Monday, March 02, 2015

Wk.8- Second Banana Spotlight

second banana - noun, Informal.
1.a comic who supports the leading comedian, often as a straight man, especially in burlesque or vaudeville.
2.any person who plays a secondary role or serves in a subsidiary capacity.

Sometimes, even seeming "second bananas" are the stars. It surely was the case in Week 8, as some oft-overlooked players who usually play in the shadow of others stepped into a spotlight all their own.

DOHA, QATAR (Premier $731K/HCO)
S: Lucie Safarova/CZE def. Victoria Azarenka/BLR 6-4/6-3
D: Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears (USA/USA) d. SW.Hsieh/Mirza (TPE/IND) 6-4/6-4

S: Timea Bacsinszky/SUI def. Caroline Garcia/FRA 6-3/6-0
D: Arruabarrena/Torro-Flor (ESP/ESP) d. Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) 7-6(1)/5-7 [13-11]

...2015 has already been a very good year for "Czech #2" Safarova... and, to think, she lost three of her first four matches this season and has yet to play in a Fed Cup tie. She won her first slam doubles title in Melbourne to close out January, then put up back-to-back QF results in Antwerp and Dubai. Last week, the Czech's February-closing title run in Doha, where she grabbed the first Premier level singles title of her career and her first at any level on tour since September '13 in Quebec City, will lift her to a career-best #11 in the rankings. In Qatar, Safarova knocked off Sam Stosur, Ekaterina Makarova, Andrea Petkovic, Carla Suarez-Navarro (giving three straight Top 20 wins) and Vika Azarenka in the final for her first ever win against the former #1. Career title #6 comes as the 28-year old has now won eight of her last nine matches. March arrives with growing-ever-more-consistent Safarova now just 195 points from entering the Top 10 and becoming the seventh Czech to accomplish the feat, following in the footsteps of Martina Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova, Jana Novotna, Nicole Vaidisova and (current Czech #1 banana) Petra Kvitova.


RISERS: Timea Bacsinszky/SUI & Caroline Garcia/FRA
...Belinda Bencic has gotten most of the recent press, but Bacsinszky, eight years older than the New Swiss Miss, is now the highest-ranked woman from Switzerland after she picked up her first tour singles crown since winning in Luxembourg more than five years ago. Since finally putting behind her the foot injury that limited her play for three seasons, Bacsinszky has really come into her own the last two years. The 25-year old had her first Top 50 season in '14, has been a key to Switzerland's Fed Cup success and in early February set a new career-best ranking at #36. She reached her first final since '10 in Shenzhen in Week 1 of 2015, and reached the fourth of her career last week in Acapulco. Wins over Richel Hogenkamp, Lesia Tsurenko, Johanna Larsson, Sesil Karatantcheva and Caroline Garcia gave her career title #2 and raised her ranking this week to another career-high at #31.

Garcia, a Fed Cup star who is still seeking the weekly consistency to become a true force on the regular tour (without Amelie Mauresmo leading her cheering section each match), put up Acapulco wins over Polona Hercog, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni before getting a pass into the final when #1-seed Maria Sharapova pulled out of the semifinals with a viral illness. It put the 21-year old Pastry into her second career final (she won Bogota last year), but she was only able to take three games off Bacsinszky once she got there.

SURPRISES: Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL & Berfu Cengiz/TUR
...once upon a time, Karatantcheva was a true character on the WTA tour. So much so that her early-career exploits helped her earn a spot on the "All-Time Backspin MVP" list at #19 just a few year ago. A slam quarterfinalist at age 15 in Paris in 2005, Karantcheva was talented, talkative and little bit crazy and on-the-edge. Maybe that played a part in the problems that came after her big breakthrough, namely a two-year drug suspension that kept her off tour in 2006-07 after her claim that her positive test had been because she was pregnant. No one really bought it. But she "did her time," and returned, but only to occasional success, and most of that on the ITF circuit. Since that '05 Roland Garros QF, Karatantcheva has gone just 4-8 in slam MD matches, with only two wins coming since 2006 (interestingly, one as a lucky loser at RG in '12). After climbing as high as #35 in '05, Karatantcheva has only put together one Top 100 season (barely, at #93 in '12) since. From 2009-14, the Bulgarian led the way in the nation-hopping merry-go-round, representing Kazakhstan in a deal that helped secure her financial footing. She returned to playing under the Bulgarian flag this season, and last week things really began to look up. But, Sesil being Sesil, she took the long way around the WTA barn to get there. Now 25 and ranked #158 heading into last week, Karatantcheva lost in Acapulco qualifying to Lucie Hradecka. After getting into the draw as a lucky loser, she proceeded to reel off victories over junior slam champ Marie Bouzkova, Kiki Bertens and Monica Puig (saving three MP) to reach just her second career tour semifinal, and her first since Pattaya in 2010. Sesil's ranking jumps thirty-one spots this week, up to #127, and things seem to be heading in the right direction for a player still young enough to live out a few of the dreams that stretch back nearly a full decade now. With the spirit of JJ waning, the tour could use a little of Karatantcheva's craziness. Check that, modulated craziness. When she made the Backspin MVP list, I said of her, "she's listed here because of the underlying sense of mischief that used to practically ooze from her pores. Essentially, in so many ways, she was a ruder, cruder, louder off-court version of Jelena Jankovic, but with a hint of 'danger' inherent in her headline-grabbing comments." Yep, that was surely part of the charm. Hopefully, there's still a chance for something more tangible before it's all over. After playing seven matches in seven days in Acapulco, she's already lost in Monterrey qualifying this weekend, though, so we'll have to wait a little longer for another step to be taken.

Meanwhile, in a $10K challenger in Antalya, Turkish 15-year old Berfu Cengiz strung together multiple main draw wins a pro event for the first time, advancing all the way to the final while defeating players with a combined 20 career challenger titles -- fellow Turks Basek Eraydin (8) and Melis Sezer (5), as well as #1-seeded Dia Evtimova (7) -- before losing the final to Swarmette Diana Buzean, who won her 11th career crown in a 4-6/6-4/6-0 victory. Cengiz is the #110-ranked junior in the world, and yet another point of interest in a growing pool of women's tennis talent in Turkey.
VETERANS: Venus Williams/USA & Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
...the resurrection -- or maybe "further polishing?" -- of the career of 34-year old Williams was awarded another chapter in Doha. Not that it was an easy read. Venus came back from a set down to defeat Casey Dellacqua, saved a match point in what turned out to be a controversial (and contentious, especially at the net after the match) win over Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova and needed three sets to defeat Aga Radwanska. In the semifinals, Williams lost a one set lead over Azarenka (who'd never beaten her), then couldn't quite turn around 4-0 and 5-1 deficits in a 3rd set that ended up closing at 6-4 in favor of the Belarusian. Meanwhile, CSN put up her second straight great result in the Middle East. After a QF run in Dubai that included wins over Camila Giorgi and Petra Kvitova, the Spaniard went to Doha and did even better, reaching the semis with three Top 20 wins over Garbine Muguruza (a week after losing to her doubles partner in singles, CSN advanced via a retirement this time around), Karolina Pliskova and, again, Kvitova.

COMEBACK: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
...things didn't go as perfectly in Doha for Vika as they had in her previous visits, when she won the title in 2012 and '13. But they nearly did. After opening her belated "title defense" with a 6-0/6-3 win over the suddenly-freefalling Angelique Kerber, Azarenka took out Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki (at 3 & 1, an even harsher beating than the one the Belarusian put on the Dane in Melbourne) to reach her first semifinal since being the Brisbane runner-up in January '14. Her three-set SF win over Venus Williams, her first in five career meetings, came after nearly squandering a 4-0 lead and failing to serve out the match at 5-2 while playing on despite a noticeable leg injury. From that point on, the "imperfect storm" ended Azarenka's 14-match, four-year long undefeated run in Qatar, as her long week, the injury and an in-form Lucie Safaraova produced a disappointing result in her straight sets loss in the final. Still, she's back inside the Top 40 and on her way up again. As long as the injury bug doesn't trip her up yet again, that is... and, I guess, so long as she doesn't have any bad break-up flashbacks if she happens to catch Redfoo as a contestant on the new season of "Dancing with the Stars" while she's playing in the U.S. in March.

