February 12, 2012

The Payoff

It's hard to be patient.

That's true of life in general, of course, but also for players trying to make their mark on the professional tennis world. Some who peak early struggle to climb back to the heights they once were, while others spend years on Tour waiting for that breakthrough. But once they get there, the rewards are plenty.

Daniela Hantuchova peaked at #5 in the world back in 2003, the year after her first WTA title in Indian Wells, where she beat legends Justine Henin and Martina Hingis for the crown. She made three Slam quarterfinals in a row that year, and though she's fallen a bit down the rankings she's remained a fixture in the top thirty almost ever since. Her title tally hasn't reflected that, though -- she repeated in California in 2007, but when the year started she only had amassed four trophies, a little strange for someone who's been on the circuit for thirteen years now.

Things got a little better for Dani in 2012. Unseeded in Brisbane, she made her way to the final, thanks largely to a walkover from Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters' retirement, and followed it up by beating one-time French Open champ Francesca Schiavone to make the Sydney quarters. Her efforts didn't result in a trophy in either instance, but it was encouraging to see her hang in against the top stars.

And then she came back to Pattaya City, the site of her last title a year ago. The third seed this time around, Hantuchova didn't have much of a challenge early and only lost seven games in her first two rounds. And with second seeded Dominika Cibulkova eliminated in her opener, she had a clear shot to Sunday's championship.

Her opponent, Russia's Maria Kirilenko, had a tougher week. She had saved match point in her first match, came back from a break down in her second, and needed two-and-a-half hours to finish off her semi. She got off to a good start in the final, securing an early break and eventually winning the set in a tiebreak, but that's when her luck ran out. Hantuchova took the advantage in the second set and cruised in the third, securing her first career title defense in an three-plus hour match. And with her best start to a year since 2008, it's looking like she might have finally found her game again.

Twenty-four year old Angelique Kerber has been finding her game over the last six months or so. After winning just five Tour main draw matches in the first half of 2011, she made a surprising semifinal run in Dallas as a qualifier. She was still ranked just inside the top one hundred when she came to New York, but she beat Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to make the semis at the U.S. Open. With wins over Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges in Auckland and the only German point against the Czechs in Fed Cup, she's now #27 in the world and was just granted a seed this week in Paris.

Kerber was dealt a tough draw from the start, but she got past Lucie Safarova and Monica Niculescu -- both ranked in Slam seeding territory -- to kick off her campaign. In the quarters she avenged her Australian Open loss to Maria Sharapova, taking advantage of all five opportunities she had to break the Russian's serve. She had a tougher time against Yanina Wickmayer in the semis, but after more than two hours on court Saturday, she advanced to her second career championship match.

There she met second seeded Marion Bartoli, playing in her sixth final over the last twelve months. The hometown girl had launched a few comebacks over the week, coming back against Roberta Vinci in the quarters after losing the first set and getting down breaks in the second and third. She almost did the same against Kerber on Sunday, drawing even after losing serve early in the first and eventually pushing the match to a decider after winning the second set 7-5. But Kerber got the better of her in the third, running off with the first four games, finally taking out her opponent for her first ever WTA crown. And the way she's playing, it sure looks like there will be more to come.

It's been a long time coming for both this weekend's winners -- longer for some than for others, of course. But these titles may help kick off an even more successful year than they've already had. And if they can keep up this momentum, their waits will be more than worth it.

No comments: