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tennischick
Jun 10th, 2002, 01:51 AM
Women's Look Forward: Birmingham, Vienna, Tashkent

If you wonder why a lot of women are so bad on grass, consider this: It's two weeks until Wimbledon, there are three tournaments this week -- and only one of them is played on grass.

Birmingham is the Grand Old Lady of this week's events: It's the oldest, and it's been in this calendar location forever. It's also the grass event of the three. This is the one all the top grass players will play.

But being a grass event is the least of Birmingham's unusual features. Topping the list is its draw: It is the only Tier III event with a 56-player draw -- in fact, the only event below the Tier II level to have a draw larger than 32.

The other events this week have rather shorter histories. Vienna is a fairly well-established event, and like Birmingham, it's a Tier III. But it's a clay event, and until this year, it was played after Wimbledon. This year, with Fed Cup gaining sole possession of the post-Wimbledon weeks (we doubt, given the schedule, that that will improve player turnout much, but nobody ever claimed the WTA had a logical scheduling system), Vienna has been shoved forward to the period before Wimbledon. Suddenly, instead of being the best event of the week, it finds itself the #2 event. It's going to be truly the haven of clay-court specialists.

Even that is better than the fate of Tashkent. A relatively new event, dating back only to 1999, it's been among the weakest tournaments on the WTA Tour. The fact that it's a hardcourt event in the weeks before Wimbledon, and quite a few time zones east of Great Britain, doesn't help at all. Now, with two other events scheduled for this week, and those two events having slots for 86 players in the main draw, Tashkent gets an even more Challenger-like field. Almost no one here will get direct entry into Wimbledon.

It's pretty clear, from the above description, that most eyes this week will be on Birmingham.

Headlining the field will, of course, be Jelena Dokic, who finds herself in her customary situation of playing a tournament every week even when it can't make the slightest iota of difference in anything. (If Dokic wins, she's #8. If she loses, she's #8. If she had taken the last month off, she'd still be #8. That's what her schedule is like. She has apparently stopped playing doubles -- but she still refuses to take a week off.)

The #2 seed is Sandrine Testud, who we used to think was a "play everything" player until Dokic came along. Testud has actually cut back a bit recently -- and it hasn't hurt her ranking at all. #3 is Magdalena Maleeva, who has never had much success on grass, but who seems to be making a stronger commitment to it this year. #4 is Tamarine Tanasugarn, who loves grass and who two years ago made the final here. Rounding out the top eight (there are sixteen seeds total) are Tatiana Panova, Anastasia Myskina, Anne Kremer, and 2000 champion Lisa Raymond. Other noteworthy grass players in the draw (on this surface, at least) are Cara Black, a semifinalist in 1999 and 2000, who is looking to get her grass season off to a good start (but who stands to play her doubles partner, #11 seed Elena Likhovtseva, in the second round), Kristina Brandi, who won the grass event at 's-Hertogenbosch in 1999 but who faces Tanasugarn in the second round; Roland Garros semifinalist Clarisa Fernandez, who finds herself unseeded because the seedings used last week's rankings (she will open against #15 Adriana Serra-Zanetti); Alicia Molik, who had more grass wins than any other woman last year but who will face Raymond in the second round this year; #10 seed Alexandra Stevenson; #13 Magui Serna, who reached the Eastbourne final last year and needs to defend some points fast; last year's junior Wimbledon winner Angelique Widjaja; and Miriam Oremans, who was twice a finalist at Rosmalen and once at Eastbourne (though that was all the way back in 1993).

What this all adds up to is some quite interesting early-round matches. Our list:

First Round --
C. Fernandez vs. (15) Ad. Serra-Zanetti. So can Fernandez follow up her big result at Roland Garros?

Second Round --
Black vs. (11) Likhovtseva. Elena Likhovtseva is higher-ranked. Cara Black loves grass. They're doubles partners. Who wins?
Daniilidou vs. (5) Panova. Eleni Daniilidou has had her best success on slow courts, but her game seems built for grass. Panova's game seems built for slow courts, but she's had surprising grass success (maybe because it's the only surface where she can hit even an occasional winner). If nothing else, it should be a great contrast.
(4) Tanasugarn vs. Brandi. Two grass-lovers. Tanasugarn is enjoying the best stretch of her career, and Brandi has never recovered from a stretch of injuries. But if she's going to do something, this is the place.
Molik vs. (8) Raymond. Last year, Molik had a breakthrough, and she did it mostly on grass. Problem is, that raised her ranking enough that she can't really justify playing grass Challengers any more, and so she hasn't been posting big results. Can she turn that around now?
(13) Serna vs. Widjaja. Two players with poor consistency but occasional big results. Both have, considering their stages in their careers, had good grass results. Which one will bring her best form to the court?
J. Lee vs. (3) Maleeva. Janet Lee just won Surbiton, which should have been played on grass but ended up being played mostly indoors. Maleeva dislikes grass. Can Lee translate her not-exactly-grass success to success on the real stuff?

Third Round --
(1) Dokic vs. Black or (11) Likhovtseva. Jelena Dokic had her first big successes on grass. But it's Black's favorite surface.
(6) Myskina vs. (10) Stevenson. Two players having breakthrough years. Myskina is ranked higher, but Stevenson likes the surface a lot better. A tough match to call.
(13)Serna or Widjaja vs. Lee or (3) Maleeva. We can't predict who will reach this third round match, but whoever gets there could be in for interesting times.
(7) Kremer vs. (9) Bedanova. So, is Bedanova going to get it together one of these days?

