Monday, April 21, 2014

Wk.16- The Thrill of Fed Cup Victory, and the Agony of Short-Sightedness

When you see Aga being tossed into the air, you know it must be Fed Cup weekend.

When Germans are dancing, you know that Petko can't be far away.

When Dutch women are dousing Paul Haarhuis with alcohol... you think, "Oh, so that's what's happened to him since he lost to Jimmy Connors at the Open in 1991."

When Anastasia the Great is hand-slapping Hordettes, you know the Russian Fed Cup winter must finally be over.

And, last but not least, when Petra Kvitova is smiling and flashing victory signs...

Once again, it just HAS to be Fed Cup weekend. Well, either that or it's early July in 2011. But in this case, yes, it most definitely WAS a Fed Cup weekend.

*WEEK 16*

Germany def. Australia (H) 3-1
Czech Republic (H) def. Italy 4-0
=World Group Playoffs=
Russia (H) def. Argentina 4-0
Canada (H) def. Slovak Republic 3-1
France def. United States (H) 3-2
Poland def. Spain (H) 3-2
=World Group II Playoffs=
Romania (H) def. Serbia 4-1
Netherlands (H) def. Japan 3-2
Switzerland def. Brazil (H) 4-1
Sweden (H) def. Thailand 4-0
=Europe/Africa II Promotion Finals (at Lithuania)=
Liechtenstein def. Bosnia & Herzegovina 2-0
Georgia def. Finland 2-1

S: Donna Vekic/CRO def. Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 5-7/7-5/7-6(4)
D: Babos/Chan Hao-Ching (HUN/TPE) d. Chan Yung-Jan/Zheng Saisai (TPE/CHN) 6-3/6-4

[Semifinal MVPs]
Angelique Kerber/GER [overall P.O.W.] February, I gave the Fed Cup Player of the Week to Andrea Petkovic, although Kerber actually won two matches to Petko's one against the Slovak Republic. This time, Angie gets the barbecue. Again, Petkovic led off Germany's tie with Australia with a victory over Sam Stosur, but it was the way that Kerber, save for one set, destroyed her two opponents the rest of the weekend that couldn't help but leave everyone in awe. Against poor Casey Dellacqua, Kerber won 6-1/6-0 and fired thirty-one winners. On Sunday, with a 0-2 head-to-head mark vs. Stosur staring her in the face, all the German did after dropping the 1st set against an aggressive Sam was take the match (and Stosur) by the neck and drag Germany over the finish line. She won 4-6/6-0/6-4, sending Stosur to 0-2 for the tie although she really didn't play that badly at all. Kerber just was not to be denied. Again. Germany is in its first FC final since 1992, and don't think that the Czechs are going to easily coast to another crown. As long as this sometimes-injury prone German team can stay healthy into November, it just might do one better than simply REACHING the first Fed Cup final since the Graf era.
Petra Kvitova/CZE

...for once, Kvitova looked confident, fit and healthy for an entire event. Sure, it was only two days long, but so what. Kvitova re-assumed her lead role on the Czech team, going 2-0 to run her career FC singles mark to 21-6. On Saturday, she dispatched Camila Giorgi (in for Roberta Vinci) 2 & 2, then on Sunday she did the same to Vinci (in for Sara Errani, whose 0-6 mark vs. Kvitova was far worse than RV's 2-1) by the tune of 3 & 5, closing the door every time the Italian vet threatened to put a little drama into the match and prevent Kvitova from clinching the tie. She wasn't successful, as Kvitova saved nine break points in her first four service games. Thus, the Czechs are heading back to the FC final for the third time in four years.

Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
...the weekend before the start of the Sochi Olympics in February, Makarova won a tour singles title in Pattaya. This weekend, the Hordette was actually IN Sochi helping the Russians avoid falling down into World Group II in 2015 after dropping two consecutive ties after a dispute between the players and the Russian Federation left the FC roster absent any experienced players in last year's final and in the '14 1st Round. Playing on indoor red clay, Makarova swept both her singles matches over Argentina's Paula Ormaechea and Maria Irigoyen in straight sets. The two wins equal Makarova's previous total of career FC singles wins. She's now 4-2.

Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
...the Canadian resurgence is being led by the 20-year old Bouchard, and she's finding ways to stay on her feet even as the spotlight continues to get brighter and brighter. Back home in Quebec, with the Genie Army at full force, Bouchard went 2-0 in singles to put the finishing touches on Canada's win over the Slovaks. Not that it was easy. In her first match, Kristina Kucova led 3-0 in the 1st and served at 5-4, holding four set points. But Bouchard forced a tie-break, took it at love, then won in three after Kucova had claimed the 2nd. On Sunday, Jana Cepelova served at 5-3 in the 1st and held a set point at 6-5, but Bouchard took another tie-break and won in straight sets.
Caroline Garcia/FRA
...whew! Garcia's weekend, were it not for the primacy of the semifinals, was more than enough for her to be in contention for overall P.O.W., not just one of the MVP awards. Hot off her title run in Bogota, Garcia was often scalding in St.Louis against Team USA. She destroyed Sloane Stephens to start things off, showing zero signs of nerves in what was her FC debut, then threw the French team a huge life vest after Alize Cornet's injury and Virginie Razzano's replacement loss, downing Madison Keys in 1:09 and sending things to the doubles. There, teamed with the far-more-veteran, but also-far-more-nervous, Razzano it was Garcia that provided the glue for the effort, constantly turning back any threat provided by Keys/Stephens, even after they'd come back from a double-break down in the 2nd set to edge into the lead. The Pastries won 6-2/7-5 to stay in the World Group for 2015, and they have Garcia and her three wins in the 3-2 victory to thank for it. Well, that and captain Amelie Mauresmo's continued ability to pick versatile rosters, convince players (remember, she even got Bartoli to reach an agreement to play last year) to sign up, and read their psyches well enough to place them into the best game day positions to win. Considering the obstacles and situations that Mauresmo has had to maneuver around this year, it's hard to imagine a team captain doing a better job than she has in 2014.
Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
...all hail, Aga. The Polish Queen of Fed Cup. Really, Radwanska IS Polish FC tennis, and she proved it all over against this weekend in Barcelona. While she went 2-0 in singles, allowing a total of nine games to Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor and running her FC winning streak to fourteen matches, her sister Ula went 0-2 against the same two Spaniards. U-Rad won her first set against MTTF, but then won just five games in her other four sets of play, as she's still obviously not yet fully recovered from the shoulder surgery that ended her '13 season early and delayed her '14 campaign. With Poland's place in the 2015 World Group at stake, Aga was called upon to add to her two singles points with another in doubles for the Poles to survive. This was the fourth time in Poland's last five ties that this scenario has occurred, as no Fed Cup team is more of a one-woman show than the one that stars A-Rad. Still, for the fourth time in four tries, Radwanska pulled it off, this time joining with Alicja Rosolska to defeat Anabel Medina-Garrigues and Soler-Espinosa 6-4/6-2 to give Poland the win and advance to next year's final eight. Aga now has a combined forty-one career FC singles & doubles match wins -- and she's only 25.

Sorana Cirstea/ROU
...Simona Halep is still the Pride of Romania, but it was Cirstea who was called upon to carry the flag in the WG II Playoff with Serbia. Opening things with a spectacular 3-6/6-1/6-2 win over best friend Ana Ivanovic, the Swarmette would go on to be the star of the weekend in Bucharest. After Halep finished off an interrupted Day 1 match with Bojana Jovanovski with a victory, but then lost in the contest with AnaIvo that immediately followed, Cirstea was left with the task of also defeating BoJo in order to send Romania to 2015's WG II, setting the stage for a potential run at a FC title in 2016. Her match with Jovanovski was a wild affair, as the Romanian led 6-3/5-2, but failed to convert three MP (DF-ing on one) before being forced to a tie-break, which the Serb won 9-7. Cirstea eventually pulled away in the 3rd, converting MP #6 to end the two and a half hour match and clinch the latest Romanian triumph.
Kiki Bertens/NED
...the Dutch-hosted tie with Japan figured to be a nip-and-tuck affair. It was, but if not for Bertens it might have been even closer. Her three-hour match #3 win over Kurumi Nara gave the Netherlands a 2-1 lead that was never relinquished. In the Nara match, Bertens overcame a 3-1 3rd set deficit, winning the final set at 9-7 on her fifth match point. She's now 14-1 in her Fed Cup career, including a spotless 8-0 in singles.
Timea Bacsinszky/SUI
...The Kid, aka Belinda Bencic, was the focus of conversation before Switzerland's tie with Brazil, but it was 24-year old Bacsinszky who kept the Swiss team from falling back into zone play for 2015, opening play with a straight sets win over Brazilian #1 Teliana Pereira (who'd come back to defeat Bencic on Sunday) and then clinching the tie with a win over Paula Cristina Goncalves that prevented things from going to the deciding doubles.
Johanna Larsson/SWE
...Sofia Arvidsson is into the 50's when it comes to FC ties in which she's participated in, but Larsson is no neophyte. She has nearly forty ties to her credit, and she's currently the only Top 100 player representing Sweden. She provided two of the Swedes' three singles win in their 4-0 win over Thailand, clinching the tie with a win on Sunday over Luksika Kumkhum one day after Arvidsson had sullied the Thai's previously-undefeated career FC record.

[Zone Play MVPs]
Stephanie Vogt/LIE
...Vogt, 24, is the best player in the history of Liechtenstein tennis, so it's fitting that she's the player to lead her tiny nation out of Zone II action for the very first time. She went 6-1 in pool and promotional playoff singles & doubles action in Europe/Africa II zone competition, notching the clinching 6-3/6-1 win over Bosnian revelation Jasmina Tinjic to secure her team's 2-0 promotional playoff victory.
Sofia Shapatava/GEO's hard to say there was a better player in zone play last week than the 25-year old Georgian. After all, she never lost any of her seven singles and doubles matches. And Georgia needed them all. The squad squeaked out of pool play, and had to go to a deciding doubles match against Finland in order to win the promotional playoff. Shapatava teamed with Oksana Kalashnikova for that decisive win.

Kurumi Nara/JPN
...2014 Rio champ Nara is this year's Fed Cup Hard Luck Award winner. In February, she unsuccessfully battled Argentina's Maria Irigoyen on the road in a match that might have tipped the tie in Japan's favor had Nara been able to escape with the win. In match #3 vs. the Dutch in the Netherlands, Nara again did battle in a match that might have tipped the tie to the Japanese side. With the nations tied at 1-1, as Nara had opened play with a three-set win over Arantxa Rus, the 22-year old took NED #1 Kiki Bertens to three sets, as well. In the 3:00 match, Nara actually led 3-1 in the 3rd before Bertens caught her and then won on her fifth match point.
Elena Vesnina/RUS
...maybe the Russian Federation's dispute with the players ended behind closed doors, or possibly it was Anastasia Myskina fully assuming team captain duties that was key. Or maybe it's not really over, and this face-saving tie win is just an aberration and the return of "C"-team squads will be in store in 2015. It could be that Vesnina was in action this weekend because Sochi is her home town, too. Whatever the case, the Russian, who had just one career FC singles win before this weekend, arguably put up the top single victory of the tie when she opened Day 1 by taking out Paula Ormaechea 6-3/6-3, putting the Argentine in her place despite her 11-1 record in her previous twelve FC matches.

