Belgians set the pace for 2010

10 01 2010

After a ridiculously long absence of at least six weeks, the new tennis season has arrived with a bang! 2010 opened with tournaments in Brisbane and Auckland and both were won by Belgian players, Kim Clijsters and Yanina Wickmayer respectively.

The main focus this week has been the return of Justine Henin after 18 months out of the game and she didn’t disappoint, finally succumbing to Clijsters in the Brisbane final on a third set tie-break. Henin saw off Nadia Petrova in her first match and also took care of Sesil Karatantcheva and, after a tense battle, Melinda Czink before dispatching Ana Ivanovic without too much trouble. In the final against Clijsters the bar was raised in a rollercoaster match which saw Clijsters take a 6-3, 4-1 lead and appear certain for a comfortable win. Henin had different ideas and won the next eight games to take the second set and establish a 3-0 lead in the third, before herself collapsing as Clijsters fought back. Almost inevitably it went to a tie-break after Henin failed to finish off two match points in the final set, and the breaker was as giddy as the match itself; Clijsters took a 4-0 lead, then 5-1, but Henin clawed back to 6-6 before producing a double fault to give Clijsters match point on her own serve, and Clijsters screamed with joy for a second before a line judge called ‘out’ on what seemed a perfectly good ball. At that point it would have been very harsh for Clijsters to be denied but she wrapped the match up moments later, taking the tiebreak 8-6. Disappointing for Henin but just getting to the final in her first tournament back was a huge achievement.

So what next? Well, Henin has pulled out of this weeks tournament in Sydney citing a leg injury which she wants to rest, which makes sense. At times this week she has looked rusty, other times phenomenal so it’ll be great when she’s back in the groove of the Tour.

In Auckland it was Belgian youngster Yanina Wickmayer who triumphed, beating Flavia Pennetta in the final. Wickmayer, who was facing a one year ban just a month ago, couldn’t prepare properly for the new season of course as she didn’t know whether she’d be able to compete, but looked superb in her first tournament of the year. Pennetta also looked to be going with all guns blazing, playing some awesome tennis until the final, when she seemed unable to do anything right. Wickmayer will next have to qualify for the Australian Open despite being ranked No. 16 in the world, due to the issues surrounding her ban, so you have to pity the poor bollocks who draws her in qualifying.

Other notes from the tournaments this week, based mainly on my own interests… Alize Cornet is showing signs of getting over the slump of last year, beating Erakovic and Vesnina pretty comfortably before going out to feisty Italian Francesca Schiavone. She started this week in Hobart with a 6-1, 6-0 thrashing of Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru.

Shahar Peer was the subject of a small protest in Auckland. The group, which I think consisted of about seven people, stood at the entrance to the tournament during her matches and called through a megaphone for the Israeli to withdraw from the tournament due to the government of her country. Peer didn’t seem to mind though and progressed to the semi finals before bowing out to Wickmayer in straight sets. The only player that seemed to be affected by the protest was Magdalena Rybarikova who was visibly shaken and seemed to agree that her match against Peer should be abandoned – well done protestors, Magdalena thanks you for ruining her tournament.

So where the hell were the rest of the top players in the opening week of the season? Hong Kong, playing an exhibition tournament which I’m not even going to bother going into. Rumours that none of them fancied playing Clijsters or Henin remain unconfirmed, but Serena Williams, Dementieva, Sharapova, Safina, Azarenka, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, Zvonareva and Jankovic will all be competing this week in Sydney. Venus Williams, however, decided that one exhibition tournament is more than enough preperation for the Australian Open and is putting her feet up somewhere – please, don’t suggest it’s because she’s not going to go far in the AO. Last year’s exit to the always-enigmatic Carla Suarez Navarro won’t be repeated.

So, Sydney and Hobart will lead us up to the AO, hopefully it’ll be another good week for the WTA but I suspect it’ll be littered with retirements and withdrawals as we approach the first Slam of the year one week from now – roll on!


Alizé Cornet: A Year to Forget

19 07 2009

Last month during my time in Eastbourne I walked along the promenade trying to find a suitable place to meet my Dad the next day. We’d chosen a place on the map called Western Lawns and it was this area that I was going to check out; when I arrived I found a stretch of cut grass just off the seafront, used for football kickabouts and other informal activities. On this morning I saw Alizé Cornet exercising on the grass, with a few men nearby who I presume were her coaching staff/ friends. Alizé looked in great shape, lithe and muscular, and it saddened me to know that she had lost her first round match the previous day, against fellow French player Virginie Razzano. This young woman had a terrific breakthrough year in 2008 and in early 2009 was loitering just outside of the top ten in the rankings.  As of today, she has slipped to number 28. So what has gone wrong this year for Alizé Cornet?

