WOMEN'S LOOK FORWARD (Bob Larson)
Women's Look Forward: Week of April 1
The real estate maxim applies also to tennis. It's all about "Location, location, location."
Sarasota is a Tier IV event. But you can't tell it by the field. It looks almost like a weak Tier II. Why? Because of its spot in the calendar.
The week after Miami has always been a funny one. It used to belong to Hilton Head (now Charleston). In 2000, that event was moved, leaving an off week. The WTA, abhorring a vacuum, plugged Porto into the spot last year.
But Porto was in a lousy calendar spot: Everyone had to fly across the ocean to get there, then fly back to the U. S. to play at Amelia Island and Charleston. The only significant player to do that was Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
So this year, the WTA added Sarasota to this week. The timing was perfect: A green clay event, allowing players to warm up for Amelia Island and Charleston, and not have to make two transatlantic flights. And, since most of the clay players went out of Miami early, everyone was well-rested by the time Sarasota came around. The result is a field unusually rich in big names. There are three Top Fifteen players in the draw. And if it weren't for injuries that caused Lisa Raymond and Barbara Schett to withdraw (Raymond giving up her #4 seed), every one of the seeds would have been Top Thirty.
Or put it this way: At a normal Tier IV, Conchita Martinez and Anastasia Myskina and Tatiana Panova and Nathalie Dechy might have been the top seeds. They would certainly have been seeded. Not here!
Which produces some really interesting matches, even in the first round. Starting at the very top, where #1 seed Jelena Dokic faces her doubles partner Conchita Martinez. This could prove a wild match. Martinez is ranked much lower, but she's healthy and Dokic isn't. Both grew up on clay, but Martinez has stayed true to the dirt, while Dokic has developed a style more fit for hardcourts. This is the sort of match where service holds could be few and far between. Martinez hardly has a serve any more; she just sort of bunts the ball over the net. Dokic should eat those powderpuffs alive. But the clay will take the sting off Dokic's own serves, and Dokic -- with a game built around facing power with power -- will probably have a hard time reading Martinez's collection of junk. Mark this down as Possible Upset #1.
Whoever survives that will face either Elena Likhovtseva or a qualifier. Likhovtseva, too, would have been seeded at most Tier IV events -- but she's been in a horrible slump this year. Dokic or Martinez should be able to handle that.
The next seed down is #9 Henrieta Nagyova, who earned a seed after Raymond withdrew. Nagyova has been battling injuries and bad form this year, and her ranking is slipping. It may not matter, at least not in the first round. She faces Els Callens, who is here as the winner of the Minnesota Challenger a month ago. It's a rather silly instance of the play-up rule: Callens, who loves fast surfaces, was rewarded for winning a fast indoor Challenger with the right to play -- a tough clay tournament. Don't expect much from Callens. Which is good news for Nagyova, because last year, she was playing and winning the Challenger at Boynton Beach, Florida. Boynton Beach was only a Challenger, but it was a big one; these are points Nagyova doesn't want to lose.
In the second round, Nagyova would face Patty Schnyder or Lilia Osterloh. In recent times, such results as Schnyder has posted have been on slow surfaces. Can she do something here?
Next down the draw is #5 seed Tamarine Tanasugarn, promoted to the spot vacated by potential #4 seed Raymond. Tanasugarn probably wishes she could have her old spot back so she could start against Callens. It's amazing that she is even here; she is very much a fast-court player. And she'll be playing a slow-courter in Virginia Ruano Pascual, whose game is reminiscent of Conchita Martinez in a lot of ways. Call this Potential Upset #2. And even if Tanasugarn survives that, her next opponent is Nathalie Dechy -- another player who would have been seeded at any normal Tier IV. Dechy also has points to defend from Boynton Beach. Like Nagyova, she'll want to do well.
The #6 seed is Daja Bedanova. Bedanova is the among best young prospects in the draw -- but to this point she's been very streaky, and she hasn't done much on clay; her biggest Slam result was at the U. S. Open and her first title indoors. And she has another vicious draw: She starts against Fabiola Zuluaga, the winner at Bogota. Zuluaga is still a little inconsistent in the aftermath of injury, but should Bedanova survive that, she'll face another tough clay player in Paola Suarez. This counts as Potential Upset #3.
Anne Kremer is the #8 seed, but she hardly gets any benefit from it; she will open against Tatiana Panova, who is unseeded but who broke into the Top 25 at Miami. Thus, Kremer the seed is actually ranked below Panova the unseeded player. Curiously, neither of these retrievers has ever done much on clay. But they have the tools for it. But here again, the winner won't be any too happy in the second round, when she faces either Iva Majoli or Gala Leon Garcia. Leon Garcia is a solid clay player, and Majoli is -- well, she's a Roland Garros winner, though it's not clear whether she still counts as a solid clay player. She seems to have problems with fitness these days, and with consistency; either failing could hurt her. Still, his quarter gives us Potential Upset #4.
#3 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario has about the best draw, not that that's saying much. She opens against Janette Husarova, with whom she won the Doha doubles earlier this year. Husarova has been having her best year ever. And Sanchez-Vicario has to defend points from last year's title at Porto. The winner of that match should be in good shape in the second round, when she faces Alicia Molik (who really likes her surfaces faster) or a qualifier.
