June 14, 2013

Getting Warmer

This is always a tricky time in the tennis schedule -- just a few days after the clay court season officially ends and with little over a week before the big grass event of the year, players may not choose to get in their practice matches where you'd expect. But a couple ladies, whether they spent recent days on the dirt or made the transition to turf, have not only been warming up this week, but may have been turning red hot.

The inaugural N├╝rnberg Cup attracted a couple top-snotch stars back to the red clay, with recently resurgent Jelena Jankovic leading the pack. But second seed Klara Zakopalova didn't make it out of the first round, and a couple other favorites couldn't last much longer. Jankovic herself, fresh off an impressive run to the quarters at the French Open, squandered an early lead today and fell in the semis to Andrea Petkovic. The German, who failed to qualify in Paris, snuck in a Futures title in Marseille before heading back to her homeland and took no prisoners from the moment she took to the court. She opened with a win over always tricky Sofia Arvidsson and dismissed two seeds in a row before ousting JJ. The win today grants Petko entry to her first Tour final since taking the title in Beijing almost two years ago and may have sealed in her return to elite play. If she can keep it up, she might be able to cause quite a stir in the London draws.

But perhaps young Romanian Simona Halep will have something to say about that. One of the breakout stars of 2011, she had a rough ride in the second half of last year, winning just a handful of matches after reaching the Brussels final in May. She's rebounded a bit recently, beating five higher-ranked players in a row in Rome -- she notched a one-and-one drubbing of Svetlana Kuznetsova and avenged her loss in Belgium to fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska to make the semis. And this week in Germany she's made up for an opening round exit in Paris -- Halep didn't drop a set in her first three matches, and despite dropping a middle bagel to fifth-seeded Lucie Safarova earlier today, she rebounded to take the match in just under two hours. It'll be the twenty-one year old's fourth career final -- she's still looking for that first trophy -- and her second meeting with Petkovic. She lost the first time they met, but might be able to take advantage if the one-time top-tenner loses any of her momentum.

Over in Birmingham, the contestants made the switch to the surface of early summer and are getting in their first rallies on grass in preparation for Wimbledon. Not everyone's had the start they wanted -- Ekaterina Makarova, who won her only title on Eastbourne's lawns in 2010, lost her opener, and defending champion Melanie Oudin didn't come close to repeating her run -- but a couple ladies have looked a little more than solid. Magdalena Rybarikova, champion here in 2009, topped top seeded Kirsten Flipkens on her way back to the semis and former world #5 Daniela Hantuchova took out three seeded players, including 2010 French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, during her run here.

But the brighter stars in England might be those of far less-decorated athletes. Alison Riske, yet to crack the top hundred, has made the semis here before, and has already ousted grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek. So far today she's taken a set off a struggling Sabine Lisicki, but will have to come back in a decider if she's going to pull off the win. And not-yet-legal Donna Vekic -- she turns seventeen later this month -- had a breakout last September in Tashkent, where she reached the final as a qualifier. She's had no such high-profile runs in 2013, but did win an ITF title in Istanbul this past April. So far in Birmingham the Croatian reversed a loss in Monterrey to Urszula Radwanska and trounced third seed Sorana Cirstea earlier today in just over an hour. Both ladies will have a tough time from here on out, but their performances on these lawns to date prove they may have what it takes to keep going strong.

Whether this week's results provided the necessary prep for the challenges to be faced at Wimbledon is yet to be seen, but these ladies have certainly performed under pressure so far this week. There's not a lot of time, of course, to get ready for the Major and every win they're toting up now will lay the groundwork for miles.

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