Her great run started at the end of February 2008 in Acapulco, Mexico, when Cornet reached the final only to lose to Italian clay-court specialist Flavia Pennetta.  In April she reached the semi-final of another clay event in Amelia Island, USA, losing to Dominika Cibulkova. In Charleston the following week she reached another semi-final before being defeated by Serena Williams. By now Cornet was getting a reputation herself of being a particularly good clay court player, perhaps no great surprise as she had triumphed at junior level in the French Open in 2007.

Alizé reached her biggest stage yet in the WTA when she reached the final in Rome, only to again suffer heartbreak, this time against Jelena Jankovic, the Serb who would end the year ranked number one in the world. But this tournament featured her most impressive draw to date as she took out Schiavone, Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze on the way to meeting Jankovic in the final. Her French Open hopes were dashed in the third round though as she lost in straight sets to fellow young star Agnes Radwanska.

In July last year Alizé took her first and only tour title, winning the clay tournament in Budapest. The following month she took part in the Olympics in China but met Serena Williams in her third match and lost in three sets. This was followed by another semi-final appearance, this time on hard courts in New Haven, where she lost to Caroline Wozniacki, the young Dane who has made great strides herself over the past year. After a third round exit at the US Open she saw out the remaining two months of the year without going deep in any tournament, though she did lose against players such as Elena Dementieva, Ana Ivanovic, Amelie Mauresmo and Vera Zvonareva.

2009 began without any real signs of the disappointments that were to come for Alizé, as she lost in Sydney and at the Australian Open to Dinara Safina, who would reach the final of both tournaments and later take the number one ranking. The first alarm bells were perhaps during the Fed Cup in February when Alizé lost both her matches, to Italians Pennetta and Schiavone. Third round exits in Paris and Dubai were easily explained as they came against Jankovic and Venus Williams respectively, but she went out of Indian Wells in her first match, losing in straight sets to 83rd ranked Kristina Barrois. In Miami two weeks later Cornet lost in her second match to Jie Zheng – the second set was a ‘bagel’, as Zheng won 6-4 6-0. But the clay season was next up in the calendar and surely this would be the time when her fortunes took a turn for the better once more. It was not to be though as she lost her first match in Barcelona to Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, bagelled again in the first set as she lost 6-0 6-3.

The Fed Cup Play-Offs were to follow, on clay, but Cornet lost both matches to Slovakian opposition, first Daniela Hantuchova and then to Cibulkova. Hantuchova beat Alizé easily in their 1st Round match in Stuttgart and by this time her confidence must have been really beginning to suffer. A 2nd Round exit in Rome to Kateryna Bondarenko was followed up by a first round loss to Elena Vesnina in Madrid, both matches featuring 6-1 scorelines in the second set. In the 2nd Round of the French Open Alizé lost 6-3 6-2 to Romanian Sorana Cirstea, ranked 41 in the world, and then the grass season introduced itself at Eastbourne where she lost to Razzano the day before I saw her on the Lawns. Wimbledon brought no happiness for Cornet either as she lost her first round match to Vera Dushevina in three sets, taking another bagel in the process.

Last week Alizé returned to the scene of her only tour success, taking part in the clay tournament in Budapest. She won her first match against Voskoboeva before crashing out at the hands of Shahar Peer, 6-2 6-0. This week she took part in Palermo and came up against Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her first match – she lost 6-2 6-2.  All of these poor scorelines in the second set indicate that she’s going into matches without really believing she can win, and once the first set is lost she seems to lose hope completely.

So where does this leave Alizé Cornet? Last year she made great progress and earned herself a reputation as a very dangerous clay court player. This year everything seems to have fallen apart, including her clay court game. Are we talking a lack of confidence, a bad run of results which has led to the loss of confidence in her own game, and in turn has led to further poor showings? We’ll soon be heading to the US for hardcourt tournaments and I hope that Alizé can find some wins and get her game back to the place it was not too long ago – that of a rising star, a young woman in great shape, with a healthy outlook and making herself an opponent to be feared. Whether that involves changing some aspect of her game to give her a new weapon she can take confidence in, or whether she just needs a good run in a tournament, to beat a couple of big players, I don’t know. I think it’s fair to say just by looking at her that she isn’t letting herself go. This coming week she heads to Austria as the No. 1 seed for Bad Gastein; if the form of 2009 is to ring true, her seeding is a false one and she will be out of the tournament by Tuesday evening, but I’d like to see her have a great run to give herself a boost before she heads to the US. Fingers crossed for Alizé!