blown off the court.

Prediction: Azarenka in 2.

Quarter 3: Makarova v. Sharapova

Of the remaining eight players, the most shocking competitor is Ekatarina Makarova. Arguably, one could say Sara Errani's appearance is equally as surprising, but Makarova has been the tournament's giant-slayer, downing Kaia Kanepi, Vera Zvonareva and Serena Williams in consecutive rounds and all in straight sets. Comically, the Russian's most difficult match was against Tanasugarn, where she dropped the second set but still earned two bagels for the win.

If she wants to continue her dream run, Makarova will have to conjure up some more magic as she takes on her most famous countrywoman: Maria Sharapova. Sharapova has looked terrifyingly sharp on her Melbourne quest, drilling her opponents with laser-like shots accompanied by shrill screams and intimidating Come on!s In her fourth round match against Sabine Lisicki, Sharapova's game faced its first true test of the tournament, but the Russian rose to the occasion, upping her play to a level unseen since reaching the Wimbledon final last year. Finally, Sharapova's serves were hitting the box and even second serves rained down with unfamiliar power. Combined with her brutal groundstrokes, Sharapova was just a tad too good for Lisicki and looks to be a tad too good for anyone left in the tournament who isn't named Kvitova.

Still, Sharapova isn't consistent. The service woes, head-scratching errors and over-eager offense are always lurking somewhere in the back of Sharapova's game—she just needs to keep them there. Should Makarova find her range and Maria tighten up, we could have quite a match, but Sharapova is known for her fight. She just can't spend time fighting herself.

Prediction: Sharapova in 2.

Quarter 4: Errani v. Kvitova

What can you say about Sara Errani? One thing is for sure: she's playing better tennis than we knew she was capable of. Sitting down to watch her match against Zheng Jie, I expected a rather easy win for the craft Chinese woman, but felt my jaw hit the floor as Errani let loose an array of blistering winners. The Italian used masterful topspin to trap Zheng behind the baseline and showcased her double skills with superb volleying.

Although her performance was stellar, Errani will need to do even more as she steps on court against world no. 2 and player-to-beat, Petra Kvitova. The Czech has had a number of moments this tournament when she looked frazzled and lost, including two second set breakdowns against Suarrez Navarro and Ivanovic, but on each occasion she regrouped and slapped ferocious winners in order to secure victory. Maybe it's her maturity, or maybe it's her bark-like cheers, but something about Kvitova's game never lets her stray too far off course.

Against anyone seeded, you might almost anticipate Kvitova to have some spotty play in her upcoming match, but Errani's style should give Kvitova good batting practice for later-round challenges. The best tool at Errani's disposal against the Czech will be her net-play, but if Kvitova's groundstrokes are as flat and furious as usual, then it could be over rather quickly. It all depends on whether or not Petra feels like having yet another mental walkabout.

Prediction: Kvitova in 2.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Australian Open: Will History Hunt Down Wozniacki?

Coming into the Australian Open, no one was quite sure what to expect from Caroline Wozniacki. She was in tears during her match against Agnieszka Radwanska in Sydney, ultimately losing the match and nursing a tender wrist, then complained of blisters in Melbourne. With pressure mounting on the world no. 1 to win her first slam (as it has been doing for two seasons now), it looked as though injury and strain would just give the Dane another excuse for why this tournament wouldn't be the one.

Miraculously, however, Wozniacki has looked sharp—by her standards at least. She might not rattle off winners like Serena or Sharapova, but she has appeared physically capable and match-tough.

Despite Wozniacki's inability to come through in the majors, she has accomplished some noteworthy things, including ending back-to-back seasons as the highest ranked player in the WTA. But while she will forever be written into history for this accomplishment, it looks as though history might be coming after her... hungry to take away that number one spot.

Wozniacki must reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to even have a chance at maintaining her rank, but with drama queen Jelena Jankovic waiting for her in the round of 16, things might not be so easy. And here's the kicker: Jankovic, a former slamless no. 1 herself, lost the top spot in 2009 in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Will history repeat itself at the expense of Wozniacki?

It looks possible.

After steamrolling American young-gun Christina McHale, Jankovic looks prepared to take on a Wozniacki who hasn't been playing error-free. The Serbian holds a 4-3 advantage in the pair's head-to-head, but their last three meetings have all gone in favor of the Dane.

The match will surely involve extended rallies, stunning defense, and blistering backhands (the best shot for both contenders), but victory will come down to which pusher can be more aggressive. Both ladies have the skill to tattoo the baseline and whip extreme angles, but who will come to play?

It's history in the making. On which side of it will Wozniacki fall?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Australian Open: Hawk-Eye: The Slap that Snapped Stosur

The first two days of the 2012 Australian Open have seen some blockbuster match-ups. It seemed an army of unseeded hopefuls were ready and willing to unleash on their ranked opponents, playing some inspired tennis from the start to finish.

While it looked as though Bethanie Mattek-Sands would be the first player to prevail in an upset, the problem-solving Agnieska Radwanska found the grit to sneak through. After dropping a roller coaster first set 12-10 in a tiebreaker, the eight seed Pole turned on the heat against her American adversary whose groundstrokes began to miss their mark. Mattek-Sands earned a terrifying 81 winners in the three hour contest, but it was Radwanska's consistency and back-boarding which resulted in victory.

Sorana Cirstea urges herself on against Stosur.
Photo by Getty Images
Who, then, would be the first big name to say goodbye to Oz? A fiery Christina McHale toppled 24 seed Lucie Safarova, starting what would be a day of nail-biters and blowouts. The big-hitting lefty never seemed to find her rhythm and McHale looked sharp, but while she exited the stadium, an even bigger story was about to unfold: the defeat of home favorite, Samantha Stosur.

Despite her success in Paris and New York, Stosur has failed to advance beyond the fourth round of the Australian Open in nine attempts. Now, on try number 10, the Aussie suffered her third first round loss in Melbourne, this time to a surging Sorana Cirstea.

While Stosur's error-prone backhand was the match's biggest lowlight, it was Cirstea's gutsy returns which lit-up the crowd, despite their countrywoman's misfortune.

This post's Hawk-Eye point goes to Sorana Cirsrea, who broke Stosur to solidify her place in the second round. After losing to opportunities to close the match, Cirstea hammering an electric forehand up the line to fend-off Stosur's game point, leveling at deuce and moving on to convert her next match point. Check out the slap that snapped Stosur at 11:41 in these match highlights:


-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pre-Australian Open: Luck of the Draw

At every grand slam, there are always a few players outside of the WTA's top 10 that no one wants to see too close to their name. This could not have been clearer than when Serena was ranked No. 28 at least year’s US Open, making a third round clash with someone in the top 8 inevitable. Last year, it was Victoria Azarenka, the 4th seed, who drew the short straw. Will she be so unlucky again, or will it be another one of her younger foes in the top 3 who have to try and defy the odds to grab the Aussie Open title? Here’s a look at our top 5 bracket busters for this year’s Australian Open.

5. Dominika Cibulkova (18th Seed)

Cibulkova certainly knows a thing or two about bracket busting. We only have to look back as far as Wimbledon 2011 to see what she’s capable of, when she took out world no.1 Caroline Wozniacki 7-5 in the third. She is one of the tours streakiest players, her matches against Wozniacki being the best examples. She lost the first set of their Wimbledon match 6-1 and barely clung on to her serve in the beginning of the second before catching fire and taking out the Dane. In Sydney this week, Cibulkova held a 4-0 third set lead before dropping the final six games and the match to Wozniacki.

Photo by SkySports
Although she is one of the shortest players on tour, she packs one of the biggest punches. At one point in last night’s match her forehand speed was over 30 kmph faster than that of Wozniacki. She also has the experience, with grand slam wins over 3 of the current top 4 women, including a 6-0 6-2 beat-down of Maria Sharapova in the 2009 French Open quarters, as seen in this clip.

The real question is, will Cibulkova’s form stay with her long enough to cause a stir next week? Only time will tell.

4. Sabine Lisicki (15th Seed)

Although she is not the tour’s most consistent player on a week-to-week basis due to nagging injuries, the German made quite a splash at the Grand Slams last year. After losing a heartbreaker in the third round of the French Open to then no.2 Vera Zvonareva, Lisicki gutted out a third round win at Wimbledon against no.3 Li Na 8-6 in the third, saving two match points down 3-5 in the third set (video below).

Lisicki rode her big serve all the way to the semifinals, getting another three set win in the quarters against Marion Bartoli. As the 15th seed, Lisicki will be matched up to face one of the top 4 seeds in the round of 16, a matchup that is certain to be a center court showdown. Lisicki holds a 3-5 record against the top, with only two of those matches being played since 2009. Although Lisicki has recently been injured, she is one of the most feared players because of her serve and blasting forehand.

3. Daniela Hantuchova (21st seed)

Another player who has struggled with injuries through her career, Hantuchova is a former top 5 player and has a strong history at the Australian Open. Hantuchova has made the fourth round several times and reached the semifinal in 2008 and even held a 6-0, 2-0 lead against Ivanovic before falling 6-4 in the third. More recently, Hantuchova is known for her 6-1, 6-3 thrashing of Wozniacki at least year’s French Open—arguably her best match of the year. She then unluckily drew Victoria Azarenka in the third round of Wimbledon and fell to her in three tight sets. Hantuchova has beaten many of the world’s top 10 and has had some good results recently, including a final last week in Brisbane and she is still in this week’s tournament in Sydney. Although she has a history of choking away matches at big points, she is now a veteran on tour and could be able to turn that around against the younger generation.

AP Photo
2. Kaia Kanepi (26th Seed) 

Perhaps the biggest third round match will be Kaia Kanepi against whichever top 8 seed she is drawn to play. Kanepi has also been plagued with injuries, but has burst back on the scene recently. Kanepi took out Wozniacki in Tokyo last year and tore through the draw at Brisbane last week, sweeping Hantuchova 6-1, 6-2 in the final. Although she did not have stellar results last year, Kanepi reached the quarterfinals of both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010. After a heartbreak loss to Kvitova in the quarters at Wimbledon after having match points, Kanepi backed that up with a run to the quarter and a win over Jelena Jankovic at the US Open before falling to Vera Zvonareva in two tight sets. After seeing her aggressive play and core strength last week, Kanepi definitely has the tools to make a serious run at this year’s Australian Open.

1. Serena Williams (13th seed)

Who else? No matter what seed, Serena is always the player to beat. Because she pulled out of Brisbane last week and Clijsters made the semifinals, Clijsters nipped Serena in the rankings and moved up to the 12th seed while Serena fell to no.13. Although one spot in the rankings is not usually this crucial, it makes quite a difference when it comes to the AO draw, because now Serena will play a member of the top 4 in the round of 16, instead of a player seeded 5 to 8 like Clijsters.

Which player will be unlucky enough to face her in round of 16? Will it be Sharapova, who has not beaten her since 2004? Azarenka, who always plays her tough but is beyond the point in her career where she can afford another “good loss” to Serena? Wozniacki, who did not even look like she belonged on the same court as her in the US Open semifinals? Or will we finally get the showdown everyone has been waiting for: Serena Williams vs. Petra Kvitova? Of course, the players need to play to their seeds in order to make this match happen, but I think it is safe to say that no matter who steps onto the court against Serena, they will be more afraid of her than she is of them. 

-Joseph Barkus, Contributing Writer

Friday, January 6, 2012

Play-by-Play: Kvitova d. Wozniacki (Hopman Cup)

We’ve all been waiting for this match since the start of the tournament… A clash between the best in the world: the WTA’s number one and two. Wozniacki of Denmark, and Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Same age, same thirst to win. While the match would not deliver ranking points to either player, it would surely set the tone for things to come: Petra’s hunt for the top spot, and Caroline’s defense of it.

Photo by Theron Kirkman, AP
Playing for their home countries in the Hopman Cup, the pair could not have asked for a better occasion to meet. Their previous head-to-head was at the 2011 WTA Year-End Championships where Kvitova defeated the Dane with a fairly easy 6-4 6-2 scoreline.

The Czech Republic came to this encounter with five match wins under its belt (only losing in mixed doubles). Denmark, on the other hand, had only won three matches, but still retained the possibility of going through to the finals if they swept their Czech opponents. The odds clearly favored the Czechs, who needed only one win to advance.

At the start of the match, Kvitova took the early lead, breaking Caroline’s serve and then easily confirming. Petra was all-business, approaching the net, trying out some middle court drop shots and blasting baseline forehands. Looking back at her first two matches she had a total of twenty-one break point opportunities and now, only two games in against Wozniacki, she already had three.

Photo by Theron Kirkman, AP
While the two players exchanged holds from there on, it was Kvitova’s solid serving which left little room for Wozniacki to find a groove. As Kvitova stepped to the line, serving for the set at 5-4, Caroline rose to the challenge. She managed to save three set points and break Petra for the first time all match. Even at 5-5, the Czech unleashed powerful strokes, clearly frustrated by the missed set points, and breaks Wozniacki once more. 50 minutes into the set and Kvitova served for the set a second time.

Once again, Caroline found a way to hang in on Petra’s game. The match sees three consecutive breaks and suddenly the pair enter a first set breaker.

It’s clear early on who was dominating the tie break. Czech Republic goes to the change over with a 4-2 over Denmark. With a mini break on her hands, Petra Kvitova has a fourth set point. She shoots a backhand winner down the line and takes the opening set 7-6 (4).

In the first game of the second set Petra played a flawless game holding to love. Credit has to be given to Caroline because although she lost the set, she removed errors from her game and began punching winners of her own. The match’s spolight moves between Petra’s spectacular passing shots and Caroline’s known sudden string of winners. Despite the Czech’s early break for 3-1, Wozniacki was not to be out done, breaking back and fighting for the second set.

As Wozniacki stared to take charge, Kvitova’s game seemed to unhinge. Overwhelmed and frsutratred, the Czech began to spray errors, and soon the set went to the Dane’s, 6-3.

With aggressive play, Kvitova quickly earns herself three break points in the opening game, snagging the break. Soon it was 3-0 and Wozniacki looked frazzled.

Still fighting, Caroline made a fantastic forehand topspin lob winner which gave her three break points of her own. Her opportunity to even the match faded, however, as Petra saved them all, going for the big shots to take the lead 4-2.

Photo by Theron Kirkman, AP
Despite having the lead, Kvitova was still showing her frustration, while a cool and collected Caroline showed nothing on the other side. But unlike the her Danish opponent, the Czech thrives on high emotions, managingto win her game for a 5-3 lead—only one game away. Wozniacki snapped her first ace of the match to take the set to 4-5, pressuring Kvitova to serve it out.

Caroline’s efforts were not enough to fire back Petra’s powerful forehands, forcing the Dane to run from one side of the court to the other. Kvitova quickly earned a 40-15 lead and double match point. With a stunning backhand winner, Wozniacki saved the first, but seconds later Petra strikes a backhand just as electric, ending the match.

Final: Czech Republic d. Denmark 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 in 2 hours and 20 minutes and advances to the championship.

Overall, it was a fantastic match. Despite the loss, CarolineWozniacki, despite proved that her opponent had to work hard and be on top of her game to have a hope of victory. Signs of offensive play have crept into the Dane’s game and it’s clear she has done work in the off season, but she’ll need more if she wants to outshine the big-hitter of the tour.

