Women's Look Forward: Linz, Luxembourg
Women's Look Forward: Linz, Luxembourg
Two weeks before the Championships. A most interesting time of the year. Do players stay in Europe, where the events are relatively weak, and try to soak up points, or do they skip this week's events and play Philadelphia to get the best possible preparation for Los Angeles?
And what about players like Ai Sugiyama and Vera Zvonareva, who are just on the fringes of the WTA Race? Do they play both weeks in hopes of earning as many points as possible, or do they save all their energies for one event or the other?
That, plus the current rush of injuries, has had an interesting effect: Luxembourg, which is only a Tier III, is going to be stronger than the Tier II at Linz. That's because the only one of the top four who is currently healthy enough to play is Kim Clijsters, and she has a strong loyalty to this tournament (she won her first title here in 1999, and has won it in two of the three years since as well).
Also in the field is Chanda Rubin, who finds herself in an interesting situation: She's #10 in the Race, which if she can hold onto it means that she'll make the Los Angeles Championships now that Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport are out. But several players -- Ai Sugiyama, Vera Zvonareva, and maybe even Nadia Petrova -- have chances to pass her. So she'd like to pick up as many easy points as she can. Tier III events are often a good way to do that.
And, indeed, though Luxembourg is extremely top-heavy, there isn't all that much to worry about in Rubin's bottom half. The only other seed who is in the Top 30 is #3 Eleni Daniilidou, and she hates indoors. Below that, there aren't quite as many gaps; #4 seed Tamarine Tanasugarn, #5 Maria Sharapova, #6 Katarina Srebotnik, and #7 Alicia Molik are all Top 40, and #8 seed Maria Sanchez Lorenzo falls just short of that mark. There are several quite solid unseeded players, too: Claudine Schaul, who has been rising fast and is now Luxembourg's #1; Laura Granville, Emilie Loit (all three of them in Clijsters' quarter; the draw did not do her any favors), Nicole Pratt, Stephanie Cohen-Aloro. The only surprises in the draw are wildcards Elke Clijsters and Kirsten Flipkens (Luxembourg doesn't have anyone to wildcard, so they went for Belgians), plus Elena Tatarkova, Milagros Sequera, and American Teryn Ashley, ranked well below the level of the field.
The big questions here are, Can Clijsters earn enough points to appreciably help her in the quest for year-end #1? and Can Rubin earn enough points to clinch a Championships spot?
If Clijsters is to do the former, she probably has to win. In theory that shouldn't be that hard; she's much the best player here. But she's been playing a lot lately, and her draw isn't easy. She has a first round bye, but then faces either Claudine Schaul or Virginia Ruano Pascual (who likes to prey on unwary players and who recently earned her first title in years). After that, the draw says #8 seed Sanchez Lorenzo -- but Sanchez Lorenzo likes clay; don't be surprised if Loit or Granville comes through instead. But that really doesn't make things better. After that, Clijsters would face either Tamarine Tanasugarn (who doesn't play indoors much but who really seems to like it when she does) or Sharapova. And then, potentially, Rubin.
Rubin has it much easier. She too starts with a bye, then she faces a qualifier. Her first real test would be the quarterfinal, when she faces Molik. But her semifinal would be relatively easy: Daniilidou, who doesn't like this surface, or Srebotnik, who is inconsistent.
Linz has to be the strangest Tier II we've ever seen. It's normal for the last event before a time zone shift to be weak, and Linz is. But it's weak in a very odd way: The only Top Ten player is #9 Anastasia Myskina, who naturally is the top seed. But just about everyone ranked #11 to #20 is here; the only missing names are Magdalena Maleeva (who missed last week also), Conchita Martinez, and Meghann Shaughnessy, meaning that though the #2 seed is world #11 Ai Sugiyama, Silvia Farina Elia, who was #21 last week, and Francesca Schiavone (last week's #22, making her return from injury) are both unseeded. As is Jelena Dokic, #25 last week but now up to #14, and Magui Serna, who also is Top 25, plus Elena Bovina, #26 last week but now back in the Top 25. That means our remaining seeds are #3 Vera Zvonareva, #4 Nadia Petrova, #5 Daniela Hantuchova, #6 Anna Pistolesi, #7 Paola Suarez, and #8 Patty Schnyder (who, however, has now fallen out of the Top 25).
