Women's Look Forward: Week of April 5
Posted on 4/4/2004 at 3:30 PM
Women's Look Forward: Amelia Island, Casablanca
This time, Calendar Shift repeats itself without interpreting itself.
That's because of a rather sad loss: Sarasota, the strongest Tier IV event on the WTA calendar, is no more. That let the WTA chop a week out of the season, and start the big green clay events (Charleston and Amelia Island) immediately after Miami.
But with a twist. Last year, when Sarasota was still around, it served as a warmup for Charleston, the biggest event of the green clay season. This year, the WTA is back to only two green clay events. So Amelia Island, the smaller of the two, comes first. Charleston 2003 comes off this week, and Amelia Island next week, but they're played in the reverse order this year.
And Casablanca, which last year was played the same week as Sarasota, finds itself overlapping Amelia Island. Not that the competition mattered much; the top player at Casablanca 2003 was then-#56 Virginie Razzano, so clearly scheduling it against a stronger event isn't going to hurt the field. Casablanca is largely an event for player who want to plays red clay at any cost, or who can't get into the bigger event
The first big news about Amelia Island
was, in a way, almost amusing: Martina Navratilova is playing singles! Eastbourne we understood -- but clay? Admittedly it's green clay, and she has more experience than most with the stuff; in her heyday, there were a lot more green clay events (e.g. Indianapolis, Houston, Tampa). But still -- clay?
Amelia Island is unique in another way: It's the only 56-draw Tier II on the WTA calendar. (Or on any other calendar, for that matter.)
And, this year, it's uniquely strong. Our first guess was that Navratilova's decision to play singles came at the urging of the tournament, which felt the field somehow lacking. One glance at the draw shows that it's not true. Every healthy player in the Top Ten except Jennifer Capriati is here: Justine Henin-Hardenne seeded #1, 2001 champion Amelie Mauresmo seeded #3, Lindsay Davenport (who won her only clay Tier II title here in 1997) seeded #4 , defending champion Elena Dementieva seeded #5, Serena Williams seeded #2 (due to her special ranking), Nadia Petrova seeded #7, and Ai Sugiyama seeded #6. In addition, Vera Zvonareva comes here as the #8 seed, so we have eight of the top 11 players. Below that, we see a few more gaps, but not many. Paola Suarez, always a threat on clay, is #9. Silvia Farina Elia is the #10 seed, with Jelena Dokic seeded #11 and Patty Schnyder, a past finalist here, #12. Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi is #13, Francesca Schiavone #14, Magdalena Maleeva #15, and 1995 winner Conchita Martinez #16, meaning that we have 16 of the Top 25. (Assuming Mauresmo and Serena play, anyway. It will be Mauresmo's first event back, and Serena was making tired noises in the late rounds of Miami -- and, here, she would have to play five matches in five or six days.)
Given that Henin-Hardenne, Davenport, Schnyder, and Martinez were healthy but skipped Miami, it appears that players are taking it upon themselves to try to put a little less wear and tear on their bodies by playing clay rather than hardcourts.
Other noteworthy players who ended up unseeded are Meghann Shaughnessy (next in line for a seed if there is a withdrawal, based on last week's rankings, even though she is no longer Top 30), 1008 champion Mary Pierce, Dinara Safina, Alicia Molik, and Karolina Sprem. Anne Kremer used up one of her precious injury exemptions to get into the main draw. Plus -- well, you get the picture. Our rough count is that the field has 22 past or present Top 20 players (not counting Navratilova), and about four more who look like genuine candidates. All told, only two active past champions (Venus Williams and Monica Seles) missed the event.
And that means, even with first round byes for the top eight seeds, that there will be plenty of fine early-round action.
In the first round, matches that spring out include Lina Krasnoroutskaya against #16 seed Conchita Martinez (though, given Krasnoroutskaya's recent results, that could be ugly); Anne Kremer against #30 Tina Pisnik; clay-loving Virginia Ruano Pascual against higher-ranked-but-not-fond-of-clay Laura Granville; #14 seed Francesca Schiavone against Spaniard Arantxa Parra; Alicia Molik against Jelena Jankovic (our pick for potential best match of the first round); Martina Navratilova, who likes her courts faster, against Kristina Brandi, who also
has had her best results on grass; Amy Frazier, no fan of clay, against #11 Jelena Dokic, no fan of any surface just at the moment; and Meghann Shaughnessy against Mary Pierce. Yes, that's a first round match!
The second round, if anything, is even better. #1 seed Henin-Hardenne will likely face Dinara Safina (who, on clay, will presumably have eaten Tamarine Tanasugarn for lunch). #16 seed Martinez could face Jill Craybas, who did so well at Miami. #12 seed Schnyder could face slumping countryman Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian -- assuming Mikaelian, who needed a wildcard to get here, can beat Zheng Jie. The Kremer/Pisnik winner will face #8 seed Vera Zvonareva, who continues to have better numbers on slow surfaces than fast. #3 seed Mauresmo will make her comeback against Maria Vento-Kabchi or Akiko Morigami, with the former being more likely given the surface. #14 seed Schiavone would face the Molik/Jankovic winner. Petrova will face the Brandi/Navratilova winner. #15 Maleeva has to face fast-rising, clay-loving Karolina Sprem. And Serena Williams will play her first clay match in nine months against either Pierce or Shaughnessy.
Welcome to a real event, Serena....
