Monday, April 11, 2016

Wk.14- Back to the Future

Sloane Stephens is figuring it all out.

She may have thought she knew it all a few years ago, but she really didn't. Surely she knows that now. And that knowledge has been paying off quite handsomely.

While it might not seem "natural" for a player with four titles in their win column over the past year to STILL not be ranked in the Top 20 (she's #21 this week), it's somewhat symbolic of the steady, don't-take-it-for-granted pattern than Stephens has eased herself into since this time last year. The Twitter battles are a thing of the past, replaced by shoe drives. The coaching carousel has seemingly stopped, as well, and she's settled into a routine that now includes not folding down the stretch of big matches, pulling out and using her best weapons when staring down a MP, and keeping her head while others around her -- or her, two seasons ago -- might be losing theirs.

The smile has always been there, though. Stephens' natural star power was probably one of the reasons it was so easy to put the proverbial cart before the horse when it came to her career prospects back in 2013. She kept up her end for a while, reaching the Round of 16 or better at six straight slams. Since then, though, she's had one such result in the last seven majors, and lost her first match in three of the last five. It's hard to start at the top, but even more difficult to stay there without having ever experienced the climb up from the bottom. Once a player thrives in the spotlight, then slowly recedes from it, many never make their way back to reclaim that "reserved parking spot" after letting it slip through their fingers the first time around. But Stephens has a new car now, so...

Her run in Charleston, where she'd won one match in five previous visits, to claim the biggest title of her career (so far) wasn't as groundbreaking as her first last summer in Washington, and it won't be as big (perhaps even grand, who knows?) as those she'll win down the line. But her experiences last week are surely noteworthy in the moment. With an all-or-nothing pattern having developed for her 2016 campaign -- every tournament at which she'd won a match, she'd won the title -- she surely knew her opening straight sets wins over Danka Kovinic and Daria Gavrilova put her in a pressure situation to do it all over again. Faced with Daria Kasatkina holding a match point against her in the QF, the old Sloane -- "Current Sloane," in these parts -- might have folded to avoid the embarrassment of trying with all her might and still failing. Chris Evert, while Stephens was in the middle of her tumble down the rankings a season or two ago, wondered aloud if maybe Stephens' fear of failure sometimes prevented her from giving everything she had on the court at all times (if she did and still lost, well, then what?). The way that Stephens sometimes appeared to capitulate and lose hard -- often being sent out with a bagel set -- surely made it seem as if the Hall of Famer was onto something.

Or maybe Stephens just wasn't yet ready for the fame and success her '13 Australian Open semifinal, winning smile, and sometimes big (maybe too big?) personality set her up for before she'd turned 20. She had to lose before she could win.

Well, she's done that now. Falling outside the Top 30 after nearly reaching the Top 10 three seasons ago put her out of the immediate conversation. Genie Bouchard became the next teen to reach the semis in Melbourne, and then Madison Keys did the same. Suddenly, nearly three years away from her Ground Zero moment, Stephens didn't have to be Future Sloane today, or even tomorrow, anymore. Others were facing that sort of pressure, while she was able to rebuild herself without every move being (over)analyzed.

So far, it's worked wonders.

Her title run in D.C. proved (maybe, most importantly, to herself) that she was ready for more. Since teaming with coach Kamau Murray at the start of '16, she's now reeled off three more titles. After going 0-6 in her initial tour singles semifinals, she's now gone 8-0 in semis and finals beginning with her Washington title run. Her 4-0 mark in finals now puts her on par with Elina Svitolina in her generational peer group, as well.

But the Future still hasn't arrived. Not yet.

While Stephens is winning big (and progressively bigger), that she's been one-and-out at the four events of her last seven that she HASN'T won shows that work is still to be done for her past, present and future to become one Sloane. Everything seemed to come too easily back in 2013 because it WAS too easy. But now she knows what it takes to win. With each moment like the many she weathered in Charleston, she gets closer and closer to being able to see Future Sloane in the mirror every day until she just gets sick of looking at herself.

The scenic tour of Route WTA just might include an off-ramp specifically tailored for Sloane, after all. How quickly it's up and running is strictly up to her.