Madison Keys/USA
...Keys was a lost soul in her FC debut vs. Italy in February, left to twist in the wind by U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez. After Sloane Stephens lost to Caroline Garcia to open the tie with France on Saturday, it was easy to think that Keys would do the same against Alize Cornet. She often played well, showing power and shot-making ability, but also an inconsistency and lack of a game plan that prevented her from holding onto any sort of advantage. But, sometimes, just not giving up is enough. Keys never did against Cornet, even as the Pastry was serving at 7-6/5-4. Eventually, Cornet's thigh injury slowed her down, and Keys kept enough of her powerful shots in the court to seize control of the match, twice going up a double-break (Cornet cut that lead in half both times) and win the 3:00 contest, knotting the tie and knocking Cornet out of action for Day 2. Heck, a case could be made that Keys even inspired Sloane Stephens to put up a decent effort and notch her first career FC win. THAT might be her biggest accomplishment of the weekend, actually. In the end, though, Keys was totally outclassed by Garcia in match #4, then her doubles inexperience showed in the deciding match with Stephens vs. Garcia and Virginie Razzano. Still, the small glimpse of Future Madison was enticing. It'll likely even be enough to keep MJF in place as the American captain for years. Not that that's necessarily a good thing, mind you.
Belinda Bencic/SUI
...17-year old Bencic wasn't THE star of the Swiss team this time around, but she played her role, winning match #2 over Brazil's Paula Cristina Goncalves to give Switzerland a 2-0 lead on Day 1. She lost on Sunday to Teliana Pereira, but Timea Bacsinszky picked up the slack and clinched the WG II Playoff win one match later. Bencic returned to play the "dead" doubles rubber, joining with Viktorija Golubic to push the final Swiss victory margin to 4-1 and run her career FC record to 5-3.

Jasmina Tinjic/BIH & Team Bosnia/Herzegovina one would have ever guessed that 23-year old Tinjic and the Bosnia/Herzegovina team would be the surprise revelations of Europe/Africa II zone play action. She notched two pool singles victories during the week, including an important one over RSA's Chanel Simmonds in Bosnia's 2-1 win over South Africa on Day 1 of action. That Bosnian win was the difference between one nation advancing to the promotional playoff instead of the other. Ultimately, Bosnia/Herzegovina lost to Liechenstein, but Tinjic took her place as the likely heir to the team leader role formerly held by Mervana Jugic-Salkic.

Alicja Rosolska/POL sort of get the feeling that it doesn't really matter which player might get teamed with Aga Radwanska in a deciding Fed Cup doubles match. They'll win just because of the overwhelming drive of her artistic, but driven partner. Well, for the second time in 2014, after a win over Sweden's Arvidsson/Larrson in February, it was Rosolska who teamed with A-Rad to carry Poland to victory, as the pair took out Anabel Medina-Garrigues & Silvia Soler-Espinosa to finish off a 3-2 defeat of Spain.

Lucie Safarova/CZE
...two years ago, it was Safarova who starred rather than the ill Petra Kvitova on the Czech Republic's successful FC final weekend. She only played one match in Ostrava, but her 6-4/6-1 first match win over Sara Errani knocked the already-lacking-confidence Team Italia off-kilter so much that it never recovered. The Italians were scrambling before a single ball was struck, fretting about the Czech advantage on indoor hard court in an arena where they'd beaten the Italians in the past. From the start, Roberta Vinci was subbed for on Day 1 by Camila Giori, presumably on a hunch that didn't pan out. When the "maybe" win over Safarova didn't come, since the Italians (rightly) seemed to think they had no chance against a healthy Kvitova under the roof, they threw their hands up. Vinci was suddenly brought in to face Kvitova on Day 2 after she wasn't allowed to do so on Day 1. That didn't work, either. Credit Safarova, mistress of shattered Italian dreams, for the wonderful mess that fell fully in the Czechs' favor.
Aleksandra Wozniak/CAN
...Wozniak is the top Fed Cup player in Canadian history, and she added a chapter to her under-the-radar legacy in the World Group Playoff against the Slovak Republic in Quebec City. In the opening singles match against Jana Cepelova, A-Woz overcame a 6-4/5-2 deficit with the young Slovak serving at 5-3, then did it again when Cepelova served at 5-3 in the 3rd set, getting to within two points of victory. When Kristina Kucova pushed Eugenie Bouchard to three sets in match #2 (Genie eventually won) it was clear just how important Wozniak's win actually was.

Andrea Petkovic/GER
...after providing the tone-setting match #1 win over Dominika Cibulkova (back from MP) against the Slovaks in February, German Secret Weapon Petkovic did the same in Brisbane against Sam Stosur. She was on top of the Aussie from the start, jumping her like a mugger in an alley, knocking her over the head and carrying off a 6-1 1st set before Stosur knew what hit her. She recovered in time to take a 5-3 lead in the 2nd, and served for the set at 5-4. But one moment of hesitation -- a DF at 30/15 -- and Petkovic was all over her again. It ultimately took Petko five match points to finally claim the match, with the potential that her nerves could get to her in the 3rd if it came to that surely playing on her mind. She didn't let it deviate her from her comeback course, though. With two starring Fed Cup roles and a Charleston title in her pocket, everyone is starting to remember just how exciting a presence the German was on tour a few seasons ago. Let's hope her body stays healthy enough for her to climb all the way back up to where she was back in 2011 before her career was so rudely interrupted.
Sloane Stephens/USA
...yeah, maybe this is a BIT of a stretch. After all, the listless Current Sloane WAS in attendance in St.Louis on Saturday in her loss to Carolina Garcia in the U.S.'s World Group Playoff match-up with France. But after Madison Keys' stick-with-it win over Alize Cornet, and the resulting thigh injury that kept the Pastry out of her scheduled match on Day 2 with Stephens, the American was finally chagrined enough to put up a good effort to give the Bannerettes at 2-1 lead with a victory over replacement Pastry Virginie Razzano. Okay, maybe Current Sloane wasn't so embarrassed by Keys' victory -- after all, the recent success of the likes of the younger Bouchard, Garcia, Svitolina and now Vekic hasn't seemed to make a difference with her on-court drive to strive -- that she played like Future Sloane to save face, but the win WAS her first career FC victory. One is more than zero. Progress. Or close enough. Being placed into the deciding doubles match with Keys -- two players with no real experience, though Stephens was a good doubles player as a junior -- by U.S. coach Mary Joe Fernandez was never going to be a favorable situation, so that the pair came back from two breaks down in the 2nd against Garcia and Razzano to briefly take the lead, only to lose in straight sets, has to be looked at as neither a good or bad effort. It's basically a wash. Still, Stephens left St.Louis with SOMETHING good on her resume, and I can't say that I was really expecting that.
Arantxa Rus/NED
...Rus has had her share of troubles over the last couple of seasons on the WTA tour -- she's yet to record a main draw win in '14 after suffering through a similar 17-match such streak from 2012-13 -- but she's played just fine in Fed Cup action. She opened the Netherlands' tie with Japan with a three-set loss to Kurumi Nara, but she redeemed herself on Sunday by getting the clinching point in a straight sets win over Misaki Doi.
Emma Laine/FIN
...the 28-year undertook the role of player/captain for the Fin team in Europe/Africa II zone action, and she very nearly put the team on her back all the way to promotion. The all-time Fin leader in FC wins (30+ singles victories in 40 ties), Laine hadn't played a Fed Cup match in two years and came in ranked barely in the WTA Top 1000. Still, she went 5-1 in singles & doubles in pool play and got Finland to within the deciding doubles of winning the promotional playoff against Georgia.