We do note with interest and some surprise that Alexandra Stevenson, who is stuck in qualifying here, actually won her first round qualifying match (a significant surprise, given that this is clay); she beat #2 seed Tatiana Perebiynis 3-6 6-4 6-0. We didn't see any other real surprises in the early qualifying.
despite being scheduled against a much tougher event this year (in 2003, it was against a 32-draw Tier IV; this year, it faces a 56-draw Tier II), is a bit stronger this time. It has a Top 40 player in Emilie Loit. The #2 seed, Marion Bartoli, just took a big ranking hit when she missed Miami, but she was #51 before Miami came off. The #3 seed is Katarina Srebotnik, who was hovering around #40 before she was hurt. #4 seed Ludmila Cervanova also has seen her ranking fall recently, but she had a nice clay season last year, including a semifinal here. #5 seed Iveta Benesova has been very hot this spring. Rounding out the seeds are #6 Julia Vakulenko, #7 Lubomira Kurhajcova, and #8 Maria Elena Camerin. That still leaves room for some interesting floaters: Last year's champion Rita Grande (who fortunately earned direct entry before her ranking took such a hit), long-injured Barbara Schwartz (who, if she is actually healthy and in form -- a doubtful proposition, admittedly -- is probably one of the four or five best players here), and players such as Flavia Pennetta and Martina Sucha who just missed seeding.
We'll also see Virginie Razzano return to action. The Frenchwoman hasn't played a WTA match since the U. S. Open, though she did play (and lose early at) the Athens Challenger a few weeks back. At the time of her injury, she was #56 in the world (she must like that number), which would make her the #3/#4 seed here this year).
Also in the field are last year's finalist Antonella Serra Zanetti and semifinalist Marta Marrero.
The wildcards are an interesting pair. Bahia Mouhtassine is, of course, Morocco's top player; her inclusion is no surprise. But Sania Mirza's presence is interesting. She's India's #1 female prospect, but still ranked below #400; her singles career consists of two first round losses at Hyderabad in 2003 and 2004. She did win the Hyderabad doubles with Liezel Huber -- but Huber of course was the best doubles player at Hyderabad by a huge margin; it doesn't mean much.
We also see the occasionally-unfortunate effects of the WTA's play-up system. Abigail Spears won the Saint Paul Challenger on a fairly quick indoor hardcourt. That earned her direct entry here -- at a small clay event in a very different climate. It's likely to prove a painful transition.
Looking at the draw, the most interesting first round matches are probably #5 Benesova against Marrero, #3 Srebotnik against Mouhtassine, Sucha against defending champion Grande, Razzano versus #7 seed Kurhajcova, Els Callens (the top unseeded player, but one who much prefers faster courts) against #4 Cervanova, and the all-French duel between just-off-injury Bartoli and slumping Stephanie Cohen-Aloro. In the second round, Srebotnik would face the Grande/Sucha winner, the Kurhajcova/Razzano winner would face Pennetta, and the Bartoli/Cohen-Aloro winner could take on Schwartz.
There are a couple of surprising names in the qualifying: Janette Husarova and Cristina Torrens Valero, who were getting seeded at Slams a couple of years ago, are still trying to rebuild their rankings; Torrens Valero was seeded #5 in qualifying, Husarova wasn't even seeded.
Although they're playing Amelia Island this week, the points coming off are from Charleston, which Henin-Hardenne won over Serena last year -- the win that, we'd say in hindsight, started the Belgian on her run to the top. Henin-Hardenne's 6-3 6-4 victory was, of course, Serena's first loss of 2003. (Serena, we might add, doesn't have a loss this year, either, but her number of tournaments is rather lower. Interesting that she decided to switch green clay events.) That's a lot of points coming off Henin-Hardenne's total, but she won't notice the difference; she'll remain the clear #1. Kim Clijsters will remain #2. Below that, things are a little less clear. Amelie Mauresmo is #3, with a 230 point lead over Lindsay Davenport, and Davenport has 164 points to defend, so it appears that Mauresmo is safe unless Davenport can win this event and beat both so-called "#1" players (Henin-Hardenne and Serena). Davenport is not safe at all, though; she's slightly behind Anastasia Myskina. We show her as needed to earn 50 points to stay at #4. That means she needs to make the quarterfinal. Likely but by no means certain; this is
Myskina is certainly safe at #5. Elena Dementieva should be secure at #6. But Serena, #7 and with over 300 points to defend, could fall behind #8 Jennifer Capriati, or even #9 Nadia Petrova if Petrova can do well. A semifinal for Petrova would probably take her past Capriati too.
The final spot in the Top Ten is currently held by Ai Sugiyama, but she has only about a 100 point lead on Vera Zvonareva. The good news for Sugiyama is, Zvonareva has 125 points to defend, so Sugiyama is likely to stay at #10, or even move up if Petrova stumbles. But Zvonareva still has an outside chance at the #10 ranking.
Other players with a lot to defend this week include Jelena Dokic, 100 points; Daniela Hantuchova, 92 points and not playing (meaning that this could be the week she finally falls out of the Top 40); Mary Pierce, 145 points (so an early loss would leave her around #35); and Magui Serna (115 points -- earned at Estoril, not Charleston -- and not playing).
If we had to name one player as the one with the most on the line, though, it would be Ashley Harkleroad, last year's surprise semifinalist. She has 233 points to defend, and she isn't in the draw. She'll slide to probably somewhere around #60.