S: Sloane Stephens/USA def. Elena Vesnina/RUS 7-6(4)/6-2
D: Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic (FRA/FRA) d. Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova (USA/CZE) 6-2/7-5

S: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK def. Camila Giorgi/ITA 6-4/6-0
D: Eri Hozumi/Miyo Kato (JPN/JPN) d. Valentyna Ivakhnenko/Melnikova (RUS/RUS) 3-6/7-5 [10-8]

...Stephen's first clay court title came after an impressive run that included wins over a Danka (Kovinic), two Darias/Dashas (Gavrilova & Kasatkina, the latter after saving a MP), a defending champ named Angie (Kerber, who retired in the SF w/ viral illness) and a Russian (Vesnina) who spent about twice as much time on the court as Sloane during the week. Sure, there were a lot of "what if's," "yeah buts" and "if onlys" for her opponents along the way, but Stephens has proven to be quite adept at surviving on the WTA tour after shooting to fame likely just a year or two too early. As a result, she's finally learning how to thrive. D.C., Auckland, Acapulco, Charleston. Where will the next step take place?

RISERS: Camila Giorgi/ITA and Yulia Putintseva/KAZ
...Giorgi's star-crossed relationship with the Katowice Open continued last week. After reaching and losing in the finals of the Polish event the last two years, the Italian was once again a glutton for punishment as she showed up to play the indoor tournament one more time. Wouldn't you know it, she reached another final, too, defeating Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Ekaterina Alexandrova (in 3), Kirsten Flipkens (in 3) and Jelena Ostapenko to get there. But after dropping a close 1st set to Dominika Cibulkova, Giorgi was bageled in the 2nd to drop her third straight final. She's now 1-4 in career tour singles finals, with all four of the finals she's lost being at indoor events. Her sole singles title came on the grass in Rosmalen in the Netherlands last summer. But, hey, she's still the reigning champ when it comes to not hiding her disappointment at finishing second.

In Charleston, Kazakh Bottle Rocket Putintseva surged all the way to the QF with wins over Kurumi Nara, Sabine Lisicki ('09 champ) and, in her third match-up with a Williams already this season, Venus in a three-setter than gives the 21-year old her second Top 20 win in 2016. She's up to a career high of #53 in the new rankings.

SURPRISES: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS and Laura Siegemund/GER
...while Vesnina was climbing out of the qualifying to reach the final in Charleston, another Russian emerged from the Q-rounds in Katowice to raise a few eyebrows. Alexandrova, 21, pushed Caroline Garcia to a 7-5 3rd set in a WTA 125 Series event last November, was a winner of a $10K in Trnava earlier this year, as well as a semifinalist at a $50K in Kreuzlingen (where she def. the likes of Carina Witthoeft and Oceane Dodin). She arrived in Poland ranked #264 and qualified for her first WTA main draw with wins over Valeriya Strakhova, Marina Melnikova and Valentya Ivakhnenko (the latter two teamed to make the doubles final), then upset Klara Koukalova 6-0/7-6 for her first WTA win. She then pushed Camila Giorgi to three sets in the 2nd Round before the Italian went on to reach her third straight final at the event.

In Charleston, 28-year old German Siegemund reached her third career WTA singles QF (Florianopolis & Luxembourg last year) with victories over Patricia Maria Tig, Madison Keys and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Her run ended a string of three tough losses to Serena Williams, Alison Riske and Anna Tatishvili. With wins over Kiki Bertens and Jelena Jankovic at this year's Australian Open also to her credit in '16, Siegemund rises to a new career-high of #71 in the new rankings.


VETERANS: Elena Vesnina/RUS, Sara Errani/ITA and Pauline Parmentier/FRA
...Vesnina has been a Russian possessed over the first three and a half months of 2016. She's won a Mixed Doubles slam title in Melbourne, and helped to end Hingis/Mirza's 41-match winning streak along with Daria Kasatkina. But she's been arguably even more impressive in singles. After ending 2015 at #111, the former #21 and two-time tour singles titlist has been forced to go through qualifying at most of the events she's entered this season. She completed her fourth successful Q-run of the year in Charleston, where she was runner-up in 2011, then pushed her week-long labors to well over ten hours while advancing to her first WTA singles final since 2013 with wins over Cindy Burger, Belinda Bencic, Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, Laura Siegemund and Sara Errani. Her seven-match winning streak was finally ended by Sloane Stephens. 20-7 on the season, with earlier '16 wins over Venus Williams, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Caroline Garcia, Vesnina has now knocked off sixty spots from her ranking. She'll be up to #51 on Monday heading into Russia's Fed Cup weekend tie vs. Belarus.

Errani was another of the veteran-laded semifinal group -- three of four were aged 28-29 -- in Charleston, putting up wins over Yaroslava Shvedova, Samantha Stosur and Yulia Putintseva en route. It was nice kickoff to the Italian's clay court season. While she won Dubai and reached the QF in Sydney, Errani had gone 2-6 in her other high profile outings (0-2 in Indian Wells/Miami, First Seed Out at the AO, and 0-2 in Fed Cup). She next heads off for what will be an interesting FC tie vs. Spain. The occasion is something worth celebrating, as the Italian squad is getting (most of) the old band back together again, as Errani, Schiavone (for the first time since '13) and Roberta Vinci (maybe teaming up with Errani in doubles again?) are currently scheduled to compete.

In Katowice, 30-year old Parmentier added another layer to what is becoming a resurgent season. After previously qualifying (def. Bertens) and reaching the Monterrey QF (def. Pavlyuchenkova & Puig), then putting together two more Q-runs in Indian Wells (def. Zheng Saisai) and Miami (def. Riske) before reaching a $50K final with wins over Anna Blinkova, Ons Jabeur and Sorana Cirstea, the Pastry reached her first WTA semi since 2012 in Strasbourg with wins over defending champ Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Naomi Broady and Magda Linette. After finishing outside the Top 100 last season, Parmentier is nearly back into the Top 100 at #101 this week. Sounds like it's time for a victory dab.


COMEBACKS: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK, Paula Ormaechea/ARG and Daniela Hantuchova/SVK
...Cibulkova had quite the eventful week in Katowice, opening it by being brutally honest about how she feels about Maria Sharapova, then ending it with her best result since 2014 with her first title since her early '15 Achilles surgery. First, let's talk about what happened ON the court. The 26-year old Slovak barely escaped her 1st Round match vs. Carina Witthoeft, defeating the German in 3:00 in a deciding tie-break after falling behind 4-1 in the 3rd set. From there, though, Cibulkova didn't lose a set on her way to career title #5, taking out Elizaveta Kulichkova, Francesca Schiavone, Pauline Parmentier and Camila Giorgi in the final in a total of eight sets. This was her second final of '16 (Acapulco), and Cibulkova returns to the Top 50 this week, jumping from #53 to #38.

Now, about the rest. This is what was on Cibulkova's mind about Sharapova: "I was surprised that most of the reactions were so diplomatic, because everyone's opinion is actually totally different," she said, adding, "I didn't make any statement, as I didn't want to be the only person to openly say what they think about this case. I will only say that I don't feel sorry at all for Sharapova and I don't miss her on the tour. She's a totally unlikable person. Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won't even say hello."

Thing is, while it all sounds very familiar -- and more than a little "high-school" and juvenile, loudly insulting someone after they've passed by down the hallway -- I won't bash Cibulkova on this issue like I did Kristina Mladenovic a few weeks ago because at least the Slovak (so far, anyway) had the sense to not throw accusations around ala the Pastry. One can not like someone, and carry petty grievances in their gut like sticky tar because a competitor (THE key word there, it should be noted) isn't "nice" to them. As long as they know that they really only make themselves look all the worse by acting childish, I suppose someone like Cibulkova can say whatever she wishes until the time comes when she crosses that "line," which she merely walked up to and taunted on this occasion. Although, I'm sure we haven't heard the last from her on the topic, so this opinion is likely subject to change.

Ormaechea, 23, used to be the best player in South America. She's been ranked as high as the Top 60 in recent seasons, starred for Argentina in Fed Cup play and reached a WTA singles final in Bogota in 2013. But things have been going downhill the last few seasons. After a #63 finish in '13, she's slipped to season-ending rankings of #126 and #258 the last two years. She came into the $10K challenger in Sao Jose do Rio Preto, Brazil at #370, but she walked off with the title after defeating Laura Pigossi in a 6-4/6-1 final. Ormaechea notched five wins last week after having just one MD win since last July (vs. Arantxa Rus in a $25K in October), and just two in qualifying at another $25K this season. In all, she'd gone 3-13 in her last sixteen matches before her title run.