Slowly turning into a zombie on this layover! Long flight ahead! ??

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

...the 15-year old junior who made such a splash in last year's U.S. Open women's draw, Bellis has continued to grow her career on the ITF circuit since last summer. Over the past week, the Bannerette notched wins over Usue Arconada, Johanna Konta and Ipek Soylu to reach the $25K challenger final in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Sunday's final was pushed back to Monday, where Bellis will face off with another American, 25-year old Maria Sanchez, in an attempt to bank her third career singles challenger crown. Her previous wins also came at $25K tournaments.
DOWN: Petra Kvitova/CZE & Sloane Stephens/USA Doha, Kvitova suffered her second Middle East loss to Carla Suarez-Navarro in as many weeks, after having had a 5-0 career record against the Spaniard two weeks ago. Kvitova's quick and encouraging 7-1 (and a title in Sydney) season's start, which was ended with her Australian Open upset at the hands of the bringing-the-thunder Madison Keys, has devolved into a 4-3 mark in her last seven. Not a total spin out (not yet, anyway), but a definite step back. Meanwhile, in Acapulco, Stephens continues to prove that coaching changes don't make much of a dent in her flagging results over the last (now) TWO full years. Her 1st Round loss to Johanna Larsson drops her to 2-4 in '15, and 3-7 in her last ten matches. She's already fallen out of the Top 40 (and, unlike Azarenka, who passes Stephens in the new rankings, she doesn't have a long-term injury absence to blame). Not only that, but fellow Bannerettes Alison Riske, Madison Brengle, Christina McHale and Lauren Davis are currently breathing down her neck and threatening to make Sloane the tenth highest-ranked U.S. woman after having been as high as second-best less than twenty-four months ago.
ITF PLAYER: Jelena Ostapenko/LAT
...a week ago, Ostapenko was celebrating a semifinal result in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, her best-ever result in a $50K-or-bigger event. Well, she must have liked the feeling, because this past week the 17-year old '14 Wimbledon girls champ moved on to St.Petersburg, Russia and did even better, winning a $50K event there for her biggest title yet and running her pro final record to 15-1 (7-1 singles, 8-0 doubles). The Latvian was a qualifier last week, then put up main draw wins over #7-seed Olga Govortsova (who won the Kreuzlingen event), Akgul Amanmuradova, Ivana Jorovic, #5-seed Aliaksandra Sasnovich and 12-time career challenger champer Patricia-Maria Tig in a 3-6/7-5/6-2 final.
JUNIOR STAR: Kristina Schmiedlova/SVK
...a week ago, Anna Schmiedlova reached her first career tour singles final in Rio, losing to Sara Errani. This week, perhaps inspired by her sister's success, 17-year old Kristina took her turn in the spotlight. The #6 junior in the world, the younger Schmiedlova won her second career ITF singles crown at the $10K in Port El Kantaoui, defeating Ksenia Lyskina, Clothilde de Bernardi and then Tereza Malikova in straight sets in the final.
DOUBLES: Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears (USA/USA)
...the veteran U.S. pair have proven to be one of the best hard court duos on tour in recent years. Their run to the Doha title, during which they knocked off two-time slam champs Ekaterina Makarova & Elena Vesnina and then top-seeded Hsieh Su-Wei (who won the title in '14 w/ Peng Shuai) & Sania Mirza in the final, gives then eleven tour titles as a team, and they now have a 10-5 record in hard court finals since 2011. 33-year old Spears has won fifteen career titles, while, Kops-Jones, 32, has claimed thirteen.


1. Acapulco QF - Karatantcheva d. Puig
Karatantcheva's lucky loser-to-semifinalist run included her blowing a 4-0 2nd set lead against Puig, then seeing the Puerto Rican charge back to hold two match points at 6-5 in the 2nd set. In the tie-break, Karatantchova lost a 6-3 advantage, then staved off a third MP before finally winning 9-7 to force a deciding 3rd set.
2. Doha QF - Suarez-Navarro d. Kvitova
A love and three finish after taking the 1st? Oh, Petra.

3. Doha QF - Azarenka d. Wozniacki
Vika won 4 & 2 in Melbourne. Caro hasn't taken a set from Azarenka since they played in Tokyo in 2010.

4. Doha Final - Safarova d. Azarenka
They hadn't met since Madrid in 2011, with Safarova winning just one set in their six total meetings. Needless to say, Lucie made up for lost time here.
5. Acapulco 1st Rd. - Torro-Flor d. Brengle
Brengle held a match point at 5-3 in the 3rd, so I guess this officially ends the "Summer of Brengle," just in time for spring to arrive (soon, hopefully) as BrengleFly dives into the first Indian Wells/Miami swing of her career.
6. Doha 1st Rd. - Suarez-Navarro d. Muguruza
...6-5 ret.
Muguruza retired with -- wait for it -- a viral illness. Evidence suggests that she recovered pretty quickly, though.

Mi momento Dirty dancing!! My Dirty dancing moment!! :)))

A video posted by Garbiñe Muguruza (@gabimuguruza) on

7. Doha 2nd Rd. - Petkovic d. Diyas
Petko battled back from down a break three separate times in the 3rd to take out the Kazakh in a quick rematch of the "gummy legs" match from Doha won by Diyas.
8. $25K Campinas Final - Andreea Mitu d. Olivia Rogowska
The Swarmette picks her thirteenth career ITF title, denying the Aussie a sweep of both the singles and doubles titles in Brazil.
9. Argentina Cup Final (G2) - Julieta Lara Estable d. Bianca Andreescu
The top-seeded Argentine takes the home country final over the #4-seeded Canadian, handing Andreescu her first loss of 2015. The 14-year old defeated Estable to win the doubles titles with Isabelle Boulais, running her combined season singles/doubles record to 19-1. She's won at least one title in six of her last eight junior events.
10. Acapulco Final - Bacsinszky d. Garcia
The last time a Swiss woman won a tour singles title? October 2009. And it was Bacsinszky.

HM- Acapulco Final - Arruabarrena/Torro-Flor d. Hlavackova/Hradecka
...7-6(1)/5-7 [13-11].
The Czechs held a MP at 11-10 in the match tie-break, but failed to grab their first WTA title as a duo since taking the U.S. Open crown in 2013. Maybe the dolphins gave Arruabarrena a vital edge?


Meanwhile, on Caro Corner... it was just that sort of week for the Dane.

1. Doha SF - Azarenka d. Venus Williams
Vika is now the only player on tour with three 2015 wins over former #1 players -- two vs. Caro, and now Venus . Lucie Safarova and Karolina Pliskova both have two this year.
2. Doha QF - Venus Williams d. Aga Radwanska
Make that a pair of three-set victories by Williams over Radwanska this season, all since Venus lost to Aga in the Montreal final last summer.
3. Acapulco 1st Rd. - Krunic d. Anna Schmiedlova 6-2/6-1
$10K Port El Kantaoui Final - Kristina Schmiedlova d. Malikova 7-5/6-2
6627.10 air miles apart, the Schmiedlovas had very different weeks.
4. Doha 2nd Rd. - Venus Williams d. Zahlavova-Strycova
BZS -- who climbs into the Top 20 for the first time this week despite her early exit -- has a history of interesting post-match meetings at the net. Who can forget her impromptu handshake etiquette class with Elina Svitolina?

