Monday, November 04, 2013

Wk.44- A Fed Cup Celebration, After a Sigh of Relief

In the end, the final results of the last "official" week of the 2013 WTA season weren't surprising on any level. But, sometimes, the path there turns out to be far more surprising than one could have ever expected.

So, Viva Italia!

But, whew, that was a bit more dramatic than we were expecting, wasn't it?

Italy def. Russia 4-0

Simona Halep/ROU def. Samantha Stosur/AUS 2-6/6-2/6-2
NANJING, CHINA (WTA 125 Challenger/HC)
S: Zhang Shuai/CHN def. Ayumi Morita/JPN 6-4 ret.
D: Doi/Xu (JPN/CHN) d. Shu.Zhang/Shvedova (CHN/KAZ)


...finally, a reason for the Tournament of "Champions" to exist: to give Halep one final moment (or five) of triumph, a dash of additional credit, a season-ending rank (#11) that rightly puts her ahead of Sloane Stephens on the WTA computer and, better yet, a chance to shine in front of her family. Halep brought twenty-five family members to Bulgaria from neighboring Romania, treating the Sofia tournament as her "home event" since the WTA tour does not currently have an event on its schedule that is hosted by her home nation. Going 5-0 in round robin and SF/F play in Sofia, Halep managed to play through a leg injury and end her breakout 2013 season on a nine-match winning streak as the 22-year old picked up her sixth title of the year. With very few points to defend from her less-than-spectacular first half of this season, the Top 10 surely beckons for the Romanian in '14. She'd be the first woman from her nation to debut there since Irina Spirlea in 1996. After that, who knows? But she's surely set herself up as the leader of the formerly leader-less (at least since they were first spotted on radar and named as such in this space back in 2008) Swarmettes. Of course, it may take a few more seasons to know exactly what THAT will turn out to mean.
RISERS: Zhang Shuai/CHN & Ayumi Morita/JPN
...back in September, when Zhang, 24, claimed her first tour-level singles title in Guangzhou, she said she was looking at her accomplishment as "just the beginning." Well, she's lived up to her words so far. A week later, she reached a WTA 125 Challenger final in Ningbo, then this weekend in Nanjing she finally won one, defeating the likes of Julia Glushko, Zheng Saisai and Yanina Wickmayer before a very tired and sore Ayumi Morita retired against her after dropping the 1st set in the final. Zhang, 19-4 since the U.S. Open (and playing again this week in Taipei), is the first woman to ever win a WTA, WTA 125 and ITF singles title in the same season. Up to a new career-best #51 in the rankings, Zhang also reached the doubles final with Petra Martic. The Nanjing runner-up, Morita, ended up having to be content with an amazing week of work, even if she didn't take home a title. A pair of three-hour matches, against Martic and Anna Schmiedlova, saw her save eight total match points over the course of three days as she advanced to the biggest final of her career (technically, a "WTA final," but not really... even though the tour "counts" wins in 125 Challengers as a "WTA title"... well, except when it doesn't... anyway, you know how it goes when it comes to the tour and "keeping it simple"). Whatever the accomplishment the 23-year old Morita achieved, or nearly did, in China, it was still the best week of her career.
SURPRISES: Alexandra Panova/RUS & Xu Yi-Fan/CHN

