Tuesday, June 07, 2016

2Q Clay Court Awards: Top Performers & Performances

The stars of the WTA tour are always interesting... but some are more interesting than others.

First, a look back at the top clay court performers and performances of the 2nd Quarter...

*2Q.1 "CLAY COURT AWARDS" - Weeks 14-21*

1. Caroline Garcia & Kristina Mladenovic, FRA/FRA
...an argument can be made that the Pastries were THE dominant figures during the clay court season. They went 22-1, winning four titles in Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid and Paris. In the latter, they became the first all-French duo to claim the women's doubles title since 1971, and the first all French-born pair since 1945 (or, since RG doesn't officially recognize the events contested during the Nazi occupation, make that 1926). Their titles came with wins in finals over the likes of the tour's best slam title-hoarding pairs -- Hingis/Mirza (twice), Mattek-Sands/Safarova and Makarova/Vesnina -- and in the middle of their multi-month run they also delivered the deciding doubles win (over NED's Bertens/Hogenkamp) in the semifinals that sent France to the Fed Cup final for the first time since 2005. Oh, and Garcia managed to squeeze in a singles title in Strasbourg, too.
2. Garbine Muguruza, ESP
...two years ago, the Spaniard looked like a future star. A season ago, she moved center stage in the discussion of "next first-time slam champ." In the spring, Muguruza proved all the speculation right, overcoming a possibly injury-related slow start, a few tough luck losses, emotional walkabouts and unbecoming on-court squabbles with coach Sam Suymk, once again showing the ability to lift her game on the biggest stages. After upsetting Serena Williams in Paris in '14, reaching the the Wimbledon final and looking like the best player in attendance at the WTA Finals last year and then proving herself to be a dominant Fed Cup force for the second straight season, off a tuneup semifinal run in Rome, Muguruza returned to Paris and made good on her potential. Becoming one of the few women to have notched a second victory over Serena in a major (usually the pain and annoyance associated with losing once is enough to allow Williams to prevent it from ever happening again), Muguruza defeated the world #1 in the Roland Garros final to become the tour's third straight maiden slam winner, the first champ representing Spain since 1998 and the first born in South America (she considers herself "50%" Venezuelan) since 1990. But if we've learned anything from the rises of most other "new stars" (Vika excluded) in recent seasons, it's now when the truly difficult part begins.
3. French Fed Cup Team
...in the Destiny vs. Cinderella match-up of SF weekend, French Captain Amelie Mauresmo out-dueled Dutch head Paul Haarhuis by, essentially, having faith in her initial decisions and allowing her Pastry charges to spread their wings and fly unfettered on Day 2... all the way into France's first Fed Cup final since 2005. After Kiki Bertens won the "Battle of the Kikis" over Kristina Mladenovic to put the Netherlands one win away from a ninth consecutive tie win and the nation's first FC final since 1997, Mauresmo through her weight behind Caroline Garcia to rebound from her Day 1 stumble vs. Bertens. She did, winning straight sets to force a deciding doubles match.

That's when Garcia & Mladenovic, Mauresmo's "ace" duo up her sleeve, stepped back into the spotlight. Both woman may often be questionable clutch players in their WTA singles careers, but they're both totally different beasts in the French colors. Put them together on the same side of the court and you stand a pretty good chance of getting what we saw in match #5: an in-your-face, chesty, crowd-stoking, fist-shaking combination of grit, athleticism and French style capable of overwhelming and intimidating an opposing duo while an arena full of supporters have their back at every turn. In putting away their second ('15 1st Rd. vs. ITA) tie-clinching FC doubles match (both also have a third deciding doubles victory with different partners), the Pastry pair came back from a set down against Bertens/Hogenkamp with a thrilling display of shot-making and competitiveness that lit up the partisan crowd in Trelaze.