After questionable-at-best calls benefited Venus in a match in which the Czech failed to put away a MP, there was a brief stare down moment at the net initiated by Strycova. But, as is often the case in nature, the dominant individual generally "wins" these sort of face-offs without ever having to really fight. It was the case here, too... as Venus' "Do you have a problem with me?" reaction pretty much put an end to the notion of any sort of real confrontation with the always-feisty Czech.

5. $25K Beinasco Final - Kristina Kucova d. Krejcikova
Hey, Czech Maidens can't win EVERYTHING. Slovak tennis sisters need to eat, too. It's Kristina's eighth career challenger crown.
HM- Doha Final - Kops-Jones/Spears d. Hsieh Su-Wei/Mirza
New partners Su-Wei & Sania are still looking for their first title, but they're getting closer.


Hey, even though things didn't go TOTALLY great for Vika in Doha, at least there was this:

Picture of the day, of the year and my favorite on Instagram... #ImBlushing #whoWouldnt #hotdamn

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

And this, too:

**2015 WTA FINALS**
2...Simona Halep, ROU (2-0)
2...Maria Sharapova, RUS (1-1)
2...Karolina Pliskova, CZE (0-2)

34...Venus Williams, USA
33...Serena Williams, USA
31...Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
34...Martina Hingis, SUI
32...Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP
32...Arantxa Parra-Santonja, ESP
34...Martina Hingis, SUI
[combo - doubles/mixed]
75...Hingis/Paes (34/41) - mixed
65...KOPS-JONES/SPEARS (32/33)
64...Medina-Garrigues/Parra-Santonja (32/32)

Madison Brengle, USA (Q, Hobart RU)
Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL (Q, Sydney SF)

2008 Quebec City - Angeles Haynes SSF)
2008 Tokyo - Jarmila Gajdosova (SF)
2012 Fes - Mathilde Johansson (SF)
2012 Stanford - Coco Vandeweghe (RU)
2012 Linz - Irina-Camelia Begu (SF)
2013 Brisbane - Lesia Tsurenko (SF)
2013 Paris - Kiki Bertens (SF)
2015 Acapulco - Sesil Karatantcheva (SF)
Brisbane - Alla Kudryavtseva, RUS (QF)
Pattaya - Yuliya Beygelzimer (2nd Rd.)
Pattaya - Zhu Lin (2nd Rd.)
Acapulco - Mariana Duque-Marino (2nd Rd.)
Acapulco - Sesil Karatantcheva (SF)

Hobart - (un) Watson d. (Q) Brengle
Pattaya - (un) Hantuchova d. (un) Tomljanovic
Doha - (un) Safarova d. (WC) Azarenka

It was (another) birthday week on the WTA tour -- in both new and (recent) classic forms, as Genie turned 21...

while Na turned 33...

and celebrated the anniversary of her first career title.

Meanwhile, Serena saw fit to mention another particularly important anniversary factoid:

14 Final: Ivanovic d. Jaksic
14 Doubles Final: Jurak/Moulton-Levy d. Babos/Govortsova
15 Top Seeds: Ivanovic/Errani

Mladenovic d. #3 Garcia
#4 Bacsinszky d. #2 Errani
Mladenovic d. #4 Bacsinszky

...and now officially marks the moment in this weekly section where I throw out a "why not?" flier of a prediction because so many of my previous '15 picks have stumbled before the finish line. So, why not go with Kiki, who'd be reaching her first tour level singles final? Why not, indeed.

14 Final: Vekic d. Cibulkova
14 Doubles Final: Babos/HC.Chan d. YJ.Chan/Sai.Zheng
15 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Lisicki

#1 Wozniacki d. (Q) Kulichkova
#8 Goerges d. #6 Nara
#1 Wozniacki d. #8 Goerges

...and, of course, this probably dooms Caro's chances of getting her first title in '15.

And, since Sharapova's "sure thing" title in Acapulco went POOF with her semifinal withdrawal, and a possible Venus title run was blown up by (of all people... but at least she softened the blow a little bit) Vika, the Monterrey event gets the "picks out of a hat" treatment for this week. I figure this can't be much worse than the real picks, right?

The methodology: 32 numbered slips of paper pulled out of a hat, corresponding with each of the 32 players in the main draw. The first player selected from each of the four sections -- #1-8, #9-16, #17-24, #25-32 -- is the semifinal pick, with the lowest 1-2-3-4 order-of-selection determining the semifinal and final winners.

(WC) Schiavone d. #1 Ivanovic
Bertens d. #7 Hantuchova
(WC) Schiavone d. Bertens

...we'll see how that one goes. Maybe Francesca has already been inspired by the events of this weekend?

Meanwhile, the Genie World Tour continues. This week: "Sheldon's spot."

No one sits in Sheldon's spot...except for me ?? #thankyoujim @therealjimparsons

A photo posted by Genie Bouchard (@geniebouchard) on

And, finally...

All for now. February BSA's up next.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Wk.7- For Halep, Happiness was Just a Hump Away

Have camel. Will travel.

Whatever has been ailing Simona Halep in recent weeks and months may have been nothing but something that a brief ride on a camel could fix.

Over the past two years, as she's transformed from a talented Top 50 player into a would-be slam champ, Halep has often come off as an inveterate problem-solver on court and a level-headed and even-tempered individual off it. She made an unexpectedly quick rise up the rankings in 2013 while largely playing without a full-time coach, then parted ways with coach Wim Fissette after just one season even after the Belgian had been on watchtower duty while the Romanian climbed to #2 in the world and reached the Roland Garros final in 2014.

In the last few months, even as she's maintained her standing on tour, she's sometimes been revealed as still being a "work in process" as she's been forced to learn to deal with increased expectations and commitments, and the inherent stress that comes with both.

Beginning with the aftermath of her whitewash of Serena Williams -- the world #1's worst-ever loss -- in the WTA Finals round robin at the end of '14, something has been noticeably off with Halep. She limped off -- not literally, but figuratively... mentally, at least -- in her rematch with Williams in the final in Singapore. Then, in Melbourne, she failed spectacularly in the quarterfinals against Ekaterina Makarova, as she was frustrated by the Russian's game and seemed to want to get away as quickly as possible. Thanks to her own play, that's precisely what happened, too. A week later, in Fed Cup action, she was blasted off the court by Garbine Muguruza in front of a home crowd and the Swarmette team had to be bailed out by the play of the likes of Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu rather than live or die based on the two singles results put up by the nation's #1-ranked player.

It's what's happened after matches, though, that has singled out Halep's issues. To her credit, she's been open about it, something which some players might avoid in public. Saying that she "felt the expectation that everyone was waiting for me to win," she admitted that there was a problem. Or she at least copped to the symptoms, noting that her legs sometimes freeze and become heavy in big moments, preventing her from getting to balls and destroying the advantage that her footwork, speed and great defensive skills give her on a match-in and match-out basis on tour. It's certainly seemed to be a classic case of a player, no matter how much she's already accomplished, trying -- and failing, on a small scale that threatened to become a bigger one -- to stay a step ahead of the expectatation game brought about by her own success. It's a moment in a rising player's career when winning matches is no longer the sole focus of their routine, and not winning them ALL at any particular event is considered a disappointment.

It's a real culture change.

In Halep's case, the vultures have been peering over her shoulder in '15, as well. Her dismissal of Fissette in favor of Romanian coach Victor Ionita raised more than a few eyebrows, even as she admitted to being a particularly "picky" player who is sometimes difficult to coach, but who feels more comfortable with an all-Romanian team around her. After her losses in Melbourne and Fed Cup play, as the #1 seed in the season's first big Premier level event in Dubai, Halep once again was forced to stare down the demons that have been nipping at her heels.

Over the past week, Halep clearly blinked in the face of it all, but she never stumbled and, soon, she regained her focus.

