August 10, 2015

Stealing the Spotlight

As the summer hardcourt season kicks into full gear, it's no surprise we saw so many of the sport's top women in action last week -- even with Serena Williams still recovering from an elbow injury and unable to defend her title in Stanford, nearly half of the players in the top twenty hit the courts. But ultimately it wasn't the top favorites who walked away with the titles -- and in one case, a first-timer make have just scored the breakthrough we've been waiting for.

The upsets at the Bank of the West Classic started pretty early. Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki, struggling a bit to keep the momentum from a successful 2014 season, lost her opening round to Varvara Lepchenko. And Carla Suarez Navarro, who broke into the top ten after an unexpected final run in Miami, lost her fourth match in a row in Stanford, this time dropping to world #59 Alison Riske. By the time we got to Sunday's final it was this year's breakout Karolina Pliskova facing off against under-the-radar Angelique Kerber. The more experienced German was the on-paper underdog in this fight, seeded fifth to her opponent's #4 spot -- but she had the advantage of a 3-2 record head-to-head, and after already beating two seeds during the week, was arguably more battle tested. In a break-filled match, Kerber eventually got the edge in the opening set, and even after the Czech pushed her to a third, stayed strong enough to score the win. It was, you may be surprised to hear, Angie's fourth trophy this year, making this her most prolific season despite the fact that she's still off her best ranking at #11. But with what's traditionally been her strongest stretch still ahead of her, she might make a play to climb even higher.

Over in Washington a couple ladies even further off the grid were able to shine. But even with defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova pulling out with injury early, the eventual finalists had to stage some big wins during their runs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, out of the top thirty for most of this year, was looking to end a slump which saw her lose to world #154 Patricia Maria Tig a week earlier in Baku and win only one Major match in 2015. In the second round she scored a solid win over Belinda Bencic, who'd won their only previous meeting, and came back after losing the opening set to Ekaterina Makarova before the top seed retired in the semis. The win earned the Russian her first final of the year, and a shot at picking up her eighth career title -- but she'd be foiled by an unlikely foe. American Sloane Stephens, once just a hair outside the top ten, with high-profile wins over the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus, and of course Serena Williams, had a tough time keeping up her performance last year and for a couple weeks in 2015 had fallen out of the top forty. She did score some big wins -- over Kerber in Indian Wells, Jelena Jankovic in Strasbourg -- but nevertheless came to DC without a seed. She's working to change that though -- after getting the walkover from Kuznetsova she stunned Sam Stosur in the semis and dropped just three games to Pavlyuchenkova in Sunday's final. The win gave her a nice boost in the rankings, but more importantly awarded her that long-awaited maiden trophy. And perhaps it's just the first of many.

Neither of this weekend's champions were expected to walk away with the titles, but with both scoring some big wins during the week, they each reminded us all of the damage they can do. And as we get closer to the final Grand Slam of the year, it might be time we see them up their games even more. After all now that they're back in our sights, pressure will be really on for them to deliver.

No comments: