Women´s look forward: Hasselt, Guangzhou, Seoul
Women's Look Forward: Hasselt, Guangzhou, Seoul
This was supposed to be the week of Leipzig. It was on the WTA's initial calendar; we have the printout to prove it. But German tennis is evaporating faster than Venus Williams's aura of invincibility; from six women's events as recently as 2000 (Hannover, Hamburg, Berlin, Filderstadt, Leipzig, Munich), they're now down to two (Berlin and Filderstadt), and the former is downsizing.
And Leipzig was a Tier II. The WTA is used to losing smaller events. It does not like losing those key tournaments. There wasn't any chance to replace it this year -- but at least the WTA managed to come up with a bunch of small tournaments to fill the spot: We have three new events this week, which between them manage to offer about three-fourths the money Leipzig would have offered, though of course it's spread out over three times as many players.
By the looks of things, most of the players who would have played Leipzig have instead gone to Hasselt if they're playing at all. You don't often see a Tier III tournament with two Top Ten players, but this one has them: Elena Dementieva, who has two Slam finals this year, took the top seed. But the real news is the #2: Kim Clijsters is finally back. She's been out of her cast for weeks, but only recently been hitting at full strength; it still hurts somewhat (which is reportedly normal). But she's here.
We have three other Top 20 seeds, and one who just missed: Elena Bovina, who earned her second career title on an indoor court, is #3; big-hitting Karolina Sprem is #4, and Francesca Schiavone is #5. Silvia Farina Elia is #6, and indoor-loving Magdalena Maleeva is #7. Nathalie Dechy was supposed to be #8, but she's hurting again; Jelena Kostanic has been promoted to the #9 seed. Below that -- well, it is a Tier III, after all; the only unseeded player we'd call even mildly noteworthy is Emilie Loit. But at least the other competitors are respectable; every player with direct entry (except Kirsten Flipkens, who appears to be a play-up) is ranked in the Top 100. Wildcards went to Els Callens and Caroline Maes. The qualifying does have one surprising name: Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian, who is now ranked well below #150, is trying to start a comeback here, and did make it through her qualifying opener.
The strength of Hasselt didn't hurt GuangZhou too much, though it's lacking in stars. The qualifying draw is nothing to write home about (and more than a little confusing, with two players named Li, a Lee, two Lius, and a Lu, as well as a Yu and a Wu and a Hu and a He and a Xie -- oh, all right, we aren't trying to be racist, but it does sound like someone grunting his way through a fitness drill with a musical accompaniment on the jaw harp), but at least it features an almost-full field (29 of 32 slots in qualifying filled), though they had to hand out 17 wildcards to fill it. Still, the top qualifying seed was supposed to be Jennifer Hopkins, #117 last week, though she ended up promoted into the main draw; that's not bad for a Tier III. And if the main draw is lacking in Top 30 players -- the top seed is Gisela Dulko -- it's very deep below that: Dulko was #34 last week, but the #8 seed, Klara Koukalova, was #51. That's one of the smallest gaps between top and bottom seeds we've seen at am eventthis size. The #2 seed, assuming her ankle holds up, is Jelena Jankovic (who will doubtless appreciate her first round bye); Flavia Pennetta is #3, Marion Bartoli is #4, Maria Vento-Kabchi #5, Kristina Brandi #6, Nicole Pratt #7, and Klara Koukalova #8. It's a very hard-working bunch; expect 100% effort.
There are some interesting unseeded players, too: Dinara Safina is probably the best of them, though Zheng Jie and Tatiana Panova are more typical of the field: Very hard workers without much in the way of weapons. Other than Safina, Vera Douchevina is probably the best prospect, though the Chinese probably have high hopes for Peng Shuai, who earned her first few WTA wins earlier this summer.
It's interesting to note that the doubles field here is vastly stronger than Hasselt, with Nicole Pratt and Tamarine Tanasugarn seeded #1; Olympic champions Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian #2; another Chinese team, Yan and Zheng, #3; and Dulko and Vento-Kabchi #4. Every one of those teams has a combined ranking in the Top 100; Jelena Kostanic and Claudine Schaul, the top seeds at Hasselt, had a combined ranking of #108 last week.
That leaves Seoul, which as a Tier IV could be expected to be the weakest event this week. Interestingly, it was more popular than GuangZhou; the entire qualifying field was full, and they even had an alternate available; the number of wildcards was not excessive. Though very few players in the qualifying field were familiar; we recognized less than a third of the names as having ever played a WTA main draw match, and that often long ago (e.g. #2 qualifying seed Sunitha Rao hadn't made a main draw since Bahia 2002).
