April 8, 2013

Three Times a Charm

It's about that time of year when we make the switch in earnest from hard courts to clay, but while the change of season can take some players by surprise, for others it can be a chance to either continue a good (okay, great) run or to wash out the bad taste of a thus-far disappointing year. And this past weekend a couple ladies, each winning their third trophies at their respective tournaments, might have done just that.

The draw in Charleston was full of not just top-notch talent, but also a few rising stars that were out to prove they too could hit with the big girls. And while a couple succeeded for a time -- college star Mallory Burdette upset 2009 champ Sabine Lisicki and eighteen-year-old Madison Keys worked her way to the quarterfinals -- it was ultimately a couple veterans left standing to contest the title. Last year's winner Serena Williams had progressed without much drama, even easily dispatching older sister Venus in the semis, to make her fourth final of the year. Meanwhile former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, rebuilding her game with a title in Bogota and an impressive run to the final four in Miami, endured a few more hiccups during her campaign -- though she didn't meet a seed in her first five matches, she nonetheless needed three sets to beat Melanie Oudin, Caroline Garcia and Stefanie Voegele.

Despite these challenges JJ came out swinging in Sunday's final -- she saved five early break chances before pouncing on Serena's serve early in the first. She broke again to grab the opener, firing off aces, catching Williams flat-footed, and guessing right on almost every ball -- it was quickly evident why the Serb had been able to compile a commendable 4-5 record against the top-ranked champion. But things took a turn early in the second set -- after a heated exchange at 40-15 in the first game, Serena eventually broke and went on to bagel JJ, forcing a decider. She took an early lead in that one too, and never looked back -- the "war" of words may have, to some degree, shifted momentum to the American's favor, but her comeback shouldn't have been unexpected, given Serena's recent indomitable level of play. Still, with her third title at the Family Circle Cup, on a surface that is far from her best, she's certainly put her name in real contention for the ultimate clay court crown -- if it wasn't there already.

The field may not have been as star-studded down in Monterrey, but that doesn't mean the stakes weren't as high. Here, too, was an opportunity for resurrections -- Monica Niculescu, down markedly from her career-high ranking achieved a little more than a year ago, made her way to the semis with wins over uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm and sixth-seeded Yanina Wickmayer -- and for breakthroughs -- young American Coco Vandeweghe scored a big win over world #11 Marion Bartoli before being ousted herself by nineteen-year-old Lauren Davis. But finally top seed Angelique Kerber, looking for her first title of the year, worked her way through the draw, needing three sets to get past both Alla Kudryavtseva and Maria Kirilenko in the semis. In the other half of the draw, two-time champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, having put together a middling 7-7 record on the year -- including five first round losses -- found a way to regroup. She didn't face a seed until the final, but won her first six sets of the event, facing a challenge only from Niculescu to make her second final of the year.

Kerber seemed to get the edge early in the pair's second meeting -- having lost in the Brisbane quarterfinals in two tiebreaks, the German broke in the first game of this final and held on to take the set. But Pavs regrouped in the second, winning nine games in a row to go ahead 5-0 in the decider. Kerber very nearly pulled off the comeback of the tournament, though, winning the next four games and drawing within a stone's throw of evening the match. But the Russian held tough again, winning the next game and, with it the match. Her record in Mexico now stands at 15-0, with three of her four trophies coming South of the Border. And while her success here hasn't yet translated into much for the rest of the clay court season, her performance this past week could set the stage for bigger things this time around.

Three-peats are big accomplishments in this sport, whether they come in sequential years or not, and both of these ladies made some big statements when they got their third trophies this week. If they can keep up their game, it seems they could find continued success on court throughout the spring, and those who thought they might be able to rest easy on clay might just have to sit up and take notice.

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