April 24, 2011

The Breakout and the Breakthrough

The ladies were out to impress as they took to the red clay courts of the tournaments held this week. A slew of top ten players and former #1s were in action as play really started heating up ahead of the second Grand Slam of the year, just four weeks away.

In Morocco the upsets started early and only one of the top four seeds made it safely out of the second round. One-time French Open runner-up Dinara Safina staged a valiant effort to make the semis -- her first since Cincinnati in 2009 -- but an unfortunate bout of food poisoning ended her run early, allowing world #94 into the finals -- her first since Guangzhou that same year. There she met rising star, nineteen-year-old Simona Halep, herself a finalist here last year. The two had met only once before, with the youngster trouncing the thirty-one year old veteran while qualifying for Montreal about nine months ago.

But it was a different story this time around. The unseeded Brianti, who hasn't been able to break into the top fifty in her eleven-plus years on the circuit, took control of the match early, running off to a 5-2 start before rain delayed play. She withstood a comeback by the seventh-seeded Halep and broke her opponent again to take the first set. Though they traded breaks in the second set, the Italian was able to remain ever so slightly stronger and eventually finished off the match in just an hour of play. It was her first career Tour title, and after nine ITF trophies, it couldn't have come at a better time. It might be too late to really put herself on the map at Roland Garros, but more than a few stars may find themselves on the wrong side of a Brianti upset in the coming weeks.

The elite in Stuttgart were served notice as well. With seven of the top eight women in the world coming out for the Premier event in Germany, there was plenty of talent on the court. But again the seeds fell early -- defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, 2008 U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic and Melbourne finalist Na Li all lost their second matches. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki was able to advance, but in the championship match she faced unseeded Julia Goerges, who'd beaten a tough Sam Stosur in the semis.

The twenty-one year old German has been causing players fits all year, taking a set from Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open and beating Shahar Peer en route to the Charleston quarters. She then pounded Melanie Oudin last weekend at the Fed Cup playoffs, confirming just how strong a force she is. But she was even more impressive this week in her home country -- though she was down a set to Victoria Azarenka in the second round before her opponent retired, she regrouped on her way to the final. Against the top seed on Sunday she held her ground, didn't drop serve once during the match and found angles on the court that frustrated the usually calm and collected Caroline. Goerges won the first set in a tiebreak and worked to a 3-0 lead in the second, then never looked back. At the end of the day she was holding the trophy, easily the biggest of her career -- so far.

It's always encouraging to get that first big trophy -- whether it comes at the end of a career or sets the stage for many more to come. Both of these ladies have certainly put themselves on everyone's radar, and something tells me we haven't seen the last of either.

No comments: