Monday, May 14, 2007

Wk.19- Rise of the Serbs

All right, who's next?

The Waffles have been broken up (Kim Clijsters has been removed from the rankings... talk about a quick disappearing act). The Russians are already established. The Romanians are gathering their forces for future assaults. And the Chinese are, well, misinterpreting rules (not to mention getting wiped out by Maria Elena Camerin before sunset). While players from Belgium, Russia, Romania and China won ITF titles this weekend, they were all trumped by evidence of the burgeoning Serbian colossus.

Okay, maybe that's an overstatement... but not by much. The Serbian tennis establishment may not have the talent at hand on the level of the Russians (though two Serbs did win ITF titles this weekend), but with two players now ranked in the Top 8 (equal to the Horde, by the way) it can at least be posited that the successors to the former "one nation, two-headed monster" throne of Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have been found.

Their names? Why, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, of course.

No, this isn't exactly a newsflash of epic proportions. They've been targeted as rising stars for a while. It's just been a case of patiently playing the waiting game, twiddling one's thumbs while the pair got their games and pysches together. Well, the wait may be just about over.

**SERBS IN TOP 500**

Last summer, Ivanovic made the first huge breakthrough, taking the Tier I in Montreal and claiming the top spot in the U.S. Open Series. Jankovic followed up her countrywoman's exploits with a trip to the U.S. Open semifinals, and only blowing what seemed an insurmountable lead over Justine Henin (a riddle she's yet to figure out, judging by her loss to the world #1 last week in Berlin) kept her from an appearance in a final.

This year, Jankovic opened the season as the hottest player in the WTA, winning one title in Week 1 and nearly another in Week 2. She rode the role as the winningest 1Q player on tour to her first Top 10 berth, then won her first Tier I title in Charleston. She's currently #5 in the rankings, and might even be able to squeak out a top four seed at Roland Garros at the end of the month.

By comparison, Ivanovic was slower starting. She didn't make a dent in Melbourne (3rd Round), but followed up her Australian Open with a runner-up result in Tokyo that included a win over Maria Sharapova.

Ironically, on the same clay surface that was thought to be her weakest, Ivanovic has turned things completely in her favor. She reached the semis at Amelia Island, and her three-set win over Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Berlin final on Sunday gave her her second career Tier I crown -- and Serbian players two straight in 2007 -- and jumped her ranking from #16 to #8 on the WTA computer.

Suddenly, the Serbian tennis monster has officially grown another head. The Waffles have been replaced by the "Rakijas" (fruit brandy in Serbian -- hey, it's never too soon to try to find a nickname that sticks, right?)... maybe just in time for some grand fun on the European continent before the summer is through. Certainly, Paris has often been the venue where young female grand slam champions have lost their innocence.

1974...Chris Evert
1987...Steffi Graf
1989...Arantxa Sanchez
1990...Monica Seles
2003...Justine Henin-Hardenne
2004...Anastasia Myskina

AnaIvo's proving that she can rise to the big occasion should only serve her well as she strives to achieve her grand slam goals. She won the U.S. Open Series in '06, but before that she upset Amelie Mauresmo at Roland Garros in '05, and was a junior singles finalist at Wimbledon in '04. Sounds like she has all her bases covered.

Now it's just a matter of going out and doing it... just like she did in Montreal and Berlin.


S: Ana Ivanovic d. Svetlana Kuznetsova 3-6/6-4/7-6
D: Raymond/Stosur d. Garbin/Vinci

S: Akiko Morigami d. Marion Bartoli 6-1/6-3
D: Cetkovska/Hlavackova d. C.Ji/S.Sun

the 19-year old's third career title (one each in the last three seasons) in Berlin was her second Tier I championship after winning Montreal last summer. Sure, two of her six opponents retired from their matches with Ivanovic, and she didn't face a Top 10 player until Kuznetsova in the final, who was playing just two hours after finishing off Henin in the rain-interrupted and extended to Sunday SF earlier in the day. But no matter the particulars, new world-#8 Ivanovic is now a Top 10 player as of today.
RISERS: Ana Ivanovic & Samantha Stosur
Speaking of particulars, Ivanovic's pre-final list of victims included Granville, Likhovtseva, A.Bondarenko, Schnyder and Vakulenko (Bondarenko and Vakulenko were the players who were forced to retire). Meanwhile, Slingin' Sammy lost a tight 6-3/6-7/6-7 1st Round match in Berlin to Anna Chakvetadze, but she rebounded to win her fourth Tier I doubles title of the season with Lisa Raymond.
SURPRISES: Julia Vakulenko & Maria Elena Camerin

what to make of Vakulenko? She's been on fire on the court the last two weeks, following up her career-ending upset of Clijsters in Warsaw with victories in Berlin over Mauresmo & Safina (on the same day!) to reach the SF of a Tier I event for the first time. But she had to retire with a wrist injury in the QF in Warsaw, then battled a foot injury in the 3rd Round & QF in Berlin before finally succumbing to a forearm injury in the SF. If she can manage to hold herself together for a few more weeks, maybe all those grand slam qualifying wins in recent years will finally do her some good in the main draw in Paris. While it may have paled in comparison to the Ukrainian's Mauresmo/Safina dual Top 10 wins in Berlin, Camerin pulled off a nice feat of her own earlier in the tournament with same-day wins over the Chinese pair of Jie Zheng and Na Li in Berlin's first two rounds. She ultimately went out to Henin in the 3rd Round.
VETERANS: Akiko Morigami & Lisa Raymond

