Saturday, April 19, 2014

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.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Wk.14- Petkorazzi Dances the Charleston...almost

While the NextGen stars outshined the old guard throughout the week in South Carolina, in the end, it was hard luck 26-year old "middle child" Andrea Petkovic who couldn't help but dance after being crowned the champion of the 42nd edition of the only green clay event on the WTA schedule. What could be better than that?

Well, actually, there was ONE thing might have been.

So far, 2014 has been a wonderful reminder of what a joy Petkovic can be. Be it her on or off court persona, there's a lot to like. Unfortunately, injuries have far too often taken the German away from the tour, turning a Top 10 talent into a case study of missed opportunity. But maybe, if she and we are lucky, that's starting to change.

Last year, Petkovic's ranking dipped as low as #177 after she injured her knee in her opening match of the season at the Hopman Cup, causing her to miss two months in her latest health-related absence. But she rebounded with two appearances in tour finals and climbed back into the Top 40, a rise highlighted by an upset of Vika Azarenka in Beijing. Earlier this season, it was Petkovic who kicked off Germany's big road win over the Slovaks in the opening round of the Fed Cup. She saved a match point against Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in match #1 of the tie, setting the tone for a winning weekend.

Her title run in Charleston is her first on tour in nearly three years, and if the city is the site of her "official" rebirth than she couldn't have found a more perfect setting. After all, her father arrived in the state from Yugoslava and played college tennis for the South Carolina Gamecocks there. For once, maybe the Tennis Gods are looking down on Petkorazzi and smiling.

Speaking of the Petko craze of a few years ago, when the German danced her way to the U.S. Open quarterfinals (one of three QF runs she pulled off in 2011, though she has sickeningly missed more slams than she's played since then), we actually got to see an abbreviated version of the Petko Dance after her win in the final over Cepelova. It was great. Oh, but I wish she'd thought of maybe, literally, doing the Charleston instead... in Charleston, no less. Seriously, how great would THAT have been?

Oh, well. There's always next year. Crossing fingers.

S: Andrea Petkovic/GER def. Jana Cepelova/SVK 7-5/6-2
D: Medina-Garrigues/Shvedova (ESP/KAZ) d. Y-J.Chan/H-C.Chan (TPE/TPE) 7-6(4)/6-2

S: Ana Ivanovic/SRB def. Jovana Jaksic/SRB 6-2/6-1
D: Jurak/Moulton-Levy (CRO/USA) d. Babos/Govortsova (HUN/BLR) 7-6(5)/3-6/11-9

