April 10, 2010

Looking Out for #1

Neither the defending champion in Casablanca nor Marbella was back on the clay courts this week, and that's allowed some surprising -- or at least interesting -- results in the first few tournaments of the new surface season. And some of those that have made this week's finals already are chasing after that ever-elusive first title of the year.

For the ladies Victoria Azarenka drew the top seed in Spain, though you have to think Kim Clijsters, fresh off her win in Miami, would be the sentimental favorite. But the new #10 struggled early and lost to a qualifier in the second round, while Vika suffered a leg injury and withdrew while leading her quarterfinal match 4-0 in the first set.

And so Flavia Pennetta was able to take her second seed to the final round -- a series of straight set wins got her to the championship match in her Andalucia debut. There she'll meet Carla Suarez Navarro, a finalist here last year. Suarez has some of her best results on clay, having also made the semis in Barcelona and the quarters at Roland Garros in 2008. This could be a great chance to win her first ever title.

But I have a feeling the experience of Pennetta will prevail this time -- it's been a couple of months since she put together back-to-back wins in Palermo and LA. Though she's far from having tumbled out of the top ten, she's a feisty one and I don't think she's too happy with having fallen even a few spots to #16. While Carla should be able to put up a fight, I think it's still a bit too early for her and Flavia should be able to score the trophy.

Over in Morocco the seedings played out a little more according to plan -- top seeded Stanislas Wawrinka hasn't had a lot of play this year, and after making the finals in Chennai hasn't really amounted to much. He struggled in his opening round match against qualifier Martin Klizan, allowing the twenty-year-old to bagel him in the second set, and even dropped the middle set to Potito Starace before closing out the semis. He's looking for his first title since 2006 at Umag, where he won after Novak Djokovic retired before the first set tiebreak.

His opponent tomorrow will be Victor Hanescu, trophy-less since Gstaad in 2008. The Romanian #3 seed has had some scares in Casablanca, dropping sets to Jarkko Nieminen and Richard Gasquet, but after a slew of second-round losses this year, it's nice to see him pull off more than one win in a row.

Both of these guys wants a win to set their years off on a better foot. Wawrinka has to want a championship that he actually won, not one he simply defaulted into. And Hanescu certainly wants to get his ranking back on the upswing. He's actually won the pair's two previous meetings, both on clay, so he has to like his chances in tomorrow's final. And having seen his opponent take a few missteps this week, he must have figured a way to get under Stan's skin.

As the clay court season gets into full swing, whoever takes home trophies this week will certainly establish themselves as big threats as we near the French Open. And we all know how that first title of the year can lead to so much more.

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