First up was a rematch of that troubling match against Makarova in the quarterfinals. After taking the 1st set, Halep dropped the 2nd at 6-1, then saw her 5-3 lead in the 3rd evaporate into a 5-5 tie. But, after failing on four match point attempts, she finally broke the Russian to secure the match. A round later, she lost the 1st set to Caroline Wozniacki, then allowed the Dane just two games in the final two sets. In the final against Karolina Pliskova, the stress of the situation nearly pulled her down again. But, once more, Halep fought it off. After twice failing to serve out the match, holding match points in back-to-back service games and double-faulting two times in a row to take the 2nd set into a tie-break, the Romanian stormed back from 4-3 down to take the set with a smartly executed wide serve that produced a stretching forehand return from the Czech that was easily put away at the net by Halep to claim the title via a 6-4/7-6(4) final score.

It's yet another big step in the right direction for The Pride of Romania's career.

Outside of the series of niggling injuries that slowed her at times last season, her stressful reactions to big moments in recent months have produced the first real lingering doubts about Halep's ability to remain at the top of the game. Over the past two years, she's almost systematically knocked down all the other questions posed to her, from being able to win bigger and better titles and having her slam breakthrough, to defeating top players on big stages. Other than winning a major (though she came close vs. Maria Sharapova in Paris last year), there's nothing that she hasn't done at age 23.

As things stand, even with her stated issues, Halep is 15-2 this season and is the first player to grab a second singles title -- and it came at the biggest non-slam event of the first two months. With all the questions that were facing the Romanian both before and during the week in Dubai, it's easy to forget that.

Yes, it suddenly becomes a very different world when a player reaches the top rungs of the WTA ladder. Some handle things well, ala a Sharapova, when the atmosphere changes. Some, umm, don't. Hello, AnaIvo and Petra. Halep hasn't yet won a slam title, but as her nation's best bet to do so in multiple generations she's been put under a similar microscope even without the accompanying photos of her hugging some shiny piece of historic hardware.

That day will come, though. Eventually. Maybe even soon.

What Halep has been experiencing, and managing to deal with and succeed in spite of, can only help her deal with all that will come her way when her destiny TRULY meets her reality. Weeks like the last one in Dubai might just cause her to look back, and inward, and confidently say to herself, "Yeah, I can handle this."

And then we'll see what she can REALLY do.

DUBAI, UAE (Premier $5.13m/HCO)
S: Simona Halep/ROU def. Karolina Pliskova/CZE 6-4/7-6(4)
D: Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic (HUN/FRA) d. Garbine Muguruza/Carla Suarez-Navarro (ESP/ESP) 6-3/6-2

S: Sara Errani/ITA def. Anna Schmiedlova/SVK 7-6(2)/6-1
D: Bonaventure/Peterson (BEL/SWE) d. Begu/Irigoyen (ROU/ARG) 3-0 ret.

...days after ending her consulting relationship with Thomas Hogstedt, Halep went about righting the little that has gone wrong (though when it has it's done so "loudly") with her '15 season in Dubai. Wins over Daniela Hantuchova and Tsvetana Pironkova set up a rematch of her AO QF loss to Ekaterina Makarova. After going three sets there, she came back from a set down to defeat Caroline Wozniacki to advance to her thirteenth tour singles final in less than two years. After finally closing out Karolina Pliskova in the final to grab her tenth title over that same less-than-two-year stretch, Halep moved to within two titles of matching all-time Romanian leader Virginia Ruzici (Halep's current manager) as her Melbourne fade moves into the background, along with those questions about changing coaches and her ability to handle the stress of her still-new position in the sport's hierarchy. Well, at least until she loses another big match, that is. Hey, Simona, them's the breaks. At least now you know, and can adjust accordingly.

RISERS: Karolina Pliskova/CZE & Garbine Muguruza/ESP
...Pliskova's tear continued in Dubai, as the Czech reached her seventh final in the past twelve months (second in '15), and her biggest yet. Playing on her fourth continent in four weeks, Pliskova was tiring and calling a trainer by the time she was finally taken out by Simona Halep in the final, but only after putting up four Top 40 (three Top 25) wins over the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, Ana Ivanovic and Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza ultimately lost in that singles semi to Pliskova, and she and Carla Suarez-Navarro advanced to the doubles final before losing there, but her week in Dubai was still another example of how the Spaniard has become one of the most lethal double threats on tour at just age 21. Wins over Jarmila Gajdosova, Jelena Jankovic, Aga Radwanska (Garbi's now 2-0 vs. A-Rad since being put in her place -- at least her place at that time -- by the Pole in Melbourne last year) and doubles partner CSN put Muguruza into her first semifinal of '15. She seems to be on a very swiftly moving elevator to, quite possibly, the Top 10 by the end of the year (she'd be the first Spaniard to debut there in twenty-six years), but her one nagging issue this season has been a failing to get off the court quickly. She dropped the opening set of three of her five matches in Dubai, managing to overcome it twice before it was a bridge too far in the SF against Pliskova. In fourteen matches this season Muguruza is 11-3 and has yet to lose in straights, but eight matches have gone the distance. She's 6-0 in two-set matches, but 5-3 in those three-setters.

SURPRISES: Johanna Larsson/SWE & Rebecca Peterson/SWE
...go figure that the Swedish contingent would perform so well in the heat in Rio. Larsson, 26, reached the singles semifinals with wins over Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor, Gabriela Ce and Dinah Pfizenmaier. It's Larsson's best tour result since the last time she played in South America, reaching the Bogota final last Bogota. Meanwhile, 19-year old Peterson won her first WTA doubles title (w/ fellow first-time winner Ysaline Bonaventure), outlasting defending Rio champs Begu/Irigoyen, who retired after just three games in the final.

VETERANS: Sara Errani/ITA & Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
...before last week, Errani hadn't reached a tour singles QF since the U.S. Open. But after saving three match points in the Rio QF on Friday, she went on to take her first tour singles title in nearly two full years. Errani's eighth career title -- after wins over Teliana Pereira, Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, Beatriz Haddad Maia (she had the 3 MP), Johanna Larsson and Anna Schmiedlova -- will lift her back to within shouting (and nearly touching) distance of the Top 10 at #12 in the new rankings. She also took her best Rafa-esque bite out of the trophy in the post-match ceremony. Suarez-Navarro had a great week in Dubai, even if it didn't included a great finish in either singles or doubles. CSN put up wins over Camila Giorgi and Petra Kvitova before taking Garbine Muguruza to three sets in the QF, then she joined with doubles partner Muguruza to reach the final before losing to Babos/Mladenovic. The Spanish pair have reached four finals in the last nine months and have edged close to the doubles Top 10, but have so far only claimed one title as a duo.
COMEBACK: Sofia Arvidsson/SWE
...Arvidsson, 31, took a secondary role a few weeks ago in Sweden's Fed Cup action after a career of workhouse active for her country. Back as a solo act, she picked up the title at the $25K challenger in Surprise, Arizona this weekend. It's her nineteenth ITF title, but her first since 2010 (she won her only WTA title since '06 in Memphis three years ago). Her title run in Surprise featured victories over a slew of younger opponents, including Michaela Gordon (15), Johanna Konta (23), CiCi Bellis (15) and Sanaz Marand (an "ancient" 26) in the final.
FRESH FACES: Anna Schmiedlova/SVK & Beatriz Haddad Maia/BRA
...Slovak Schmiedlova followed up her Fed Cup success, where she ended Kiki Bertens' FC winning streak, with the best week of her career in Rio. The 20-year old reached her first career tour level singles final with wins over Alison Van Uytvanck, Romina Oprandi, Veronica Cepede Royg and Irina-Camelia Begu. World #234 Haddad Maia, 18, reached her first career WTA QF in the same event in her native Brazil, taking her wild card into the draw and turning it into victories over Maria Irigoyen and Polona Hercog. She held match points against eventual tournament champ Sara Errani in that QF match, but failed to convert any of her three opportunities and eventually retired after three games in the 3rd set after cramping in the harsh heat.
DOWN: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Peng Shuai/CHN
...after having to go three sets last weekend to get past qualifier Timea Babos in the 1st Round in Dubai, JJ saw her singles ranking fall out of the Top 20 for the first time in 97 weeks last Monday. She then won just four total games against Garbine Muguruza in her next match. JJ is 1-3 this season and hasn't won multiple matches in an event since the U.S. Open, going 3-8 in her last eleven. Peng lost in the singles 2nd Round in Dubai to Tsvetana Pironkova, and also dropped her only doubles outing with Kveta Peschke. Peng, still the #3-ranked doubles player, is now 1-3 in doubles in '15. She's 0-3 in tour level events, with her only doubles victory coming in Fed Cup zone action since losing the WTA Finals championship in her goodbye match with former partner Hsieh Su-Wei, who also hasn't fared nearly as well (3-3) in '15 with Sania Mirza, either.
ITF PLAYER: Olga Govortsova/BLR
...Govortsova, 26, was the #8-seed in the $50K Kreuzlingen challenger, in which she took down #3 Romina Oprandi and #6 Kristyna Pliskova before defeating qualifier Rebecca Sramkova (yet another Czech!) 6-2/6-1 in the final. It's the Belarusian's first ITF title since 2012, and just her second since the start of the 2008 season. She's gone 0-4 in WTA singles finals during the stretch. It's Govortsova's fourth career ITF win.
JUNIOR STAR: Jelena Ostapenko/LAT
...the 2014 Wimbledon girls champ has won six $10K challenger titles in the past, but her semifinal run in the $50K Kreuzlingen event was her best result at an event so large. The 17-year old Latvian also reached the doubles semis with Vesna Dolonc.

