Tuesday, December 11, 2007

2008 I.O.: Africa/Middle East Region

"An Ode to Anna (Smashnova)"

Oh, Anna. How Backspin will miss thee... and being able to recite your ironic career statistics. Your surprisingly superior record in tour finals... were you really 12-1? Your star-crossed forays into grand slam action... did you really lose in the 1st Round twenty-eight out of forty-eight times? Four mentions a season never seemed to be enough.

At least one title a season from 2002 through 2006... only Kim, Justine, Amelie & Maria were able to surpass your total with '07 crowns. But your double-bagel loss at SW19 signaled the end of your era... and the close to the career of the "worst slam player ever." Sure, maybe I overstated the importance of your numbers for effect... but you ARE the only woman to ever win ten-or-more tour titles, but fail to reach even a single slam quarterfinal. Of that you can be proud, not for the record of futility... but for the success that would seem to indicate that you'd be able to accomplish more.

Alas, you are gone, and will now let history be your judge. But you will not be forgotten by Backspin, for your singular accomplishments will set you apart for all times.


Get ready, here comes Shahar!

On the strength of her first three career singles titles, the Corporal broke into the Top 20 for the first time at the close of the 2006 season.

After opening her 2007 season by mishandling a rain delay at Gold Coast and blowing a 6-4/5-1 lead over Dinara Safina in the SF, Peer's intelligence shined through as she displayed a great ability to put such potential mental stumbling blocks aside and rise to the occasion at the year's biggest events. During the season after her initial breakthrough, Peer didn't win a singles title, but she managed to avoid the sort of rollercoaster ride up and down the rankings that sometimes occurs when a young player tries to make the huge leap from being a Top 20 to a Top 10 performer. She rose to as high as #15 (tying Smashnova's record for the highest-ranked Israeli woman), never dropped out of the Top 20, and finished '07 at #17 while nearly doubling her ranking points from 894 to 1675.

One wonders how big a season Peer could have had, though, were it not for the Williams sisters, who managed to show up on the other side of the net at her three best tournaments of '07. At the Australian Open, days after surviving two match points against Tatiana Golovin, Peer found herself in a trial-by-fire situation against Serena Williams. As it turned out, the Israeli served for the match in maybe the best-played slam contest of the season. The Corporal battled fiercely, but ultimately dropped the final three games to lose the 3rd set at 8-6 to the eventual tournament champion. In Memphis, in her one appearance in a singles final, she lost to Venus. In the Tier I Miami SF, she lost to eventual (again) champ Serena (again), making the Israeli twice the younger Williams' victim during her only title runs of the season. What "luck" of the draw, huh? Peer surely wasn't the first to have her dreams quelled by Venus and Serena, and she certainly won't be the last... but the whole thing showed how close the Corporal was to an ever BIGGER 2007 season than the one she put together.

Round of 16 results at Roland Garros the last two seasons. Round of 16 (during which she survived five match points against Francesca Schiavone) and QF runs at the US Open. A 3rd Round at Wimbledon in '07, a SF in the Miami event and a perfect 3-0 Fed Cup mark while carrying Israel through the Group I Playoff against Austria and into 1st Round action for 2008. Peer bears a striking resemblance to a player who's going places.

The evidence is there that Peer is a big-stage player, and it was never more apparent than the hard court "save" she fashioned in New York in late summer. After a disappointing North American circuit (4-4), her crowd-pleasing QF run at the Open during which she knocked off the likes of Nicole Vaidisova and Sharapova-conqueror A-Rad proved that Melbourne might have only been a taste of things to come.

After a season in which Peer's fiery and desire-rich game, ability to learn from her mistakes, and mental approach came close to coming together to produce a headline-grabbing slam run, her just-missed-it experiences of '07 could lead to star-making ones in '08. Well, unless the Williams sisters act as brick walls once again, I suppose.

Either way... shalom, Shahar. The best is yet to come.

Prior to 2006, Israeli women's tennis pretty much WAS Anna Smashnova. That season, the Minsk-born veteran reached her thirteenth career singles final... and lost for the first time. In something of an "unofficial" changing of the guard, that was the year that Shahar Peer become the second Israeli woman to win a tour-level title... three times.

Now, with Smashnova in retirement, the Israeli women's talent is greater than ever. And it exists in three distinct stages. 20-year old Peer is prepared to hit her prime this coming season, while 34-year old Tzipora Obziler is coming off having achieved her first career appearance in a WTA singles final (along with two additional SF) while finishing her first season in the Top 100. Combined, the pair appeared in five singles SF, as many as Switzerland (which sported two Top 20 players in Schnyder & Hingis). Behind them is 17-year old Julia Glushko, at Top 15 junior who won her first career ITF title last month.

As the Israelis move into Group I 1st Round Fed Cup action in 2008, for maybe the first time ever there is some hope for a successful result... even though the opponent is Team Russia. From a country with very few international-level stars in athletics, it's quite a feat.


Amanda Coetzer won 9 career titles, reached a slam SF and was ranked as high as #3 on the WTA computer before retiring in 2004.

Since Coetzer bid adieu, only Liezel Huber has kept South Africa on the tennis map... then she became an American citizen late in the 2007 season. Huber promptly rose to #1 in the doubles rankings, becoming the 22nd woman to do so when she ended the year with a share of the top spot with partner Cara Black. Currently, the highest-ranked South African in singles is #223 Chanelle Scheepers, and #88 Natalie Grandin in doubles.

==The NextGen Stars?==
1. Julia Glushko, 17 / ISR
2. Marinne Giraud, 21 / MRI
3. Chanelle Scheepers, 23 / RSA

VETERAN STABILITY: Zimbabwe's Cara Black, 28, held sole possession of the #1 doubles ranking for 20 weeks before ending the season with a share of it along with season-long partner Huber. Black was exclusively a doubles specialist in 2007, playing zero tour singles matches all season long. Her only tour singles title came in 2002, and her career-high rank was #31 in 1999.

In a bit of trivia, former #1 junior (1997, in both singles and doubles) Black is one of the few players to have won four different Wimbledon titles: Girls singles, Girls doubles, Ladies' Doubles & Mixed Doubles. In all, she's claimed six slam Doubles & Mixed crowns, with the most recent coming at last season's Australian Open and Wimbledon with Huber.

FIRST SEMIFINAL: Julia Glushko (at a jr. slam), Shahar Peer (at a slam)

1. Shahar Peer, ISR:

The crystal ball sees three more trips to the winner's circle, a slam SF, a Tier I crown... and more stories about playing doubles with Sania Mirza which Peer doesn't understand the hubbub about (which is quite refreshing, actually).
2. Cara Black, ZIM: I guess we can go ahead and chalk up at least one, and probably two, more slam doubles titles and/or Olympic medals for Wayne and Byron's sis.
3. Israeli Fed Cup Team: yeah, the odds of knocking off Russia (possibly with the Supernova) in the 1st Round in February aren't good... but since the matches are supposed to take place in Ramat Hasharon, might there be an outside chance at a shocking upset?
4. Tzipora Obziler, ISR:

What are the chances that Tzipi will get her first title at nearly 35 years of age? Yeah, probably not very good... but it'd be a great story, wouldn't it?
5. Julia Glushko, ISR: big tour success beyond a possible QF in a small tournament aren't likely in the cards, but a junior slam SF and about three ITF titles certainly could be.
HM- Marinne Giraud, MRI: the world #287-ranked Mauritian won three ITF titles in 2007... which is about as surprising as the fact that there actually IS a legit player from Mauritius at all. Everything after that is pure cake, from this point of view.

All for now.

NEXT UP: South America


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