July 25, 2010

The Return of Anna?

It's easy to forget that back in the day, Anna Chakvetadze was the number-five player in the world. In 2007 she'd earned herself four titles -- including two big ones in Cincinnati and Stanford -- beating the likes of Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams in the process. But if you happened to blink during that run, you might have missed her.

After making the finals in New Haven in 2008, Anna hasn't really been able to make a dent at another tournament. Last year she never won more than three matches at any event, and this year she's missed out on even qualifying for a number of others. She suffered a first round loss in Miami in March and subsequently fell out of the top hundred, her lowest ranking in nearly six years. At only twenty-three years of age, it looked like she was already well past the prime of her career.

But then came this week's action in Portoroz, Slovenia, a small tournament which nonetheless attracted top talent like Jankovic and feisty teenager Anatastia Pavlyuchenkova. Chakvetadze, now ranked #103 in the world, was not seeded and so was faced with the prospect of one opponent after another ranked higher than her. In the first round she made surprisingly quick work of Ekaterina Makarova, a fellow Russian who won her first career title in Eastbourne this year. She was similarly impressive against fourth-seeded Sara Errani, taking advantage of the Italian's pathetic service game -- she won barely one in three of her first attempts and one in five of her second -- for another straight-set win.

In the quarterfinals, Anna faced stiffer competition. She'd beaten Vera Dushevina in their only previous meeting, but that was four years ago, and she found herself down early when her compatriot took the first set 6-2. But Anna was able to steady herself and came back to take the next two, making her first semifinal since that run at the Pilot Pen. There she faced Polona Hercog, one of my favorite newcomers this year, who got off too a quick start, bagelling Anna to take the first set in twenty-four minutes. But again, signs of the Russian's champion self began to shine through, and she broke her opponent twice to even the score and got off to a quick lead in the decider.

On Sunday Anna never had to look back -- against Sweden's Johanna Larsson, the seven-time titleist never let herself get behind. Larsson didn't get a break opportunity in the first set and couldn't convert on any of her three chances in the second. After just over an hour Chakvetadze had won her first title in more than two years, beating five better-ranked players in a row to do it.

Does this mean we can expect Anna to continue her momentum in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open? It's probably too early to tell, but now on her strongest surface, it sure looks like she's back in form. Considering the amount of success she's had before during the American road trip, she's certainly capable of making an impact, but it'll take more than one title win to do it. I've always had a soft spot for Chakvetadze, so I'd love to see her making another run for the top-ten.

And now that she knows she still has it, she just needs to keep it going!

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