DOUBLES: Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic (HUN/FRA) and Lyudmyla Kichenok/Nadiia Kichenok (UKR/UKR)
...friends since they were 10, Timea & Kiki finally have some tangible engraved evidence of their ongoing relationship as they combined to win the Dubai title -- their first as a duo -- after reaching four finals together in '14 but failing to win any crown. They defeated the teams of Garcia/Srebotnik and Muguruza/CSN in their final two matches, as Mladnovic picked up her tenth career WTA title and Babos grabbed #8. Overall, at all professional levels, Mladenovic has now won nineteen doubles/mixed titles with fourteen different partners. The Kichenok sisters won their first tour level doubles title in Shenzhen earlier this season, but were back on their old familiar stomping ground last week in the $50K challenger in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. The pair defeated the team of Foretz/Ramialson to win their eighteenth ITF title (in their 37th final) as a team, with Lyudmyla winning her 24th career challenger and Nadiia #21.

1. Rio QF - Errani d. Haddad Maia
...3-6/7-6(2)/3-0 ret.
The young Brazilian led 6-3/5-3, holding two match points at 5-3 and then another at 6-5 in the 2nd set.
2. Dubai 2nd Rd. - Safarova d. Dellacqua
Dellacqua overcame a Safarova set point in the 1st, and eventually led 7-6/6-5 before the Czech won a five-deuce game to break serve and force a tie-break. Things remained close the rest of the way, but the moment turned the match.
3. Dubai 3rd Rd. - Suarez-Navarro d. Kvitova
Kvitova follows up her loss at the hands of Madison Keys in Melbourne with an upset against another Top 20 player in her second match at her next event. The Czech had been 5-1 against Suarez-Navarro before this defeat.
4. Dubai QF - Halep d. Makarova
Makarova got back on serve late in the 3rd, but Halep beat back the Hordette -- along with the pressure, as well as her own stress -- by breaking serve to win the match on her fifth match point in the final game.
5. Dubai QF - Muguruza d. Suarez-Navarro
Don't worry -- the two went out and won a doubles match as a team later in the day. They'll also face off in the 1st Round in Doha.
6. Dubai 1st Rd. - Dellacqua/Stosur d. Gajdosova/Lisicki
An Australian/German Fed Cup reunion. But this time, with a 3-to-1 advantage, the Aussies were assured of tasting victory. Elsewhere... Aussie "squabbles":

7. Dubai 2nd Rd. - Diyas d. Petkovic
After an amazing two weeks, Petko's "legs were like gummy balls" in the loss that ended her five-match winning streak.
8. Acapulco Q1 - Makoto Ninomiya d. Date-Krumm
...6-7(6)/6-2 ret.
The 20-year old, #624-ranked Japanese woman makes her way past her fortysomething countrywoman/legend.
9. Doha Q1 - Schiavone d. Bencic 6-7(4)/6-2/6-2
Doha Q2 - Voegele d. Schiavone 6-2/6-3
the veteran Italian beat up on the teen Swiss Miss, but Bencic's countrywoman had her back a round later.
10. Doha Q1 - Savchuk d. Mladenovic 7-6(4)/6-0
Doha Q2 - Kozlova d. Babos 6-2/6-4
no rest for the wickedly successful. A day after they'd won the doubles title in Dubai, Mladenovic and Babos had already been sent out in the singles qualifying in Doha. Babos had to double-up and play two matches on Sunday to catch up with the Q-draw after her late arrival in Qatar.
11. $25K Altenkirchen Final - Carina Witthoeft d. Antonia Lottner
The two young Germans faced off in Germany for a challenger title, with 20-year old Witthoeft picking up career win #9 in the same week she'd reached her career-high ranking of #88 last Monday.
12. $25K Cuernavaca Final - Marcela Zacarius d. Nina Stojanovic
The Mexican woman wins her seventh career ITF singles title, as well as her ninth in doubles (her fifth with partner Victoria Rodriguez).
HM- $25K Surprise 2nd Rd. - CiCi Bellis d. Susanne Celik
...1-6/7-6(6)/2-2 defaulted.
The Swede led this one 6-1/5-1 and had multiple match points, only to eventually be defaulted when she slammed a ball and it traveled into the next court and hit the umpire in the face. Whoops.


Meanwhile, on Caro Corner... a little sandboarding was on the agenda.

1. Dubai Final - Halep d. Karolina Pliskova
The Swarmette wobbled, but she ultimately stood tall. Halep twice served for the match in the 2nd set, holding a MP in both games. On her second MP, she double-faulted, then did it again a point later as she and Pliskova combined for six straight breaks of serve heading into the tie-break. Pliskova led 4-3 and threatened to push things to a 3rd, but three straight errors by the Czech gave Halep her third MP. A big wide serve set up a title-winning put-away at the net as the player with the second-most (15) wins on tour in '15 took out the player with the most (17).

2. Rio Final - Errani d. Anna Schmiedlova
Sisters and finals just didn't mix well in Week 7.
3. $50K Kreuzlingen Final - Lyudmyla Kichenok/Nadiia Kichenok d. Foretz/Ramialison
Well, unless you were a Kichenok, that is.
4. Dubai QF - Karolina Pliskova d. Safarova
Safarova led 6-3/3-1, but Pliskova still pushed her record vs. Czechs not named Kvitova to 4-0 over the last two seasons. For the record, she's 0-2 when she's faced a certain Kvitova over the same period.
5. Dubai 2nd Rd. - Anastasia Rodionova/Arina Rodionova d. Hingis/Pennetta
A big win for the sisters, who faced off with each other in singles qualifying in Dubai, even if their week didn't end with a title as a result.
HM- Acapulco Q1 - Ula Radwanska d. Naomi Osaka 6-1/6-4
Acapulco Q2 - Chirco d. Ula Radwanska 6-7(2)/6-1/6-0
a Radwanska invaded North America, but a Bannerette stepped in to keep the threat outside the U.S. border.