Hantuchova might not totally qualify for "comeback" status considering she still hasn't won a main draw match since last July. But there was at least a little moment last week in Katowice for the soon-to-be 33-year old Slovak. She ended her six-match losing streak with a three-win qualifying run that included victories over Nastassja Burnett and #1 Q-seed Kateryna Kozlova. Sure, she then lost 1 & 1 to Jelena Ostapenko in the 1st Round. But, you know, at least it's SOMETHING.
FRESH FACES: Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Louisa Chirico/USA and Jelena Ostapenko/LAT
...the teenagers haven't taken over the tour, but they're surely making a lot of waves this season.

Once again, Kasatkina's name is on the tip of everyone's tongue, though it was her inability to take down Sloane Stephens when she had the chance in Charleston that will either put a dent in her youthful armor, or make her even more difficult to deal with. The Russian simply mowed through her opponents in the early going last week, allowing just three games to Zheng Saisai, two to Ana Konjuh and then handing Louisa Chirico a 1st set bagel before the Bannerette finally found her footing and gave Kasatkina a bit of a workout down the stretch. Despite throwing in too many loose errors in the 2nd set vs. Chirico she still managed to win 6-0/6-4, but one wonders how much the experience might have made her just a tad tentative in the tightest moments in her QF vs. Stephens. The Russian held MP against the eventual champion of the event, but failed to put her away as she was sometimes unable to pull the trigger on big shots. Stephens won the final eleven points of the match. We'll quickly get an idea about what impact her up-and-down experience here will have on her, as the Russian Fed Cup team has now been "Kasatkinized." The 18-year old is set to lead the Hordettes into battle next weekend against a Belarusian squad that will feature Victoria Azarenka. Oh, yes... we MUST have that match take place. So don't either of you get injured between now and then!

Kasatkina has now reached the point of being able to be seeded at the slams, as she's at a career-best #32 heading into this week.

Speaking of Chirico, the 19-year old Bannerette took advantage of the wild card she was given into the Charleston event. After knocking out Naomi Osaka in three sets, she upended Lucie Safarova (still not quite in full-flight form in singles) to reach the 3rd Round. After getting blitzed 6-0 in the 1st set by Kasatkina, she put enough pressure on the young Russian to makes things interesting (and maybe even put a bug in her ear that assisted Stephens, just a little, one round later). Chirico is up to #121 this week, not far off her career-best of #109.

In Katowice, 18-year old Ostapenko put up her third career SF-or-better tour result (she was RU in Quebec City last fall, and Doha this year) with wins over Daniela Hantuchova, Kristyna Pliskova and Timea Babos. Like Kasatkina, she's up to a career-best #37 in the new rankings.
DOWN: Anna Karolina Schmiedlova/SVK and Madison Keys/USA
...sigh. The Schmiedlova Mystery continues. In a few short months, AKS has gone from one of the most promising young players on tour, a winner of two '15 WTA titles and on the doorstep of the Top 20, to a player who can't seem to buy a victory (and sometimes, more than just a handful of games) in a season that, as bad as it's been, might just get worse as she's about to enter a stretch of the season where she's going to be defending some of her best '15 results. She's already failed on her first attempt, as one year after winning the Katowice title (and suddenly, at #2, being the highest seed left in the draw this year when Aga Radwanska withdrew), she fell in the 1st Round to Pauline Parmentier 6-2/6-0. Ouch. In her eight tour level events this year, Schmiedlova has lost her first match seven times and is on a five-match losing streak (six straight on tour). 2-9 overall, she's 1-8 in WTA outings, and both her wins were three-setters in which she dropped the opening set. Even after a slow start in January, AKS's season really hit the skids after she won a knock-down, drag-out Fed Cup match over Arina Rodionova in SVK's 3-2 loss to AUS in February. Since then, she's dropped twelve straight sets, and has slipped from #26 at the end of '15 to #34 this week. The good news is that maybe a return to Fed Cup action next weekend will re-energize her, allowing Schmiedlova to "start over" for 2016. Unless, of course, it's already too late for that.