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Andrea Petkovic/GER title #3 was Petkovic's first since winning in Strasbourg in 2011, and her very first Premier level championship. The German seemed to pick up steam and confidence as the week went on, following up wins over Lesia Tsurenko and Lourdes Dominguez-Lino with increasingly impressive triumphs over Sabine Lisicki (1 game allowed), Lucie Safarova, Eugenie Bouchard and Jana Cepelova in the final. After defeating the young Slovak on Sunday, Petkovic's good humor and personality added to the feel-good moment -- played out under threatening skies that never opened up -- with a great post-match speech in which she compared her talkative nature to that of a politician and even "offered" to coach the all-alone-in-South-Carolina Cepelova.
RISERS: Ana Ivanovic/SRB & Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
...AnaIvo really does seem to have turned a corner in 2014. Although she did reach an AO final back in '08, the Serb has never started a season as quickly as she has this one. Her title run in Monterrey -- with wins over Urszula Radwanska, Aleksandra Wozniak, Magdalena Rybarikova, Caroline Wozniacki & Jovana Jaksic -- gives her two this season. It's just the fourth year in her career that she's won multiple titles, but she's never stashed two away in her back pocket so early on the schedule. And that's not even counting her Melbourne win over Serena... well, to be fair, or her weird two bagel set loss to Petra Kvitova in Miami, either. Hey, she's still AnaIvo, I guess, even in possibly 2.0 form. This is career title #13 for Ivanovic, tying her with four other active women (including JJ), the win makes her 12-3 in non-slam finals, with ten title wins coming in straight sets. Meanwhile, have no fear, there really isn't a Sloany bone in Bouchard's body. While Current Sloane is still trying to find her footing after her 2013 AO semifinal, the Canadian is already showing signs of finding hers follower her own 2014 AO semi. Genie's Charleston wins over Alla Kudryavtseva, Venus Williams and '13 runner-up Jelena Jankovic gave her her first post-Melbourne semifinal, and she very nearly took down Petkovic in the semis to reach her first final since her only previous one last season in Osaka. While Sloane talks about having all the time in the world, Bouchard looks like she's ready to start making good use of hers again.
SURPRISES: Jovana Jaksic/SRB, Julia Boserup/USA & Darija Jurak/Megan Moulton-Levy (CRO/USA)
...Monterrey was just full of surprises. Fittingly, the woman who made a name for herself earlier this year by saving fourteen match points and defeating Tamira Paszek in the final of a challenger event in Surprise, Arizona, Jaksic led the way. The 20-year old Serb twice came back from a set down en route to her first career tour final, defeating Karin Knapp, Luksika Kumkhum (saving 3 MP), Julia Boserup and Kimiko Date-Krumm before losing the championship match to countrywoman AnaIvo. While Jaksic didn't back up her ITF prowess (she's won thirteen of her last fifteen finals on the circuit), she does down in history -- rather surprisingly, interestingly enough -- as one half of the first all-Serbian final in tour history. Californian Boserup, 22, made it through qualifying in Mexico, defeating Alexandra Panova, Oksana Kalashnikova and Sharon Fichman, then got main draw wins over Kirsten Flipkens and Allie Kiick to reach her first tour level QF. In the Monterrey doubles final, it was Jurak and Moulton-Levy who were crowned the surprise champs. It's the first WTA title for both woman. Jurak, 30, gets her first win in four tour doubles finals after having previously won thirty-eight crowns on the ITF level. 29-year old American MML, who at one time competed under the Jamaican flag, was playing in her first career tour final after having won ten ITF doubles titles in her career.
VETERANS: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN & Anabel Medina-Garrigues/Yaroslava Shvedova (ESP/KAZ)
...43-year old Date-Krumm isn't finished yet. She opened the festivities in Monterrey with a win over top-seeded Flavia Pennetta -- the Japanese vet's eleventh Top 20 win since her 2008 comeback -- and followed up with victories over Timea Babos and Monica Puig to reach her first tour semifinal since the Tournament of Champions in Bali in 2010. In Charleston, AMG and Shvedova teamed up to win their second '14 doubles crown (their third overall as a duo), the 23rd and 10th titles, respectively, in their WTA careers.
COMEBACKS: Caroilne Wozniacki/DEN & Michaella Krajicek/NED
...since forgoing her arrangement with coach Michael Mortensen, Wozniacki has gone 6-2, following up her Miami QF with a SF in Monterrey that likely would have been one notch better had she not been stuck in the bottom half of the draw with Ana Ivanovic, with whom the Dane at least played a close two set match. Earlier, she got wins over Coco Vandeweghe, Kristina Mladenovic and Karolina Pliskova. In the $15K indoor hard court challenger in Dijon, France, Krajicek -- still only 25 -- won her second ITF title of the season with a win in the final over Russia's Olga Doroshina. The Dutch woman is 13-1 in WTA and ITF singles finals in her career.
FRESH FACES: Jana Cepelova/SVK & Belinda Bencic/SUI's hard to find a better story than that of Cepelova's in Charleston. Well, unless you're counting the mouth-wateringly potential being shown by 17-year old Belinda Bencic in her first season on tour. All world #78 Cepelova did was open her week with a victory over #1 Serena Williams, then follow-up with wins over Elena Vesnina and countrywoman Daniela Hantuchova before taking a real battle over fellow Fresh-Facer Bencic to reach her first tour singles final. And she did it all without a coach (Janette Husarova began the week with her, but then left after losing in doubles), trainer, hitting partner, friends, family or anything other than herself and whatever complimentary assistance the tournament provided her. Oh, yeah, she was also dragging along shoulder and calf injuries, as well as lingering fatigue, as well. I'd say she made exponentially more new fans this week alone than the total number of people who could have picked her out of a lineup a seven days ago. The Slovak has shown some signs of potential in the past, first in Fed Cup and then just a few months ago with a win in Doha over Sam Stosur. But it's the fight -- and independence -- she showed in Charleston that makes you want to believe that she can be a can't-miss-kid. Speaking of can't-misses, the newest Swiss Miss certainly has that look about her, doesn't she? Sure, while Bencic still finds way to squander leads (sometimes living by the serve, but also dying a little by it under pressure, too), her big-match persona is quite remarkable for a player who was an untested former junior champ on the pro tour for the first time just a few months ago. She had to qualify in Charleston, but wins over Chan Yung-Jan and Mathilde Johansson really just got her warmed up. Once in the main draw, she was once again a wrecking ball, taking out Maria Kirilenko, Marina Erakovic, Elina Svitolina and Sara Errani on her way to her first career tour semifinal. In the new rankings, Cepelova has jumped into the Top 50 for the first time, while Bencic surges 49 spots from #140 to #91.
DOWN: Serena Williams/USA, Flavia Pennetta/ITA & Karin Knapp/ITA