Team SRB
...I'm tempted to say that the Serbs deserve what they get for failing to include Serbian Good Luck Charm Aleksandra Krunic on the roster. Although, since the tie never actually came down to the deciding doubles, the faux pas wasn't nearly as egregious as Mary Joe Fernandez not including an experienced doubles player on the U.S. roster, eventually ensuring defeat. Still, it's something of a karmic victory that ever since the Serbs started to throw anyone and everyone with "SRB" by their name onto FC rosters instead of (now-only-added-to-the-roster-if-multiple-players-get-injured) Krunic, who participated in a series of successful deciding doubles matches during the team's climb to the 2012 Fed Cup final, Serbia has yet to win a single tie. The 4-1 loss to Romania in the World Group II Playoffs gives Team Serbia five straight tie defeats, and the return to zone play in '15 is now complete as even the addition of AnaIvo to the roster this weekend wasn't enough to turn the tide of what became a 4-1 defeat. Serves them right.
Mary Joe Fernandez
...oh, MJF isn't going anywhere as the U.S. FC team captain, but once again her maneuvers on a Fed Cup weekend left much to be desired. You can't judge a FC (or any other) captain/coach by what happens when a team includes someone, like, say Serena Williams. It's when the team doesn't have a virtual nuclear weapon at its disposal that you can see whether or not any real decision-making is taking place. Whether it be sudden stars on the other side of the net (Karin Knapp, Caroline Garcia) or injuries (to Serena Williams, Varvara Lepchenko, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, etc.), MJF always seems to have a ready reason to get her off the hook for the U.S.'s continued Fed Cup failures. But, unlike with the woeful U.S. men's Davis Cup team, Fernandez has a deep and/or young pool of players to build a roster from these days. Still, MJF can't get anything accomplished unless the Williams Sisters put the team on their backs and carry it over the finish line. While the U.S. losing effort in the World Group Playoff vs. France in St.Louis wasn't the same disaster on the court that the one in Cleveland vs. Italy was in February, the glaring holes in MJF's captaincy were just as apparent. Two months ago, she threw her young roster members to the sharks and watched them drown, not putting more stable players into action (or, in the case of Lepchenko that particular week, even including her on the 1st Round roster) who'd have a better chance of winning until it was too late. This weekend, she got more than a little lucky, as the French team was without doubles star Kristina Mladenovic, and then Alize Cornet's injury led to one French loss on Saturday, and arguably another on Sunday when Virginie Razzano was a late singles replacement. Still, it wasn't enough, as French captain Amelie Mauresmo -- with one and half hands tied behind her back -- was still able to put together a more competent doubles duo from her decimated roster than MJF was from her's, which didn't include a single doubles player, even with doubles specialists such as Liezel Huber, Lisa Raymond, Raquel Kops-Jones, Abigail Spears and (the perfect singles/doubles combo player/vet, if versatility was an issue) Vania King (who just reached the singles SF and doubles final in Bogota) all sporting American credentials. As it was, roster members Christina McHale and Lauren Davis served as mere uniform-clad, not-particularly-vocal cheerleaders next to the posing-for-Mount-Rushmore visage provided by MJF. Oh, and speaking of Mauresmo, the contrast between the two captains on the sidelines couldn't have been greater. While Mauresmo constantly encouraged her charges, firing them up and spurring them on (sort of a pre-requisite in FC settings, right?), MJF usually sat stoically watching the action, looking as if she was solving some complex quadratic equation in her head while, say, Sloane Stephens was running the U.S. effort into a ditch in match #1 on Saturday. But, as I said, MJF got lucky thanks to Cornet's injury, and she should give Keys a big hug for making her look good, even if the young Bannerette's best move was just to not give up on herself when it looked as if Cornet was going to run away with match #2. What could have been a shutout loss turned into a near-victory that looks better on paper than it was in reality. But the Tennis Reaper got Fernandez in the end, thanks to the poor roster-building skills (either hers or those of other Powers That Be) that failed to provide ANY clear option if things went to the deciding doubles. I'm glad the American team lost... aside from anything that actually happened between the lines of the court, the U.S. didn't deserve to win. Being short-sighted shouldn't be rewarded.
Team SVK Cibulkova. No Hantuchova. No fun. Although, it should be noted that new Team SVK leader Jana Cepelova, the Charleston runner-up a few weeks ago, DID manage to follow in her veteran countrywomen's footsteps, considering their fumbled tie vs. Germany in February and blown 2-0 semifinal lead over the Russians last year. So the vets were in Quebec City in spirit, I guess. On Day 1 against Aleksandra Wozniak, Cepelova led 6-4/5-2 and served at 5-3, only to be forced to a 3rd set, then led 3-1 and served at 5-3 in the 3rd set, only to lose despite coming within two points of victory. On Day 2, Cepelova led Genie Bouchard 5-3 in the 1st, and held a set point at 6-5. She lost in straight sets. Yeah, I know I could have given Cepelova the "DOWN" designation rather than the entire Slovak team, which on the whole played fairly well. Kristina Kucova pushed Bouchard on Sunday, and the doubles team of Janette Husarova and Anna Schmiedlova got a win in the "dead" doubles rubber over Gabriela Dabrowski and Sharon Fichman. I COULD have done that. But, really, after her run in Charleston, I just didn't have the heart to come down hard on Cepelova, who really shouldn't have been forced to carry such a big load ALONE (hmmm... that's become a pattern with her, hasn't it?) less than a year after a filled-with-talent Slovak team was THIS CLOSE to reaching the final.
Chanel Simmonds/RSA
...there were seemingly four top teams in Europe/Africa II zone pool play, and three of them advanced to the promotional playoff round. The only one that didn't was South Africa. Simmonds, the third highest-ranked player in last week's pool play, put up a combined 1-4 record in singles & doubles (w/ the win coming via a retirement) in pool action that played the monster role in the poor end result. As it turned out, the South African team was behind the eight ball right from the start, dropping its opening tie of pool play against Bosnia & Herzegovina when Simmonds and vet Natalie Grandin lost the deciding doubles match to Jasmina Tinjic (who'd also beaten Simmonds in singles) and Anita Husaric. Simmonds finally got an actual win in the relegation playoff, but all it did was help RSA finish in 5th place in the zone.

WTA PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Donna Vekic/CRO it turned out, Vekic's third trip to a WTA singles final was the charm. In a week that saw the Croat face off against rain delays and having to come back from a set down on three occasions -- vs. Chan Yung-Jan, Kristyna Pliskova and Zhang Shuai -- just to get into the final, Vekic had a whole different set of problems once she got their against Dominika Cibulkova. Looking to grab her first career title, as well as notch the first Top 10 (and Top 20) win of her career, Vekic took a 4-2 1st set led, only to drop the set and then fall behind 7-5/5-4. She turned things around, winning seven straight games to claim the 2nd and go up 4-0, then 5-1, in the 3rd. She held four match points at 5-2, but Cibulkova, as she is wont to do in 2014, refused to give up and got the match into a deciding tie-break. Vekic finally won the 2:51 match on her seventh MP, becoming the fifth maiden WTA singles champ this season and the youngest -- at 17 years and just under 11 months -- on tour since Vania King won in Bangkok in 2006 at 17 years, eight and a half months of age. So, add another name to the suddenly growing list of 21-and-under players not named Sloane who are picking up tour singles titles. Vekic is on her way up and ready to make a name for herself... even if a Tennis Channel graphic on Sunday asked whether or not she "The Next SERBIAN Star."
RISER: Timea Babos/HUN
...move over Kristina Mladenovic? Babos, too, is a young former junior singles star who has put up much greater results in doubles in the early stages of her WTA career. The Hungarian grabbed the Kuala Lumpur doubles title with Chan Hao-Ching, her second title of '14 and her seventh -- with six different partners -- over a stretch of less than two years. Babos has yet to crack the Top 20 in doubles, but she surely looks on track to do so in the near future.
SURPRISES: Cagla Buyukakcay/TUR, Chan Hao-Ching/TPE and Chan Yung-Jan/TPE
...24-year old Buyukakcay, after advancing past Kimiko Date-Krumm (retired) and Tadeja Majeric in Kuala Lumpur, became the first Turk to reach a tour singles quarterfinal. Meanwhile, the Chan sisters performing well on the doubles court isn't a surprise, as both are accomplished players. That they both played in the Kuala Lumpur final isn't a shock, either. After all, they won a WTA crown together in Shenzhen last year and combined to reach the Charleston final just a few weeks ago. What is a surprise is that after reaching six professional doubles finals as an all-sister duo, their berths in the final this weekend in Malaysia marked the first time they'd faced off AGAINST each other on such an occasion. Hao-Ching & Timea Babos defeated Yung-Jan and Zheng Saisai in straight sets, with the younger sister grabbing career WTA title #3. Oh, well... at least now the Chans will surely how have something different to talk about.
FRESH FACE: Zarina Diyas/KAZ
...the 20-year old Kazakh reached her first tour QF in two years in Kuala Lumpur, where she took the opening set and pushed Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovak saved twenty of the twenty-six break points Diyas held on her serve, winning in three sets. Diyas has been making steady progress in 2014, having recently climbed into the Top 100 and this seek setting a new career-high ranking of #85. She previously notched wins over Camila Giorgi, Marina Erakovic and Aleksandra Krunic this season.
...Min, 19, defeated fellow American teen Vicky Duval, 18, to claim the $50K challenger in Dothan, Alabama. Min got wins over Heidi El Tabakh, Veronica Cepede Royg and Allie Kiick to reach final, and the 6-3/6-1 win over Duval gives her five career ITF singles crowns.
JUNIOR STARS: Kristina Schmiedlova/SVK & Katarina Jokic/SRB
...while Anna Schmiedlova was getting a FC doubles win in Quebec City, and the Serbs were losing in Bucharest, these two were in Florence, Italy looking to grab a Grade 2 junior crown that will be decided on the red clay on Monday. Schmiedlova, 16, is the #10-ranked junior and the #1-seed at the event. She enters the final at 13-1 on the season in junior action, with a ten-match winning streak that includes a win over Jokic in a Grade 1 final in Umag. Jokic, also 16, is the #2 seed and #65-ranked girl. She arrives in the final riding a nine-match overall winning streak that includes a $10K challenger title in Croatia two weeks ago.
Note: Jokic defeated Schmiedlova in the final.

1. KL Final - Vekic d. Cibulkova
Cibulkova erased a 4-2 1st set deficit to grab the lead, but then saw her own 7-5/5-4 lead get reversed by the Croat. In the 3rd, it was Vekic's turn to lose a lead, as Cibulkova came back from 5-1 and 4 MP down to force a tie-break. Vekic's win means that fourteen different nations have produced singles champions in the WTA's first twenty events.
2. KL QF - Cibulkova d. Diyas
Cepelova could have used a few of those twenty break points that Cibulkova saved here.

1. KL SF - Cibukova d. Karolina Pliskova
En route to the final, Cibulkova twice had to come back from a set down, including here against defending champion Pliskova. Still, her 24 match wins lead the tour this season.
2. KL 2nd Rd. - Vekic d. Kristyna Pliskova
Apparently, dropping the 1st set to a Czech sibling was the way to reach the final.
3. KL Doubles Final - Babos/Chan Hao-Ching d. Chan Yung-Jan/Zheng Saisai
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

**2015 FED CUP**
=World Group=
Czech Republic
=World Group II=
Slovak Republic
United States

**18 or under WTA TITLES SINCE 2007**
5...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (2008-09)
2...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS (2010-11)
2...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL (2007)
2...Agnes Szavay, HUN (2008)
1...Timea Babos, HUN (2012)
1...Sorana Cirstea, ROU (2008)
1...Alize Cornet, FRA (2008)
1...Petra Kvitova, CZE (2009)
1...Elina Svitolina, UKR (2013)
1...DONNA VEKIC, CRO (2014)
NOTE: Vania King (17) in Bangkok '06 was last under-18 before Vekic

20...Caroline Garcia, FRA (Bogota)
20...Garbine Muguruza, ESP (Hobart)
22...Simona Halep, ROU (Doha)
22...Kurumi Nara, JPN (Rio)
22...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS (Paris)

**2014 WTA FINALS**
3...Li Na, CHN (2-1)
3...Klara Koukalova, CZE (1-2)

Paris - A.Pavlyuchenkova (SF-Sharapova)
Rio - Kurumi Nara (F-Zakopalova)
Florianopolis - Klara Zakopalova (SF-Suarez-Navarro)
Indian Wells - Flavia Pennetta (SF-Li)
Katowice - Alize Cornet (SF-A.Radwanska)
Bogota - Caroline Garcia (F-Jankovic)
Kuala Lumpur - DONNA VEKIC (F-Cibulkova)

...Vika, still on ice. In this case, literally.

STUTTGART, GERMANY (Premier $719K/red clay indoor)
13 Final: Sharapova d. Li (Sharapova 2012-13)
13 Doubles Final: Barthel/Lisicki d. Mattek-Sands/Mirza
14 Top Seeds: A.Radwanska/Halep

#6 Sharapova d. #4 Kerber
#2 Halep d. Ivanovic #5 Jankovic
#2 Halep d. #6 Sharapova many crazy match-ups here, including JJ/AnaIvo in the 1st Round, as well as Petkovic/Pennetta. It's a really well-stocked draw, as long as all the FC participants actually play, as Kvitova, Lisicki, Kuznetsova, Errani, Wozniacki, Makarova, Safarova, Pavlyuchenkova, Koukalova, Cirstea and Vinci are all also in the draw. I'll go with Simona, just because she might want to immediately put behind her that second-match-of-the-day loss to AnaIvo on Sunday.

NOTE: So far, Wozniacki and Cibulkova have already pulled out, moving AnaIvo's spot in the draw, so I'll go with JJ in the semis.

MARRAKECH, MOROCCO (Int'l $250K/red clay outdoor)
13 Final: Schiavone d. Dominguez-Lino
13 Doubles Final: Babos/Minella d. Martic/Mladenovic
14 Top Seeds: Hantuchova/Svitolina

#8 Schiavone d. Dominguez-Lino
#5 Muguruza d. Torro-Flor
#5 Muguruza d. #8 Schiavone, this is a messy draw, especially the top half. So, I'll go with a for-old-time's-sake semi in the top half which is actually a rematch of last year's final. Meanwhile, if Muguruza can just get out of her own way...

All right, it looks like it's time to put this thing to bed. So...

All for now.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

FC II Day 1 Update, Part 2: Cornet + Cramps = Future Madison?

We might have glimpsed a tiny bit of the future on Saturday night in the USA/France tie, but it wasn't Future Sloane who made a cameo.

It was... Future Madison? Of course, it took the cramping up of Alize Cornet to drag her out into the spotlight.

The final FC II action of Saturday took place in the late afternoon and into the evening in North America. In both ties, the host nations had something to smile about on the eve of Day 2.

In Quebec City, Team Canada took a 2-0 lead against the visiting Slovak Republic. But, whew, it wasn't an easy task. In the opening match, all-time Canadian FC star Aleksandra Wozniak (30 singles wins in 33 ties) faced off with Charleston finalist Jana Cepelova, suddenly the top-ranked player in action from her nation with the absence of Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova. As it turned out, the 20-year did a right fine impersonation of the sort of results that both her more veteran countrywomen had in February.

And that isn't a good thing.

Cepelova led Wozniak 6-4/5-2 and seemed on course for a win. She served for the match at 5-3, only to be broken and drop the set 7-5. In the 3rd, she led 3-1 and served once again for the match at 5-3. After getting within two points of victory, she was broken again and Wozniak went on to take the 2:22 opening match 4-6/7-5/7-5.

In the second match, Eugenie Bouchard played Kristina Kucova, who turned out to be anything but a pushover. The Slovak grabbed a quick 3-0 lead in the 1st, and served for the set at 5-4. She held four set points. But Bouchard took the set to a tie-break, which the Canadian won 7-0. Kucova didn't go away, though, and took the 2nd set to knot the match. Finally, with the all-volunteer Genie Army having predictably pulled together a vocal majority in Quebec, Bouchard took the match 7-6(0)/2-6/6-1.

There was even more drama in the USA/France tie in St.Louis, though early on it didn't look as if that was going to be the case.

In the opening match, Bogota champ Caroline Garcia easily dispatched the "more experienced" Fed Cup player Sloane Stephens, dominating from the start and showing zero nerves in a 6-3/6-2 victory. While Garcia was constantly bolstered by vocal French captain Amelie Mauresmo, the low energy-looking Current Sloane was supported by the low-energy looking U.S. bench and a very serious Mary Joe Fernandez. Tennis Channel commentator Rennae Stubbs, in direct opposition to what she was seeing with the U.S. team, talked about how vocal she and her Aussie teammates were during her Fed Cup career. I found myself agreeing with her, especially noting the great contrast with how MJF did very little to emotionally prop up Stephens and how Mauresmo expertly handled Garcia. But, then again, it was also easy to wonder if any amount of cheering or support would spark Current Sloane. Just ask Paul Annacone, who's still trying (in vain?) to find exactly what it is that will motivate Stephens on a match in and match out basis. The commentators at TC seemed to think that Stephens' loss was some huge shock. But, really, anyone who's been watching over the past year would have been more shocked if it'd been Future Sloane who'd shown up in St.Louis, rather than the same old Current Sloane who did.

Maybe how Madison Keys hung in and eventually outlasted Alize Cornet in the second match will do the trick for Stephens on Day 2, dragging her future self out into the light somewhere other than at a slam? Yeah, probably not. Still, on the same night that fellow generational stars Garcia and Bouchard notched big wins, Stephens' inability to follow suit speaks loads... even if she's too distracted to hear it.

Keys was a ghost of a player in her FC debut in February, where she also took to the court with the U.S. trailing 1-0. She had a hard time even winning a game vs. Italy. That wasn't the case here, as she flashed her power strokes and had quite a few nice winners. Unfortunately, she usually followed them up with errors that gave back to Cornet whatever advantage she'd grabbed or change of momentum she might have kicked off. Keys broke Cornet when the Pastry served for the 1st at 5-3, forcing things to a tie-break, but the Frenchwoman won it 7-4 to take the lead one hour into the match.

Katowice champ Cornet went up 3-1 in the 2nd, saving six break points in a 14-minute game, but things began to fall apart not long afterward when her movement and serve began to be compromised by cramping in her left thigh. Three double-faults (she couldn't push off her leg) in a single game broke Cornet for 3-3, but Keys couldn't keep the advantage. Trying to end things and not be forced into the unknown territory of a 3rd set, the Pastry reached 5-3 and served for the match at 5-4. But the Bannerette stuck with it, got the break and improved her play down the stretch as Cornet's game became more and more limited. Pulling away at 4-4 in the 2nd set tie-break, Keys won 7-4 then took a two-break lead in the 3rd. The double-break was a necessity, it turned out, since Cornet twice cut the lead in half by getting breaks of her own (usually helped along by Keys errors and/or ill-timed double-faults). It wasn't enough, though. Keys, exponentially more fired up than Stephens, showed a bit of what she might eventually be able to do with a little more WTA seasoning, winning 6-7(4)/7-6(4)/6-3 in nearly three hours.

Maybe more importantly for the Bannerette team, Cornet is scheduled to face Stephens in the first match on Sunday afternoon. If she can't physically make the start time, Mauresmo will once again to called upon to expertly juggle her roster in a way that will give it a chance for success. Oh, where is La Trufflette when Mauresmo needs her? Cornet would likely be replaced by Virginie Razzano in the opening match, giving Stephens, in the wake of the Keys success that she watched from the sidelines, the chance to put up a win that would make the Garcia/Keys meeting in the second match a potentially titanic (or maybe Titanic, depending on what happens) clash.

Of course, the likelihood of another "Sloany" performance from Stephens would probably make Razzano the unexpected star of Day 2. under such circumstances. But the U.S. doesn't necessarily need a win from Stephens to win the tie. Remember, doubles player extraordinaire Kristina Mladenovic is also out injured, meaning Mauresmo might choose to keep Cornet in reserve for that possible no-holds-barred match, or use her team-reading skills to come up with the right doubles combo for success on a roster that is suddenly limping toward the finish line.

If Mauresmo, with one (and maybe half of another) hand tied behind her back, can still find the lineup that can take out the U.S. squad, her captaincy abilities will once more dwarf those we've seen from MJF in any tie that hasn't involved a Williams.


Well, if the Brazilians were pinning all their hopes on the idea that Belinda Bencic's tempter and youth would cause her to fold in the clutch so that they could advance past the Swiss and out of zone play in 2015 for the first ever, it looks like they were mightily mistaken. After Brazilian #1 Teliana Periera's first match loss to Timea Bacsinszky, 17-year old Bencic followed up with a straight sets win over Paula Cristina Goncalves, coming back from an early break in the 1st to win 6-3/6-3 to give her squad a commanding 2-0 lead. Bencic can clinch the win for Switzerland with an opening match victory over Peliana on Sunday.

All for now.


FC II Day 1 Update, Part 1: Ding-Dong, Aussies No Home

After (most of) Day 1 of the second weekend of Fed Cup action in 2014, some national dreams are still alive. As for others... well, they're looking like a half-eaten chocolate egg on an Easter holiday weekend.

A quick update on the activity so far, with Part 2 covering the remaining action in North and South America arriving a little later on...

...the semifinal match-ups were a study in contrasts, as recent FC powerhouses Italy and the Czech Republic met for one berth in the final, while Australia and Germany faced off with the winner set to reach the Fed Cup final for the first time in twenty years. As it turned out, the Day 1 matches were studies in contrast, too. And that wasn't a good thing for the defending champion Italians and hosting Aussies.

In Brisbane, just as she did against the Slovak Republic in February, Charleston champ Andrea Petkovic, while not the highest-ranked German, led things off against the opponent's #1-ranked player. Two months ago, she saved a match point against Dominika Cibulkova and set the table -- and tone -- for a German victory. She did the same against Samantha Stosur on Saturday, though she didn't find herself pushed into a desperate corner like she did against the Slovak. Instead it was Petkovic who came out on top of Stosur from the start, dominating a 6-1 1st set. Stosur rebounded in the 2nd, pulling her game together and taking a 5-3 lead. She served for the set at 5-4, but then Stosur blinked (a DF at 30/15) and Petkovic's forehand once again began to dominate the match. She got the break and pushed things to a tie-break, taking a 3-1 lead before Stosur got back to 3-3. Petkovic reached triple match point at 6-3, only to see Stosur save four match points, making Petkovic play more shots and hoping that nerves would take hold. In the end, they didn't, and then Stosur flew a forehand long on MP #5 and Petkovic won 6-1/7-6(7).

Once again, Petkovic had set the German tone. Meanwhile, Stosur had put Casey Dellacqua into a tremendously pressure-packed situation with a win in match #2 now a necessity. It was a situation she didn't didn't handle well, either. Or maybe it'd be just as accurate to say that Angelique Kerber, as she did against the Slovak Republic, took the baton from Petkovic and shoved it down her opponent's throat. Kerber raced to a 4-0 lead and won 6-1/6-0 in less thanan hour. Still, her winner counter hit 31 for the quick match.

Ding-dong, the Aussies look dead.

Although Australian captain Alicia Molik says, in a worst case scenario, she thought her team would be knotted at 1-1 (it's nice to have confidence, but I'm not really sure where it came from), the Aussies are down 2-0 and their remaining chances to advance to the final would appear to be as solid as a melted Fed Cup chocolate egg. Petkovic got her own "Easter egg" in the match, as it turned out, when she whacked her left shin with her racket during a serve. The result was a throbbing lump and a slight cut. Said Petkorazzi, "It is hurting lots. I think I like broke my leg, but what can you do? It’s Easter and this is my Easter Egg."

Things weren't much better for the Italians in Ostrava, minus any actual blood loss.

