March 5, 2011

On the Verge

It's been a while since either of the two ladies contesting the title in Kuala Lumpur Sunday had such a legitimate chance at winning a trophy. And though both have already caused their share of upsets over the course of the past week, I have a feeling we might be in for one more.

Lucie Safarova has been around for some time and has made a couple of valiant efforts to break into the elite. During her breakout year in 2007, after having won some small titles in Estoril and Forest Hills, she beat Amelie Mauresmo at the Australian and French Opens and Justine Henin at the Paris Indoors.She reached a career high of #22 in the world that year, but has been up and down since. Last year, even when she finally seemed to be stabilizing, she dropped the first round of an ITF tournament in Poitiers at the end of the season.

You might not think that such a spotty player would be as hard-hitting as Safarova is, but if you watched her courageous performance against Vera Zvonareva in the Melbourne third round, you know how talented she is. But it wasn't until this week in Malaysia when she really hit her stride. She survived a struggle against former #1 Dinara Safina in the first round and rolled over second-seeded Marion Bartoli in the next round. By the time she reached the semis, you almost had to consider her the favorite.

That's especially true when you consider all the seeds had been eliminated in the top half of the draw, but that doesn't make the other remaining player any less intimidating. When twenty-seven year old Jelena Dokic first burst on the scene over a decade ago, she was touted as a real star to watch. As a qualifier at Wimbledon, she destroyed top seed Martina Hingis in the first round, and rode that momentum all the way to the quarters -- a year later she made the semis. We all know the story after that -- injuries and family troubles forced her out of the elite and out of the sport. We didn't see her again until several years later when, again the underdog, she made the quarters in Melbourne in 2009.

Dokic has hung around since then, winning a few titles on the ITF circuit and winning a couple matches here and there on Tour. But this week at the BMW Open she came out swinging hard, rebounding after losing the first set to Francesca Schiavone to cause the upset of the top seed. A few days later she took out up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski and, in her first semifinal in seven years, handily beat Michaella Krajicek to make the finals.

The two ladies have split their last two meetings, with Dokic outlasting Lucie in a long three sets in Paris. But something tells me not to underestimate this girl -- she seems to do best when she's not expected to win, and the way she's playing recently she may very well have her second breakthrough a full dozen years after her first one.

And something tells me a win now would be so much sweeter than the ones that came before.

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