...the pride and desire that Panova showed on her way to what turned out to be a defeat is precisely what the Fed Cup is supposed to be about. It's a good lesson on an FC final weekend that was scuttled by whatever dispute -- likely money-related -- that kept every able Top 100 Russian off the Hordette roster in the championship tie against Italy. But Panova DID show up, and she made her debut FC match one of the most dramatic in recent memory. In the end, she served for the match against Roberta Vinci three times, held four match points and played to an 8-6 3rd set in 3:15 against her heavily-favored (though it should be noted that Panova DID reached a tour-level final last season in Bogota) opponent. Yeah, Panova lost... but she "won" in so many ways that aren't measurable on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, in the WTA 125 Challenger in Nanjing, Xu claimed the doubles title along with Misaki Doi. Earlier this year, the 25-year old Chinese woman, ranked a season-ending #99 in doubles, also won a tour-level doubles title in Seoul with Chan Yung-Jan.
VETERANS: Roberta Vinci/ITA (FC MVP) & Samantha Stosur/AUS
...Vinci played just one match, but oh what a match it turned out to be. Playing with an injured neck, Vinci set the tone for what was expected to be a triumphant Fed Cup weekend for the Italians, taking down a very, very game Alexandra Panova, who delivered a stronger-than-anyone-anticipated Match #1 punch on Saturday. Down a set and 5-2, Vinci came back seemingly from the dead, saving four match points in 3:15, pumping up the already-excited crowd, summoning her Italian teammates (Schiavone, Pennetta & Knapp) to follow her to each end of the court to offer her vocal support from the stands and, quite simply, showing all the absent Russians just what Fed Cup is supposed to be about. Sara Errani may be the highest-ranked Italian, winning two matches this weekend, including the title-clincher on Sunday, but make no mistake that it has been Vinci -- Backspin's Team Italia MVP in all three rounds of FC play in '13 -- who has inherited the role of team leader after the likes of Schiavone and Pennetta put the team on their backs en route to the nation's three previous FC crowns. As for #4, it belongs to Vinci... but, as is their wont, every Italian has a right to celebrate. Ultimately, Stosur didn't get to celebrate at the TOC in Sofia, losing a set lead in the final and bending to Simona Halep's will, losing to the Romanian in a final for the second time (w/ Moscow) in three weeks. But, still, this result helped the Aussie put one more log on the fire of a season-saving 4Q that included a title in Osaka, three straight finals, a (Molik-inspired and ultimately strategic?) return to doubles to hone her game and the legitimate belief that '14 might just be something for her to look forward to.
COMEBACK: Jarmila Gajdosova/AUS
...the former world #25 has had a 2013 to forget. Already having seen her year-end ranking drop from #33 to #180 from 2011 to 2012, Gajdosova has been out since April with a wrist injury. She came into Nanjing ranked #300 with just fourteen matches (6-8) under her belt this season and was sporting a four-match losing streak. But after making it through qualifying, the Aussie got wins over Misaki Doi and Wang Qiang to reach the semifinals, becoming the lowest-ranked woman to reach the Final Four at any WTA/WTA 125 event since Nuria Llagostera-Vives (#410) in Estoril in 2007. The result bumped Gajdosova up to #232 in the rankings, though it'll continue her multi-season downward spiral as far as her year-ranking is concerned.
FRESH FACES: Anna Schmiedlova/SVK & Vicky Duval/USA Nanjing, 19-year old Schmiedlova double-bageled Irina-Camelia Begu en route to the QF, where she held a match point against Ayumi Morita in a 3:00 match. Meanwhile, in a $50K challenger in Toronto, 17-year old U.S. Open star Duval claimed her first ITF singles and doubles crowns. In singles, as the #7 seed, Duval knocked off Gabriela Dabrowski, Indy De Vroome, #2-seeded Mandy Minella, Andrea Hlavackova (running her record to 3-0 vs. the Czech, who just announced that she'll focus more on singles in '14 and will no longer partner with Lucie Hradecka in doubles) and #1-seed Timea Babos in the final when the Hungarian retired after losing the 1st set. The win jumps Duval's ranking from #198 to a career-best #168. A week after being runners-up in the Saguenay ITF challenger, Duval and Canadian Francoise Abanda won the doubles, as well, defeating #2 seeds Melanie Oudin & Jessica Pegula in an 11-9 3rd set tie-break in the final.
DOWN: Maria Kirilenko/RUS & Tsvetana Pironkova/BUL
...ever since she reached the Top 10 for the first time earlier this season, the remainder of Kirilenko's 2013 campaign has been a myth. Fittingly, her year ended at the TOC in Sofia with a retirement, as the Russian pulled up and out with a knee injury after dropping the first five games in her opening round robin match against Alize Cornet. Last year, Kirilenko withdrew from the same season-ending event (after two matches) with a viral illness. A year ago, Pironkova was included in the TOC field despite having never been a champion in a tour level event. This year, once again, Pironkova -- still title-less -- was given a free wild card pass into the Sofia draw in order to drum up local support. The Pironkova then proceeded to "pull a Radwanska," going 0-3 and dropping all six sets she played. So far, in two years at the TOC, she's 1-6, playing an extra match a year ago after slipping into the semifinals with a 1-2 record largely because of Kirilenko's late withdrawal and inability to advance.
ITF PLAYER: Aliaksandra Sasnovich/BLR
...Sasnovich, 19, remains undefeated in 2013 ITF finals after winning her fifth in five tries in the $50K event in Nantes, France. The Belarusian defeated Lara Arruabarrena, both Lyudmyla AND Nadiya Kichenok and then Magda Linette in a three-set final. It's her second title in the past two weeks.
JUNIOR STAR: Barbora Krejcikova/CZE the $10K challenger in Umag, Croatia, the 17-year old won her second straight challenger title, and her third in her last four tournaments, with a victory in the final over Hungary's Agnes Bukta. Of note, Krejcikova's fellow Czech and doubles partner Katerina Siniakova also has three challenger titles in '13. Is is time for them to dance again?