...ah, the twisty turns of the crazy women's tennis tour, where players can go from champions in the early spring's two biggest events to, shortly thereafter, opening match losers not that far away from their triumphs. Fresh off her win in Miami, Serena moved north to Charleston. She dropped the first five games of her match with Jana Cepelova, paused to have her injured thigh wrapped, then went on to suffer her "worst" loss -- ranking-wise -- as a reigning #1 in five years. Pennetta, maybe still celebrating her Indian Wells win (well, at least she had a fine time at a "zombie party" with the likes of Kirsten Flipkens, who also exited early, and others), lost the second of her three post-desert matches in her first outing in Monterrey against Kimiko Date-Krumm. Meanwhile, her countrywoman Knapp lost in the 1st Round to in Mexico to eventual finalist Jovana Jaksic. Since her starring Fed Cup role for Team Italia, Knapp has gone 2-4 and is riding a four-match losing skid.

ITF PLAYER: Veronica Cepede Royg/PAR
...the Paraguayan, 22, won career ITF crown #13 with a victory in the $50K challenger in Medellin, Colombia. Cepede Royg notched wins over Montserrat Gonzalez and Varvara Flink to get to the final, where she defeated Swarmette Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4/4-6/6-4 to take the title.
...the 14-year old Bannerette won the Grade 1 USTA International Spring Championship event in Carson, California. As the #5 seed, Bellis took out Christina Makarova in the semis before defeating 9th-seeded Raveena Kingsley in the final to complete her title run without dropping a set. The #53-ranked junior, she's undefeated in 2014 (11-0), having claimed another Grade 1 title in the Coffee Bowl in Costa Rica in January.

