May 5, 2011

The New Guard

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that turnover in the ranks of women tennis players has been growing. With Serena Williams out for the time being and Kim Clijsters touch-and-go for most of the spring, we're not seeing much consistency from the athletes that should be dominating recent tournaments -- and the players who, at this time last year, were all over the late rounds have stepped aside to make way for a few others.

Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki fell in three sets Thursday in Madrid, marking her earliest exit since January, and both last year's champion and runner-up at Roland Garros followed suit soon after. And like with many of the draws we've seen in recent weeks, that's allowed a few others to capitalize on their own recent strength.

Julia Goerges, who not only defeated the world #1 today but also in the Stuttgart final a few weeks back, continues to improve her game. She's defeated some seriously experienced players in her first three rounds, albeit all went three sets, but that she can handle the pressure of the big stage bodes well for a player who just cracked the top fifty last year.

It's a bit of a pity the German next faces fellow rising star Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The nineteen-year-old has a handful of smaller titles to her name, but has spent the last eight months in and around the top twenty. She narrowly missed a seeding in Spain, but blew through Marion Bartoli on Tuesday and followed it up with a straight set victory of 2010 breakout Sam Stosur. With additional wins this year over players like Jelena Jankovic and Petra Kvitova, her resumé is certainly getting more impressive every day.

Speaking of the Czech, Kvitova started the year with a bang, upsetting heavy favorite Kim Clijsters in the Paris championships before injuries crippled her ascent the next few months. But playing solid ball again in Madrid she's already taken out second seed Vera Zvonareva, her third top-ten victory of the year.

And for her efforts she gets to meet fellow giant-killer, Dominika Cibulkova -- certainly an easier on-paper foe than potential opponents Svetlana Kuznetsova or Maria Sharapova, both of whom the diminutive Slovak took out in straight sets this week, but not one to be overlooked. A semifinalist at the French Open in 2009, she's most comfortable on the clay and seems primed for her own breakout. If she can handle Kvitova, I'm not sure there's a limit on how far she goes here.

Lucie Safarova first broke into the top twenty-five a couple years ago, and though she's failed to regain those rankings, she can still pose a threat to the top-tier players. She had championship points in Kuala Lumpur a few months back and gave Vera Zvonareva quite a scare in Melbourne. But she seems to do best on these courts -- she made the Madrid semis in 2010 and this year stopped Anabel Medina Garrigues's hot streak cold before then upsetting former #1 Jelena Jankovic in the second round. Her win over Jarmila Gajdosova today confirms just how big a threat she can be.

In a slightly different tier than these ladies is Victoria Azarenka, who kicked off the clay court season by winning a title in Marbella, just after reclaiming the Miami crown. Never before considered a big threat on the surface, she sure has changed my mind about her strengths, dropping less than two games a match on average so far in Spain. She's the highest seed left in the draw and could easily make a fast break for the title the way she's playing -- and a breakthrough here sets a very solid stage for the rest of the spring.

All of these ladies are on the verge of breaking new ground in their careers. Having toed the line between being just good and really great for some time, none has had a better opportunity to make the big leap over. And with those inhabiting the top spots for the better part of the year seeming so willing to step aside, I'm hoping one of them seizes the chance to make her mark now.

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