September 13, 2012

Sneaking Through

It's been a rough couple days for seeded players since the U.S. Open. With many of the sport's very top tier taking a short break from competitive play, a couple others may have hoped to get in some easy wins at this week's events. But, it turned out, the challenges started from the get-go, and those who've survived may find themselves with some big opportunities.

The draw in Tashkent was a little sparse. Defending champion Ksenia Pervak, struggling still with injury -- she pulled out of Dallas with a hamstring strain and retired from her first round in New York -- skipped the event entirely, and top seeded Monica Niculescu, who'd only put together ten match wins on the season -- couldn't maintain an early lead in her opener and fell to Karin Knapp after nearly three hours of play. With the top half of the bracket cleared out, some lesser known players like qualifier Donna Vekic and last year's runner-up Eva Birnerova, who'd only scored two main draw wins on Tour this year, have been able to progress largely unchallenged.

But there may be more at stake in the bottom half of Tashkent bracket. Irina-Camelia Begu, one of my newcomers of last year, has dropped well down the rankings this season, failing to defend points in Budapest or Marbella. She did upset Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the U.S. Open, but otherwise hasn't made much impact. She's unseeded in Uzbekistan, but with upsets of Alize Cornet and Galina Voskoboeva already this week, she's playing like she did a year ago. If she can keep it up, she might be ready for her real breakthrough, and make a real play for that first career trophy.

Unfortunately for Begu, she'll next face the only seed remaining in Tashkent -- while Aggie Radwanska has been stirring the pot in the top five of the sport, younger sister Urszula has been having a coming out party of her own. Ranked out of the top hundred at the start of 2012, she beat Marion Bartoli in Brussels, made the final in 's-Hertogenbosch and handed Serena Williams her only break on the way to Olympic Gold. Now at #40 in the world, the young Pole rebounded after losing a set to Alexandra Panova in her quarterfinal and is in a good position to make the final. Begu won't be an easy foe, but it could be exactly the prep she needs as she looks to make the big breakthrough.

There was a little more star power at the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, but so far it hasn't served them any better. Second seeded Yanina Wickmayer, who's made a couple finals this year, but only won two matches since Stanford, was handily ousted by qualifier Lauren Davis in the second round. And similarly spotty Dominika Cibulkova, who put up a couple good fights at the U.S. Open, didn't even make it out of her Canada opener -- a game from a three set win, she eventually succumbed to the veteran Belgian Kirsten Flipkens, marking her tenth first round loss of the season. And while these vanquishers have made a statement already, they're not the only ones.

Homegrown Aleksandra Wozniak has been on the comeback trail all year, winning her second ITF title since getting over a wrist injury and very nearly ousting Venus Williams in Miami. She's had a couple big wins on hardcourts this year -- Klara Zakopalova in Dallas, Jelena Jankovic in Montreal -- and after surviving a tough Elena Vesnina on Tuesday, she seems to have her wits about her. She'll next meet one-time American sweetheart Melanie Oudin, who's won their previous two meetings, but momentum and the crowd may be on the Canadian's side, and I'd look for her to do well as she tries to reach the quarterfinals here.

Mona Barthel has already booked her spot in the quarters, and tomorrow will take on defending champion Barbora Zahlavova Strycova for a spot in the semis. Barthel stormed on the scene early this year, beating four of the top five seeds as a qualifier in Hobart to take her first title, but she's been relatively quiet since. She had a couple of wins over big stars -- go figure, Jankovic and Bartoli were among them -- but only made one semi since January. Winless in her last three Majors, she's looking to redeem herself in Quebec and, unpredictable as she may be, it looks like she's getting her feet back under her. If she keeps up her level, she might be able to end the year the way she started it.

There are still a couple rounds of action left before any of these ladies is able to claim a title for themselves. But their performances so far this week bode well, if not for these tournaments, then hopefully for the rest of the year. The Slams may be over for 2012, but there's a lot more play left to be had, after all. And ending this season on a good note could put any of these ladies in a position to make a splash in the coming years.

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