The main draw is just plain strange. We have one Top Ten player, Maria Sharapova. And then -- well, then nothing. The #2 seed is Shinobu Asagoe, who isn't even Top 40, and #3 seed Marlene Weingartner is the only other Top 50 players. Mashona Washington is #4 (a nice reward for the amazing summer she had), Katarina Srebotnik #5, Lubomira Kurhajcova #6, Saori Obata #7, and Samantha Stosur #8. It's a field in which Sharapova, who of course has been struggling all summer, really ought to win. Which is fortunate for her, since she has points to defend from the Japan Open.
There are a couple of unseeded players who might be threats, since they've been injured: Anne Kremer and Yoon Jeong Cho. Milagros Sequera also seems to be turning into a bit of an upset artist.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
There really isn't much at Hasselt. If we were going to pick one match to watch for stylistic and competitive reasons, it would probably be Emilie Loit versus Tathiana Garbin; they are likely to throw all sorts of stuff at each other, and it could go either way. No guarantee that it will be close, though, as both players have good days and bad.
At GuangZhou, the match to turn out for is probably Zheng Jie vs. #5 Maria Vento-Kabchi. They're both slumping a little, but they are both very hard workers. Also of some note is Jill Craybas vs. Tamarine Tanasugarn; Craybas is another one of those players who gets the most out of very few tools, while Tanasugarn is slumping.
At Seoul, the best match is at the very top: #1 seed Maria Sharapova against Emmanuelle Gagliardi. Gagliardi has fallen out of the Top 100, but she's been doing very well in doubles lately, and seems to be getting her game together. And Sharapova is perpetually erratic, while Gagliardi is good at staying out there until her opponent self-destructs. Two other noteworthy matches pit seeds against players who are ranked unnaturally low because of injury. #6 seed Lubomira Kurhajcova will face Anne Kremer. But the one the crowd will really turn out for is Yoon Jeong Cho -- who last year looked like she had the potential to be Korea's best-ever player -- against #8 seed Samantha Stosur.
Just about every week this fall is a little strange, due to calendar shift. But this week is stranger than usual. If one Tier II comes off, and a different Tier II replaces it, the total points "in the system" stay constant. But this week, what comes off is Moscow, and we have nothing stronger than a Tier III to replace it. And that means that players who did well at Moscow will take big hits.
Especially since so many of them aren't playing this week. Last year's Moscow winner was Anastasia Myskina. The finalist was Amelie Mauresmo. Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi had her best-ever indoor result in reaching the semifinal, and may fall out of the Top 30 when those points come off; Elena Dementieva was the other semifinalist. The week's other event was the Japan Open, won by Maria Sharapova over Aniko Kapros. That's a Tier III, but it's big points for Kapros, who is a wreck right now.
But the big moves are likely to be at the top. Mauresmo will remain #1, but of course she will lose a big chunk of her lead over Lindsay Davenport. Justine Henin-Hardenne is safe at #3. But #4 Anastasia Myskina sees 379 points come off. She gets 40 back from her eighteenth event. That's still a loss of 339 points. Because Svetlana Kuznetsova lost at Beijing, it appears she will stay at #4 -- but that likely won't last much longer.
Sharapova's failure to play a Tier III this week will certainly cost her the #8 ranking; even if she wins at Seoul, she's going to fall to #10. That means that Jennifer Capriati will move back up to #8, and Serena Williams to #9. The other Top Ten players in action this week, Dementieva and Clijsters, will not move.
The top match on this list surely comes at Hasselt, in the second round, where Kim Clijsters faces Iveta Benesova or a qualifier. It's a great situation for Clijsters to come back -- she isn't defending anything, she's near home, she's playing on her favorite indoor surface. Still, she hasn't played since Berlin, and has only two matches since Antwerp. It won't be an easy match.
Clijsters also faces a tough quarterfinal against Magdalena Maleeva. They're the two best indoor players in the draw; that should be quite a contest. And if Maleeva wins it, she's just about sure to return to the Top Twenty.
Also of note at Hasselt is the quarterfinal between Karolina Sprem and Jelena Kostanic, the top two from Croatia. Sprem still seems to have more trouble on modern surfaces than traditional, and Kostanic won their last meeting. Do it again, and she has a shot at the Top Thirty.
At GuangZhou, Dinara Safina finds herself (for the second straight week) facing the top seed in the second round. If she can beat Gisela Dulko, she'll be getting close to the Top 50. But Dulko has a chance for the Top 30 at this event. The other interesting second round contest will be between Vera Douchevina, the field's top prospect, and #2 seed Jelena Jankovic, who is hobbling.
At Seoul, most of the big matches seem to be in the first round. Particularly since the draw is rather bottom-heavy, meaning that Sharapova has an even easier path to the final than the draw might imply.