she's been around the tour for a decade, but until Sunday in Prague 27-year old Japanese vet Morigami had never actually won a tour singles title. With a sterling week that included wins over Iveta Benesova, Victoria Azarenka and top-seeded Marion Bartoli in the final, Morigami will now have some extra scratch in her pocket to make sure her nails look as nice as possible (that's for anyone who caught the fun little piece about Morigami's desire for good-looking nails this weekend on the Tennis Channel). Meanwhile, Raymond's hold on the #1 doubles ranking remained strong after she and Stosur claimed the Berlin title, one of the few Tier I crowns they had yet to win.
FRESH FACES: Yung-Jan Chan & Polona Hercog
Chan continued to run unopposed on the ITF circuit. Her claiming of the $50K title in Fukuoka, Japan (over Casey Dell'Acqua in the final) gives her three straight challenger titles this season and 15 consecutive ITF match wins in '07 (not to mention four straight challenger titles and 20 ITF matches going back to the end of '06). Interestingly, Chan faced doubles partner Chia-Jung Chuang in the SINGLES SF, winning 6-2/3-6/6-3... perhaps providing a partial answer to the question of what comes between a good doubles team most, considering the pair ended up losing in the SF to the team of Fujiwara/Namigata. In ITF junior competition, Slovenian 16-year old Hercog entered her first tour event in Salsomassiore, Italy as a wild card and proceeded to upset top-seeded Russian Elena Chernyakova (6-0/6-1), who is ranked 455 places above her, and take the tournament final with a win over Klaudia Boczova (6-3/6-2).
DOWN: Gisela Dulko & Daniela Hantuchova
you'd like to think that winning monumental singles titles would help a player gather momentum. But ever since Dulko won her first career WTA crown in Budapest she's gone out to a pair of teenagers in her last two events, a blitzing by Azarenka in Bucharest and a 1st Round loss to Dominika Cibulkova in Prague last week. Not to be outdone, since Hantuchova won her first title in five years in Indian Wells she's gone a disappointing 3-5 (and was bounced 6-1/6-3 by Zuzana Ondraskova in the 1st Round of Berlin), with four straight losses.

1t. Berlin 3rd - Vakulenko d. Mauresmo
Berlin QF - Vakulenko d. Safina
6-3/5-7/6-3. And neither Mauresmo nor Safina announced their retirements after their respective matches, either.
2. Berlin F - Ivanovic d. Kuznetsova
Sure, AnaIvo was bothered by a foot injury in this match, but of all the semifinalists she was the least battle-worn. Vakulenko retired from her match after seven games, Henin had both her QF and SF matches extended over two days, and Kuznetsova was playing here after just two hours rest following the conclusion of her SF win over Henin.
3. Berlin QF - Henin d. Jankovic
Jankovic couldn't blame Henin's faking of an injury for her latest loss to the Queen, but she could look askance at Mother Nature after She halted this Friday match with the Serb up 6-3/4-4.
4. Prag F - Morigami d. Bartoli
At least Bartoli finally lived up to her seeding in an event this season.
5. Berlin 3rd - Schnyder d. Hingis
Martina's '07 spinout continues as her hip injury will prevent her from defeding her Rome title, and puts her participation and/or effectiveness in Paris in jeopardy.
6. Berlin SF - Kuznetsova d. Henin
This is becoming a trend for Henin. Not losing in the SF, but having her matches stretched out over two days because of rain. This was the third match in a week (following the Warsaw final vs. Bondarenko, then the QF vs. Jankovic) to be so delayed and chopped up.
7. Berlin 3rd - Petrova d. Dementieva
Punch-Sober got wins over Santangelo and Shaughnessy in Berlin, while Petrova finished up her monster '06 clay court point defense with a QF that dropped her down to #12 in the singles rankings. Thus, the ascent back up the mountain begins.
8. Berlin SF - Ivanovic d. Vakulenko
...4-3, ret.
Vakulenko is either a shooting star (wins over Clijsters, Mauresmo and Safina in two weeks time), or star-crossed (she ended up retiring from a match in both tournaments).
9. Chengdu #2 $25K F - Shuai Zhang d. Yi-Fan Xu
Zhang won both Chengdu challengers, and ten straight matches in the process.
10. Bucharest $25K F - Simona Halep d. Patricia Mayr
That's back-to-back titles for the Romanian.
HM- Tiro A Volo $10K F - Caroline Maes d. Marta Marrero
With Clijsters away, another Waffle (the daughter of KC's former coach, no less) plays.
HM- Indian Harbor Beach $50K F - Bethanie Mattek d. Olga Govortsova
An American wins on clay. Yes, but what did Mattek WEAR?

**2007 WINS OVER WORLD #1**
Tokyo SF - Ivanovic d. Sharapova (Feb.)
Ind.Wells 4th - Zvonareva d. Sharapova (Mar.)
Miami Final - S.Williams d. Henin (Mar.)

**2007 WTA FINALS**
3...Jelena Jankovic (2-1)

19...Tatiana Golovin, FRA (A.Island)
19...Yaroslava Shvedova, RUS (Bangalore)
19...Anna Chakvetadze, RUS (Hobart)

28...Greta Arn, GER (Estoril)
26...Sybille Bammer, AUS (Pattaya)
24...Roberta Vinci, ITA (Bogota)

**2007 SF BY NATION**
8....FRANCE, Italy

2006 FINAL: Hingis def. Safina
2007 TOP: Mauresmo/Kuznetsova

Jankovic d. Mauresmo
Chakvetadze d. Safina

Jankovic d. Chakvetadze

...with this week's column's theme, how can I not pick Jankovic? Plus, Ivanovic pulled out of the event after play began.

2006 FINAL (Rabat): Shaughnessy d. Sucha
2007 TOP: Mirza/Razzano

Gajdosova d. Mirza
Bacsinszky d. Olaru(Q)

Bacsinszky d. Gajdosova

...a battle of young-uns.

All for now.


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