1. Chas SF - Cepelova d. Bencic
In a two and a half hour contest, the two NextGens battled back and forth. Bencic led 5-1 in the 2nd, but the Slovak scrambled back to 5-5 before the Swiss won on her sixth SP. Bencic was up a break in the 3rd at 3-2, but Cepelova eventually held a MP at 5-4. Bencic went up 4-1 in the deciding tie-break, but Cepelova finally won on her fourth match MP. Diane has a detailed account of the match over at Woman Who Serve.
2. Chas SF - Petkovic d. Bouchard
The match turned in the German's favor -- or at least away from the Canadian's -- in game #6 of the 2nd set when Petkovic saved three break points and held for 3-3. She then went up 40/love on Bouchard's serve one game later, and finally broke her on her fourth BP of the game after having been 0-for-7 in the match. She took the next two games to grab the set. Bouchard led 4-2 in the 3rd, but Petkovic again battled back. Bouchard saved a MP at 5-4, and one wondered if it might signal a final turn of the match in her favor. It didn't. Petkovic ultimately finished things off with a break in the final game.
3. Chas 2nd Rd. - Peng d. Keys
Peng escaped this one, but she sure seemed to be trying to be tripped up. She led 6-1/5-1, but Keys forced her to a 3rd set. There, she led 4-1 but was forced to a tie-break. Whew! Where's Su-Wei when Shuai needs her?
4. Mont 2nd Rd. - Jaksic d. Kumkhum
En route to her first tour final, Jaksic saved three MP at 5-4 in the 2nd. But, baaahhhhh -- she saved fourteen against Paszek in Surprise. By those standards, this was nothing.
5. Chas Final - Petkovic d. Cepelova
An oldie but a goodie. Petkovic's instructional video on doing the Petko Dance, with the help of her "Chinese robot" friend.


6. Mont Final - Ivanovic d. Jaksic
Hey, didn't we always figure that the first all-Serbian WTA final would feature an Ana and a woman with the initials JJ?

7. Chas 1st Rd. - Bencic d. Kirilenko
Kirilenko's 2014 debut didn't last long, but it didn't end quickly, either. Down 2-5, love/40 she saved six match points and evened things up at 5-5, and then had a BP to take the lead. Bencic went on to take the 1:22 set, defeating the player whose poster she said she had on her wall when she was younger. Nope... not gonna make a Sloane reference here. Not gonna do it.
8. Chas QF - Bouchard d. Jankovic
With this win, Bouchard officially has more career Top 10, as well as Top 20, wins than Current Sloane. Team Genie shoots and scores!
9. Chas 2nd Rd. - Svitolina d. Stephens 6-4/6-4
Chas 3rd Rd. - Bencic d. Svitolina 6-7(4)/6-4/6-1
Chas QF - Bencic d. Errani 4-6/6-2/6-1
Svitolina has four Top 20 wins in 2014 alone, just one off Stephens' career total. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian is still the highest-ranked teen, but Bencic picked up about fifty spots on her in the new rankings. Oh, all right... if Belinda ever complains about the media making up stories about posters on walls, etc., then remember that she DID indeed originate the story all by herself.
10. $15K Dijon Doubles Final - Jani/Shinikova d. Borecka/Krajicek
Once again, it is time. "Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani!"

1. Chas 2nd Rd. - Cepelova d. Serena Williams
At #78, Cepelova is the lowest-ranked player to defeat a #1-ranked Serena since Klara Zakopalova in 2009. Ah, speaking of Klara... more on her in a few moments.

2. Chas 1st Rd. - Venus Williams d. Zahlavova-Strycova
Venus smiled in Charleston, and Gladys Knight caught a ball... but the Pips got nothing.

3. Chas 3rd Rd. - Bouchard d. Venus Williams
After surging back from 4-2 down in the 1st, Venus held two set points in the tie-break but couldn't put things away. In the end, that would have made the difference.
4. Mont 1st Rd. - Ivanovic d. Ula Radwanska
U-Rad is getting closer.
5. Chas Doubles Final - Medina-Garrigues/Shvedova d. Chang Hao-Ching/Chan Yung-Jan 7-6(4)/6-2
$25K Jackson USA Final - Simmonds/Zec-Peskiric d. Erika Sema/Yurika Sema 6-7(7)/6-3/10-5
no matter the level of tournament, all-sister doubles teams just couldn't catch a break in Week 14.

...still waiting for Vika to return to action. But, before her return, here she is in action.

**CAREER WTA TITLES - active**
59...Serena Williams
45...Venus Williams
29...Maria Sharapova
21...Caroline Wozniacki
17...Victoria Azarenka
13...Agnieszka Radwanska
13...Jelena Jankovic
13...Svetlana Kuznetsova
13...Nadia Petrova

Sydney - Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL (#107, 26 - W)
Hobart - Garbine Muguruza, ESP (#58, 20 - W)
Rio - Kurumi Nara, JPN (#62, 22 - W)
Acapulco - Christina McHale, USA (#70, 21 - L)
Charleston - JANA CEPELOVA, SVK (#78, 20 - L)
Monterrey - JOVANA JAKSIC, SRB (#137, 20 - L)

#160 Nasstasja Burnett/ITA - Rio (SF)
#140 BELINDA BENCIC/SUI - Charleston (SF)
#137 JOVANA JAKSIC/SRB - Monterrey (RU)
#126 Andrea Hlavackova/CZE - Pattaya (SF)
#114 Estrella Cabeza-Candela/ESP - Hobart (SF)
#107 Tsvetana Pironkova/BUL - Sydney (W)
#102 Julia Goerges/GER - Pattaya (SF)

4 - Serena Williams
2 - D.Cibulkova, P.Kvitova, E.Makarova, A.Radwanska, V.Williams
Active #1's (7): Azarenka, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Sharapova, S.Williams, V.Williams, Wozniacki

**WINS BY #50+ OVER REIGNING #1's - last 10 seasons**
#226 2009 Beijing 2nd - Zhang Shuai d. Safina
#188 2008 US Open 2nd - Julie Coin d. Ivanovic
#133 2005 Indian Wells Final - Kim Clijsters d. Davenport
#133 2008 Wimbledon 3rd - Zheng Jie d. Ivanovic
#132 2009 Tokyo 2nd - Chang Kai-Chen d. Safina
#95 2009 Marbella 1st - Klara Zakopalova d. S.Williams
#94 2008 Montreal 3rd - Tamira Paszek d. Ivanovic
#78 2014 Charleston 2nd - JANA CEPELOVA d. S.WILLIAMS
#76 2011 Cincinnati 2nd - Christina McHale d. Wozniacki
#73 2011 Bastad 2nd - Sofia Arvidsson d. Wozniacki
#52 2009 US Open 3rd - Petra Kvitova d. Safina

KATOWICE, POLAND (Int'l $500K/hard indoor)
13 Final: Vinci d. Kvitova (on RCI)
13 Doubles Final: Arruabarrena/Dominguez-Lino d. Olaru/Solovyeva
14 Top Seeds: A.Radwanska/Vinci

#1 A.Radwanska d. #5 Koukalova
#8 Pironkova d. #3 Suarez-Navarro
#1 A.Radwanska d. #8 Pironkova

...first off, everyone go krazy! We can be kooky for Koukalova again! As a relationship ends, "Zakopalova" is no more. Sure, that's too bad for Klara, after marrying her soccer-playing husband back in 2006. But, as far as this space is concerned, I'm happy to be able be resurrect one of the original Backspin nicknames, around as far back as 2003 when the Czech upset Monica Seles at the Austalian Open. As far as Koukalova's chances for her fourth 2014 final, well, she might have to get past Cornet in the QF to have a shot at crowd fave Aga in the semis. I'll go with her getting that chance, just to highlight the name change. In the end, it's hard to go against A-Rad back home in Poland. Although, she's never reached a tour singles final in her home country.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (Int'l $250K/red clay outdoor)
13 Final: Jankovic d. Ormaechea
13 Doubles Final: Babos/Minella d. Birnerova/Panova
14 Top Seeds: Jankovic/Stephens

#1 Jankovic d. Pereira
#5 Garcia d. #6 King
#1 Jankovic d. #5 Garcia

...JJ's been wonderful, wacky and even a bit wayward at times in recent weeks. She's the defending champ in Bogota, though, the event title run that sparked her recent Top 10 resurgence. This is her first attempt at a title defense in three years, so we'll see how it goes. She's surely a big favorite. Stephens, vs. clay courter Duque-Marino in the 1st Round (another loss?), likely won't give this event much of her time.

All for now.