France's last FC title came in 2003 (led by Mauesmo and Mary Pierce), followed by back-to-back final losses to the most recently dynastic Fed Cup nation -- Russia. Well, that is, until the current Czech run. One year after the Maidens eliminated the Pastries 3-1 in last year's semifinals, the Czechs will be waiting for Mauresmo, Kiki, Caro & Co. once again come November. The two-time defending champs will be an angry, talented bear to wrestle to the ground come this fall, but at least the French team will have the benefit of a home court advantage. It just might be enough to fulfill some Fed Cup destiny.
4. Martina Hingis & Sania Mirza, SUI/IND
...red clay has never been the best surface for either woman, and the world #1's entered this clay season having yet to win a title on the surface since joining forces early last year (though they did manage a green clay win in Charleston in '15). But the veteran pair built up momentum with final runs in Stuttgart and Madrid (losing both times to Garcia/Mladenovic) leading into their first RC title in Rome (def. Makarova/Vesnina in the final). They appeared to be on a collision course in Paris for a third spring meeting with the Pastries, only to be upset by the young Czech duo of Krejcikova/Siniakova in the 3rd Round as their quest for a fourth consecutive slam title (and a Career Doubles Slam for Mirza) fell short. No matter, Hingis still managed to win the Mixed Doubles title in Paris with Leander Paes, defeating (naturally) Mirza and Ivan Dodig in the final to complete a Career Mixed Slam. At Wimbledon, Mirza will be looking for HER Career Mixed Slam.
5. Serena Williams, USA
...for the third straight slam, Williams failed to go home with a title. Such are the incredibly high standards of the all-time great, who "only" reached her second slam final of 2016 in Paris AND won her fourth career singles title in Rome. The 34-year old world #1, even while seen as having taken a slight "step back" as three first-timers have claimed slams since Williams completed her second Serena Serena, it's worth noting that she's managed to reach finals at six of the last seven slams, winning four. And while clay is considered her "least favored" surface, Serena is still 80-5 on it since 2012. Oh, and remember, while she doesn't win them all, she's won at least one slam title in eight of the last nine seasons. So one should expect Williams to "be heard from" again before the summer is over.
6. Kiki Bertens, NED
...finally, after all these years, we were witness to the spring awakening of one Kiki Bertens. The Dutch player very nearly put her nation's Fed Cup team on her back (again) in the semifinals vs. France, notching singles wins over both Garcia and Mladenovic before finally only having so much to give as she and Richel Hogenkamp fell in the deciding doubles match when the two Pastries teamed up. But Bertens wasn't finished, not by a long shot. She was barely ranked inside the Top 100 when she reached the semis in Rabat, but followed up that result with her first title run in four years in Nurnberg (where she won in doubles, too) after having to make her way through qualifying. In Paris, she ran her winning streak to twelve matches and became the first Dutch woman to reach the semis in Paris in forty-five years, and the first unseeded woman from any nation to get so far at Roland Garros since 2003. A calf injury slowed her down just enough to prevent her from pushing Serena Williams to three sets. Suddenly a Top 30 player, Bertens is looking at a seed for Wimbledon, as well as possibly a whole new tennis existence.
7. Cagla Buyukakcay, TUR
...the Turk is quickly becoming "the Sania Mirza of Turkey," virtually collecting more "first Turk to" honors than she'll ever have time to count. Just this spring alone, she reached her maiden career tour-level semi and final (both firsts for Turkey) in Istanbul, where she became the first Turk to win a WTA singles title. She climbed into the Top 100 (a Turkish first, as well), qualified for Roland Garros (the first Turk in the Open era in a slam MD) and even notched a match victory (ditto).
8. Czech Fed Cup Team
...while the Czechs have been the Fed Cup's dominant nation of late, they've often been forced to win the final match of the weekend in order to advance. This spring's semifinal vs. Switzerland proved to be no different. It was their third consecutive 3-2 tie clinched in the doubles, this time with Karolina Pliskova (who had a hand in the other two, along w/ her singles duties) teaming with Lucie Hradecka to take out Viktoriya Golubic and Martina Hingis in straight sets. In their fifth FC final in six years, now the Czechs will attempt to become the first team to three-peat as FC champions since Spain won from 1993-95.
9. Samantha Stosur, AUS
...the spring comeback queen. Aussie might have been downtrodden after her horrific Fed Cup weekend (0-2) vs. the U.S., but she very quietly went 17-5 otherwise during the clay season, reaching the Prague final, Madrid semis and Strasbourg quarterfinals before a run to her first RG semi since 2012 in her farewell tournament (again) with longtime coach David Taylor. At 32, she's back in the Top 15.
10. Laura Siegemund, GER
...the 28-year old German was the revelation of the clay season, bursting from the gates with an energetic 14-3 run that included a QF in Charleston (def. Keys), a Q-run to the final in Stuttgart (def. Halep, Vinci & Radwanska) and a 3rd Round (def. Kuznetsova) in Rome. It was all enough to get her a Player of the Month nomination from the tour in April. Unfortunately, Siegemund didn't get the (Bertens-esque) ending she deserved. An early exit in Nurnberg was accompanied by a 1st Round loss to Bouchard in Paris. But she's reached her first tour singles final and jumped nearly fifty spots in the rankings in 2016... and it's only June.

Timea Bacsinszky, SUI: slowly rounding into form after being felled by a late-season knee injury at the end of '15, Bacsinszky finally hit her stride on the clay. After a disappointing 0-2 Fed Cup semifinal record on hard court vs. the Czechs, the Swiss went 14-3 on the clay, winning a title in Rabat, reaching the Rome QF and, one year after a SF berth in Paris, returning to the Roland Garros QF.

Irina-Camelia Begu, ROU: while she won no titles nor reached any finals, Begu was the most in-form and consistent player on tour during the clay court season, spreading out her success in a 13-win campaign that included victories over Muguruza, Azarenka, Kasatkina, Bouchard and Garcia as she reached the QF in Charleston and Madrid, the semis in Rome and Round of 16 at Roland Garros (after three straight three-set wins).