Smarting from a loss in the last year's FC semis on clay against a hosting Italian squad, the Czechs were all about confidence on the indoor hard court in the Czech Republic. Before a ball was struck in the tie, it was apparent that the Italians were worried. I'm not sure whether it says more about the Czech squad, Italian team captain Corrado Barazzutti, slumping Roberta Vinci (who openly talked of the Czech advantage on the CEZ Arena court surface this week) or spark plug Camila Giorgi, but that Vinci was left off the Day 1 playing schedule said quite a bit about a lot of things. Remember, this is the same Vinci who led Team Italia to the FC title last year, and who notched a win over Kvitova on indoor hard court in Katowice last spring... but she's also the player who's gone a nightmarish 2-9 this season since starring in last year's FC final. If confidence is as confidence does, then there was very little where Vinci was concerned.

Errani, to be honest, hasn't been a great deal better in '14, losing her Top 10 ranking. Still, as the highest-ranked Italian, she was placed in the lead role for this tie. Thing is, she opened with a 6-4/6-1 loss to Lucie Safarova. Then Giorgi, in the lineup in place of Vinci, was run over by a 6-2/6-2 score by Petra Kvitova, reverting to her usual great FC form even in the middle of another trying WTA season. On Sunday, Kvitova can clinch the Czechs' third trip to the FC final in four years with a win in the opening match against Errani.

A Czech advancement seems nearly a fait accompli, but there might be a smidgen of a shot for the Aussies. Stosur opens Day 2 against Kerber, against whom she's 2-0, including a win in FC play in 2012. If Petkovic had been pushed to a 3rd set by Stosur, nerves might have become a factor there for the German, and with the final on the line against Dellacqua in match #4, they could become the third player on the court. The Barty/Dellacqua doubles combo would give Australia a shot in the deciding doubles to pull off the same sort of comeback from 2-0 that the Slovaks accomplished against Russia in last year's semifinals. It's getting to that final match that is going to be an egg of a challenge.

...while the semifinals are a bit lopsided, the playoffs for a spot in the 2015 World Group are a bit more competitive. Well, some of them.

In Sochi, Elena Vesnina returned to her hometown and got the Hordette team off to a good start, defeating Argentina's Paula Ormaechea on the red clay 6-3/6-3. Ekaterina Makarova followed up with a 7-5/6-1 victory over Maria Irigoyen to give Russia a solid 2-0 lead. The story of this tie is the Anastasia Myskina's team is actually sporting proven WTA talent this time around, and Saturday's results show why the Russians have been a dominant FC force for a decade. Vesnina and Makarova are the 2nd and 5th-ranked women from their nation, but they were more than enough to grab a big advantage over an Argentine team playing on its favorite surface. The regular, slam-winning doubles pair won't likely even have to team up for the doubles.

In Barcelona, once again, the Polish Fed Cup effort will center around Aga Radwanska, as the entire tie looks as if it will rest on her shoulders . No big surprise, really. Poland's best-ever player opened with a 6-2/6-2 win over Spain's Silvia Soler-Espinosa, but when her little sister Ula lost 4-6/6-0/6-1 to Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor in match #2 it put the pressure squarely on A-Rad for Sunday. If Poland is going to advance, Aga will likely have to play a part in all three of the points needed to win. A win over the big-hitting MTTF isn't a given for her, either. If the Spaniard end's Aga's now 13-match FC singles winning streak, Ula will have to rise up against SSE to push things to the doubles. This one could get dicey. Aga might need some additional "help," if you know what I mean... but she seems to have been "going it alone" since last year's Wimbledon semifinal.

The USA/FRA and CAN/SVK ties in North America will be played later this afternoon. I'll post an update on those later.

...with spots in the 2015 World Group II at stake, the cream is rising.

The majority of the Romania/Serbia tie in Bucharest will have to wait until Sunday, as rain stopped played with Simona Halep up 3-1 over Bojana Jovanovski in match #2 on Saturday. But what's already happened is quite noteworthy, as Sorana Cirstea opened play with a stunning 3-6/6-1/6-2 win over her friend Ana Ivanovic, whose 2014 1Q resurgence was hoped to be set to prevent the Serbian squad from dropping a fifth straight tie since reaching the 2012 FC final. This one has the potential to be a great contest, but if AnaIvo isn't going to hold up her end of the deal it might be a whitewash as long as the rain doesn't wash away the entire weekend. The chances for this to be a case of a team on the rise going by a one-time power like two ships passing in the night were always great, but that's even more the case now.

In 's-Hertogenbosch, with the Dutch hosting a tie for the first time in fifteen years, it was Japan that struck the first blow as Kurumi Nara took out Arantxa Rus in three sets 7-5/2-6/6-1 on the indoor red clay. Kiki Bertens knotted things with a 6-0/7-6(3) win over Misaki Doi. This one has the distinct smell of a tie that's going to get to the deciding doubles contest.

In Lidkoping, the host Swedes put the tie on the shoulders of the team's veterans and, unlike Serbia, no one was disappointed in the least. Johanna Larsson opened with a 6-1/6-3 win over Thailand's Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, then 50-tie participant Sofia Arvidsson ended Luksika Kumkhum's undefeated FC run (8-0) with a 6-4/6-2 win that puts Sweden in a commanding position. At the very least, it'd be nice to see the doubles match played here -- even as a dead rubber -- just so that Tammy Tanasugarn can maybe get onto the court. The 36-year old is in her 53rd career tie, with the first having come twenty-one years ago when she was just 15.

In Catanduva, the host Brazilians are trying to finally climb out of zone play for the first time ever, and they began by poking the bear before the first match was played. "The bear," of course, is young Belinda Bencic, who starred in Switzerland's February loss to France. Brazilian captain Carla Tiene noted the expected enthusiasm of the Brazilian crowd in Catanduva the other day, and she questioned whether the teenager's temper and nerves might get the better of her in such an atmosphere. Well, after Brazil's best player, Teliana Pereira (pulling some "boxing/MMA press conference" moves on Bencic the other day) opened the tie by losing to Timea Bacsinszky by a 6-3/6-3 score, the Brazilians are now going to need Bencic to falter if they're going to have any sort of chance (she's playing Paula Cristina Goncalves, having come back from an early break to win the 1st set, as I post this update). Either way, Sunday's Bencic/Pereira match is going to be key.

**Zone Play**
=EUROPE/AFRICA II at Siauliai, Lithuania=
...the two team that earned promotion from Zone II are Liechtenstein and Georgia.

Liechenstein reached a new all-time FC stage today with a 2-0 win in the promotional playoff over Bosnia & Herzegovina. After Kathinka von Deichmann's opening match victory, Stephanie Vogt clinched the advancement with a 6-3/6-1 win over zone group revelation-of-the-week Jasmina Tinjic. Meanwhile, Georgia had to win a deciding doubles match over Finland in a 2-1 victory. Oksana Kalashnikova and Sofia Shapatava defeated playing captain Emma Laine and Piia Suomalainen 6-4/6-1 to advance, as Shapatava pushed her singles/doubles mark for the week to 7-0.

Following Part II later tonight, I'll have the complete weekly wrap-up of FC play posted for Monday.

All for now.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fed Cup II Preview: Is That History Calling?

Yes, they're contesting a (cutting-off-their-nose-to-spite-their-collective-face) tour-level event in Kuala Lumpur this week, but the real action of Week 16 will be taking place on Fed Cup weekend.

For whom will history come calling?

Will it be the Italians or Czechs who'll give themselves a chance to add to a rich FC history? Will 2014's Cinderella-Rumpelstiltskin hybrid speak with an Aussie or German accent? Will Aga be golden, and The Kid put up results far beyond her years once more? Will the so recently trod-upon Serbs rise up, or be the next logical stepping stone for the reaching-for-their-dreams Romanians? Oh, and can Current Sloane lead the American team... haha... to... haha, sorry ... vic-. No, I just can't say it.

I SUPPOSE the Future could arrive this weekend. But don't hold your breath.

Italy at Czech Republic - Ostrava/HCI
CZE: Kvitova, Safarova, Koukalova, Hlavackova
ITA: Errani, Vinci, Knapp, Giorgi

...these two can't seem to get out of each others way. And when they do meet, to the victory usually goes ALL the spoils. Italy and the Czech Republic have already met three times since 2010, with the home nation prevailing each time and eventually being crowned Fed Cup champion. Whoever wins here will be the favorite in this year's final, too. So many of these players have been FC heroes. Kvitova was a dominant force in the Czechs' 2011 title run, and Lucie Safarova stepped in for a barely-over-bronchitis Petra en route to the '12 crown. Roberta Vinci was the Team Italia leader in the '13 final, while Karin Knapp stepped in to fill the role in February vs. the U.S. team (interestingly, both woman have barely been shadows of their FC selves ever since). Someone will take control here, and it's easy to think it'll be Kvitova on the indoor hard court. But, remember, Vinci defeated Kvitova in back-to-back matches last spring, first in Katowice and then in the FC semis (where she also defeated Safarova, though it was on red clay). In that same tie, Errani lost to Kvitova, while also defeating Safarova. Kvitova, Errani and Vinci have all had poor 2014 seasons, while Safarova had a match point against eventual Australian Open champ Li Na in Melbourne. All these things would seem to make this a nip-and-tuck affair, but the last three FC ties between these nations have ended with 5-0, 4-1 and 3-1 scores. Usually, one team dominates, so it'll probably happen again. All things being equal, I'd go with it being the Czechs. They'd better be the ones, because, even while they can put up a good duo (even without Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova not on this roster after teaming with Andrea Hlavackova in the deciding doubles match vs. Spain in February) should this come down to a single match, one wouldn't want to HAVE to defeat the doubles duo of Errani/Vinci with everything on the line. Remember, while the Italians haven't had a particularly fine overall season, they DID defend their title at the Australian Open. Bad form aside, they can still rise to the occasion... and few things have been more of an occasion in recent years than Italian FC weekends. Meanwhile, if the faltering Kvitova can't get her health and game together here, it WILL be time to fret.
PICK: CZECH REPUBLIC 3-1 (but if it goes to match #5...)

Germany at Australia - Brisbane/HCO
AUS: Stosur, Dellacqua, Barty, Sanders
GER: Kerber, Petkovic, Goerges, Groenefeld

...these two teams couldn't have had more different entries into what is a rare (now, but not in the "old days') semifinal appearance for both nations. Australia ran roughshod over a "pre-school" Team Russia, while Germany had to battle back (from match point, by Andrea Petkovic, in match #1 vs. Dominika Cibulkova) to win a close one on the road against the Slovaks. This time, the Germans, trying to reach their first FC final since '92, have to travel all the way back Down Under to face an Aussie team looking for a first final since '93. This could be a real knuckle-cruncher. Well, unless the Sam Stosur-in-Australia maxim rears its ugly head in full force in Brisbane. Stosur ended her six-match World Group losing streak in February, but she did it against fully inexperienced competition. Angelique Kerber and Petkovic won't likely be such pushovers. In fact, it wouldn't be shocking to see Casey Dellacqua (as she did in Melbourne) outshine Stosur altogether, or at least be called upon to pull off a loss-averting singles win to get the tie to the doubles, where she and regular partner Ashleigh Barty would face off with whomever Barbara Rittner decides to pair with Anna-Lena Groenefeld. This generation of Aussies won't likely have a better chance to reach a FC final, but...