What it adds up to is a field largely lacking in big names but highly competitive. And, even though the field looks more like a Tier III, the points are Tier II points, so if someone like Sugiyama or Zvonareva can win, she can give herself a real shot at the year-end championships. (Myskina is almost certainly in, so she doesn't have to worry as much.)
That very-level playing field yields many truly fascinating first round matches. Schiavone makes her comeback against Elena Bovina, who has been playing very well the last few weeks. #8 seed Schnyder opens against her countrywoman Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian; both of them took ranking hits at Zurich and would like to rebuild. Veteran Silvia Farina Elia, the top unseeded player, opens against talented young Russian Lina Krasnoroutskaya. Magui Serna and Elena Likhovtseva face off in a contest of extremely inconsistent players. #7 seed Suarez, who likes clay, will take on Karolina Sprem, who also lives for dirt and hasn't managed to do much since the clay season ended. #5 seed Hantuchova, who is no longer Top 15, will have to face Jelena Dokic, who is unseeded but now ranked the higher of the two. Petra Mandula takes on wildcard Barbara Schett, trying desperately to get some part of her game working. And Tina Pisnik, who is scrambling to make it into the Top 30, faces Alexandra Stevenson, who is scrambling to stay in the Top 50.
It's the top four to whom this event matters most, though. Myskina can clinch her Championships spot here, and even take a shot at ending the year above Venus Williams. And Sugiyama, Zvonareva, and Petrova all want to go to the Championships.
Fortunately, the draw is reasonably fair. There is a seed who got a ridiculously easy draw -- but it's Anna Pistolesi, who opens against wildcard Sybille Bammer (whose presence demonstrates just how desperate Austria is for players right now -- neither Patricia Wartusch nor Barbara Schwartz is in the field). But Myskina, after her first round bye, will face the Schiavone/Bovina winner, then Schnyder or Mikaelian or Denisa Chladkova, then Petrova. Sugiyama will start against Pisnik (who beat her, just barely, at Zurich) or Stevenson, then Hantuchova or Dokic, then Zvonareva. Zvonareva probably has it the best of the four; she starts against Marion Bartoli (one of the lowest-ranked players in the draw, but still a very tough customer) or a qualifier, then Pistolesi, then Sugiyama. Petrova, who is the last player with any real chance at the Championships, will face Krasnoroutskaya or Farina Elia, then Suarez or Sprem or Serna or Likhovtseva (and we don't even have a guess who will make it to the quarterfinal in that section), then Myskina. About all we can really predict is that there will be a lot of Russians facing Russians.
The doubles draw is interesting in a strange sort of way, in that so many of the top players, who should be concentrating on singles, decided to play doubles -- and the one who should have didn't. Paola Suarez would have had a shot at #1 here, but isn't playing (probably because Virginia Ruano Pascual is at Luxembourg). Ai Sugiyama is playing, even though Kim Clijsters is at Luxembourg also; she's with Liezel Huber and they're the #1 seeds. Petrova is playing with Elena Likhovtseva; they're #2. And Myskina and Zvonareva are playing together, though they're unseeded even in this very weak doubles draw. The other seeded teams are Hantuchova and Serna, seeded #3 even though their combined doubles ranking is well below #50, and Barbara Schett and Patty Schnyder, seeded #4. In context, the biggest reason to watch the doubles may be to see how much it takes out of the players.
The Rankings. It's ironic to note that we knew who would be next week's #1 before we knew who would be this week's. Justine Henin-Hardenne withdrew from Linz, on Friday, two days before she won Zurich to grab the #1 spot. But Henin-Hardenne was the Linz champion last year. Kim Clijsters was also a winner that week, at Luxembourg -- but Luxembourg is a Tier III and doesn't affect her ranking significantly. Linz was a substantial part of Henin-Hardenne's standing. By withdrawing, she assured that Clijsters would either remain #1 (had she lost the #1 ranking at Zurich) or reclaim #1 (had she kept it).
Below that, it's the usual story. Serena Williams remains #3. Lindsay Davenport might have been threatened had Jennifer Capriati played, but Capriati didn't, so Davenport will remain #4 and Capriati #5. Below that, things get a little interesting. If Myskina wins Linz, there is a chance she could move as high as #6, passing Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, and Elena Dementieva. A final would move her past Dementieva at least. So we could see motion down there.