Dominika Cibulkova, SVK: on the comeback trail from Achilles' surgery, the Slovak won her first post-surgery title in Katowice and in Madrid reached her biggest final since the 2014 Australian Open.

Angelique Kerber, GER: a great start (Charleston SF, Stuttgart title) was damaged by an injury-plagued, bad finish (1st-2nd-1st Round losses, including becoming the fifth AO champ in the Open era to lose her opening match in Paris).

Simona Halep, ROU: After a February win over Petra Kvitova in Fed Cup led her to cancel the nasal surgery that was scheduled to take her off tour for at least a month (but, in retrospect, is a performance that doesn't look as good as it might have at the time due to the Czech's slipping level of success), Halep followed up her hit-and-miss hard court stretch (6-4) with a title run in Madrid, her first win in more than a year. But the rest of her spring (3-3 in tour matches) only served up more disappointment.

Anabel Medina-Garrigues & Arantxa Parra-Santonja, ESP/ESP: the Spanish vets won their second title of the year (w/ Acapulco) in Strasbourg without dropping a set.

Sloane Stephens, USA: she picked up her third title of the season -- and the first of her career on clay -- in Charleston, but was only 4-3 in Europe. She's finally back in the Top 20.

Xenia Knoll, SUI: the Swiss has found her way into the doubles winner's circle on every level in 2016, from the WTA tour (winning in Rabat w/ Krunic, and reaching the final in Istanbul) to the WTA 125 Series (Bol champ), as well as on the ITF circuit (reaching a $100K ITF final in Cagnes-sur-Mer this spring, after winning a $25K in February).

#1 - The World According to Garbi
Garbine Muguruza came to Paris with great potential for success, as long as she could keep her head about her. After dropping her opening set in the 1st Round to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Muguruza put her head down and ran off fourteen straight sets en route to her first slam title (and just her third overall tour title) at Roland Garros, a run that included wins over former slam champs Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur and #1 and defending champ Serena Williams in the final. Defeating Williams for the second time (w/ her '14 2nd Rd. win) in Paris, Muguruza simply outplayed Serena in the championship match, adding her name to the short list of woman who've beaten the 21-time major winner in her twenty-seven career slam finals. The first Spanish woman to win a slam since 1998 (Sanchez), the first to reach a slam final since 2000 (Martinez), the first South American-born (Venezuela) winner since 1990 (Sabatini), and the youngest slam champ since 2012 (Azarenka), 22-year old Muguruza rises to a career-best #2 a month before embarking on an attempt to follow up her '15 Wimbledon final run at SW19.
#2 - Turkish Delight
...playing in her Istanbul hometown, Cagla Buyukakcay rode the wave of her own tennis momentum and the support of the crowd to her first career tour singles semifinal, final and maiden title with wins over Marina Melnikova, Sorana Cirstea, Nao Hibino, Stefanie Voegele and Danka Kovinic in a 3-6/6-2/6-3 final. She's the first Turkish woman to accomplish any of those feats in WTA history. The 26-year old rose into the Top 100 for the first time. A month later, she qualified in Paris to become the first Turk in a slam MD in the Open era (she was joined by fellow qualifier Ipek Soylu), where she also became the first to get a match victory (though, thanks to the Parisian rain, it took her two days to get the job done).
#3 - Sloane's Future is Now
...Sloane Stephens' first clay court title comes in Charleston 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 (qualifier Elena 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 and Charleston have hosted title-winning parties, with still more tentatively scheduled elsewhere down the line.
#4 - Kerber Takes Germany (Again)
...for the second straight year, Angelique Kerber starts the clay season with an early spring title run. In 2015, she won in Charleston and Stuttgart, but saw her results dry up the rest of the way, leading to a disappointing 3rd Round loss at Roland Garros. This year, after a Charleston semifinal she returned to Stuttgart and, after winning in three sets in her opening match last week over Annika Beck, her superior standing in the draw became clearer and clearer with each outing as she knocked off Carla Suarez-Navarro, Petra Kvitova and then Laura Siegemund in the final to defend a singles title for the first time in her career. Unfortunately, once again, her results were less noteworthy as the clay spring wore on, ending with a 1st Round exit in Paris.

#5 - Lucie is Back!
...when Lucie Safarova was ready, it didn't take her long to claim tangible rewards for her progress. Heading into Prague, the Czech was sporting a 0-5 2016 singles mark since she'd returned full-time from the bacterial infection that left her hospitalized last fall. A week earlier in Stuttgart, her 1st Round loss to Karolina Pliskova was a tight affair, and her first three-setter of the season. It was a hopeful sign, but who knew it was actually going to be the stepping stone to a title run? After losing the opening set of her 1st Round match in Prague to Mariana Duque, Safarova didn't lose another set on the way to her first final since New Haven last summer. Her week included additional wins over Lucie Hradecka (ret.), Hsieh Su-Wei and, interestingly enough, Pliskova, the defending champ at the event. This time, Safarova downed her countrywoman 4 & 6. In the final, she came back from a set down against Samantha Stosur to secure her seventh career tour title in her sixteenth final. It's her first title run on clay since she won her maiden singles crown in Estoril in 2005. It's actually Safarova's third Prague Open title, with the previous two coming when the event was a $100K challenger in 2012-13.