PICK: GERMANY 3-2 (barely... now everybody does the Petko dance)

Argentina at Russia - Sochi/RCI
RUS: Makarova, Vesnina, Solovyeva, Kasatkina
ARG: Ormaechea, Irigoyen, Bosio, Podoroska

...hmmm, after slipping down the Fed Cup scale after a decade of success, fielding a "B" and "C" teams in FC play since winning in last year's semifinals, the Hordette squad finally has some big names back on board in Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. The pair had starring FC roles in 2013, twice winning deciding doubles matches, and Makarova led the way on Day 2 as Russia overcame a 2-0 deficit against the Slovaks to reach the final. All that's nice, but one might quibble with the decision to play the Argentines on clay, their best surface and on which they've won seven of their last eight ties. The unquestioned team leader is Paula Ormaechea, 11-1 in her last twelve FC matches and the reason the Argentine team is here in the first place. She'll have to have the best weekend of her career to carry Argentina back to the World Group for 2015, but even if she does shine brighter than ever it still might not matter, as defending Roland Garros doubles champions Makarova & Vesnina would be hard to pick against if it comes down to one final match on Sunday.
PICK: RUSSIA 3-1 (going back to Square One smells pretty sweet... at least until February '15)

Slovak Republic at Canada - Quebec City/HCI
CAN: Bouchard, Fichman, Wozniak, Dabrowski
SVK: Rybarikova, Cepelova, A.Schmiedlova, Honcova

...the Canadians try to reach a twenty-year FC high by climbing over a Slovak team that was a 2-0 lead in the semifinals against Russia from playing for the Fed Cup title one year ago. Well, that's not totally true -- that team included both Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, both noticeably absent from the roster this weekend. Not that the Slovak cupboard is bare. Four-time WTA title winner Magdalena Rybarikova is the highest-ranked member, though she hasn't won a FC singles match since 2010. Jana Cepelova, who put on a spirited run to the Charleston final just two weeks ago, is an even more intriguing wild card in this mix. She replaced an injured Cibulkova on Day 2 and got a huge win over Bojana Jovanovski in last year's tie with Serbia, coming back from a set down to win 11-9 in the 3rd. Genie Bouchard, bringing her Army back home for the first time since her Melbourne semifinal run, is the star of this tie, though. After a post-AO slump, she righted herself with a Charleston semifinal and will be called upon to go 2-0 in singles in Quebec City. That still might not be enough to clinch, but Team Canada has already won several big doubles matches en route to this position. With a fired up crowd on their side, they might be called upon to do it again here.
PICK: CANADA 3-2 (will Genie's fans throw stuffed animals to the entire team?)

France at United States - St.Louis/HCI
USA: Stephens, Keys, Lepchenko, McHale
FRA: Cornet, Garcia, Razzano, Feuerstein

...well, let Mary Joe Fernandez's grand Fed Cup experiment commence. Current Sloane, in the words of the USTA, is set to "lead" the Williams-less U.S. team into another FC tie on home soil. We'll see if it's as embarrassing an American efforts as the one that took place in Cleveland back in February against Italy's "B" team. For all intents and purposes, this is France's "A" squad, though most of this same group barely nosed past a Swiss team led by a 16-year old making her FC singles debut in Paris two months ago. Amelie Mauresmo made all the right calls then -- putting vet Virginie Razzano up first while holding back back Kristina Mladenovic for doubles, moves that played into the ex-#1's knowledge of both players' psyches and what they could give the team, no matter their rankings. She likely will be on target again, and with Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia coming in hot off Week 15 singles titles, AM will have her work cut out for her trying to judge whether either has momentum on her side, or might be ripe for a flat, "week after" sort of performance and with doubles "specialist" Mladenovic out with an arm injury. But what about MJF? The U.S. team's Cleveland fiasco was a comedy of errors, not just on the court, but off it, as Fernandez put unproven FC newbies in bad, pressurized situations that overwhelmed them from the jump. If she depends on Stephens to lead the way here in the #1 singles position, we could see a repeat. Stephens has one FC singles appearance to her credit, and it was a squandered match against Sofia Arvidsson last year that led MJF to sit her in favor of Venus Williams on Day 2. Truthfully, the better option would probably be to rely on Varvara Lepchenko, 2-0 in FC play with wins over Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani last year in Italy's 3-2 1st Round victory over the Bannerettes. The streaky McHale could go either way, but she's fiery and might be able to light a bunsun burner under the (one would think) partisan crowd, even if her only significant FC win is over Elina Svitolina... two years ago, before a win over the Ukrainian teen was considered noteworthy. Keys made her FC debut in February in a suddenly-unenviable #2 slot on Day 1 immediately after McHale had lost a three-setter vs. Karin Knapp, and it wasn't pretty. She might be a great FC player one day, but it's probably not going to occur this weekend. If Fernandez swallows hard, risks ruffling feathers, and puts Lepchenko and McHale in lead roles, an upset possibility might exist. But if she follows the company line and plays the higher-ranked and eventually more promising Stephens and Keys, one has to wonder what a Fed Cup coach has to do to be replaced these days. Needless to say, I don't have much faith in the decision-making process. Thus...

PICK: FRANCE 4-0 (the future is now, but it's that of the Pastries)

Poland at Spain - Barcelona/RCO
ESP: Torro-Flor, Cabeza-Candela, Soler-Espinosa, Medina-Garrigues
POL: A.Radwanska, U.Radwanska, Kania, Rosolska

...the Spaniards are hosting a Fed Cup tie in Barcelona on red clay. Good deal, right? Yet they're the underdogs. Welcome to the Radwanskian world of the Polish Fed Cup team, now two Rads strong once again. Of course, while Aga and her twelve-match FC singles winning streak (11 straight in singles/doubles, including the deciding doubles match that got Poland here) are key components to this tie, so is the fact that Spanish #1 Carla Suarez-Navarro won't be present. The CSN-less Spanish team is capable, though, and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor might just manage to end Radwanska's winning streak, especially if the Alterna-Rad that has shown up on occasion in winnable matches since Aga's Wimbledon semifinal loss puts in another appearance in Barcelona. Even with the possibility, though, while Poland's chances of reaching the World Group for the first time in twenty years won't be easy, there are few players seemingly more trustworthy to place everything on her shoulders in this situation than Radwanska, who's an impressive 31-6 in FC singles (7-1 in doubles) in her career.
PICK: POLAND 3-1 (can Aga ride this high all the way to SW19, and take care of unfinished business there this summer?)

Serbia at Romania - Bucharest/RCO
ROU: Halep, Cirstea, Niculescu, Begu
SRB: Ivanvoic, Jovanovski, Jaksic, Stojanovic

...outside of the semifinals, this is the most intriguing, starry-eyed battle of the weekend. After losing four straight ties since reaching the 2012 final, Serbia is trying to stop a ridiculously swift fall back down the FC ladder. Ivanovic has been called upon to set things straight, but even with AnaIvo around it's going to take a bear of an effort to take down this Swarmette squad in Bucharest. The Romanians have the talent to WIN the Fed Cup in 2016, and advancing here is the next key step. Generally, I judge the likelihood of a Serbian victory based on the presence (or absence) of the Serbian Good Luck (Aleksandra Krunic, pictured) or Bad Luck (Vesna Dolonc) Charms. Well, neither are on the roster for this weekend. Though, it should be noted, Krunic DID lose early in Kuala Lumpur, so maybe she'll replace youngster Stojanovic by the weekend? If so, that could give Serbia the karmic edge if things go to the doubles. Still, the Swarmette trend arrow is pointing up, and Simona Halep is coming in rested and (hopefully) healthy.
PICK: ROMANIA 3-2 (with the best still yet to come)

Japan at Netherlands - 's-Hertogenbosch/RCI
NED: Bertens, Rus, Hogenkamp, Krajicek
JPN: Nara, Doi, Ozaki, Aoyama seasons past, facing the Japanese on clay would be a safe route to success. But they put up a great fight on the dirt in February against Argentina, with Kurumi Nara (who has since won her first tour-level singles title) putting up at 3:39 fight in match #1. Plus, it's probably a good thing that Ayumi Morita, with less-than-thrilling clay results, isn't on the roster. Kiki Bertens (and Richel Hogenkamp, too, against non-#1 singles players) has been a solid FC player in the Dutch team's rise to this playoff, but Arantxa Rus has once again slipped after righting her long slump last year. My gut feeling on this one is to go with Japan, though I'm not sure why. So I will, but I'm thinking I may regret it. Oh, well... into the breach.
PICK: JAPAN 3-2 (hmmm, is it too late to switch?)

Thailand at Sweden - Lidkoping/HCI
SWE: Larsson, Arvidsson, Peterson, Milander
THA: Kumkhum, Lertcheewakarn, Tanasugarn, Varat.Wongteanchai home with stalwarts Johanna Larsson and Sofia Arvidsson leading the way, the Swedes are the solid favorites. But the Luksika Kumkhum-led Thai team has been a little engine that very often can and does succeed the last two seasons. She, with the assistance of vet Tammy Tanasugarn in doubles, pulled Thailand past Kazakhstan on the road in pool play in February, and I wouldn't be shocked to see it happen again here, even if it were to come down to a huge deciding doubles battle against the veteran Swedish pair. Still, the Thai are a long way from home, and Arvidsson and Larsson have played a combined 80+ ties and notched sixty singles victories.
PICK: SWE (-dish experience) 3-1

Switzerland at Brazil - Catanduva/RCO
BRA: Pereira, Pigossi, Ce, Goncalves
SUI: Bencic, Golubic, Bacsinszky, Sadikovic

...the Brazilians, a rising squad the last two seasons as the Rio Olympics grow ever closer, are trying to pull themselves out of zone play after a 23-year long relegation. Playing at home on red clay would seem to give them a good shot. But, wait. There's the not-unsubstantial obstacle known as Belinda Bencic standing in their way. In her FC singles debut, all the teenager did in February was nearly single-handedly lift the Swiss team over the favored French in Paris, taking things to the deciding doubles where the duo led by BB had an early advantage. She's done nothing to make you think she won't rise to the occasion once again. So...