1. FC Final Match #1 - Vinci d. Panova
In what was supposed to be a "drama-free" weekend, who'd have guessed we'd end up with a candidate for Match of the Year? That's what we got, though, as the Hordettes -- in the form of a debuting Panova -- hit the Italians with anything and everything they had (for the whole weekend) in the FC final's opening match. And it still wasn't enough. The atmosphere was crazy exciting as Vinci played through a neck injury, while Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and Karin Knapp cheered her on from the edge of the stands, switching ends of the court along with Vinci throughout the match. Vinci led 4-2 in the 1st set, but an aggressive Panova turned things in her favor, breaking the Italian three straight times to win the set, then taking a 5-2 lead in the 2nd as Vinci again dropped three straight service games. The Russian twice served for the match, and held three match points at 5-3, but Vinci reeled off five straight games as the Italian fans in the stands exploded and Vinci fully embraced her newly-inherited role of team leader. Still, she didn't breeze through to victory in the 3rd, even after grabbing an early break advantage. Again, Panova battled back and put herself into position to snatch a stunning opening match victory. She served for the match for a third time at 5-4, holding her fourth MP of the day, but was broken yet again. Finally, Vinci, on her own second match point, put away the victory at 8-6 in the 3rd. This moment, and the act of either rising or falling in the face of it, is what the absent Hordettes missed, and will never be able to reclaim from their "lost weekend." Actually, "A"-team Russians be damned, the only thing that spoiled this one was chair umpire Alison Hughes (nee Lang) issuing Vinci a coaching warning in the 3rd set due to the shouts of Schiavone & Co. Really, Alison? You mean there was coaching going on... in the Fed Cup final? Really? I'm shocked that such a thing would ever happen, what with coaches sitting a few feet off the court for the entire match and all. Oh, well. The disapproving glare Vinci gave Hughes as she walked to the changeover area after that particular game pretty much said it all.
2. Nanjing 2nd Rd. - Morita d. Martic 6-7(7)/7-6(10)/6-4
Nanjing QF - Morita d. A.Schmiedlova 6-7(8)/7-6(0)/7-5
in the 2nd Rd., over two days, Morita played nearly 3:00 and saved seven match points against Martic. A round -- and three more hours -- later, she saved another match point against Schmiedlova.
3. Nanjing Final - Shu.Zhang d. Morita
...6-4 ret. (hamstring)
And you could sort of see this coming. Even Ayumi (and her sore hammy) had to eventually pay the piper in Nanjing.
4. TOC Final - Halep d. Stosur
Halep was 6-0 in finals this season. Other Swarmettes... the ball is now in your court.
5. Fed Cup Final Match #3 - Errani d. Kleybanova
And Kleybanova got the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces of Russia's lost opportunity on Day 1. Or she played the role of the sacrificial lamb led to proverbial slaughter as the book on this Fed Cup final was officially closed. Take your pick. Either way, the result was the same -- Errani became the latest player to etch her name in FC history by clinching a championship in singles play.
6. TOC rr - Pavlyuchenkova d. Svitolina
Kirilenko's latest withdrawal led to the Ukrainian teen -- who actually won a tour title in the '13, which is more than some in the original field could say -- getting an unexpected call to action in Sofia.
7. Nanjing QF - Zhang Shuai d. Zheng Saisai
A chance to brush up on your Chinese name pronouncing skills. And you might get another chance later this week, too! (See below.)
8. TOC rr - Cornet d. Kirilenko 5-0 ret. (knee)
TOC rr - Vesnina d. Ivanovic 6-4/3-6/7-6
TOC SF - Stosur d. Pavlyuchenkova 6-1/1-6/6-3
while their fellow Hordettes were biting the dust in Italy, absent Fed Cuppers were in Sofia. One retired (Kirilenko), one (Vesnina) won the match she had to win, but dropped an important set that allowed AnaIvo to advance to the semis over herself (and then saw Stosur def. Pironkova to grab the final semifinal berth and eliminate the Russian altogether), and another (Pavlyuchenkova) stumbled around the final turn. Hmmm... could this be a case of karma getting the last laugh?
9. $50K Bendigo AUS Final - Casey Dellacqua d. Tammi Patterson
The Aussie gets her second ITF singles crown in two weeks.
10. $50K Taipei TPE QF - Paula Kania/POL d. Arantxa Rus/NED 7-5/6-4
Taipei WTA 125 Q2 - Kerkhove d. Rus 6-4/6-4
Kania's win ended Rus' twelve-match winning streak, but there's no mistaking the line of demarcation separating the Dutch woman's two seasons -- her QF run in Bad Gastein that ended her WTA record seventeen-match losing streak in opening round tour matches. Before that week in Austria, Rus was 6-19 on the season, and 7-26 stretching back to the summer of '12. After BG, she went 25-5. While she lost to eventual champ Kania in the ITF challenger in Taipei, Rus went on to win the doubles title with countrywoman Lesley Kerkhove, who then defeated her today in the final round of qualifying for this week's WTA 125 event in the same city. Yep, 2013 has been a head-spinning mixed bag for Rus. But her rebounding rather than resigning herself to her unfortunate fate, which many players would have done under similar circumstances, was more than admirable.
HM- $50K New Braunfels TX Final - Anna Tatishvili/GEO d. Elitsa Kostova/BUL
The Georgian reaches her fourth straight (and 5-of-6) challenger final, winning her third ITF event of 2013. Tatishvili is currently on a 19-1 (and 26-3) run.