#6 - When in Rome... Serena wins
...in Rome, Serena's run of straight sets wins over Anna-Lena Friedsam, Christina McHale, Svetlana Kuznetsova (allowing the Russian just two games after losing to her in Miami), Irina-Camelia Begu and Madison Keys was nice, even if it won't be long remembered as a fabled run. Still, her forth Italian Open crown, coming fourteen years after her first in 2002, was her first title since last summer in Cincinnati. It didn't serve a forerunner to slam title #22, though, as Williams dropped her second slam final of 2016 in the RG final vs. Muguruza.

#7 - The Simona of Spain, After Madrid, was Mostly Plain
...in her best and most consistent form in over a year, Simona Halep put up six dominating wins (losing just one set, a love anomaly vs. Begu in the QF) to claim career title #12 to tie Virginia Ruzici (her current manager) for the most all-time tour titles by a Romanian, closing out the final with an ace on match point. After so many struggles over the past two years since she staked her claim once again as a big title contender with wins over the likes of Misaki Doi, Karin Knapp, Timea Bacsinszky, Sam Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova. She hadn't reached a final since her Toronto/Cincinnati two-fer last summer, and hadn't won a title since Indian Wells in March of last year. This was her first clay court title since 2014 in Bucharest, and her six wins in Madrid the most she's had in a single event since she reached the Roland Garros final two springs ago. For much of the week, Halep looked like the Simona of old. But it was just a brief reminder, as she was dumped out of Rome early, then went out in a hail of rain and complaints in the Round of 16 at Roland Garros.
#8 - Domi on the Comeback Trail
...Dominika Cibulkova put up her best result since 2014 with her first title since her early '15 Achilles' tendon surgery. 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 returned to the Top 50 immediately afterward. A month later, at #38, she became the lowest-ranked player to reach a Premier Mandatory final in Madrid, losing to Halep.
#9 - Success on the Court, Good Works Off It
In Bogota, #92-ranked Bannerette Irina Falconi became 2016's maiden first-time finalist, and picked up career title #1 with wins over a pair of Spaniards, Lara Arruabarrena (SF) and Silvia Soler-Espinosa (F). The 25-year old, who burst onto the radar with a 3rd Round effort at the U.S. Open in 2011, hit a career-high of #64 last season and had her first season-ending Top 100 (#73) finish in four years. Prior to this run, her best tour results were a SF in Washington in 2011, and two QF in Birmingham ('12) and last year in this same Bogota event, where she also reached the doubles final in '15. Days later, Falconi led an effort to fund relief efforts for the survivors of an earthquake in her native Ecuador.

#10 - Timea Continues to Love Her Job
After a frustratingly slow-to-fully-heal knee injury, May was finally the time for Timea Bacsinzky to get her '16 season into some rightful order. In Rabat, the Swiss put together her first title run since her Queen of Mexico two-fer in Monterrey and Acapulco in February/March of last year. Bacsinszky reached her first final since Beijing in October (she injured her knee in Luxembourg soon afterward, ending her season early), losing just a single set (to Kateryna Kozlova). In the final, she lost just three additional games to Marina Erakovic to win her fourth career WTA title, and her first on clay. She went on to put up one of the besy clay court winning percentages of the spring, culminating in a QF result at Roland Garros.
HM - Before Paris, She'll Always Have Strasbourg
In Strasbourg, Pastry Caroline Garcia reached her fourth career final with wins over Kirsten Flipkens, Jil Belen Teichmann and Virginie Razzano -- as well as a walkover from '15 champ Sam Stosur (wrist). A straight sets victory in the championship match over Mirjana Lucic-Baroni gave the Pastry her second career title to lift her ranking back into the Top 40. She followed up with a doubles title run at Roland Garros. Next up on home soil: the Fed Cup final this fall.

[The Dutch Woman Who Would Not Lose]
In the late spring, Kiki Bertens finally found a way to convert her Fed Cup success to the WTA courts, winning in both singles and doubles in Nurnberg. After making it through qualifying, Bertens knocked off Tatjana Maria, #1 seed Roberta Vinci, Irina Falconi, Julia Goerges and Mariana Duque in the final. It's Bertens' second career title, but she hadn't reached a WTA final since she won her maiden crown in Fes in 2012. She teamed with Johanna Larsson to take the doubles.

Bertens is the first player to sweep the singles and doubles title at an event since Margarita Gasparyan in Baku last August. Interestingly, the player who did it one month earlier n '15 was Bertens' doubles partner Larsson, who teamed with the Dutch woman in Bastad to claim the WD that week.

Bertens wasn't finished. In Paris, she ran her singles streak to twelve straight wins (an 18-0 stretch in singles/doubles) as she became the first Dutch woman in forty-five years to reach the Roland Garros semifinals.

[The Unexpected Qualifier]
Fifteen years after her Roland Garros MD debut as an 18-year old, Daniela Hantuchova was forced to go through qualifying for the first time to play in Paris for a 14th year. Ranked #172, the 33-year old Slovak accomplished the task without dropping a set in three matches. After having won in her opening RG 1st Round match in 2001 to Alexandra Stevenson (she lost in the 2nd to Conchita Martinez), Hantuchova lost to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni this time.

[The USTA Intimidators]
Asia Muhammad & Taylor Townsend dominated the USTA circuit this spring. The Bannerette duo marched through the American south in April with four straight titles in Osprey, Pelham, Dothan and Charlottesville. During their doubles run, Townsend also won the USTA's "playoff" for a berth in RG women's singles main draw.

#1 - Caroline Garcia & Kristina Mladenovic win Roland Garros, becoming the first all-French duo to win in Paris since 1971. They're the first all-French born Pastries to win since 1945, during the WWII stretch which the tournament doesn't recognize as "official"... so they're actually the first French-born WD champs since 1926! Half of that title-winning duo? None other than "La Divine" herself, Suzanne Lenglen.
#2 - Garcia & Mladenovic form the heart and soul (well, the non-Amelie part, at least) of the French FC team. After both put up singles wins (though they went 0-2 vs. Kiki Bertens), they combined to take the deciding doubles over Bertens/Hogenkamp to defeat the Netherlands 3-2 and advance to France's first final since Mauresmo & Mary Pierce led the nation to finals in 2003 (def. the U.S. in Moscow in a combined SF/F week of action) and '05 (falling to Russia in Paris). France will host the Czech Republic in November.
#3 - Martina Hingis completes a Career Mixed Slam with a title run at Roland Garros with Leander Paes. RG was the only title that eluded them in 2015, as they won in Melbourne, London and New York. Hingis is the seventh woman (fifth in the Open era) to complete a Career Mixed Slam, while she and Paes are the fourth duo to do it (second in the Open era, with the last coming in 1975).
#4 - Garcia & Mladenovic win three straight titles in Charleston, Stuttgart and Madrid during a 15-match winning streak. The Pastries defeated '15 RG champs Mattek-Sands/Safarova in the final, then world #1's Hingis/Mirza in the other two. Hingis & Mirza are 14-3 in finals since they became a duo in March '15. Mladenovic has been a part of all three losses, also defeating the pair on red clay in Rome last year while partnering Timea Babos.
#5 - Martina Hingis & Sania Mirza played in three straight red clay finals in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome (a tour-best seven finals in '16), finally claimed a title in the Italian Open with a 3rd set TB win over Makarova/Vesnina in the final. A year ago, their first red clay title had eluded the pair when they lost in the final to Timea Babos & Kristina Mladenovic. Mladenovic & Caroline Garcia, who'd defeated Hingis/Mirza in Stuttgart and Madrid, had lost in the QF to Hlavackova/Hradecka, the Pastries' only loss this spring in twenty-three matches.


#1 - Rebeka Masarova wins the Roland Garros girls singles title, joining fellow Swiss Martina Hingis (1993-94) and Belinda Bencic (2013) as champions at the event. The #12 seed, Masarova defeated the #1 Olesya Pervushina (SF) and #2 Anastasia Potapova (Final) en route to the title.

#2 - Anna Blinkova wins the second annual Junior Masters in Chengdo, China in an eight-player event featuring an elite group of the world's best girls. The 17-year old Russian was crowned champion after defeating Usue Arconada in her opening match, Kayla Day to advance to the final, and then knocking off Katie Swan 6-4/6-7(1)/7-6(4) despite seeing the 17-year old Brit serve for the match at 6-5. Blinkova was the Wimbledon girls runner-up to fellow Hordette Sofya Zhuk last summer. She gives a great interview, too.


#1 - Marjolein Buis, 28, becomes the latest Dutch player to become a slam singles champion, as her maiden win at Roland Garros adds her name to the list (w/ Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot) of her fellow countrywomen to win since the retirement of THE Dutch WC legend, Esther Vergeer.

Come on, Nike! Just do it.
#2 - Yui Kamiji & Jordanne take the RG doubles title, their seventh slam as a pair. They won a Grand Slam in 2014. Kamiji has won eight of the last ten WC doubles slam titles.