Speaking of how much of a difference a year can make. Last April, Keys went to Charleston and reached the biggest final of her career, giving legs to her Australian Open semifinal run a few months earlier by pushing Angelique Kerber to three sets before both collapsed on the court after the MP that gave the German a 7-5 win. Keys dropped her first match in Charleston this year, a nearly three-hour tussle with another German -- Laura Siegemund -- that saw the Bannerette taking a medical timeout to have her left wrist treated. While her '16 season hasn't been as all-or-nothing as that of Stephens (mainly because the "all" hasn't been, well, as ALL), she's developed a similar rollercoaster pattern. Going 3-1 in her first event, then 0-1, then 3-1, and now 0-1 again.
ITF PLAYERS: Viktoriya Tomova/BUL and Jang Su-Jeong/KOR
...21-year old Tomova claimed her eleventh career ITF title by winning the $10K Antalya challenger by taking out Slovak Viktoria Kuzmova 7-6(5)/6-2 in the final. 3-1 in '16 finals, Tomova is 22-5 on the season, including her current 15-0, three-title streak, during which the Bulgarian has gone 6-0 in tie-breaks. One of those TB was a 10-8 3rd set win last week in the QF vs. junior Hordette Elena Rybakina. Tomova teamed with Brit Harriet Dart to win the doubles title, as well.

In Kashiwa, unseeded Jang, 21, defeated the top two seeds -- #1 Duan Ying-Ying in the 1st Round, then #2 Wang Yafan in the final -- en route to the title at a $25K challenger, a sixth career title that matches her biggest won in 2014. In 2013, Jang reached her only tour-level QF as a wild card entry at the WTA tournament in Seoul. Then the world #540, she upset a #33-ranked Klara Koukalova before losing to Lara Arruabarrena.

JUNIOR STARS: Anna Blinkova/RUS and Alexandra Sanford/USA the second annual Junior Masters event in Chengdo, China, an eight-player event featuring an elite group of the world's best girls and boys, 17-year old Blinkova was crowned the champion after defeating Usue Arconada in her opening match, Kayla Day to advance to the final, and then knocking off Katie Swan (in her final junior match) 6-4/6-7(1)/7-6(4) despite seeing the 17-year old Brit serve for the match at 6-5.

Blinkova, the Wimbledon girls runner-up to fellow Hordette Sofya Zhuk last summer, was a great interview subject after the match, as well. I agree with this tweet complimenting her demeanor. I especially like how she actually stops to sincerely ponder whether this was "the best day of her life" after being asked whether it was just that. I hope this one's career has legs.

And that's not even the best part about Blinkova's winning a big title in China. With one Russian, we also get Li...

In Indian Wells, 18-year old Ohio native Sanford won her first career Grade 1 by taking the girls 18s title at the Easter Bowl. The #8-seed defeated #13-seeded Texan Ellie Douglas in the final, 6-4/1-6/6-1. Sanford, who made it through qualifying at the $100K Midland challenger in February, has recently been recovering from a back injury and wasn't even certain to play the event. But the champ has nothing in that area on her fellow finalist, as Douglas arrived without a full-time coach because of a series of ailments, including a stress fracture in her lowest vertebrae that kept her out six months, then another in another area that kept her out three more. And that was before she pulled a stomach muscle. But who's counting?

Recent winners of the Easter Bowl title have been Taylor Townsend (2012), CiCi Bellis (2014) and Claire Liu (2015).

DOUBLES: Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic (FRA/FRA) and Eri Hozumi/Miyu Kato (JPN/JPN)
...previously a bit lost in the '16 shuffle of the world's best doubles team, the all-Pastry duo of Garcia & Mladenovic -- who teamed up on tour in 2016 after being a lethal Fed Cup combo for Amelie Mauresmo's French squad in recent years -- immediately injected themselves into the conversation with a run to their first title together in Charleston after having gone 0-2 in their previous finals this season. The French pair didn't have a soft draw, either. Dellacqua/Stosur, Kasatkina/Vesnina (via a 10-8 match tie-break), Groenefeld/Siegemund and, finally Miami (and two-time slam) champs Mattek-Sands/Safarova fell along their path to victory. It's Garcia's third WTA doubles title, while Mladenovic has picked up thirteen (w/ ten different partners), but none since winning in Washington last summer with Belinda Bencic. The title run was a nice mid-way treat for the two 22-year olds, between their singles disappointment (both lost 3rd set tie-breaks, Garcia in the 1st Round to Irina-Camelia Begu, Mladenovic in the 2nd Round to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in a wild 15-13 finish) and bouts with unfortunate controversy (Mladenovic's brother tweeted support for Cibulkova's verbal shots at Sharapova, while Garcia weathered a brief storm when it was reported that she'd made racist comments toward Begu during their match, an allegation investigated and deemed untrue by the WTA)...