Hey, what's SHE so excited about? Hmm... uh-oh.
HM- Dubai 1st Rd. - Erakovic/Watson d. Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Yung-Jan
Yeah, I could say that I'm including this one because it involved the Chan sisters, or because Erakovic/Watson saved a MP at 9-8 in the match tie-break. But, really, it's here just so that I could show a picture of Watson taking a bath in a sink:


Vika, still breaking the rules and proud of it!

And aren't we...


**WTA SINGLES TITLES - since 2012**
26...Serena Williams [7/11/7/1]
10...SIMONA HALEP [0/6/2/2]
10...Maria Sharapova [3/2/4/1]
9...Victoria Azarenka [6/3/0/0]
8...Petra Kvitova [2/2/3/1]
7...Aga Radwanska [3/3/1/0]
6...SARA ERRANI [4/1/0/1]

**WTA FINALS - since 2012**
28 - Serena Williams (26-2)
21 - Maria Sharapova (10-11)
16 - Victoria Azarenka (9-7)
14 - SIMONA HALEP (10-4)
12 - SARA ERRANI (6-6)
11 - Petra Kvitova (8-3)
11 - Aga Radwanska (7-4)
11 - Li Na (4-7) -ret.
11 - Angelique Kerber (3-8)
10 - Caroline Wozniacki (4-6)
8 - Ana Ivanovic (4-4)

12 - Virginia Ruzici (1975-85)
10 - SIMONA HALEP (2013-15)
4 - Irina Spirlea (1994-98)
4 - Ruxandra Dragomir (1996-97)

Shenzhen - Simona Halep, ROU
Brisbane - Maria Sharapova, RUS
Sydney - Petra Kvitova, CZE
Australian Open - Serena Williams, USA
Dubai - Simona Halep, ROU
Rio - Sara Errani, ITA

Hobart - Madison Brengle (#84, 24/USA) (L)
Pattaya - Ajla Tomljanovic (#68, 20/AUS) (L)
Rio - Anna Schmiedlova (#75, 20/SVK) (L)

11...Serena Williams, USA
10...Maria Sharapova, RUS
10...Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP
7...Flavia Pennetta, ITA
7...Venus Williams, USA
6...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
5...Francesca Schiavone, ITA
5...Roberta Vinci, ITA

2 - Sachia Vickery, USA
1 - Usue Arconada, USA
1 - Gloria Liang, CAN
1 - Marcela Zacarius, MEX

It was birthday week on the WTA tour -- in both new and classic forms.

DOHA, QATAR (Premier $731K/HCO)
14 Final: Halep d. Kerber
14 Doubles Final: Hsieh/Peng d. Peschke/Srebotnik
15 Top Seeds: Kvitova/Wozniacki

#1 Kvitova d. #6 Petkovic
#7 V.Williams d. (WC) Azarenka
#7 V.Williams d. #1 Kvitova

...Halep's weekend withdrawal prevents a possible To-Wim-or-Not-to-Wim (as in Fissette, that is) QF meeting between Vika and Halep. This is the fourth time Kvitova and Halep have appeared as the top two seeds in the original draw of an event this season. Halep has pulled out twice and won two titles, while Kvitova won at the other event. So maybe Petra will win her second this week, too?. The draw could open up for Azarenka here without Halep in the bottom half, but she'll still have Kerber in the 1st Round and could get an AO rematch with Wozniacki in the QF. They've already checked out the competition in Doha... though they didn't know it at the time.

14 Final: Cibulkova d. McHale
14 Doubles Final: Mladenovic/Voskoboeva d. Cetkovska/Melzer
15 Top Seeds: Sharapova/Errani

#1 Sharapova d. #3 Garcia
#2 Errani d. Krunic
#1 Sharapova d. #2 Errani

...yeah, I'm pushing Krunic ahead here based as much on "hope" as anything else, but after I've missed as many picks in this space as I already have this season, what's the harm? Anyway, Sharapova is the heavy favorite in this event, as it's one of the few $250K events she'll be called upon to play. If I don't get THIS pick right, then I'll have to consider just (literally) picking a winner out of a hat next week.

And, of course, Genie just HAS to get her face in here somewhere. See?

All for now.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Wk.6- Hey, Aren't You...?

Week 6 was filled with what at first might have been assumed to be a series of mistaken identities.

Players who reached their career heights years ago re-emerged to wake up the echoes of their past. Some simply as a reminder of what once was, but others as a potential shot across the bow of their futures and what could still be possible for their careers.

And then we had this...

And this...

And -- yikes! -- even this...

Holy Serbian Good Luck Charm! What the retired Belgian Barbie is going on here?

(Stay tuned... that'll come later.)

S: Andrea Petkovic/GER def. Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP walkover
D: Anabel Medina-Garrigues/Arantxa Parra-Santonja (ESP/ESP) d. Mestach/Van Uytvanck (BEL/BEL) 6-4/3-6/10-5

S: Daniela Hantuchova/SVK def. Ajla Tomljanovic/AUS 3-6/6-3/6-4
D: HC.Chan/YJ.Chan (TPE/TPE) d. Aoyama/Tanasugarn (JPN/THA) 2-6/6-4/6-3

...for the second straight Backspin, Petko is the Player of the Week. The last time that happened was when Serena Williams won in Weeks 19-20 in 2013 in the lead-up to her win at Roland Garros. At this point, Petkovic's 2015 season can be divided into two distinct parts: (no pun intended) B.S. and A.S.. Before Stuttgart, and after Stuttgart. The German entered last weekend's Fed Cup tie with Australia with an 0-3 record, then battled back from MP down against Sam Stosur and won an 8-6 3rd set vs. Jarmila Gajdosova while leading Germany back to the FC semifinals. Jumping from Stuttgart to Antwerp, Petko maintained her momentum... and her knack for drama. In her first match, playing against a Belgian in Belgium (so the FC feel was still intact), Petkovic saved seven match points against Alison Van Uytvanck. She nearly lost a big lead and the 1st set against Dominika Cibulkova next time out, but collected herself to win in straights. She took out Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova in two tie-breaks sets in the semis, saving a SP in the 2nd in a very fun match that served to highlight the Czech as one of the more entertaining players on tour. Then, in the final... well, there wasn't one. Petko won career title #6 in a walkover when Carla Suarez-Navarro couldn't play due to a neck injury. So, with a five-match win streak still going strong, Petkovic now re-enters the Top 10 for the first time since dropping out during her injury-plagued '12 season. Her ascension comes as Fed Cup teammate Angelique Kerber's Top 10 streak ends at 143 consecutive weeks.

RISERS: Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP & Marina Erakovic/NZL
...CSN, who missed last week's Fed Cup World Group II tie against Romania, came out firing in Antwerp. She came back from a set down to take out Camila Giorgi (who knows something about losing from ahead -- ouch), then followed up with victories over Monica Niculescu, Francesca Schiavone and Karolina Pliskova (the Czech had ousted her in a love 3rd set in the Sydney QF a few weeks ago) to reach her first career Premier level singles final. Unfortunately, a neck injury prevented her from facing off with Andrea Petkovic for the title, meaning CSN has now won just a single title ('14 Oeiras) after advancing to seven finals during her career. Erakovic reached the Pattaya semis after putting up wins over Luksika Kumkhum and Yuliya Beygelzimer, then saving three match points against Vera Zvonareva. In the semis against eventual champ Daniela Hantuchova, Erakovic failed to convert two match points of her own that would have pushed her into her fifth career tour final.