Virginia's Danielle Collins wins her second NCAA women's singles title

[Fed Cup Teams - non-finalist]
#1 - Injured Aga Radwanska and Magda Linette's replacement on the Polish roster by the debuting twosome of Magdalena Frech and Katarzyna Kawa opened the door wide for Taiwan, itself sporting a roster of singles players -- Hsu Ching-wen and Lee Ya-Hsuan -- without a FC win between them heading into the POL/TPE World Group II Playoff tie. Poland's #1 singles slot was filled by Paula Kania, an underrated tour player but one without a Fed Cup win to her credit. Ummm, it didn't work out so well. World #151 Kania opened with a straight sets loss to #353 Hsu in the 19-year old's FC debut. #485 Frech, 18, picked up the slack with a Match #2 victory over #186 Lee, who then turned around and dueled with Kania in the first match of Day 2. In 2:35, Kania saved a MP at 6-5 in the 3rd set, then had two MP of her own before 20-year old Lee battled back to win a decisive 9-7 set. With Poland now officially on the ropes, Frech was called back into action. Still smarting from her three-set match from Saturday (she needed leg massages during changeovers to get through the contest), the teen was taken out by Hsu in another three-setter that clinched the win for Taiwan, sending the nation into World Group in '17 for the first time ever... where, one would expect, the Chan sisters will reunite with the squad that will attempt to follow in the Netherlands' footsteps as Fed Cup's reigning Cinderella squad.
#2 - In a true spread-the-wealth weekend (every team member had a hand in a point), the U.S.'s squad of Bannerettes pulled off a road upset on clay vs. an Australian team that simply refused to get out of its own way. Going in, I'd noted the depth on the squad put together by Mary Joe Fernandez, the second straight tie in which the U.S. Captain hadn't managed to sabotage her own team's efforts via roster decisions made before the first ball had been struck. In Brisbane, she even played a series of not-necessarily-obvious hunches about which players to play. Normally, such a thought would give you shivers and you'd have to avert your eyes to avoid the eventual MJF-inspired carnage, but this time they all worked out in her favor.

Believing that the U.S. might find a way to scratch out a win in this tie wouldn't have been a HUGE reach a few days earlier. But a 4-0 sweep? Obviously, there was something more at play here. Mostly, it's name was Sam Stosur, the "anti-MVP" of this tie. Daria Gavrilova made her FC debut against an in-form Madison Keys in Match #1 and was simply outplayed from start to finish. The new Aussie was obviously dealing with a case of nerves, but even if she hadn't she might not have been able to compete against THIS Keys. Match #2 featured MJF's first hunch, going with Christina McHale (playing well, under-the-radar, since January, she'd been left off several rosters by Fernandez in the past and didn't have a Fed Cup win since since '12) vs. Stosur, rather than the higher-ranked CoCo Vandeweghe. Stosur was in command in the 1st set, and was in position late in the 3rd to knot the tie. But McHale remained steady, while the Aussie did what she often does on home soil -- begin to misfire in ways that are sometimes painful to watch. As I said after Day 1, you get the feeling that if MJF had put up a cardboard cut-out of Lauren Davis on the other side of the net Stosur STILL would have eventually started firing balls ten feet over "her" head out of bounds. McHale held on as Stosur collapsed in a hail of errors to get her first win in five matches against the veteran.

On Sunday, with Stosur in line for Match #3, MJF changed gears again and pulled Keys (supposedly because of the fear that Stosur would attack her backhand -- and injured wrist -- with high-bouncing balls) in favor of Vandeweghe, 0-3 in FC singles in her career. Again, Stosur looked to be in control, only to gradually cede it to her opponent, leading 6-2/2-0, then 5-4 in the 2nd. At 5-5, she went from game point to being broken and her second collapse in a 24-hour period was a "go." Vandeweghe began to fight back (even while missing 1st serves, which Stosur didn't make her pay for), mostly just by keeping balls in the court and allowing Stosur to self-destruct yet again. She more than obliged. Vandeweghe's win clinched the tie without the Aussies putting a single point on the board, then she and Bethanie Mattek-Sands (I.W. champs) combined to finish off the sweep with a doubles win that put a red, white & blue bow on the Brisbane choke-fest.

Stosur rebounced with a good spring clay campaign. Good for her. But can MJF keep this up sort of uncharacteristically competent captainship in 2017? We shall see.

[Another Late Bloomer?]
In the WTA 125 Series event held in Bol during the second week of play at Roland Garros, Luxembourg's Mandy Minella, 30, grabbed the biggest title of her career. After having been ranked in the Top 50 in 2013, Minella was #186 heading into this tournament. The title run lifted her back into the Top 100.

#1 - An MVP in a Losing Effort
It's not often that a true "MVP" performance comes in what is ultimately a "losing" effort, but this was surely one of those. Going into Fed Cup semifinal weekend, 23-year old world #129 Viktoriya Golubic was looked upon as an end-of-the-bench player for Switzerland vs the defending champion Czechs. Anonymous no longer, Golubic is THE reason the tie ultimately became such a close contest. But after she took out Karolina Pliskova (who'd led 6-3/4-2) in her FC singles debut, then came back on Day 2 and staved off Swiss elimination by defeating Barbora Strycova in three sets to send things to the doubles, we now know that the depth on the Swiss roster might just make the nation a legit title threat next season. Ultimately, with usual doubles "secret weapon" Strycova spent from singles, Czech Captain Petr Pala looked without hesitation to Lucie Hradecka (hardly a slouch herself -- the Czech roster has roots so deep that they seem to reach to the earth's core, as a title contender or two could be put together from the Maidens NOT in Lucerne) for the deciding doubles match. She teamed with Pliskova to defeat Golubic & Martina Hingis by a surprisingly easy 6-2/6-2 score.

