October 5, 2009

Are We in For a Repeat?

The early action at last week's Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo turned out to be pretty interesting. Though the top eight seeds received byes in the first round an unprecedented six of them suffered some big losses in their opening matches.

Current world #1 Dinara Safina was shocked by qualifier Kai-Chen Chang while French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova made an early exit at the hands of Andrea Petkovic.

But it didn't stop there. Third seed Elena Dementieva fell to a strong Kateryna Bondarenko, U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki notched her first loss to similarly-named Aleksandra Wozniak in a first-set retirement, and Vera Zvonareva dropped a tough three-setter to Alisa Kleybanova. And second-seeded Venus Williams traded a ton of breaks, but eventually lost to Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.


With numbers one through six all eliminated by Tuesday, the way was paved for seventh-seeded Jelena Jankovic and 2005 champ, an unseeded Maria Sharapova, to reach the Saturday finals. And when Jankovic was forced to retire with a wrist injury in the first set -- a disheartening result, especially in a final -- Maria was able to capture the trophy at the Premier event, her first since returning from a nine-month long injury absense.

So far at the China Open in Beijing, though, things seem to be off to just as rocky a start for the seeds. While only a few people got first-round byes -- those that made the semis in Tokyo -- we've already seen some surprises.

Wozniacki split two sets in tiebreaks with Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her first round before getting bageled in the third. Safina, her Number One ranking hanging by a thread, dropped her second round match to wildcard Shuai Zhang, a player positioned somewhere around #225. And Venus fell for a second straight time to Pavlyuchenko, even after starting off with a one-set lead. So far only Kuznetsova has earned the third round.

If it hasn't been clear thus far in the year, the last ten days have surely shown just how open the women's draw is -- like at the Majors, top seeds seldom make it as far as they should, and everyone's spot is vulnerable. For example if Serena makes it a few matches deep, she'll take the #1 ranking back from Dinara. Elena could get back in the top three with a strong showing, and Maria -- now at fifteen -- is just a stone's throw from the top ten.

With the year's Slams behind us, it might be easy to get complacent, to forget that there's still a lot of season left. The race for Doha is in full swing and there are still a few spots left to fill. With the way Kim Clijsters is playing post-retirement and the imminent return of former Justine Henin -- both year-end champions themselves -- this is not a time to slack!

And these coming weeks are just the grounds for these girls to prove themselves!

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