October 18, 2012

Ending on a High Note

It's the last week of regular-season play for the ladies of the WTA, and while the Elite Eight going to Istanbul have already been decided, that's no reason for everyone else to stop fighting. And the players doing just that this week may actually have even more at stake.

The Luxembourg draw seems to be full of players who haven't been uber-present this year. A foot injury took Daniela Hantuchova out of action in April and May and several early-round losses since has pushed her ranking out of the top thirty-five. She's unseeded at the BGL Open, but was able to survive a feisty Arantxa Rus -- she who made the fourth round at the French Open and stunned Sam Stosur at Wimbledon -- and today stayed just tough enough against recently surging Kirsten Flipkens to prevent the upset. It'll be Dani's first quarterfinal since February, and with her next meeting set against veteran Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino, a woman to whom she's never lost, she has a real opportunity here to prove she's back in fighting form.

The same can be said for Andrea Petkovic, who's injury-marred year has pushed her ranking down to #182. Since her return in August, the popular German has won a match here and there, but hasn't recaptured the glory that led her to be my New Year's pick to win the U.S. Open. But this week in Luxembourg she's shown she may be on the way back -- she survived a scare against qualifier Garbine Muguruza in her opener, but today exacted revenge against her Beijing vanquisher and sometimes-doubles partner Jelena Jankovic. After handing out a second set bagel, she's earned the right to a quarterfinal against also-recovering Ksenia Pervak, the woman who beat her last year at the All England Club. But if Petko's truly got her game back, she might be able to continue doing damage throughout this draw.

Venus Williams is looking to accomplish just as much. Since returning to the singles scene in March, she's already done some damage -- she took out three seeds on her way to the Cincinnati semi and has put together an impressive 5-7 record against top ten players this year. She had no problem this week against wildcard Belinda Bencic in her first round and is currently up a set on recently-struggling Mona Barthel. It might be a lot to ask for her to make a run for the title -- it's been more than two years since her last one, and the top two seeds are both still alive -- but there's no reason the American legend couldn't pull it off. She's certainly got the talent to do so.

Meanwhile in Russia, a couple other players are trying to restore their relevance. Maria Kirilenko has been flying under the radar most of the season, but somehow snuck to a career high ranking in August. Titleless since 2008, she nevertheless made the quarters at Wimbledon, the semis at the Olympics and the final in New Haven. She struggled with a back injury last month, though, and hadn't won a match since the U.S. Open until she came to her native Moscow. The seventh seed at the Kremlin Cup, she's had a tough draw, opening against Elena Vesnina and then battling through a tough Yaroslava Shvedova earlier today. She'll meet recent giant-killer Sofia Arvidsson next, but if she can keep her play up it could help her make another push into the sport's elite.

Reigning Moscow champion Dominika Cibulkova has had a slightly less stellar year. Though she was able to capture her second career title in Carlsbad and did score a massive defeat of world #1 Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros, she's still barely above 50% on the year. Dealt a tough draw too, she's already taken out Ekaterina Makarova and Tsvetana Pironkova to make the quarters, but she'll have to raise her game against Caroline Wozniacki if she's going to make another trip to a semi --she did beat the former #1 last year at Wimbledon, but still trails their head-to-head by 3-8. A win would certainly give her confidence a boost and put her in a good place to make another run for the title.

Sam Stosur may have even more to prove. The recent U.S. Open winner has had some big wins this year -- she put up a huge fight against long-time nemesis Victoria Azarenka in the New York quarters and earned one of her few victories against Maria Sharapova in Tokyo. But she's also had some bad losses, most recently to world #134 Kai-Chen Chang in Osaka, the site of her first career trophy three years ago, and was relegated to alternate status for the year-end Championships. Later today she opens her Moscow campaign against Alize Cornet, a woman who's taken her to three sets the last two times they've played -- and beat her in their only other meeting. But it's been a long time since those matches, and if Stosur wants to show us how much her game's improved, now's a good time to do it.

Whether these ladies are able to keep up their performances remains to be seen, but they've certainly given us cause to believe they're still capable of pulling out some big wins. As their years wind down wit's nice to see them making a last push for a win -- and whoever comes out on top might be able to change the conversation in the year to come.

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