#2 - Second to One, But Second to None
Angelique Kerber was ultimately crowned champion for the second straight year in Stuttgart, but it was another German who drove the story all week long. Laura Siegemund, 28, became the first qualifier to reach the final (without losing a set through seven matches) as she rode a game style with very Radwanskian and Vinci-like undertones to a career week that included an opening round win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova that was followed by back-to-back-to-back Top 10 victories over Simona Halep and, incidentally, BOTH Vinci and Radwanska. Siegemund had never advanced past the QF in a tour-level event Stuttgart, and her only Top 10 victory had come last fall over Timea Bacsinszky in Luxembourg, in the match in which the Swiss was forced to retire with a knee injury.

#3 - The Key(s) to Success on Clay
Whether Madison Keys' recent addition of Thomas Hogstedt to her coaching team played the key (no pun intended) role, or if it was her simple decision to accept that she has to take the annual spring clay court ritual more seriously (rather than as a necessary evil leading into the grass and hard court summer), the 21-year old's run to the Rome final is arguably (or maybe it's not even arguable, actually) more surprising and impressive than her semifinal result at the Australian Open last season. The Bannerette put up wins over Andrea Petkovic, Petra Kvitova (w/ three match-ending aces), Timea Babos, Barbora Strycova and Garbine Muguruza en route to the biggest final of her career. She even managed to force Serena Williams into a 1st set tie-break in the championship match.
#4 - Kiki the Dutch
Dutch Fed Cup legend (it's now official) Kiki Bertens handled her business in singles by putting NED up 2-1 in the FC semifinal tie vs. France, taking straight sets wins over both Caroline Garcia (Day 1) and Kristina Mladenovic (in Day 2's "Battle of the Kikis") to extend her career FC singles mark to a remarkable 15-1. But with the Netherlands one win away from a ninth consecutive tie win and the nation's first final since 1997, her second career doubles loss (6-2) proved to be the deciding point in the tie. She'll always have February's "Miracle in Moscow" upset over Russia, though, and the scrappy Dutch squad will be back for more in 2017's World Group, as well.
#5 - And the Unseeded Shall Inherit the Earth... well, almost
For the first time in Paris since 1988, four unseeded women reached the singles quarterfinals as #58 Kiki Bertens became the first Dutch woman in the RG semifinals since 1971, #108 Shelby Rogers (w/ wins over #17 Karolina Pliskova, Elena Vesnina, #10 Petra Kvitova and #25 Irina-Camelia Begu) became the first non-Williams Bannerette to reach the RG QF since 2005, #102 Tsvetana Pironkova came back from a set and 3-0 down (a day and a half rain delay) to knock off Aga Radwanska and #60 Yulia Putintseva reached her first career slam QF (def. #28 Petkovic and #12 Suarez-Navarro) while dropping just eighteen games through four matches.

#6 - A Very Happy Birthday
Dominika Cibulkova's post-Achilles' tendon surgery renaissance in '16 continued in Madrid with the Slovak advancing to her third final of the season after winning four consecutive three-set matches over Aga Radwanska (from a break down in the 3rd), Caroline Garcia (from 6-0/3-0), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sorana Cirstea (after dropping the 1st vs. both) before dominating an overwhelmed Louisa Chirico in the semis (on her 27th birthday) to reach her biggest final since the '14 Australian Open. At #38, she was the lowest-ranked woman to ever reach a Premier Mandatory final.

#7 - A Farewell with Arms
Samantha Stosur made her final tournament with coach David Taylor count. Arriving in Paris nursing an injury that may have relieved her of expectations, the Aussie made her own opportunities, advancing past '15 RG finalist Lucie Safarova, '14 RG finalist Simona Halep and unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova to reach her first slam semifinal since 2012. A former RG finalist herself (2010), Stosur is 34-13 in the tournament for her career, by far her best record at any of the majors.
#8 - Introducing Louisa Chirico
First Sloane Stephens stepped up, then Madison Keys. CoCo Vandeweghe and others have had their moments, as well. This spring, it was Louisa Chirico who took a turn in the getting-crowded NextGen Bannerette Spotlight. The 19-year old world #130 had the week of her career in Madrid. First, she had to make it through qualifying just to reach the main draw. Wins over Bogota champ Irina Falconi and Mariana Duque did the trick. She then went to work on a something much bigger. Wins over Monica Niculescu and Ana Ivanovic set up a match-up with Vika Azarenka. That one never happened, as the Belarusian pulled out with a lower back injury to send the Bannerette into her second career tour-level QF. There, she offed Daria Gavrilova to reach her maiden WTA semi. She was overwhelmed and overmatched in the resulting 1 & 1 loss to Dominika Cibulkova, but the week officially added Chirico's name to the growing list of players that Mary Joe Fernandez can ignore at Fed Cup time. Or, as recent evidence may suggest, adds it to the list of calls MJF might make in '17, especially if the U.S. is about to play a tie on clay.

