August 6, 2009

On the Defensive

Today Dinara Safina became the first woman to qualify for the year-end Sony Ericsson championships in Doha.

Now I know I've complained a bit about her #1 ranking -- though she's earned three titles this year, she's also lost in four finals, including two Grand Slams, indicating that maybe she can't perform in the big leagues. But as we proceed through the hardcourt season, Dinara has the opportunity to prove herself to me.

Most of the reason she's climbed to the top spot has to do with her performance last year during the U.S. Open Series. She took titles in Los Angeles and Montreal in 2008, taking the lead in the race up to the final Major of the year. And so as she looks to repeat the success of last summer, she's got a lot of ranking points to defend -- a task she begins this week in southern California.

So far she's been strong, beating a resurgent Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-4 in the second round, and you have to favor her in her match against Jie Zheng later tonight. But there are a lot of women out to take the trophy away from her, and they've been playing some spectacular tennis this week as well.

Australian Samantha Stosur reached a career high #18 ranking in June thanks to a semifinal appearance at Roland Garros, and proved she wasn't a flash-in-the-pan when she beat Serena Williams last week in Stanford. Though she has won a Tour title yet, she's playing at the top of her game this year, proving it with an easy win today over sixth seed Ana Ivanovic.

Flavia Pennetta is also playing well. A few weeks back she won the title in Palermo, never losing a set and dropping only five games in her last two matches. In LA she outlasted American teenager Coco Vandeweghe in the second round and today was spectacular against fifth seed Nadia Petrova. Next up for her is Vera Zvonareva, a player she's only met once before, about seven years ago when neither was ranked in the top fifty. Vera, too, has been struggling with an ankle injury the last few months, so the Italian has to like her chances.

A little under the radar has been Urszula Radwanska, the eighteen-year-old younger sister of Wimbledon quarterfinalist Aggie. Even though she's ranked much lower at #71, she'd had some nice results this year -- Urszula defeated sixth seeded Aleksandra Wozniak in Hobart and French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in Indian Wells. Yesterday in LA she took out Dominika Cibulkova, firing off five aces and breaking serve nine times, and later today will have to play Na Li for the right to make the quartes.

Then, of course, there's Maria Sharapova. She's always been a force on this surface, winning the big prize in New York in 2006 and in Australia last year. Yes, she's still battling through an injury and yes, she was much less of match for Venus Williams last week at the Bank of the West Classic than I expected -- but she is a fighter.

Her serve has been spotty, to say the least -- she was broken six times by Victoria Azarenka in the second round in LA and today gave up a break lead and dropped the first set to Alona Bondarenko. But when she's in charge, she stays that way -- as I write this, she's serving at 5-0 in the second. If she holds on, it'll be her fifth quarterfinal in the six tournaments she's played since returning to the Tour -- not a bad way to begin a comeback.

So Dinara certainly has her work cut out for her. After all, when you're at the top, everyone is out to get you!

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