SURPRISES: Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar/ESP & Yuliya Beygelzimer/UKR
...Sanchez-Quintanar, 25, didn't win her first career ITF singles title this weekend, but her story is still worth noting. Born in Campo de Criptana, Spain, CSQ's "first love" was soccer. But she was pretty good at tennis, too, and the opportunities there were greater, so she ended up traveling to the University of Maryland on a tennis scholarship in 2009. She arrived there mid-semester, and received permission to play on the soccer team, but she eventually had to give that up in order to fulfill her tennis commitments. When her coach left for Texas A&M in 2011, she went with him, and was able to play soccer there, as well. She ended up playing in the NCAA postseason tournaments for tennis, soccer and basketball. But her tennis scholarship came first, and the sport soon became her #1 priority again. In her last year of tennis eligibility, Sanchez-Quintanar climbed as high as #5 in the NCAA rankings and A&M reached the women's team final in the NCAA Championships in 2013. With one year left on campus, CSQ once again fed her soccer desire. In late October of last year, she played in her first professional tournament as a pro (she won an ITF doubles title back in '09). Since then, she's gone 24-7 in singles on the challenger circuit, and has reached back-to-back finals in a pair of $10K events in Port El Kantaoui, Tunisia this year, the first after having made her way through qualifying. She's still ranked outside the Top 1000, as she's lost both finals, but she's 11-3 in 2015 and is now an intriguing little side story in a sport that has so many that we never hear anything about. Well, at least here's one that we now can't say that about. Meanwhile, Beygelizmer lost in Pattaya qualifying, but entered the draw as a lucky loser. Once there, she came back from a 7-5/5-2 deficit, then 5-2 in the 2nd set tie-break, to defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm and reach the 2nd Round. The Ukrainian was one of two lucky losers (w/ Zhu Lin) to record 1st Round victories in the tournament.

VETERANS: Francesca Schiavone/ITA & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE
...she might not be a force in the slams these days, but don't throw dirt on Francesca in the regular tour events just yet. Once again, the 34-year old Italian showed her continued viability in Antwerp, making her way through qualifying with wins over Lyudmyla Kichenok, Oceane Dodin and Anna Lena Friedsam, then notching main draw victories over Klara Koukalova and Angelique Kerber to reach the QF. The latter win was a 1 & 1 spanking of the German that gave Schviaone her first win over a Top 10 player since 2012, and knocked Kerber out of that same Top 10, as well. Zahlavova-Strycova became the third Czech this season to reach a pair of singles semifinals, reaching the final four in Antwerp with wins over Yanina Wickmayer, Alize Cornet and Mona Barthel. In the semi against Andrea Petkovic, which turned out to be the psuedo-final when the injured CSN couldn't post on Sunday, BZS held a set point against the German in the second of two tie-break sets in a straight sets loss.

COMEBACKS: Daniela Hantuchova/SVK & Anastasiya Sevastova/LAT
...Hantuchova's teaming with coach Carlos Rodriguez continues to produce results. In Pattaya, she reached her sixteenth career final, picking up title #7 (her first since taking Birmingham in '13). The 31-year old opened with a three-set win over Zarina Diyas, then knocked out Zheng Saisai, Duan Yingying, Marina Erakovic (saving 2 MP) and Ajla Tomljanovic on her way to the title. It's Hantuchova's third title in Pattaya City, having also won in 2011 and '12. In fact, she's won five of her seven singles titles at just two tournaments, picking up a pair of wins in Indian Wells in '02 and '07. So... does this mean she's a legit threat to win there in Serena's return to the tournament in a few weeks? We shall see. Meanwhile, Sevastova's return to action after a nearly two-year absence remains unblemished by defeat. In Week 4, the 24-year old Latvian played for the first time since March '13 and took the singles and doubles titles at a $10K challenger in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. This week, she did the same in another $10K in Trnava, SVK with a win in the final over top-seeded Reka-Luca Jani. So far, Sevastova's comeback has produced two singles and two doubles titles, with a combined match record of 17-0.

FRESH FACES: Ajla Tomljanovic/AUS & Indy de Vroome/NED
...20-year old Tomljanovic, who only recently started playing under the Australian flag, is already using the new/good vibes to lift her career. She reached her first career tour singles final in Pattaya after putting up wins over Elizaveta Kulichkova, Jarmila Gajdosova, Evgeniya Rodina and Monica Puig (in a three-set thriller where every stanza went to seven games, and Tomljanovic won on her fourth MP). She lost in three sets in the final to Daniela Hantuchova. 18-year old de Vroome made it through qualifying in Antwerp, getting victories over Paula Kania, Serbian Bad Luck Charm Vesna Dolonc and Katerina Siniakova, then notching her first career tour-level main draw win over Tsvetana Pironkova.

DOWN: Genie Bouchard/CAN
...Bouchard entered Antwerp as the #1 seed, playing in her first event with new coach Sam Sumyk. Even with a late start after a 1st Round bye, her week didn't last long, as she was ousted in her opening match by Mona Barthel, always a sneaky upset threat and the Paris Indoors champ in '13. A few days later, after being announced as a wild card entrant into Dubai, Bouchard pulled out of this week's event. The Canadian lost in her first match nine times in 2014, and this week's defeat means it's happened at 40% of her full-draw events (10-of-25) over the last two seasons.
ITF PLAYER: Daria Gavrilova/AUS
...the 20-year old newly-Aussie former Hordette won her second straight $50K challenger title in Launceston, Australia to match the career-biggest title she won a week ago in Burnie. Gavrilova's third career ITF win came with wins over Erika Sema, Nudnida Luangnam, Junri Namigata, Irina Falconi (who she also defeated in the final last week) and Tereza Mrdeza in the final.

JUNIOR STAR: Bianca Andreescu/CAN the end of last season, the 14-year old became the fourth straight Canadian to win the Orange Bowl 16 singles, following Erin Routliffe, Gloria Liang and Charlotte Robillard-Millette (Gabby Dabrowski won the 18s in '09). This past week, in the Grade 2 Condor de Plata junior event in Bolivia, Andreescu won her eleventh consecutive match (she's 20-1 in her last 21) and claimed the rain-delayed final 6-0/6-4 over Colombia's Yuliana Monroy. She also took home doubles honors.


DOUBLES: Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Yung-Jan (TPE/TPE) & Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP
...the Chan sisters claimed their third career WTA title as a duo -- they also have a WTA $125K Challenger win -- to move into a tie for second place on the all-time list of sisters doubles champions (way behind Venus & Serena, with 21). The win over Shuko Aoyama and Tammy Tanasugarn (it's the first time the 37-year old has played for a WTA title in her home country since she reached both the singles and doubles finals -- winning the latter -- in Pattaya in 2010) gives Hao-Ching five career titles, while older sister Yung-Jan has thirteen (including this same tournament in '08). Medina-Garrigues, 32, teamed with Parra-Santonja, also 32, to reach the Bogota final all the way back in 2004, but she didn't win her first title with her fellow Spaniard until this weekend in Antwerp when they defeated an all-Belgian pair in the final. It's AMG's 24th career doubles title, with APS being her fifteenth different title-winning partner going back to her first crown with Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez back in 2001.

Speaking of one of those, "Hey, aren't you..." moments:

With Tony Bennett. If I could only have sung with him....

A photo posted by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on

1. Antwerp 2nd Rd. - Petkovic d. Van Uytvanck
Petko just can't help herself, apparently. Days after saving MP against Stosur in Stuttgart, she was faced with the same task -- several times over -- against the Waffle. The German led 5-2 in the 1st and held two set points, but saw Van Uytvanck grab the set. In the 2nd, the Belgian won a 19-point game to force a 2nd set tie-break, where she held SEVEN match points. But Petko was just warming up, as she won the TB then took a 4-0 lead in the 3rd before finally putting away the victory on her own fourth MP.

Hmmm, is Petko in training to become a F.O.C.A -- a Friend of Citizen Anna? That would explain a LOT. (And the blackboard in the background says it all, too, I guess.)
2. Antwerp 2nd Rd. - Barthel d. Bouchard
Hmmm, maybe fewer runways are the answer? Hey, didn't Sloane walk a runway last year, too? I'm just sayin'.

