September 27, 2015

Never Too Late

This hasn't always been the best season for all the ladies on Tour -- even when a couple stars seemed to have an opportunity to do something big, they seemed to fall just a little bit short when it counted. But luckily the year isn't quite over yet, and for a few players this week turned out to be one to put their careers back on course.

Irina-Camelia Begu has shown a lot of potential since the start of her career, but even after a breakout 2011 season, she never quite followed through. The other young Romanian did earn a title in Tashkent, but couldn't make much of a run at the Majors. She started out this year strong, strong, taking out Angelique Kerber in her Melbourne opener and going all the way to the fourth round. She got to the quarters in Charleston and Madrid too, and even scored a seed at the French Open, the first time she'd risen that high. She slowed down since then, though, upset by Olga Govortsova for the second time this summer in her U.S. Open first round. But she seems to have shaken that loss off pretty well -- this weak in Seoul she took terrific advantage of her top seed, only challenged once, dropping a set to Polona Hercog early on her way to the final. There she met super Cinderella Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a qualifier who'd already beaten Anna Schmiedlova and Sloane Stephens in Korea. But the Belorussian may have run out of steam on Sunday, and Begu was able to pounce -- breaking her opponent's serve six times she clinched the match in just under eighty minutes and picked up just the second trophy of her career. It should give a nice boost to her current #29 ranking, but more importantly might help her make a sustainable push into the top tiers of the sport. And there's no telling what she'll be able to do once she's there.

Jelena Jankovic has already had some major accomplishments during her career, reaching the final at the 2008 U.S. Open and holding onto the #1 spot for an impressive eighteen weeks -- that's only a week less than Victoria Azarenka and just three weeks short of Maria Sharapova. But those days sometimes feel very far behind us -- now the world #25, she made her way to the final at Indian Wells, but lost in the first round at Roland Garros, she picked up a 125K title in Nanchang and stunned Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati, but fell early again in New York, this time to sub-hundred Oceane Dodin. It had been more than two years since her last main Tour title when she took the court in Guangzhou as the fourth seed, and with players like Simona Halep and surprise Tokyo International champ Yanina Wickmayer in the field, the Serb had her work cut out for her. But after handling an always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters, she finally ended Wickmayer's win streak in the semis. Meanwhile in the top half of the draw, Denisa Allertova, ranked just seventy-fourth in the world, followed up a shocking win over Halep by taking out third seed Sara Errani to make her first Tour final. But Jankovic proved a little too much to handle -- after trading breaks early, the thirty-year-old rattled off a string of games and bageled her opponent in the second set. She may not have had to pull off any big upsets to claim her fourteenth career title, but breaking the seal should serve as a reminder of what she is still more than capable of doing.

The same can be said of Aga Radwanska, who was getting dangerously close to finishing the year outside the top ten for just the second time in eight years. The one-time world #2 started the year off huge with an exhibition win over Serena Williams, but seemed to struggle right after that -- early in the season she lost twice to both Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza and fell well short of her 2014 performance at Indian Wells with a third round loss in the California desert. Even when she looked strong to start an event, she'd end up crumbling -- in Katowice, her homeland's tournament, she sailed through her first three rounds but then was stopped short in the semis by Camila Giorgi, and even during her traditionally strong grass season, she was three times upset by players ranked well below her at the time. It was the first time since 2010 she'd gone so long in a year without a title. Ranked just thirteenth in the world at the start of the week, she was given a relatively low seventh seed at the crowded Pan Pacific Open, which boasted four top-ten players and eight seeds in the top fifteen. And Aga was challenged from the start -- she opened against Wimbledon Cinderella Coco Vandeweghe and went on to beat Karolina Pliskova and a resurgent Dominika Cibulkova, last year's runner-up at the Australian Open. In the final she faced off against Belinda Bencic, the woman who not only beat her in the Eastbourne final, but who also usurped her Rogers Cup title just last month -- the young Swiss may still have been seeded slightly below, but with a win over Serena in Toronto, she arguably has had the better year and might have been the favorite in Sunday's final. But this time Aga got the better of her, taking advantage of weak serving and scoring five breaks for herself. The win may have saved her from going titleless for the first time in five years, but with so many true powerhouses in the field, it might have also reminded us all of her place among the elite.

And with a couple more weeks left in the season, after all, we might just see her -- and any of these ladies, really -- make a play to get back there.

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