Chirico then went to Roland Garros, made it through qualifying and notched her first career MD slam match win.
#9 - Fancy Meeting You Here Again
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 34, reached the Strasbourg final nineteen years ago in 1997. In Week 19 of this season, she returned there. After qualifying with wins over Lyudmyla Kichenok and Virginie Razzano, the Croat advanced past Wang Qiang, Timea Babos, Pauline Parmentier (preventing a four-Pastry-strong semifinals) and Kristina Mladenovic to reach her fifth career tour final. She finally lost in her fourth match-up vs. a Frenchwoman of the week, falling to Caroline Garcia in straights.
#10 - Lucky
Virginie Razzano's week in Nurnberg didn't end with her final qualifying round loss to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The 33-year old, #186-ranked Pastry reached the MD as a lucky loser. She then proceeded to become the seventh LL to notch a MD win this season (over Yaroslava Shvedova), and proceeded to put up two more (over Monica Puig and Elena Vesnina) to become the fourth LL to reach a semifinal over the last three seasons (the other three came last year).

#HM - That Old Familiar Feeling
In 2013, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won three-quarters of a Junior Doubles Grand Slam, but they'd barely played together since turning pro. The 20-year old Czechs teamed up for a few events in '16, but only decided a few days before the deadline to team up for Roland Garros this year. Based on what happened in Paris, one hopes they won't have such eleventh hour deliberations from here on out. All they did once they hit the court was take out both halves of this year's previous WD slam final, upseting #1-seeded AO champs Hingis/Mirza, denying the Dream Team a chance for a fourth straight slam title, and veteran AO runners-up (and countrywomen) Hlavackova/Hradecka en route to a semifinal result in their very first slam appearance.

[Best Non-Retirement Retirement Tribute]
On Day 3 at Roland Garros, 35-year old 2010 RG champ Francesca Schiavone lost to Kristina Mladenovic in their 1st Round match, 6-2/6-4. But the story here wasn't the match, it was that Roland Garros had tweeted out the Italian tennis legend's "retirement announcement," so when the crowd gave Schiavone a standing ovation as she left the court, bending down to grab a handful for red clay dust before she stepped out of sight, it was viewed by many as a lovely, intimate final tribute to a great champion.

But it'd meant even more, you know, if the "retirement announcement" had been legitimate. Which it wasn't. And Schiavone wasn't exactly pleased with the whole thing, either. She made a point afterward to say that SHE would be in charge of when she walks away, and that this was NOT the moment when it would happen. She'll be at Wimbledon, she confirmed, and didn't seem to close the door at all on being back in Paris in 2017, either.

And, really, why should she hastily write off such a continuation of her career? While she narrowly missed out on a record 62nd straight slam appearance in Melbourne, Schiavone has rebounded well, winning a title in Rio and returning to the Top 100 in recent months.

[Least Known Performances]
In April's Europe/Africa II Fed Cup zone play, #337 Dea Herdzelas, 18, defeated Stephanie Vogt in the key 2-1 win over Liechtenstein that allowed Bosnia & Herzegovina to win Pool B. In the Promotional Playoff, BIH came from 0-1 down to defeat the Caro-less Danes, with Herdzelas winning back-to-back matches in singles and doubles. She was 3-1/2-1 for the week.
In Europe/Africa III play, Mandy Minella led Luxembourg's advancement out of zone play with singles wins over Ons Jabeur and Maria Sakkari, as well as two key deciding doubles matches (w/ Claudine Schaul) over Tunisia and Greece to secure two of the nation's three Pool play wins. Claudine Schaul, the 32-year old who once defeated Lindsay Davenport to win a WTA title in Strasbourg back in 2004 (in her only tour-level singles final) teamed with Minella for two deciding doubles matches. 39-38 in her combined Fed Cup career, she's behind only current LUX Captain Anne Kremer (61-57) in the nation's all-time FC stats.

[Best Handshake]

[Worst, err, Handshake?]

[Best Use of Monfils' Skill Set]

[Best About-What-You'd-Expect Moment... i.e. Aga vs. Barbora]

[Best Kiki I-Don't-Play-Favorites-With-My-Partners Shots on the Same Day]

[Best Kiki Headband/Zebra Costume]

[Best "Shorteralls"]

[Best Group Dab - French Fed Cup Team]

[Best Pennetta]
With Rome, you get Flavia!

[Best Li More Li]

Dennis hits another ace!

And, of course...

[Best Lemonade]

Lists and matches up next.

All for now.


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