PICK: The Kid... err, I mean SWITZERLAND 3-2

*ZONE PLAYOFFS - EUROPE/AFRICA II - Siauliai, Lithuania*
POOL A: Finland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Montenegro
POOL B: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Egypt, Georgia, South Africa
...looking for promotion to Zone I for '15, the wishes of two nations will come true. The best squads in the zone are South Africa (Chanel Simmonds, doubles vet Natalie Grandin), Georgia (Sofia Shapatava, Oksana Kalashnikova), Liechenstein (Stephanie Vogt, Kathinka Von Deichmann) and maybe Egypt (Mayar Sherif, Sandra Samir), while Lithuania hosts. Thing is, three of the four top teams are in the same pool. I'll go with Liechtenstein and the Emma Laine-coached Fin squad reaching the promotional playoffs from Pool A, with South Africa and Georgia advancing to face them from Pool B. The two best individual players in action in Siauliai are Simmonds and Vogt, so I'll go with them to carry their teams through.
PICKS TO ADVANCE: South Africa & Liechtenstein

I'll update my picks before the weekend if late injuries/withdrawals warrant changes, and I'll be back with the FC Day 1 Update on Saturday.

All for now.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Wk.15- French Twists

It was a weekend for pastries. French Pastries... with a twist.

Going in, Week 15 seemed like a "chalk" walk where the expected was likely to occur. Jelena Jankovic, one year after stoking the flames of a nearly-fading career by winning a small event in Bogota, was back in Colombia as the #1 seed up against a field that wasn't exactly sterling. Surely, it seemed, she'd defend her title. Meanwhile, top-seeded Aga Radwanska, so often playing the part of bridesmaid on tour since last summer, was in Katowice looking to win a first-ever tour level title in her native Poland one week before attempting to lead the nation's Fed Cup squad to it's greatest victory yet. Surely, the cracks that have shown in the steely exterior of the sport's greatest magician wouldn't be visible with so many supportive faces living and dying by her every move. Radwanska's first title of 2014, even against a tougher field than the one in Bogota, seemed like a fait accompli.

But when Li Na spoke recently of the "crazy women's tennis tour," she wasn't joking. Well, she was... but, as is often the case, the Australian Open champ was also telling the truth. And that's a great compliment to the WTA.

As it turned out, while Jankovic advanced to the final without dropping a set, she was out-played and out-hit once she got there by a tour final neophyte who earlier this season found herself on a ten-match losing streak (something JJ is familiar with, it should be noted) and she'd never been to a tour quarterfinal in her career. Caroline Garcia's career week not only included her maiden title run in singles, it also featured her first doubles crown as she became the first woman to pull off a singles/doubles sweep in a WTA-level event since Serena Williams at the 2012 Olympics. In Katowice, Radwanska flamed out once again, going from holding a 3-0 (and point for 4-0) 3rd set lead to once more coming up just a bit short in the semifinals. As things stand, she's still looking for her first appearance in a tour final in Poland, let alone her first title. Her last title-winning celebration in front of her home fans? Well, that'd be back in 2005, when she claimed one singles and two doubles crowns in ITF challengers on home soil. Why, Aga was just a mini-Rad back then.

The player who defeated Radwanska, like Garcia, is also French. Alize Cornet had never beaten A-Rad until Saturday, and while she's been one of the best just-under-the-surface stories of 2014, the Pasty was still looking for her first singles title since her pre-Roland Garros title run in Strasbourg last May. She got it in the final against first-time finalist Camila Giorgi, but not until she was forced to save a match point.

Both French champs will be in action under the wing of Fed Cup coach Amelie Mauresmo next weekend against the U.S. team in St.Louis. But what might be more interesting to ponder is the future of both Pastries later this spring in Paris. Remember, despite her success on hard court and indoors this season, red clay has always been Cornet's best surface, while Garcia's first bubble-up came at Roland Garros in 2011 when she led Maria Sharapova 6-3/4-1 in the 2nd Round before losing in three sets.

Oh, by the power vested in them by the lingering spirit of La Trufflette, could the Tennis Gods only be preparing us for even more fun beginning in about a month and a half? Hmmm.

S: Alize Cornet/FRA def. Camila Giorgi/ITA 7-6(3)/5-7/7-5
D: Beygelzimer/Savchuk (UKR/UKR) d. Koukalova/Niculescu (CZE/ROU)

S: Caroline Garcia/FRA def. Jelena Jankovic/SRB 6-3/6-4
D: Arruabarrena/Garcia (ESP/FRA) d. King/Scheepers (USA/RSA)

Fed Cup Americas Zone Group II Playoffs (Humacao, PUR)
Bolivia def. Dominican Republic 2-1
Chile def. Costa Rica 2-0


...Cornet's battle with Dominika Cibulkova for "Most Improved Player" honors continues. Indoors, where the Pastry has already won the Hopman Cup and reached the Paris final this season, Cornet reached still greater heights in Katowice as she won career title #4 in with a string of wins over Vesna Dolonc, Kristina Kucova, Klara Koukalova, Aga Radwanska and Camila Giorgi. In the semis against A-Rad, Cornet overcame a 3-0 3rd set deficit to notch her second Top 4 win of the season (she'd been 0-17 prior to '14), then in the final against Giorgi she managed to reverse course after blowing 3-0 leads in the both the 2nd and 3rd sets, and saving a match point, to run her consecutive seasons with a title to three after having gone without a crown from 2009-11.
RISERS: Caroline Garcia/FRA & Vania King/USA

...Garcia, 20, knows how to turn things around. Earlier this year, the Pastry was riding a ten match losing streak. Actually, it might be more correct to say the streak was riding her. She broke the bad run in two in Acapulco, coming back from a set and break down against Genie Bouchard to reach her first career semifinal. In Miami, she took Serena Williams to three sets. But that was nothing to compared to what she did in Bogota, where she strung together wins over Florencia Molinero, Danka Kovinic, Romina Oprandi and Vania King to reach her first tour singles final. There, she took out defending champ and top seed Jelena Jankovic in straights, showing a distinct lack of nerves down the stretch while getting her first Top 10 win after having previously been 0-7 in such situations. But that wasn't all. Garcia also grabbed her first career doubles title, winning the crown with Lara Arruabarrena. Also in Bogota, King continued her under-the-radar move up the rankings some eight years after she was a surprise singles champion in Bangalore in 2006. King's final in Guangzhou last year was her first since her title run, and her semi this past week in Colombia after wins over South Americans Maria Irigoyen and Mariana Duque-Marino was already her second final four result this season. She's up to #62 in the new rankings, within shouting (or in warbler Vania's case, singing distance) of the career mark of #50 she set in '06 in the wake of her singles title. That's still her only Top 50 season, but if she continues to inch upward it might soon be her "first." King, who's made more of a mark in recent years in doubles, also reached the Bogota final with Chanelle Scheepers, but failed to get her first tour title since her gone-but-not-forgotten great teaming with Yaroslava Shvedova, who combined with the Bannerette to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Cincinnati and Moscow crowns over a short fifteen-month stretch in 2010-11.
SURPRISES: Yuliya Beygelzimer/Olga Savchuk (UKR/UKR)
...the Ukrainian pair broke a long WTA title drought for both with their doubles championship in Katowice, after having faced down three match points in the semifinals. Beygelzimer, 30, claimed her third tour title with the win, but her most recent came back in 2005, and she hadn't reached a tour final since 2009. 26-year old Savchuk now has two career crowns, but her other came six years ago in the first of three well-spaced out appearances in finals in '08, '10 and '14. Their win in the final over Klara Koukalova & Monica Niculescu prevented the Czech/Romanian duo from claiming their third title of the 2014 season.
VETERANS: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Chanelle Scheepers/RSA
...well, now that she's no longer the reigning champ at any event, maybe a case can be made that JJ's continued presence in the Top 10 is even MORE impressive. Well, at least a case COULD be made. I'm sure she'd rather have defended her Bogota title instead of losing in straights sets to a first-time finalist. As it is, while JJ isn't quite in top form as the tour shifts to the EuroClay section of the schedule a week from now, she can take something from having reached this weekend's final without having dropped a set against opponents Mathilde Johansson, Sofia Shapatava, Lara Arruabarrena and Chanelle Scheepers. Meanwhile, 30-year old Scheepers notched singles wins over Karin Knapp, Alexandra Panova and Lourdes Dominguez-Lino to reach the semifinals, as well as reaching the doubles final with Vania King.
COMEBACK: Shahar Peer/ISR can it be that Peer is STILL only 26? Oh, well. No matter her age, the Israeli's QF run in Katowice had to feel good. While she did win the WTA 125 Challenger in Suzhou last September, her two wins in Poland were her first main draw tour match wins in nine months. Her victories over Petra Martic and Tsvetana Pironkova ended a 0-9 WTA MD run that stretched back to Peer's loss in the Baku final last July.
FRESH FACES: Camila Giorgi/ITA & Jelena Ostapenko/LAT she goes again. Giorgi, who's had up a pair of slam Round of 16 appearances the last two seasons, continues to put up results that show that the Italian presence on tour won't end once the "old guard" of Pennetta, Schiavone, Vinci (and even the younger Errani) drift away. The 22-year old grabbed her second '14 win (Sharapova - Indian Wells) over a defending champion when she took out compatriot Vinci in the Katowice 2nd Round then, after having never before reached a tour QF, rode the momentum all the way to the final with additional wins over Shahar Peer and Carla Suarez-Navarro (incidentally, CSN is the only other player with two wins over DC's this season). In the final, Giorgi came back from a break down to force a 3rd set against Alize Cornet, then did it again in the deciding set, holding a match point at 5-4. She sailed a return long, and the opportunity was lost. Still, she's up to a career-high #54. 16-year old Latvian Ostapenko, who lost in the AO girls QF to eventual champ Elizaveta Kulichkova, has proven to be far more unbeatable in crunch time on the ITF circuit. In fact, she's never lost a final in a pro event, winning her ninth and tenth overall titles this weekend in the $10K challenger in Santa Margherita di Pula, Italy. Her win in the singles final over Pastry Jade Suvriyn got her her first career clay title, giving her a 4-0 mark in ITF singles finals the last three seasons, and her doubles title makes her 6-0 there over the same time span.
DOWN: Sloane Stephens/USA & Roberta Vinci/ITA