...and before the pair team up once again for next weekend's FC semifinal vs. the Netherlands.

In Katowice, the all-Japanese team of Hozumi & Kato teamed up for the maiden WTA title for both. Unseeded, the duo never faced a seeded pair along the way, but had to survive a 12-10 match tie-break over Broady/Rosolska in the semis before finally taking the final over the Russian team of Valentyna Ivakhnenko & Marina Melnikova in another match TB (10-8). Hozumi, 22, and Kato, 21, reached a previous tour-level final in Kaohsiung earlier this season (losing to the Chan sisters), and are 1-3 in ITF final appearances going back to 2012.


Hmmm, looks a little like Maria is taking a tour along the scene Route WTA.
Her personal path even has a simple "bump in the road."

Wait, is she referring to...? Does Maria know some inside scoop that we don't know?

1. Charleston QF - Stephens d. Kasatkina
In a true NextGen showcase, Stephens holds on and takes down the teenager, who'd dominated her opponents in the early rounds. After dropping the 1st set, Kasatkina leveled the match as Stephens went 0-for-7 on BP in the 2nd. The Russian actually held a match point at 5-4, but it was promptly extinguished by Stephens' inside out forehand winner. With Kasatkina not playing with her normal killer instinct down the stretch, Stephens grabbed the final eleven points of the match and finally ended it after 2:24. Ultimately, she became the third player this season to save MP and go on to take the title.

2. Charleston Final - Stephens d. Vesnina
Stephens won in straights, but the qualifier gave it all she had before finally having no more to give at the end of a very long week. Sloane led 5-2 in the 1st, but after failing to serve things out a 5-4 she saw Vesnina serve for the set herself at 6-5. Things went to an opening tie-break, which was knotted at 3-3 before Stephens pulled away to win it 7-4. Up 5-2, 40/15 in the 2nd, Stephens saw Vesnina save three MP before she finally put a wrap on 2016 title #3 courtesy of a kick 2nd serve.
3. Katowice 1st Rd. - Cibulkova d. Witthoeft
Witthoeft led 7-6/2-0 but failed to convert on two BP attempts in game #4 of the 2nd to take a two-break lead. Cibulkova sent things to a 3rd set, where the German again jumped out to a 3-0, 40/love lead before Cibulkova held to keep things from getting out of hand. Witthoeft got to 4-1 before the Slovak battled back to force a deciding tie-break in which she jumped out to a 5-1 lead and didn't look back. Witthoeft converted just six of nineteen break points attempts, as Cibulkova advanced and didn't lost another set en route to the title.

4. Charleston 2nd Rd. - Lucic-Baroni d. Mladenovic
In the deciding tie-break, both players held MPs as they traded multiple DFs (Lucic had 15 for the match) before the Croat finally won the 28-point tussle. Lucic edged Mladenovic 118-115 in total points on the day.

5. Charleston 1st Rd. - Bouchard d. Dulgheru 6-3/6-4
Charleston 2nd Rd. - Dominguez-Lino d. Bouchard 4-6/6-1 ret.
one year after their to-shake-hands-or-not-to-shake-hands-that-is-the-question moment in Fed Cup, things went off without a hitch for Bouchard and Dulgheru this time around. Unfortunately, an abdominal strain forced Bouchard to retire from her next match, bringing into question whether she'll play in next weekend's Fed Cup tie vs. Slovakia. Of course, isn't it ALWAYS SOMETHING when it comes to Bouchard and Team Canada?
6. Katowice Final - Cibulkova d. Giorgi
Cibulkova was broken in her first attempt to serve out the 1st set, but she saved BPs and managed to do so on her second try. She then ran away with the 2nd set, sending Giorgi to her third straight loss in the Katowice final. Camila couldn't possibly decide to return next year, right? If she does, I guess we'll have proof just how stubborn she is. My guess: she'll return.
7. Charleston 3rd Rd. - Kasatkina d. Chirico
Kasatkina was utterly dominant early on, onto to see numerous loose errors creep into her game in the 2nd set. Serving for the match, the Russian had to wade through a nine deuce game and save multiple BP before finally securing the victory.