1. Nanjing 2nd Rd. - A.Schmiedlova d. Begu
Beware... The Schmiedlova?
2. $75K Barnstaple GBR Final - Sirotkina d. Kr.Pliskova 6-7(5)/6-3/7-6(6)
$75K Barnstaple Doubles Final - Broady/Kr.Pliskova d. Olaru/Paszek 6-3/3-6/10-5
a Pliskova will not be denied.
3. $50K Nantes FRA 2nd Rd. - Sasnovich d. L.Kichenok 6-4/6-2
$50K Nantes SF - Sasnovich d. N.Kichenok 6-3/6-1
to win in Nantes, you had to beat not one, but TWO, Kichenoks.
HM- $50K Nantes FRA Doubles SF - Hradecka/Krajicek d. Kichenok/Kichenok 6-2/6-2
$50K Nantes Doubles Final - Hradecka/Krajicek d. Foretz-Gacon/Hrdinova 6-3/6-2
see? TWO Kichenoks. Good for Hradecka, as she gets a successful early start on her new '14, no-Hlavackova-in-sight, doubles teaming with Krajicek.

2004 Russia def. France 3-2
2005 Russia def. France 3-2
2006 Italy d. Belgium 3-2
2007 Russia d. Italy 4-0
2008 Russia d. Spain 4-0
2009 Italy d. United States 4-0
2010 Italy d. United States 3-1
2011 Czech Republic d. Russia 3-2
2012 Czech Republic d. Serbia 3-1
2013 Italy d. Russia 4-0
[recent FC Final singles clinchers]
2002 Janette Husarova, SVK
2003 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2009 Flavia Pennetta, ITA
2010 Flavia Pennetta, ITA
2012 Lucie Safarova, CZE
2013 Sara Errani, ITA

**2013 WTA/WTA 125 TITLES**
11...Serena Williams, USA
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
3...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Petra Kvitova, CZE
2...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
2...Elena Vesnina, RUS
2...Roberta Vinci, ITA
2...Samantha Stosur, AUS
2...Bojana Jovanovski, SRB (w/ 125)
2...ZHANG SHUAI, CHN (w/ 125)

4 - S.Williams vs. Azarenka (2-2)
3 - S.Williams vs. Sharapova (SW 3-0)
2 - A.Radwanska vs. Cibulkova (1-1)
2 - HALEP vs. STOSUR (SH 2-0)

Paris - Sara Errani, ITA (L/W)
Cali 125 - Catalina Castano, COL (L/W)
Tashkent - Olga Govortsova, BLR (L/L)
Guangzhou - Vania King, USA (L/L)
Ningbo 125 - Zhang Shuai, CHN (L/W)
Osaka - Samantha Stosur, AUS (W/L)
Moscow - Samantha Stosur, AUS (L/W)
Nanjing 125 - ZHANG SHUAI, CHN (W/L)

No Ranking - Kim Clijsters, 2009 U.S. Open
No Ranking - Justine Henin, 2010 Brisbane
No Ranking - Justine Henin, 2010 Australian Open
#410 - Nuria Llagostera-Vives, 2007 Estoril
#325 - Sorana Cirstea, 2007 Budapest
#300 - JARMILA GAJDOSOVA, 2013 Nanjing 125
#278 - Betina Jozami, 2008 Bogota
#262 - Kirsten Flipkens, 2012 s'-Hertogenbosch
#254 - Raluca Olaru, 2007 Memphis

17...United States

2009 Aravane Rezai, FRA
2010 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2011 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2012 Nadia Petrova, RUS
2013 Simona Halep, ROU

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (WTA $125K Challenger/hard court)
12 Final: Mladenovic d. Chang
12 Doubles Final: H-C.Chan/Mladenovic d. Chang/Govortsova
13 Top Seeds: Date-Krumm/Wickmayer

#3 Zhang Shuai d. Puchkova
Zheng Saisai d. #5 Nara
#3 Zhang Shuai d. Zheng Saisai

...hey, why not? The chances that I end the season on a six-for-six run of correct champion predictions probably isn't likely, anyway.

This is the last "regular" Backspin for 2013, but the weekly awards post will be substituted starting next Monday with the returning "Backspin Backtalk" editions for the rest of the year. They'll touch on the previous week's ITF results (and, next week, the WTA 125 Challenger in Taipei), as well as anything else that seems relevant at the time.

The final "Ms. Backspin" rankings arrive in this space in a few days, quickly followed by 2013's year-ending "Rankings Round-Up." So, until then...

All for now.


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