October 10, 2012

Where'd They Go?

If the top ranks of the tennis world have seen something of a resureection in recent weeks, the middle tiers seem to be stumbling a bit this time of year. Despite some impressive starts to the year, a couple players have faded the last couple months of the season. And they'll need to take the next few weeks to regroup if they're going to make a statement in 2013.

World #32 Christina McHale started off the year with real promise -- after her breakout in 2011 she made the quarterfinals in Doha and beat then-Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells a few weeks later. The young American climbed to a career high ranking in August, breaking the top twenty-five, but has struggled since then. She withdrew from New Haven with illness and wasn't well enough to win her first round match at the U.S. Open. After pulling out of two tournaments after New York, she lost her first match back in Beijing to Ana Ivanovic and this week in Osaka couldn't quiet get her game together. Against Kai-Chen Chang in her opener, she lost more than half her points on serve and in a break-filled match -- nine in total -- she was the weaker player on return. Hopefully once she's fully recovered she'll be able to get back on track -- it'd be nice to see her notch a couple more elite wins and cement herself as a force in this sport.

Frankly I'm a little more surprised at the performance we've seen out of Yaroslava Shvedova recently. The doubles star had lost singles ground last year when injury hampered play in the second half, but came back swinging in 2012. She beat defending champion Na Li at Roland Garros to make the quarters and famously dealt Sara Errani a Golden Set at Wimbledon a month later. Her climb up the rankings has been phenomenal -- the Kazakh is at #28 coming to Japan, having started the year out of the top two-hundred -- but her showing since the summer, less so. She hasn't made it past the second round of any event since, and this week in Japan was trounced by thirty-five year old Tamarine Tanasugarn in her first round. It's probably too soon to be overly concerned, but it would be great to see her turn her luck around before she loosens her grip on the top too much.

Mona Barthel was a little further under the radar when she broke onto the scene in January. Largely unknown when she qualified for Hobart, she stunned four seeds in a row to take the title and went on to notch wins over Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli before the spring was over. She stumbled in the months that followed though, losing six matches in a row and losing her opening rounds in the last three Majors. She did manage a semifinal in Quebec City, but this week in Linz she seemed to revert immediately. In her first round against Kiki Bertens, she was able to force a deciding set, but couldn't convert a single point on return during it. After a relatively short hundred-minute match she was sent packing again, the eighth time this year the German wasn't able to win a match at an event. She still has enough points to hold on to a decent ranking, but she'll need to up her game if she wants to prove her early results this year were no fluke.

Tamira Paszek had made her breakthrough years ago, making the girls' final at both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open Juniors championships. She even made the fourth round in both events' main draws in 2007 and cracked the top forty at sixteen years of age. Her start to this season was less impressive -- she went 2-13 in the first five-and-a-half months -- but she quickly shut up any doubters with her performance in Eastbourne. Just a week before (successfully) defending a slew of quarterfinal points at the All England Club, she beat five higher ranked players to take her first title in almost two years. But she's struggled off the grass -- the Austrian managed to make the quarters in Montreal, but has only won a handful of matches elsewhere. In her homeland, the seventh seed, she should have been the aggressor, but committed too many errors against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first round. After losing her first set quickly, Paszek stayed close in the next, but couldn't defend her second serve and lost in another two-set match. Clearly a threat on the lawn, she's going to have to prove her power translates onto other surface if she wants to be a real threat to the top ranks.

And while all these ladies will need to execute a turn around, perhaps we'll be most closely watching the progression of Sabine Lisicki. My comeback story of 2011, she won two big titles and score a slew of upsets in her post-injury run. And while she seemed plagued with problems at the start of the year, she nevertheless worked to the #12 spot by May and made her way deep into the Wimbledon draw. Like Paszek, though, she didn't seem to find success off the grass -- Lisicki won just one match after the Olympics and earlier today fell in just over an hour to Linz wildcard Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, ranked #159 in the world. Injury has been a problem for the German for years, and she's intimated in the past that she might quit the game if her health doesn't hold up. Hopefully she'll make a turn for the better -- you can't deny that, when playing her best, she's one of the true stars of the game.

As the 2012 season winds down it may be too late for these ladies to turn things back in their favor this year, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost. A couple big wins here and there and they'll be back in the spotlight, back on the upswing. And if they are able to come out of hiding soon, play to their full potential, it could make for an interesting year to come.

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