July 29, 2015

A Shot at the Spotlight

With the women's start of the U.S. Open Series still a few days away, this isn't a huge week for the ladies of tennis -- in fact no one in the top forty is playing either of the two WTA level events being held this week*. But that doesn't mean the players on court don't have a big chance to make a name for themselves -- a couple who've earned seeds for the first time in their careers have a shot at shining as a favorite, while others, out to take advantage while the cats are away, could really tear some big holes in the draws.

At the Brasil Cup in Florianopolis, a talented Tatjana Maria -- she beat Genie Bouchard in Miami -- took the top seed, but was ousted by often overlooked Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor. The winning Spaniard has struggled a bit since breaking the seal last year in Marrakech, but with a quarterfinal set against an on-the-mend Anastasia Sevastova, stands a good shot at making a run to at least the final four. Her bigger threat lies a little ways down the road, when she's slated to meet fourth seed Teliana Pereira in the semis. The Brazilian put together a nice win streak on clay earlier in the year, following up an ITF trophy in Medellin with a Tour title in Bogota. Just a hair off her best ranking, she's gotten wins over Tamira Paszek, Francesca Schiavone and Elina Svitolina already this year, and could have homefield advantage during her run here. But perhaps the best opportunity lies with Germany's Annika Beck -- the twenty-one year old, who picked up her first championship in Luxembourg last year, has had some ups and down this year, but she took a set off Simona Halep in Shenzhen and stunned Aga Radwanska in her French Open first round. No one in her half of the draw has a singles crown to her name -- fifth seed Bethanie Mattek-Sands may have won a couple Major doubles, but she's still in triple digits on her own -- and with everyone expected to beat her already out of contention, Beck might just be able to ride the wave to a title.

Things have been even more interesting in Baku, where former Grand Slam champ Francesca Schiavone and last year's Aussie finalist had the potential to outplay their sub-fifty rankings and get their years back on track -- but neither was able to make it out of the first round. Instead Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is left to carry the torch for the favorites -- the top seed has fallen to #42 in the world on the heels of a couple early exits at the Majors and only one quarterfinal showing so far this year. And there will be plenty of players out there looking to keep her from advancing much farther -- Donna Vekic, last year's titleist in Kuala Lumpur, has been trying to recapture that glory all year long, playing qualifying rounds at ITF events and falling well out of the top hundred, but she opened her run in Azerbaijan with a win over Schiavone and followed up with a win over Lin Zhu. She'll face one of two qualifiers in the next round, though, and if she's back in form could make a nice Cinderella run here. And Russia's Alexandra Panova, who came oh-so-close to defeating Maria Sharapova in Melbourne, could make a run here too -- after beating doubles specialist Andrea Hlavackova earlier today, she'll likely face feisty Nürnberg champ Karin Knapp in the quarters. The Italian is far from an easy mark, but she's played a lot of tennis recently and Panova might just be able to take advantage.

While the spoils may not seem that great at these lesser-profile events, with the fields as wide open as they are, there's no denying that there's a lot of opportunity for everyone in the running. And whoever can take advantage might just set herself up for some even bigger rewards down the road.

* World #25 Jelena Jankovic has the top seed at a 125K event in Nanching. The second seed there is #66 Saisai Zheng, and number three is ranked out of the top hundred. While she certainly could be tested this week, it seems pretty important that she walk away with a trophy.

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