But we could also see Rubin overtake Myskina, or perhaps even Dementieva, if everything happens perfectly (translate: she wins and beats Clijsters in the final). It's not likely, though; she has 158 points to defend.
We almost certainly won't see anyone move into or out of the Top Ten; Sugiyama trails Rubin by almost 450 points, which means that she or Zvonareva would have to win Linz and have Rubin lose early at Luxembourg for there to be any chance of a change at #10. And even that might not do it; it depends on quality points, and Linz doesn't offer much in the way of quality points.
We've already mentioned three of the players with the most to defend: Henin-Hardenne (who will lose the #1 ranking), Clijsters (who really doesn't care much what happens this week), and Rubin. The fourth player with the most on the line is last year's Linz finalist Alexandra Stevenson; she has 291 points to defend and could fall to around #80. We should also mention Daniela Hantuchova, with 121 points on the line; she could end barely above #20; Magdalena Maleeva, with 130, who apparently will end up below #20; Katarina Srebotnik, with 103 points on the line and risking falling below #40; and Virginie Razzano, with 107 on the line and threatened with falling down to a Stevenson-like ranking.
It might be worth spending a few moments looking at the WTA Race as well. It's worth recalling that the WTA Race is not like the ATP Race; the WTA doesn't call it a ranking, and simply totals all of a player's points to see who gets into the Championships. (This is a bit bothersome now that only eight players make the Championships, but the WTA doesn't like mathematical sense; we just have to accept the fact.) The WTA has qualified five players (Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, Serena Williams, Davenport, Capriati), of whom only three will play (Serena and Davenport are out for the year). In fact we can also qualify Amelie Mauresmo and Elena Dementieva (we expect the WTA will announce that soon). Things get complicated below that. In practice, Anastasia Myskina appears to be in. Venus Williams is probable but rather less certain. (It may sound odd that Williams, who is ahead of Myskina, is marginal -- but Venus is physically frail and Myskina is as healthy as any top player who has played all year is likely to be, and Myskina is playing this week; if she can win her opening match, she will pass Venus.) At least one of the remaining spots will go to one of the four Chanda Rubin, Ai Sugiyama, Vera Zvonareva, or Nadia Petrova, with Petrova just barely still in the Race; she's 330 points behind Rubin and needs at least a title to make it; it seems most unlikely. Zvonareva is only slightly better off; she's almost 300 points back. Sugiyama, who needs to gain 180 points on Rubin, is the best bet -- but that probably requires reaching the Linz final. Zvonareva would have to win, and Petrova might have to not only win but add some points next week. Still, if we were to see, say, a Sugiyama vs. Petrova final, we would have a real possibility that both could overtake Venus next week. Venus is still listed as playing Philadelphia. She may have to.
Of course, the Race also reflects, with some inaccuracy, what the year-end rankings will look like. We know that Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters will be the year-end top two, though we will probably have to wait till the Championships to be certain who ends up #1. (Henin-Hardenne has the edge, but Clijsters obviously can only gain ground this week.) Serena Williams has clinched the year-end #3. The #4 position remains fluid, though. Right now, it belongs to Lindsay Davenport, but she isn't playing. That gives Jennifer Capriati or Amelie Mauresmo chances to take it. Capriati and Mauresmo are nearly tied in points; they could end up in either order. Elena Dementieva could theoretically figure in that equation, too, though it seems unlikely in practice.
The rest of the final Top Ten will almost certainly be Venus Williams, Myskina, and the final qualifier for the Championships, be it Rubin or Sugiyama or one of the Russians. The order, though, remains in the air.
Good Luck: RENA, MATTEK, HAYNES, GULLICKSON, HARKLEROAD, RUBIN, GRANVILLE, LEE-WATERS, SCHNYDER, JACKSON, PERRY, KING, SUGIYAMA, PIERCE, TULYAGANOVA, IVANOVIC, KUZNETSOVA, MOLIK, DANIILIDOU, MEDINA GARRIGUES, PETROVA, PENNETTA, GOLOVIN, PEER, LI, SCHIAVONE, RAZZANO, ZVONAREVA, SPREM, SREBOTNIK, VINCI, & SAFINA