Kvitova, however, is just as strong as ever, but still needs to maintain focus in high-stress moments. As she said in a previous interview, this match was a test and training for upcoming tournaments. She has what it takes to beat anyone out there in the circuit and she surely has the thirst for the number one spot. 

Check out the first set tiebreak here

-Romina Castagnino, Contributing Writer

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's Resolutions of the WTA

While Auckland and Brisbane move toward their final chapters of 2012, a few WTA stars have been kind enough to share their New Year's Resolutions. Check out this WTA-made video featuring Cibulkova, Hantuchova, Stosur and more.

Be sure to check back for match reactions to Zheng v. Pennetta in the Auckland championships and follow us on twitter (@ITBtennis) for tournament updates as we approach the Australian Open.

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2012 Kick Off

Only four days into the new season, the WTA has already provided us with the renewed rivalries, stunning upsets and well, Serena Williams, that has come to make women's tennis so entertaining. Here's a quick look at some of what we've seen so far and what we can expect in the near future.

AAP Photo
Stosur Bombs against Benesova
In a less-than-impressive effort, Slammin Sam of Australia fell to Iveta Benesova in straight sets in Brisbane (6-4, 6-2). Just like Li Na after Roland Garros and Petra Kvitova after Wimbledon, Stosur has looked a bit sluggish since her first Grand Slam title in New York, but with only two weeks until the Australian Open, can she really afford the let down? Stosur will arrive in Melbourne as the home-crowd favorite, so a quick pick-me-up will be important in next week's Sydney tune-up.

Lisicki Survives Second-Round Seed Massacre
A day of upsets shook Auckland's ASB Classic as four seeded competitors were sent packing. Lisicki, seeded no.1 for the tournament, withstood a valiant effort from Mona Barthel despite a topsy-turvy performance of her own. After breaking through at Wimbledon last year and looking dangerous throughout the late summer, Lisicki will enter Oz as strong an opponent as any. She faces fellow German, Kerber, in the Auckland quarters.

Clijsters Stifles Serbian Surge
Ana Ivanovic has been looking to climb her way back into the WTA elite since dropping outside the world's top 50. Currently ranked no. 22, Ivanovic is looking sharper than she has for quite awhile, taking Clijsters three sets in their Brisbane second round match. Clijsters came out of the gates firing and stomped the Serbian for a 6-1 first set, but Ivanovic returned the 6-1 drubbing in the second to take the match in a decisive third. With a 3-0 single break lead and a chance for 4-0, the former French Open champion seemed to have found a groove, but Clijsters proved once more that her fitness and determination are enough to take down any challenger. The Belgian rattled off six straight games to end the final set, 6-3.


Serena Wins on One Ankle
It's official: nothing can stop Serena Williams from finishing a match. Up a set and 5-1, Serena looked to have a chokehold on the match against her young opponent, Bojana Jovanovski, but with her back against the ropes, the Serbian firecracker started to find her depth. Suddenly Jovanovski was launching bombs from the baseline, matching Serena's grunts with cries of her own. At 5-3, a grueling rally pushed both women from one side to another, but it was Jovanovski who launched a blistering backhand up the line to backdoor Serena and send the American crumbling to the ground.

For a second it looked like the usual dramatic display of a veteran we've come to love, but then it was clear that Serena had actually fallen due to injury. After a quick timeout, Serena returned to court with her ankle bandaged, but Jovanovski earned the break and took the match to 5-4. If Jovanovski could hold and level the set, it appeared that she would overcome her ailing opponent, but Serena was too sharp, too composed and too strong. Serena finished the match with a break of serve, winning 6-2 6-4, but withdrawing the tournament immediately after the match. Sources have confirmed that Serena sprained her ankle, and now the question is whether she'll be ready for Oz.

Photo by Darren England, Herald Sun.

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor