January 31, 2013

A Quest for Redemption

It's been a pretty exciting first month of the season, but the New Year hasn't been happy for everyone. A couple players have struggled to put up the kinds of results we've come to expect from them, but some solid results this week could turn all that around.

It's been a long time since Anastasija Sevastova has done anything big on the tennis court, and the 2010 Estoril champion has fallen well down the rankings over the last few years. After making the fourth round in Melbourne two years ago, she failed to make it past her opener there this time around and had to qualify for the main draw in Pattaya City. She sneaked out a win over rising star Heather Watson on Thursday to make her first quarterfinal since Luxembourg in 2011. She's got nothing but seeds left in her half of the draw, so it won't be easy for her to progress farther, but if the young Latvian can find her game there's no reason to believe she can't get in another win or two.

Elena Vesnina may have something to say about that though -- the decorated doubles star is having quite the season so far. Long a member of the middle tier in this sport, the Russian had lost all six of the finals she'd contested before this year, but changed her luck in Hobart early in the month and then beat Varvara Lepchenko and Roberta Vinci on her way to the Australian Open fourth round. The run helped her climb to #33 in the world, still off a career high, but with some of the most consistent results we've seen from her in a while. Vesnina hasn't faced another seeded player so far in Thailand, but could be tested tomorrow by world #15 Maria Kirilenko in the quarters. Her compatriot has won all three of their previous meetings, but Vesnina has kept things close in the past -- if she can harness her momentum it might bode well for her the rest of this week.

Sabine Lisicki has actually fallen below Vesnina in the rankings -- surprising, considering this time last year we were waiting for her to finally break the top ten. But a string of injuries and disappointing results, including a first round loss in Melbourne, pushed her out of the top fifty. She's still seeded fifth in Pattaya, though, and with fairly routine wins over her first two opponents this week it looks like she might be ready to stage a comeback. It should be smooth sailing for her, too -- the highest ranked player left in her half is world #60 Ayumi Morita -- so if she stays focused and healthy this could be her chance to make a move.

There are plenty players looking to relaunch their careers over in Paris as well. Lucie Safarova is just a hair off her career high ranking, but with her only win of the year coming over a sub-hundred player, it seems she's lost a little of that luster. She's struggled so far this week too, dropping sets to both Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Alize Cornet, but now in the quarters she has a chance to shine. She next faces Lucky Loser Kiki Bertens, one of last year's hottest newcomers who's already beaten a tough Tamira Paszek and fourth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova at the GDF Suez. Bertens actually won the pair's only other meeting last year at Wimbledon, so the Czech is going to have to bring her A-Game if she wants to turn the tables on her opponent. But if she does, it could do wonders for her confidence the rest of the year.

Marion Bartoli hasn't really fallen too far out of the spotlight, but after just missing her chance to qualify for Istanbul last year, she hasn't beaten a player in the top fifty yet this season -- she suffered an easy defeat in the quarters at the hands of Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova to start the year and then lost a struggle to Melbourne Cinderella Ekaterina Makarova a few weeks later. So far in her homeland, the Frenchwoman's been on point -- after a tight first set, she rolled over Christina McHale to set up a third round against Hobart finalist Mona Barthel. The German beat Bartoli last April in Stuttgart, pretty easily in fact, so the on-paper favorite cannot let history get in her way -- if she's able to play her game, there's no reason she can't avenge that loss.

Petra Kvitova may have a bit more to prove. The one-time Wimbledon champion has been a fixture in the top ten for the past eighteen months or so, but last year she had been a stone's throw from grabbing the #1 spot. That goal is a bit further away these days, and after putting together a 2-3 record to start the season, it may have gotten a little more remote. The 2011 winner in Paris could have a tough time reclaiming the title -- she was challenged somewhat in her opener by Stefanie Voegele, and will meet quickly rising Kristina Mladenovic next. The Czech has won the pair's only previous meeting, at this event actually, but that was a full five years ago, and her opponent has posted some solid results herself, besting both Julia Goerges and Yanina Wickmayer on her way to the quarters. If Kvitova is going to make another play for this crown -- and turn her year around -- she'll need to keep her cool in tomorrow's match and play ball like she hasn't played yet this season.

It's not really fair to say Sara Errani hasn't followed up on her breakout season from 2012 -- but despite winning the doubles title in Melbourne she nevertheless dropped a chunk of ranking points after losing in the first round of the Australian Open singles draw. She's the top seed in Paris this week, though, so will want to step up her game and with a quarterfinal match against the woman who ousted her two weeks ago, the pressure will be on. Carla Suarrez Navarro holds a dead-even 3-3 record against the Italian, and after her win Down Under and a victory over Klara Zakopalova here, she might have the confidence to take the lead. But Errani has been a fighter on all surfaces the past year, and if she's on her game should be able to stop the bleeding -- and that win could put her season back on the right track.

All these ladies have a chance to redeem themselves over the next few days -- some get that opportunity against the very same players who stopped them in their tracks. Whether they achieve their goals or not could have a big impact on what the rest of their seasons look like and whether or not momentum stays on their side. Their years may not have gotten off to the start they wanted, but their upcoming performances might just be what it takes to turn all that around.

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