October 1, 2011

The Major Leagues

At the first premier tournament of the ladies' Asian Swing this year, there was no shortage of stars in the draw -- seven of the top ten made their way to the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, but plenty who'd just missed nabbing a seed were in full display as well. And that certainly made for some interesting results early on in the week, and allowed those who advanced to show they truly belong among the elite.

World #1 Caroline Wozniacki survived a tough first round against Jarmila Gajdasova, but was promptly dismissed a round later by former top-twenty player Kaia Kanepi. Maria Sharapova, at her highest ranking at a tournament in more than three year, was looking good, but suffered an unfortunate ankle roll in her quarterfinal rematch against Petra Kvitova which puts the rest of her year in jeopardy. But despite early losses by the favorites, the women who made the final weekend in Tokyo were forced to put up some of their best fight all week long.

Two-time Major finalist Vera Zvonareva hasn't had as much success this year versus last, but she did make eight semifinals, including deep runs in Australia and New York. She held onto the fourth seed here, but her road was far from easy -- she was forced to avenge a third round Wimbledon loss to Tsvetana Pironkova right off the bat and followed it up with a crushing defeat of doubles stand-out Iveta Benesova. She was down 1-5 in the semis against Kvitova, but somehow managed to win the match in straight sets, knocking off eleven of the last twelve games in her favor.

In the other half of the draw Agnieszka Radwanska, one of my perennial favorites, was pulling out the big guns against some top-tier talent herself. After dismantling U.S. Open surprise semifinalist Angelique Kerber -- incidentally, her own vanquisher in New York -- she took on former #1 Jelena Jankovic, blanking her in the third set. Against hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka in the final four, Aggie stayed calm after losing a 4-2 lead in the second set and ran off to an early lead in the third. Though it took a few tries to get it done, she eventually secured the win after over two and a half hours of play.

So Saturday's final ended up being a rematch of the Carlsbad championship, one which the Pole won relatively easily after also having endured a couple three-setters earlier in the week. And this time too Radwanska was able to seize the reins early -- after dropping her first service game, she rattled off four in a row and took the early set lead. She took an early lead in the second as well, and never looked back. In short order she'd scored the win -- her third straight over the Russian -- and claimed the biggest title of her still-young career.

For years I've been waiting for Radwanska to win herself a Big Girl's trophy, and it's so satisfying to see her do it. It may not be a Grand Slam, but she had to display the same standard of skill to get it. After notching her seventh top-ten win this year, she's certainly shown she can hang in with the top brass.

Now she just has to do it on the big stage.

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