Women's Look Forward: Gold Coast, Auckland
Women's Look Forward: Gold Coast, Auckland
You'd think it was Halloween. Pumpkins are sprouting everywhere.
This time a year ago was the pinnacle of Ai Sugiyama's career. She had won two Tier II titles in 2003, and was Top Ten, and she capped it with a title at Gold Coast. For the first time in her life, she was holding three titles.
It's been all downhill since. Her ranking has doubled from her peak of #8. And now Gold Coast is coming off. Call her likely-to-turn-into-a-pumpkin player #1.
The #2 pumpkin-in-waiting is Eleni Daniilidou, last year's Auckland champion.
Even though it's the first of the year, we're already seeing withdrawals. Mary Pierce, expected to be the third seed at Auckland, is out, and will likely miss Sydney as well. Still, it's a pretty good field for a Tier IV; the cutoff was right around #100.
Gold Coast, as the week's leading event, is also fairly strong for a Tier III. The cutoff for qualifying was a bit above #100; the top qualifying seed was #95 Evgenia Linetskaya, yet another of these young Russians, who had the miserable luck to draw Sesil Karatancheva in the first round of qualifying (and lost in three sets); the young Bulgarian, best known for her less-than-wonderful relationship with Maria Sharapova, also won her second qualifying match; she's in the qualifying final.
Gold Coast has a minor historic distinction: The WTA is eliminating first round byes at Tier III events, and the Australian event is the first Tier III in years to have a full 32-draw rather than a 30-draw. That's rather tough news for Nadia Petrova, who has very mixed memories about this tournament anyway: She earned only her second WTA semifinal here in 2002, and hit a then-career-high, but got hurt. She also had a final last year. But she still hasn't won.
Also not getting a bye as a result of the change is #2 seed Patty Schnyder. And she gets another small footnote in the history books from the doubles. It appears that Schnyder will be the last partner to play with Barbara Schett. Schett is retiring after the Australian Open, and there was some doubt if she would be able to play here after hurting herself last fall. Indeed, she isn't in the singles draw. But she is slated to play doubles with Schnyder (and they'll likely stay together for the rest of the month); they're the #1 seeds. Elena Likhovtseva is forming a probably-temporary alliance with Magdalena Maleeva; they're #2, with Olympic champions Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian seeded #3 and the "other" Chinese team, Yan Zi and Zheng Jie, #4. Martina Navratilova, who could easily have gotten the #4 seed if she had picked a higher-ranked partner (say Emilie Loit, who is playing with Yulia Beygelzimer) is instead unseeded with Nathalie Dechy.
Local hopes will be fixed mostly on Samantha Stosur and Bryanne Stewart; the other noteworthy team is the young pairing of Tathiana Golovin and Dinara Safina. Safina posted some decent doubles results last year; Golovin is still looking to establish her doubles credentials.
Turning back to the singles, defending champion Sugiyama is the #3 seed, and she has about as bad a draw as it's possible to have in a Tier III (she really should have played doubles; at least she'd get something out of this tournament): She opens against Safina, then has to face Golovin.
The #4 seed is Karolina Sprem; Silvia Farina Elia is #5, meaning that the event has five Top 20 players -- quite good for a Tier III, even if there are no Top Ten players. Rounding out the seeds are Nathalie Dechy, Elena Likhovtseva, and Magdalena Maleeva, who are all Top 25; Golovin is the top unseeded player.
Interestingly, other than Golovin, there are no players between #25 and #35 in the draw; they all went to Auckland. It will tell you how well Amy Frazier did in 2004 that, around this time last year, she was unseeded at Hobart, but this year, she's the top seed at Auckland, which is a stronger event. Jelena Jankovic, who also had a banner year in 2004, takes the #2 seed; defending champion Eleni Daniilidou is #3, Shinobu Asagoe #4, Marion Bartoli #5, Kristina Brandi #6, Maria Vento-Kabchi #7, and Alina Jidkova #8. The floaters in the draw include no fewer than three former Top 25 players fallen on tough times: Tatiana Panova, Anne Kremer, and Lina Kranoroutskaya. All three have obviously had some time to recover from their problems in the off-season, so perhaps we might see one of them finally do some damage.
This week's other event is Hopman Cup, which offers the only opportunity, if so it can be called, for players to have a mixed doubles warmup for the Australian Open. But that means very little, since most of the players in Hopman Cup won't be playing Mixed a the Australian Open, and the handful who might (e.g. Alicia Molik) won't be playing with the partners they have here.
With Lindsay Davenport out, it's a very unbalanced draw. Only one team -- Russia, with Anastasia Myskina and Marat Safin -- can boast a Top 20 player on both the men's and women's sides, and even Myskina and Safin aren't particularly strong in doubles. With Lindsay Davenport off the American team, we'd have to say the next-best team is probably Argentina, with Gisela Dulko and Guillermo Coria. Unfortunately, Argentina is in Group A with Russia. Also in that group are Italy (Francesca Schiavone and Davide Sanguinetti; obviously the woman is the strong half of that team) and Germany (Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Tommy Haas; Groenefeld is weak in singles, but not bad in doubles, and Haas is getting back on track, so they might have an outside shot at doing damage).