8. Charleston 2nd Rd. - Siegemund d. Keys 6-7(3)/6-4/6-4
Charleston SF - Stephens d. Kerber 6-1/3-0 ret.
any hopes for a rematch of last year's final were dashed early on when Keys dropped a 2:48 match to Siegemund, though it took the German five MP (after #4 was overruled by the umpire) to finally put her away. Kerber's chances to defend her title were dashed before her semifinal match, as a viral illness left her a shadow of her normal self and eventually forced her retirement. Stephens was in such fine form, though, it'd been nice to see how things might turned out if Kerber was in fighting shape. Stephens had just four UE in the 1st set.

Meanwhile, it should be noted here that with Stephens' return to the airwaves in matches with meaning, ESPN commentators will continue to attempt to feed the myth they created about Sloane's '13 AO semifinal vs. Azarenka. Contrary to what Pam Shriver (the latest to do the deed, following in the worn footsteps of Patrick McEnroe and others in the past) said on air during this match, Azarenka didn't have her medical timeout(s) that day "mid-way through a tight match." In reality, Azarenka led the match 6-1/4-2 and served for it at 5-3, failing to convert five MP in a frenzied 12-minute game and then asking (and receiving) permission for her timeout after being broken. The match ended one game later when Azarenka broke Stephens' serve. So, it wasn't a tight match, and it wasn't at its mid-way point. But other than that, I guess ESPN got it all correct. (Wink.)
9. Charleston SF - Vesnina d. Errani
Errani forced Vesnina into taking the match's direction in her hands, and she did it. The Hordette's 57 unforced errors were backed up by 50 winners.
10. Juan Carlos Ferrero G1 Madrid Final (Jr.) - Seone Mendez/AUS d. Paula Arias Manjon/ESP
In an all-unseeded final, 16-year old Aussie Mendez wins her first G1 title with victories over #1-seeded Rebeka Masarova, as well as wins over the #9, #10 and #14 (Vlada Koval) seeds. Arias, for her part, put up victories over #2 (Anastasia Potapova), #3 (Panna Udvardy) and #16.
11. $25K Jackson Final - Grace Min/USA d. Paula Badosa/ESP
21-year old Min, the 2011 U.S. Open girls champ, takes out 18-year old Badosa, the 2015 RG girls champ. It's Min's seventh career ITF win.
12. $25K Changwon Final - Susanne Celik/SWE d. Kristie Ahn/USA
The 21-year old Swede wins her second straight challenger title, the fifth of her career.

13. $10K Hammamat Final - Irina Maria Bara/ROU d. Tamara Zidansek/SLO
After having lost her last four challenger finals, the 21-year old Swarmette finally wins career title #6. She claimed the doubles crown, too.
14. Charleston 1st Rd. - Cepelova d. Sevastova
Cepelova, the 2014 finalist at the event, is the third lucky loser to notch a main draw win this season.
15. Charleston 2nd Rd. - Vesnina d. Bencic
Bencic's lingering back injury has forced her out of next weekend FC semifinal vs. the Czechs, so it's all on the back (no pun intended) of Timea Bacsinszky vs. a Petra-less Maiden squad. With a healthy Bencic, the Czech reign very well may have ended. Now, it'll be a much tougher pull for the Swiss.

16. Charleston 2nd Rd. - Puig d. Petkovic
After a title run and semifinal her last two trips to Charleston, Petko had nothing to dance about this year. Although, she did get to play some tennis with Angie on a court with a view.


17. Jr.Masters SF - Swan/GBR d. Robillard-Millette/CAN 6-3/7-5
Jr.Masters 3rd/4th - Robillard-Millette/CAN d. Day/USA 7-6(6)/6-2
Swan had defeated her friend Charlotte Robillard-Millette in the semifinals. The event's set-up featured consolation matches that placed the players from #3-8. In the 3rd/4th place match-up, Robillard-Millette then defeated Kayla Day to "finish on the podium."

18. Charleston Q1 - Buyukakcay d. Boserup
The Turk didn't make the "Surprise" category this week, but it's worth a mention that she saved three MP here before winning on her own third MP.

You never know if you don't ask.

And the perils of tweeners. Wait for it...