One interesting name not in the draw is that of Nathalie Tauziat, last year's champion. Tauziat is playing doubles again, and there was speculation that she would try for one last Wimbledon singles hurrah. Which, both for reasons of seeding and reasons of warmup, would have implied that she would play Birmingham also. But she isn't in the singles draw.

Vienna, not surprisingly, features mostly the "usual suspects" on clay. Leading the field is Silvia Farina Elia, who in this draw has a real chance to win her second title of 2002. The #2 seed is Iroda Tulyaganova -- who in other circumstances might have been playing in her native Uzbekistan, but as the defending champion at Vienna finds herself playing in Austria. Barbara Schett's ranking took a real beating at Roland Garros, but she's still the #3 seed at her home tournament. #4 is Anna Smashnova, Patty Schnyder is #5, and Iva Majoli #6.

Although the field isn't particularly strong (only three Top Twenty players: Farina Elia, Tulyaganova, and Schnyder, whose ranking climbed a lot at Roland Garros), it quite possibly features more and better early matches than Birmingham, simply because the field is so full of clay specialists. Again marching down the draw:

First Round --
Srebotnik vs. (7) Torrens Valero. Cristina Torrens Valero had the best stretch of her career in the small post-Roland Garros clay events last year, but she hasn't maintained it this year. Katarina Srebotnik has a clay title and a clay final this year. A tough match....
(4)Smashnova vs. Gagliardi. A rematch of the Indian Wells quarterfinal. Two players having surprisingly good years.
Sucha vs. (5) Schnyder. Which Schnyder will show up? The good one, or the one who wilts too easily?
(8) Nagyova vs. Marrero. Marrero beat Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario at Roland Garros. Nagyova is slumping. A volatile combination.
(3) Schett vs. Fauth (WC). Not very interesting in itself, but the luck of the draw pitted two Austrians against each other in the first round.

Second Round --
Schwartz vs. (3) Schett. The top two Austrians face off. It's the second straight Austrian opponent for Schett.
(6) Majoli vs. Kostanic. Majoli proved at Roland Garros that she still doesn't have her consistency back. Kostanic has been having her best career results. Both are Croatian. Can Kostanic collect another scalp?
Conchita Martinez vs. (2) Tulyaganova. What a way for the defending champion to start her tournament: Playing against the player with the best historical results in the draw. Martinez has been having a dreadful year -- but she's also shown that she has more lives than a cat. Does she have another comeback in her?

Tashkent, it appears, is an Uzbek word for "Big Cheap Opportunity." In its short history, we've had players here win the title without facing a single Top 100 player. (Consider the path Iroda Tulyaganova followed in 2000: She beat, in order, #207, #354, #175, got a walkover, and beat #129 in the final. A couple of those players -- then-#175 Elena Bovina and then-#129 Francesca Schiavone, as well as Tulyaganova herself -- would go on to better things. But not many.) This year, there is exactly one Top Fifty player in the draw: the #1 seed Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian, was #53 last week but hit #50 at Roland Garros. #2 is Tatiana Poutchek, now #73 (down from #67). #3 is Tathiana Garbin, #86 now and #89 last week. #4 seed Seda Noorlander was #100 last week. #5 Evie Dominikovic was #104 last week, though she did well at Wimbledon and is now (by our calculations) #87. Our best guess is that these five are the only players at Tashkent who will get direct Wimbledon entry (except that #6 seed Fabiola Zuluaga will probably get in with an injury ranking); all others will be in qualifying or, in some cases, may not get into Wimbledon at all.

In that context, it's hard to even to pick matches to watch. The best we can do is list some players to watch out for in this field. Not all of whom are seeds. #4 seed Noorlander, for instance, is mostly a clay player, and may not do well here.

Two players in the draw have been cited for their potential: #1 seed Mikaelian, who is still quite young, is regarded as having a very good backhand, and should go a long way in this field. Unseeded but with great potential is Dinara Safina, Marat's little sister, who already this year reached the Estoril semifinal and made the second round of Madrid before losing to Roland Garros quarterfinalist Paola Suarez.

#3 seed Tathiana Garbin seemed ready to break into the Top Thirty last year when injury felled her, and she hasn't been the same since. In terms of skills, she doesn't stand all that high. But she is always trying something new; she can sometimes really shake up her opponents that way. In this field, that could allow her to do a lot of damage.

#6 seed Fabiola Zuluaga has probably the best results of any player here; she has three career titles (though all were on clay). She's still recovering from injury. If she's recovered enough, she could do some damage.

#5 Evie Dominikovic is one of those players who blows hot and cold. At Roland Garros, she beat Alexandra Stevenson and Angelique Widjaja before losing to Jennifer Capriati. That hints that she's on another hot streak.

Unseeded Olga Barabanschikova was considered a hot property four or five years ago. She never lived up to the hype, and has been hurt a lot lately. But in this field, the mere strength of her serve could do a lot of damage.

Roberta Vinci has never done much in singles, but she's had very good doubles results with Sandrine Testud. Can she perhaps make some noise on her own?

In terms of the rankings, very little is going to happen this week. We already mentioned that Dokic, the top player in action, can't move up and can't move down. Neither can #10-ranked Testud. Nathalie Tauziat, the Birmingham champion, is going to lose a lot of ground -- but she's retired.

(Bob)