3. Pattaya QF - Erakovic d. Zvonareva
Zvonareva had another good week in her comeback, putting up her third QF result in four events in 2015. But she came so close to so much more. The Hordette held a MP at 6-5 in the 2nd set TB, then two more at 5-4 in the 3rd. If she'd been able to convert any of her trio of chances she'd reached her first semifinal since the WTA Championships in 2011.
4. Pattaya SF - Hantuchova d. Erakovic
What the Tennis Gods giveth, the Tennis Gods taketh. At least as far as Erakovic was concerned last week. The Kiwi saved 3 MP vs. Zvonareva, but she failed to convert two of her own a round later against Hantuchova, both at 5-4 in a 3rd set that featured a combined eight breaks of serve.
5. Antwerp QF - Petkovic d. Cibulkova
Ultimately, it now looks like a minor bump in her road to victory in Antwerp, but after Petko failed to put away eight set points and saw Cibulkova win a 17-point game to break serve and force a 1st set tie-break, anyone who has ever seen the Slovak pick up momentum and never give it back will tell you that it's a good thing the German won the opening set, because if she'd lost it the end result might have been very different here. As it was, Petkovic took the 2nd set at love and went on to win the title.
6. Antwerp 2nd Rd. - Safarova d. Mladenovic 6-4/6-1
Antwerp 2nd Rd. - Zahlavova-Strycova d. Cornet 6-4/6-2
a preview of this spring's Fed Cup semifinal between the Czech Republic and France? Minus Amelie, of course. And that's big difference.
7. Pattaya 2nd Rd. - Tomljanovic d. Gajdosova 7-6(3)/6-3
Pattaya Final - Hantuchova d. Tomljanovic 3-6/6-3/6-4
Tomljanovic won the early battle between imported Aussies, but couldn't quite grab her first career title against a pure Slovak.

8. Antwerp 1st Rd. - Cornet d. Bencic 1-6/6-2/7-5
Dubai 1st Rd. - Cornet d. Flipkens 6-0/6-7(6)/6-3
it would be the WTA without a little Alize drama, now would it? First, she took out her Fed Cup frustrations on a teenager in Belgium, then this Sunday she opened play in Dubai with a 3:11 victory that began with her winning six straight games (taking the 1st in nineteen minutes, losing just eight points), then ended the same way. In between the two bagel runs, Cornet limped, fell, and argued calls (one a bad line call that gave Flipkens a set point in the 2nd, but Cornet couldn't ask for a replay on because she was out of challenges). In the end, she won, though... so more drama is likely to follow later this week.
9. Pattaya 1st Rd. - Zhang Shuai d. Vekic
Things just continue to get worse for Vekic. She's now 8-22 since winning the Kuala Lumpur title last April.
10 Dubai Q2 - Dabrowski d. Goerges 6-4/3-6/6-3
Dubai 1st Rd. - Pennetta d. Goerges 2-6/7-6(3)/6-4
play has barely begun in Dubai, and Goerges has already lost twice. First, she saw Dabrowski defeat her to qualify for her first Premier level main draw. After getting into the draw as a lucky loser, the German failed to convert four match points up 6-2/5-2 against Pennetta, then saw the Italian vet battle back to get the win.
11. $25K Sao Paulo Final - Pous-Tio d. Mitu
Pous-Tio, the 30-year old from Spain who recorded her first Top 100 season back in 2005, tied for the ITF circuit lead in titles last year with seven. She picked up her first of 2015 -- the 20th of her career -- this weekend in Brazil.

12. Antwerp Exhibition - Clijsters d. Petkovic
After CSN was unable to play in the singles final, Diamond Games tournament director Kim Clijsters suited up to play an exo with event champion (and new Top 10er) Petko... and ended up winning. Naturally, afterward, Stubbsy was "causing trouble."


Meanwhile, on Caro Corner...

Another @SI_swimsuit pic.. Just because ????

A photo posted by Caroline Wozniacki (@carowozniacki) on

Dubai Q2 - Arina Rodionova d. Anastasia Rodionova
...6-2/0-1 ret.
This is just the second time the sisters have faced off in singles as pros. Oddly enough, the last time it happened -- in a $50K challenger in Las Vegas in 2012 -- it also ended in a retirement. That time, though, it was Arina who put an early stop to the competition, trailing her sister 5-2 in the 1st set. They've since had new experiences in Dubai.


A blast from Vika's past. Ah, will digital photography and cell phone pics rob us of such where-did-you-find-that-picture pleasures such as this in the future?

Vika was among the WTA stars wishing V-Day wishes...

But, then again...

Oh, well. At least she'll always have Paris.

Paris I fall in love with you every time more and more. Till next time ??

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

[as of Febraury 16]
203...Maria Sharapova
176...Aga Radwanska
150...Serena Williams
73...Petra Kvitova
56...Simona Halep
33...Genie Bouchard
27...Ana Ivanovic
24...Caroline Wozniacki
3...Ekaterina Makarova
1...Andrea Petkovic

21 - Serena & Venus Williams *
3 - Karolina & Kristyna Pliskova *
3 - Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko
1 - Lyudmyla & Nadiia Kichenok *
1 - Chris & Jeanne Evert
1 - Katerina Maleeva & Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere
1 - Cammy & Cynthia MacGregor
1 - Aga & Urszula Radwanska *
1 - Adriana & Antonella Serra-Zanetta

**2015 WTA SF**
2...Maria Sharapova, RUS (2-0)
2...Petra Kvitova, CZE (1-1)
2...Karolina Pliskova, CZE (1-1)
2...Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE (0-2)

Meanwhile, Caro had her mind on things back home, as well.

DUBAI, UAE (Premier $2.513m/HCO)
14 Final: V.Williams d. Cornet
14 Doubles Final: Kudryavtseva/An.Rodionova d. Kops-Jones/Spears
15 Top Seeds: Halep/Kvitova

#6 Makarova #1 Halep
#3 Wozniacki d. #7 Kerber
#8 V.Williams d. #4 Ivanovic
#2 Kvitova d. Muguruza
#3 Wozniacki d. #6 Makarova
#2 Kvitova d. #8 V.Williams
#2 Kvitova d. #3 Wozniacki

...Venus is just the second '14 champion to try to defend a singles title this season (and the other, Pironkova in Sydney, had to go through qualifying in her attempt), and if the continent-hopping wear-and-tear of the last few weeks doesn't hold her back she could very well become the first repeat champ this year. I won't pick it, though, after finally getting my first win of the season this past week with the Petkovic prediction.

And, hey, after having four previous picks reach finals but then lose, it only took Petko saving more than half a dozen match points, nearly blowing a lead in another match, squeaking by BZS in a pair of tie-breaks and then getting a walkover in the final to finally do it... surely the traditional way to correctly prognosticate a result on the WTA tour, eh?

Petra has had a good rest since losing to Keys in Melbourne, so I'll go with her.

14 Final: Nara d. Koukalova
14 Doubles Final: Begu/Irigoyen d. Larsson/Scheepers
15 Top Seeds: Errani/Begu

#4 Brengle d. #1 Errani
Mattek-Sands d. Van Uytvanck
Mattek-Sands d. #4 Brengle

...just how much longer can the Summer of Brengle last? She's running out of continents... and it's not summer in South America. So... maybe almost a full week?

Elswhere, while Maria was late in arriving on the social media scene, her photography, sense of humor and facial expressions continue to be quite possibly the best on tour when it comes to the InstaTwitterVerse...

My love/hate relationship with the cold is still undetermined, as shown above. #makeupyourmind #cold #weather

A photo posted by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on

And, really, just like her tennis, Timea Bacsinszky's contributions tend to be often-overlooked and underrated, as well. But they shouldn't be.

All for now.