1. Charleston 3rd Rd. - Putintseva d. Venus Williams
Earlier this year, against Venus in the Kaohsiung SF (7-5) and Serena in the 3rd Round in Indian Wells (7-6), Putintseva put up a good fight in the opening set against a Sister but failed to lock it away in what turned out to be a straight sets loss. She turned the tables vs. Venus in Charleston, though, and her early lead ultimately provided the foundation for a three-set win.
2. Katowice 1st Rd. - Kristyna Pliskova d. Watson
Potentially a significant victory for Pliskova. She defeated a good player, and didn't have to solely rely on her serve to get the job done. In fact, she was out-aced by Watson, eight to seven.
3. Katowice 2nd Rd. - Ostapenko d. Kristyna Pliskova
Of course, she's still Czech. And a Pliskova. So, the good vibes didn't last too long. Blame it on Aga Radwanska -- whose place #3-seeded Ostapenko took in the draw when the #1-seeded Pole withdrew with a shoulder injury.
HM- Charleston 2nd Rd. - Kristina Kucova d. Kateryna Bondarenko
Of course, while one all-sister match-up (Aga/Kristyna) DIDN'T happen, that didn't mean the quota wasn't met anyway.


A video posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

Caro named a new coach...

We'll see. We've heard this sort of thing before from a Wozniacki.
And then this happened...

Half of next weekend's Australian Fed Cup Team

This is how u walk the red carpet ??

A photo posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on

Australian Open - Angelique Kerber, GER (1 MP - 1r/Doi)
Rio - Francesca Schiavone, ITA (1 MP - QF/Burger)
Charleston - Sloane Stephens, USA (1 MP - QF/Kasatkina)

**2016 WTA FINALS**
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR (3-0)
2...Angelique Kerber, GER (1-1)
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (1-1)
2...Genie Bouchard, CAN (0-2)
2...Serena Williams, USA (0-2)

[won title]
Australian Open - Angelique Kerber (F - S.Williams)
Charleston - Sloane Stephens (SF - Kerber)
[didn't win title]
Auckland - Daria Kasatkina [1r - V.Williams] [2r]
Dubai - Ana Ivanovic [2r - Halep] [QF]
Miami - Svetlana Kuznetsova [4r - S.Williams] [RU]
Katowice - PAULINE PARMENTIER [1r - AK.Schmiedlova] [SF]

Sydney - Monica Puig (#94/PUR) [lost to Kuznetsova]
Charleston- ELENA VESNINA (#85/RUS) [lost to Stephens]
[lost in SF]
Auckland - Tamira Paszek (#172/AUT)
Brisbane - Samantha Crawford (#142/USA)
Kuala Lumpur - Zhu Lin (#190/CHN)

**2016 WTA SF**
4...Aga Radwanska, POL (1-3)
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR (3-0)
12 - Aga Radwanska 8/3
11 - Serena Williams 9/1
10 - Simona Halep 9/1
9 - Karolina Pliskova 8/1
8 - Elina Svitolina 6/2
8 - Carolina Wozniacki 7/1
7 - Maria Sharapova 7/0

4...Hingis/Mirza (4-0)
2...Chan/Chan (2-0)
2...HOZUMI/KATO (1-1)
2...Medina-Garrigues/Parra-Santonja (2-0)
* - Mattek-Sands also 1-0 in third final w/ Vandeweghe

[closed event - all USA]
2008 Melanie Oudin
2009 Christina McHale
2010 Krista Hardebeck
2011 Kyle McPhillips
2012 Taylor Townsend
2013 Mayo Hibi
2014 CiCi Bellis
2015 Claire Liu
2016 Alexandra Samford
[selected 14s winners]
1982 Stephanie Rehe
1998 Ashley Harkleroad
2003 Alexa Glatch
2005 Lauren Embree
2006 Beatrice Capra
2008 Sachia Vickery

Proof that pressure and outrage sometimes work. Eventually.

15 Final: Pereira d. Shvedova
15 Doubles Final: Goncalves/Haddad def. Falconi/Rogers
16 Singles Top Seeds: Svitolina/Pereira

#1 Svitolina d. Soler-Espinosa
#4 Arruabarrena d. #2 Pereira
#1 Svitolina d. #4 Arruabarrena

...Stephens has now matched Svitolina's career 4-0 record in tour singles finals, so the Ukrainian could nose back ahead with a title in Bogota. Plus, Elina knows someone who knows a little about winning in clay. I'm just sayin'.


And so it begins. Again. The Bracelet returns.

I'll have a Fed Cup preview in a few days.

And, finally, I wonder how many WTA jokes ATP players could think of after watching this?

Yeah, I know, talk about a number too large to contemplate.

All for now.


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