Group "B" consists of the United States (Meghann Shaughnessy and James Blake, the latter finally -- we hope -- over his injury of last summer), the Slovak Republic (Daniela Hantuchova and Dominik Hrbaty, who in terms of rankings are the #2 team in the field -- though Hrbaty will pay a price; last year at this time, he played and won Adelaide). Australia has the best woman in the half in Alicia Molik, but she will be playing with Mark Philippoussis, who hasn't been doing too well lately. The fourth team in Group B is the Netherlands, which qualified by beating Zimbabwe. Michaella Krajicek, still seeking a WTA win, came from behind to beat Cara Black 3-6 7-6 6-0. Peter Wessels then topped Wayne Black 7-6 7-5.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
There isn't much doubt about what is the Noteworthiest of the Noteworthy: Gold Coast defending champion Sugiyama's contest with Dinara Safina. It's a nice contrast in styles: Safina is much stronger (and presumably will be stronger than ever now that her back is recovered), but Sugiyama is steadier and plays a much headier game -- a tough challenge for someone who is, after all, Marat Safin's sister. And Sugiyama has her Top 20 ranking on the line.
Local fans will be paying close attention to the contest between Karolina Sprem and Samantha Stosur. Stosur did major damage at Gold Coast last year beating Meghann Shaughnessy and Magui Serna and none other than Sprem on the way to her first WTA semifinal -- but now she has big points to defend (a first round loss could drop her from #65 to around #85), and Sprem has had more experience on hardcourts than she did last year.
Nathalie Dechy, who won her only career title here two years ago and made the semifinal last year, will face a tough slowcourt opponent in Flavia Pennetta, who at #38 is one of the top unseeded players. Elena Likhovtseva, the #7 seed who is also a former champion here (1997) will have to face tough Emilie Loit.
Magdalena Maleeva, the #8 seed, faces a much weaker opponent in Yuliana Fedak -- but this should be a good surface for Fedak, and Maleeva was in horrid shape at the end of last year. If Maleeva hasn't straightened herself out, that could get interesting.
At Auckland, we have an all-American contest between top seed Frazier and Laura Granville. Defending champion Eleni Daniilidou, who struggled for most of last year, will have to face Mara Santangelo to see if she's healthy. And the match between Lina Krasnoroutskaya and Aniko Kapros features two players who were ranked much higher before injuries started to take their toll.
This week's rankings have real significance, as they will be used to seed the Australian Open. Ironic, then, that so few top players are playing this week. The player who perhaps suffers the most for that is Elena Dementieva, the #6 player in the world and not far behind Svetlana Kuznetsova. With Lindsay Davenport unlikely to play Melbourne, Dementieva could have snagged the #4 Australian Open seed probably by reaching the Gold Coast final -- but she isn't playing.
(We should note that Davenport still says she hopes to play the Australian Open. She's tended to be far too optimistic about such things. We can only hope that, whatever her decision, she will make early enough that the seed list is right.)
Few other significant Australian Open seeds are in the air. Assuming Davenport really is out, it appears that the top four seeds will be Mauresmo, Myskina, Sharapova, and Kuznetsova. #5-#8 will be Dementieva, Serena Williams, Henin-Hardenne, and Venus Williams; if Davenport plays, Venus is out barring other withdrawals. #9-#12 will be Capriati, Zvonareva, Molik, and Petrova. (If Davenport plays, Petrova and Molik are contesting the #12 spot; the Russian needs a semifinal at Gold Coast to hang onto the #12 ranking.) #13-#16 will go to Schnyder, Bovina, Suarez, and probably Sprem, though Sugiyama could still work her way back up if she can defend her title and Sprem loses early; Farina Elia also has a shot at that ranking.
If Sugiyama can't defend, though, she might well fall out of the Top 20, and be seeded #20 or lower. Others in the #17-#24 block will be Schiavone, Farina Elia, Clijsters, Zuluaga (who has two more weeks to enjoy Top 30 status before her Australian Open fluke result comes off), Dechy, and two others, possibly Likhovtseva and Frazier. Rounding out the seeds will be Maleeva, Golovin, Jankovic, Pierce, Raymond, Hantuchova, and two others, likely Smashnova and Dulko, with Kostanic, Benesova, and Asagoe the leading alternates (Kostanic is not playing this week; Benesova is at Gold Coast, unseeded and slated to face Sprem in the second round; Asagoe is seeded at Auckland and is in Frazier's half of the draw). Defending Auckland champion Daniilidou has to defend if she wants to have any chance of a seed; an opening loss would leave her outside the Top 40.
We've already mentioned the players with the most on the line: Sugiyama, 182 points and with her Top 20 ranking in danger; Daniilidou, 156 points and in danger of leaving the Top 40; Petrova, 116 points; Stosur, 109 points; no one else has over 100 points to defend. But Magdalena Maleeva, with 50 points to defend, could fall out of the Top 25 if she loses her opening match. And Magui Serna, who isn't playing, has 35 points to defend and is already out of the Top 100....
The biggest matches of all are surely Sugiyama's: Safina in the first round, Golovin in the second, Dechy in the quarterfinal. That last, of course, pits the last two champions here against each other. And the winner will probably have a Top 20 spot on the line.
The second round match will also be big for Golovin, who spent all year building up points and now will have to learn how to defend.
The other big Gold Coast quarterfinal is the one between Petrova and Farina Elia. Petrova has the big edge in power, but Farina Elia is more experienced, and has won titles (Petrova's big problem), and she's very steady. And Petrova needs to win the match to stay #12.
Auckland doesn't have nearly as many top players, so the matches aren't quite so big -- but the second round contest between veteran Russian Alina Jidkova, who enjoyed her best year ever in 2004, and young Russian Lina Krasnoroutskaya, who had to what losing is all about, is interesting, and the winner faces defending champion Daniilidou.
I really doubt Maggie will lose to Fedak.
I think he underestimates Samantha, who might have a better shot than we think.
US OPEN CHAMPION 2015
Thank you for all these moments over the last years! Supporting you till the last point you will play! FORZA!