...since her encouraging work while reaching the Indian Wells QF, Stephens' trajectory has reversed course, as she's gone from 3rd to 2nd to 1st Round (this past week in Bogota, losing to. Maria Duque-Marino) exits in her last three events. While Sloane has made strides in saying something close to the right thing most of the time, stressing -- unlike some players -- an understanding that it takes patience to transform hard work into victories, it's sometimes difficult to forget her "so what?" comments after her windy IW loss to Flavia Pennetta, and her stating how, looking at all the successful vets on tour, she can win well into her career, so it's not essential that she do so now. While it's intriguing that, oddly enough, Current Sloane actually does seem to be buying into the notion of a "Future Sloane" with such comments, it makes one wonder if a player can find her way to that future if she has no outright urgency to get there as swiftly as possible. As the recent urgent rises of such players as Bouchard, Bencic and Svitolina (and, now, even 20-year old Garcia) show, there are players out there the same age or younger who no one would mistakenly question their desire to win NOW, not ten years from today. You know, when they find the time. Maybe it's unfair to view Stephens' post-match comments as flippant, especially since few players can sound as flippant -- even when she's not particularly trying to be -- as Current Sloane. It's sort of a default perception to see her that way, it seems. Maybe it's a Twitter thing, as it's hard to be TOO serious when you're limited to 140 characters a comment. Oh, well. I guess we'll see. As it is, the USTA announced in a press release this past week that Stephens would "lead" the U.S. Fed Cup team next weekend against France, citing that she's in "good form" and noting her Fed Cup "experience." Well, her "good" form is debatable, and should we get into how she squandered a lead in her FC singles debut last year -- so far her only FC singles experience -- and was yanked from the lineup on Day 2 by Mary Joe Fernandez in favor of Venus Williams? Of course, considering recent non-Williams FC performances, maybe just having been on the same team as Venus DOES qualify as a feather in Sloane's cap compared to the rest of the team. Meanwhile, Vinci came to Katowice as the defending champion from last year's event, when it was held on indoor red clay. On indoor hard courts this year, Vinci, as she has been so often this season, was once more bounced early, losing in poor form (a 6-0 3rd!) when faced with the challenge of defeating a fellow Italian. In this case, Camila Giorgi... playing the role of Flavia Pennetta from last year's U.S. Open quarterfinal match. Vinci is 2-9 so far this year since leading Italy to the Fed Cup title to end '13. Heck, even "good/bad form" Sloane is 7-7 this season.
ITF PLAYER: Laura Siegemund/GER
...the 26-year old German won her second challenger of the season at the $25K in Pelham, Alabama. Siegemund went three sets four straight times en route to the final while defeating the likes Madison Brengle and Samantha Crawford. In the final, she claimed her tenth career ITF crown with a straight sets win over Kazakh Yulia Putintseva.
JUNIOR STAR: Paula Badosa Gibert/ESP
...the 16-year old Spaniard swept the singles and doubles titles at the Grade 1 Trofea Juan Carlos Ferrero event in Villena, Spain. In February, Gibert won another Grade 1 in Casablanca after putting up wins over Kristina Schmiedlova and Sandra Samir. Here, as the #14 seed, she defeated the #2, #4 and #7 seeds to reach the final, then knocked off #3-seeded Ioana Loredana Rosca in the final. Gibert had lost to the Swarmette last week in the final of a Grade 2 event.
FED CUP MVPs: Maria-Fernanda Alvarez-Teran/BOL & Maria Koch-Benvenuto/CHI
...the Americas II zone group playoffs got an early start on Fed Cup action last week, as Bolivia and Chile advanced to the Americas I group after advancing out of pool play and winning promotional playoff rounds. Alvarez-Teran, 25, went 3-0 in singles and 1-0 in doubles while leading the Bolivians, while 28-year old Maria Koch-Benvenuto, in her 39th career FC tie, went 3-0 in singles. Although, a case could also be made for Daniela Seguel & Cecilia Costa-Melgar, who won the deciding doubles match over Puerto Rico's Monica Puig & Ariana Rodriguez to advance the Chileans out of pool play and into the promotional playoffs, as co-MVP contenders, as well. Of course, such a situation occurred when Seguel, Chile's highest-ranked player who was participating in her first FC tie in singles, lost to Puig in the second singles match in the deciding pool play tie vs. PUR, making the all-stakes doubles contest necessary, so I'll stick with MKB.

Now, a Caro the Caddie break...



Missed her true calling?

1. Kato Final - Cornet d. Giorgi
Cornet pulls off something of a Houdini-esque escape, as she twice blew 3-0 leads in both the 2nd (where she also led 5-3) and 3rd sets. Giorgi erased the first deficit to take the 2nd and force a 3rd, then got to match point at 5-4 before the ever-scrambling Pastry pulled one final comeback of her own to win in 3:11.
2. Bogota 1st Rd. - Duque-Marino d. Stephens
Stephens is 1-3 since reaching the IW quarterfinals, and a combined 1-5 in the events immediately before and after her 3-1 run in the desert. But, have no fear, Sloane is ready to lead the U.S. into Fed Cup play against the Pastries. Sure, it might be in 2024... but, still.
3. Bogota Final - Garcia d. Jankovic
A sign of good intentions? Garcia ended the match with an ace, ace, forehand winner combination to wrap up the greatest week of her career. The Pastry had held match points against JJ in two previous meetings, only to see the Serbian vet win out in the end. Not this time... with emphasis.
4. Bogota 1st Rd. - Scheepers d. Knapp
The Italian is 2-5 since leading Team Italia in FC play back in February (a Vinci Curse?!?). This was her fifth straight loss.
5. Kato 2nd Rd. - Giorgi d. Vinci
Vinci managed to erase 4-2 and Giorgi-serving-at-5-4 deficits to force a 3rd. Considering what happened next, though, she might have been better off losing in two respectable sets.
6. Kato 1st Rd. - Beck d. Barthel
Even heading indoors did nothing for 2013 Paris Indoors champ Barthel, who hasn't had a main draw tour win since taking down Luksika Kumkhum at the Australian Open.
7. Kato 2nd Rd. - Lucic d. Jaksic
Jovana learns about "the week after."
8. Bogota 1st Rd. - Fichman/Panova d. Hesse/Mladenovic
While Mladenovic has reached four doubles/mixed finals this season, winning two, she's also gone out in the 1st or 2nd Round six times.
HM- Easter Bowl Final - CiCi Bellis d. Katie Swan
A week after winning the Grade 1 USTA Spring Championships in Carson, Bellis takes the Grade B1 Easter Bowl in Indian Wells. She's 18-0 this season.

1. Kato SF - Cornet d. Agnieszka Radwanska
Save for her Fed Cup play and late-season win in Seoul, Aga just hasn't been the same since she lost that Wimbledon semifinal to Sabine Lisicki last summer and failed to take advantage of the fortnight's ongoing Radwanskian Massacre that had seemingly set the stage for her to finally pick up her first slam crown. She still has great moments (i.e. her 3rd set demolition of Azarenka in the AO), but they're often followed up by uncharacteristic inconsistency (or worse) immediately afterward (i.e. her first match after defeating Vika in Melbourne). On a small scale, it happened again here in front of a partisan Polish crowd as Aga was trying to reach her first tour final in Poland. After winning the 1st set at love against Cornet, who'd never gotten a set off her in three previous meetings, A-Rad immediately fell behind 4-0 in the 2nd. In the 3rd, Aga grabbed a 3-0 advantage, and had a point for a 4-0 lead, only to squander another "sure-thing." After getting the gift of an awful Cornet serve game right after the Pastry had broken Radwanska in game #7, bringing things even at 4-4, Aga was broken again en route to falling to 1-3 in 2014 semifinals. It's as if she's been sentenced to re-live -- at least in her mind -- that SW19 semi over and over and over again. As for Cornet, she's now knocked off a pair of #1-seeds in 2014: #3-ranked Radwanska here, and world #1 Serena Williams two months ago in Paris.
2. Kato 1st Rd. - Agnieszka Radwanska d. Kristyna Pliskova
Earlier in the week, Aga ruled over a sister.
3. Kuala Lumpur Q1 - Erika Sema d. Chang Hao-Ching
Malaysia is playing host to a slew of sisters in the qualifying and main draws: two Pliskovas, two Semas, two Hsiehs, two Chans, a Kichenok and a Rodionova.

...the line between "nerdy" (as she described herself in this pic) and "smarty" gets blurred when Vika is involved. "Smerdy?"

Sydney - Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL (26, #107) - d. Kerber
Hobart - Garbine Muguruza, ESP (20, #58) - d. Zakopalova
Rio - Kurumi Nara, JPN (22, #62) - d. Zakopalova
Bogota - CAROLINE GARCIA, FRA (20, #74)- d. Jankovic

Sydney - Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL (W)
Hobart - Garbine Muguruza, ESP (W)
Rio - Kurumi Nara, JPN (W)
Acapulco - Christina McHale, USA (L)
Charleston - Jana Cepelova, SVK (L)
Monterrey - Jovana Jaksic, SRB (L)

Klara Zakopalova, CZE - Hobart (L - W)

Sydney - Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA (2nd Rd.-A.Radwanska, lost QF)
Bogota - CAROLINE GARICA, FRA (in Final - Jankovic)

#107 - Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL (Sydney)
#62 - Kurumi Nara, JPN (Rio)
#58 - Garbine Muguruza, ESP (Hobart)
#44 - Venus Williams, USA (Dubai)
#40 - Andrea Petkovic, GER (Charleston)

Brisbane - Serena Williams (def. Azarenka)
Shenzhen - Li Na (def. Peng)
Miami - Serena Williams (def. Li)
Bogota - JELENA JANKOVIC (lost to Garcia)
Brisbane - Anastasia Rodionova (def. Mladenovic/Voskoboeva)
Australian - Errani/Vinci (def. Makarova/Vesnina)
Florianopolis - Garrigues/Shvedova (def. Schiavone/Soler-Espinosa)
Monterrey - Timea Babos (lost to Jurak/Moulton-Levy)

2 FRANCE - Cornet, Garcia
2 Russia - Makarova, Pavlyuchenkova
2 United States - S.Williams, V.Williams

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (Int'l $250K/hard outdoor)
13 Final: Ka.Pliskova d. Mattek-Sands
13 Doubles Final: Aoyama/Chang d. Husarova/Sh.Zhang (Chang 2012-13)
14 Top Seeds: Cibulkova/Sh.Zhang

#1 Cibulkova d. #5 Date-Krumm
#7 Vekic d. #2 Zhang Shuai
#1 Cibulkova d. #7 Vekic

...Venus' strep throat is keeping her out competition here, so top-seeded Cibulkova, making sure she doesn't blow another big FC match by avoiding the Slovak team's tie like the plague in favor of a small event in Malaysia instead, is the favorite, though she has a tougher path to the final than one might expect, with DC Karolina Pliskova and Kimiko Date-Krumm on her side of the draw. Of some weird note, as well, Zhang Shuai will face off with Zheng Saisai in the 1st Round, with the winner quite possibly facing Zhang Ling in the next round. Oh, if the expected Chinese influx really happens over the next few years, things could get very confusing for more than a few people.


Oh, no... I think Pam Shriver's head just exploded in anticipation.


...I'll be back soon with a preview of 2014's Fed Cup semifinal weekend, as recent FC champs Italy and the Czech Republic face off for a customary spot in the final, while wake-up-the-echos teams Australia and Germany battle it out Down Under for the chance to try to take down even bigger prey come November.

In the FC playoffs, Romania and Poland are trying to reach new national heights, Serbia (AnaIvo to the rescue?) is still attempting to put the breaks on the nation's post-2012 final berth slide and the Hordettes (for the first time in a while) won't be fielding a full-on "pre-school 'C'-team."

Oh, yeah. And we'll get to see Current Sloane "lead" the Bannerettes, too. Now that could be interesting.

All for now.