It looks like Mary Pierce will finally be making her comeback at Sarasota. That's the good news. The bad news? She opens against #7 seed Ai Sugiyama. Sugiyama has given Pierce fits in her career; among others, Sugiyama beat Pierce at the 2000 Australian Open. And Pierce hasn't played regularly for almost two years. This could be a short comeback. Though the winner, Sugiyama or Pierce, might not last long; in the next round, she'll face Anastasia Myskina, still another player who would have been seeded at another Tier IV.
The final seed is #2 Meghann Shaughnessy, who has been having a tough year so far in 2002. She should be all right in the first round, when she faces Jennifer Hopkins. The second round is more complicated. She'll face either Marlene Weingartner or Rosanna Neffa-de los Rios. Both are clay-lovers. And Weingartner beat Shaughnessy at the Australian Open. So here we have yet another potential upset.
Whatever happens, it's going to be an amazing Tier IV.
All that good news for Sarasota is bad news for Porto. Last year, as the only WTA event during this week, it had at least a respectable field headed by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Chanda Rubin, Magui Serna, and Silvia Farina Elia (that's one Top Fifteen player and three Top Thirty players -- more like a normal Tier IV). This year, with all the top clay players hanging around Florida in preparation for Amelia Island, Porto finds itself with a cast of the "usual suspects" at small clay events. Players like Angeles Montolio, Cristina Torrens Valero, and Rita Kuti Kis. Indeed, the only real "surprise" in the draw is Cara Black, who is at her best on grass. But she probably felt she had to play somewhere this week.
The #1 seed in this draw is Angeles Montolio, who is just barely holding on to a spot in the Top Thirty. Montolio has been having a dreadful year -- but she hasn't been playing on clay. And clay is her surface; last year, she was 27-11 on clay, and don't even ask about anything else. This may at last be her chance to get back on track. She opens against Eva Bes, then a qualifier. And she lost second round last year.
The #2 seed is Cristina Torrens Valero, who like Montolio had spectacular results on clay and spectacular non-results on everything else. She, too, lost in the second round last year, and she opens against a qualifier, then either Cara Black or Martina Muller. She's another player with a need -- but also a real chance -- to get back on track.
For Magui Serna, there is a lot of deja vu to this draw. This year as last, she is the #3 seed. She's even in the same half of the draw. But last year, this was a big opportunity for her, and she posted some pretty solid results, beating Iroda Tulyaganova in the second round, Rita Kuti Kis in the quarterfinal, and Silvija Talaja in the semifinal to reach her first career final. This time, she's ranked well below last year, and with finalist points to defend. She's been having a dreadful year, and looks to be in a lot of trouble. The good news is, her draw is no threat; if she's to get back in form, this is the place.
The #4 seed, Martina Sucha, has been enjoying the best year of her career. Her big test may come in the second round, when she faces Kuti Kis. Kuti Kis has been having a dreadful year, but she really likes clay.
#5 seed Tina Pisnik is among the hottest players in the draw, but she won't have an easy path: First Zsofia Gubacsi, who won Casablanca last year, then probably Silvia Talaja, who after a dreadful 2001 has been rebuilding her ranking and her results. Talaja loves clay -- and she has semifinalist points to defend. That could be one of the better battles of the tournament.
The #6 seed is Eleni Daniilidou, who has garnered attention this year for her near miss against Jennifer Capriati at the Australian Open and her win over Anna Kournikova at Miami. This tournament marks her return to her native surface. How far can she go?
Like Daniilidou, #7 seed Marie-Gaiane Mikaelian is a youngster who is going places. And she has the easiest draw in the tournament: A wildcard, then either Ludmila Cervanova or another wildcard. And she is in Serna's quarter. Can she take advantage?
The final seed is Maja Matevzic, who first gained attention by a tough loss to Barbara Schett at last year's Wimbledon. She's rather old to be a real prospect -- but she has nice clay stuff and a nice draw, and it's only in the last year that she's gotten her ranking up enough to play Tour events. She, too, bears watching.
The players with the most on the line this week are Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (Porto winner), Magui Serna (Porto finalist), Henrieta Nagyova (Boynton Beach winner), Silvia Farina Elia (Porto semifinalist), Silvija Talaja (Porto semifinalist), Petra Mandula, Lubomira Bacheva, and Ludmila Cervanova. Sanchez-Vicario is at Sarasota; with the change in ranking tables, she is going to have a very hard time defending her points even if she wins (she has to beat most of the top players in the draw), but her #14 ranking is safe; her lead over doubles partner Daniela Hantuchova is more than 250 points, and she has less than 200 to defend. Serna, though, has just fallen out of the Top Forty, and if she loses early enough, she could fall out of the Top Fifty. Nagyova is also slipping, and a bad result could lower her below #35. Farina Elia is not playing, but she won't lose much; she has points in the bank in her eighteenth tournament. However, her lead over Meghann Shaughnessy is small enough that Shaughnessy could grab the #12 with a good result. That's as high as Shaughnessy can go, though.
Jelena Dokic, the only other Top Twenty player in action, has just fallen to #9; her only hope to move up is to win Sarasota -- and even that might not be enough to get her back to #8. She can't possibly go higher.