Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That – The ATP Challenger Tour Finals

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What’s an offseason?

While most normal people stopped caring about tennis following the Czech Republic’s 3-2 win over Spain in the Davis Cup final, there is still action taking place on the ATP Challenger and Future circuits as well as the ITF women’s circuit. The *ahem* crown jewel of these events is the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, set to take place for the second consecutive year in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The event is a round robin competition and the top four competitors advance to the knockout stage of the tournament, much like the event’s big brother, the ATP World Tour Finals. The field is as follows:

Victor Hănescu, Romanian No. 1 and former World No. 26, qualified as the leader of the ATP Challenger Tour ranking. He won three Challenger titles in Szczecin, Banja Luka and Timisoara, and was the finalist in Sibiu, Bercuit and Arad.

Paolo Lorenzi enters the tournament on the back of his career high ranking, #63. A winner of two Challenger titles in Cordenons and Medellin, he was also a five-time finalist.

Aljaž Bedene won four Challenger titles at Wuhan, Kosice, Barletta and Casablanca – the most titles between the qualified players.

Guido Pella won three Challenger Tour titles at Campinas, Manta and Salinas. He also reached the final in Guayaquil and the semifinals in Rio de Janeiro and Lima.

Rubén Ramírez Hidalgo, the former World No. 50, won two Challenger titles in Tunis and San Luis Potosi, finished runner-up in Pereira.

Gastão Elias won his first ever Challenger title in Rio de Janeiro, and had three finalist showings at Caltanissetta, Porto Alegre and São Paulo.

Adrian Ungur reached six finals on the Challenger Tour, winning one title in Sibiu, and finishing as runner-up in Trnava, Brasov, Marrakech, Meknes and Bucaramanga.

and finally:

Thomaz Bellucci, Brazilian No. 1 who is currently ranked #33, received a wildcard to the ATP Challenger Tour Finals for the second straight year. He won a Challenger title in Braunschweig, but also won his third career ATP World Tour title in Gstaad, defeating Janko Tipsarevic and lost the final in Moscow to Andreas Seppi.

One of these things is not like the others.

Bellucci is an interesting case. He is the only player from Brazil to currently have an ATP ranking inside the top 100, and will no doubt be a boost for fan interest in the tournament. More fans equals more revenue. But the question remains: does he truly belong there? Fans and pundits alike asked the same question a few weeks ago on the WTA when Tsvetana Pironkova was awarded a wildcard to the WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia, despite having never won a WTA title; the Tournament of Champions will be held in Pironkova’s home country of Bulgaria for at least the next two seasons. These tournaments are hardly promoting the growth of the sport if they’re banking on one player to be their main source of revenue and to put fans in the seats.

The draw for the Challenger Tour Finals can be found below.

I don’t think that the Challenger Tour Finals is a bad idea in theory. Both the Challenger and Futures circuits are meant to be stepping stones to the ATP, whether it be a young player looking for a breakthrough or a veteran looking to return to the highest level. Why not reward those players who’ve dedicated themselves to that grind with an extra opportunity to pick up some cash and ranking points? My problem lies in this: why make a mockery of everything these events are supposed to represent by allowing Bellucci to compete in the “Challenger Tour Finals” despite having played only one Challenger event in 2012? In fact, what’s the point of top 50 players even playing Challenger events in the first place?

In the current top 50 of the ATP rankings, Fernando Verdasco (#24), Jerzy Janowicz (#26), Bellucci (#33), Fobio Fognini (#45),  David Goffin (#46), Benoit Paire (#47), Grigor Dimitrov (#48) and Marinko Matosevic (#49) all competed in one or more events on the ATP Challenger circuit this season. Feliciano Lopez (while being ranked inside the top 30) played two Challengers in 2011; he won one in Bogota and lost in the first round in the other in Orleans.

You can throw Goffin’s, Matosevic’s and Janowicz’s results out the window as they started the season ranked 174, 203 and 221 respectively, and one would expect to see Challenger tournaments on their schedule; the same can be said for Paire, who jumped from #96 to #66 in the ATP rankings after making the final in Belgrade in the early portion of the year. The scheduling for some can be validated; Istomin dropped his opening match at the Australian Open to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and competed in the Burnie Challenger, which was held during the second week of the Australian Open.

Verdasco is a former top 10 player with five career titles and his scheduling in particular is mind-boggling. The Prostejov Challenger was held the week of June 4th, on outdoor clay. It was also the only tournament Verdasco played in-between the French Open and Wimbledon. Not exactly the ideal grass court preparation. For the record, Verdasco lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Xavier Malisse.

Bellucci is a 2012 title-winner on the ATP Tour and Fognini made two ATP finals. If they’re going to bother to play these events for any combination of match practice, money or points, shouldn’t they give more than half a damn? Istomin gave Sam Groth (#788 at the time, currently #210) a walkover in the second round in Burnie. Verdasco dropped his opener in Prostejov to Marek Semjan, an unranked wildcard. Fognini lost his second match in Barletta to Matwe Middelkoop (#253). When looking through the results of these players, it turns out that these trips to Challenger events rarely even count on their ranking.

Of course, the coin has two sides. For example, Lorenzi is sitting at a career high ranking that is comfortably inside the top 100 largely because of his success in Challenger events. The Italian has been thoroughly outclassed on the ATP World Tour in his career, and amassed an 8-17 in ATP matches in 2012; his best results on the main tour were two R16 showings in Los Angeles and Houston, and he fell in the first round of all four Grand Slams. Nine of the 12 of Lorenzi’s other ‘best countable tournaments’ are Challenger events.

Bellucci has already proven himself to be a capable player. There is no reason why he should be competing in the Challenger Tour Finals with a little over a month until the start of the 2013 season. He just seems out of place, just like Verdasco in Prostejov and Lopez in Orleans. His inclusion in this event just seems like a slap in the face to the seven others who qualified on merit.

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina: Gisela Dulko Retires

I was prepared for a mass exodus in 2012. Kim Clijsters. Andy Roddick. Juan Carlos Ferrero. All legends that bid the sport we love adieu in 2012. However, while I was expecting the most recent announcement, I still can’t say I was prepared for it.

Dear friends,
I would like to share with you that I have come to an important life-decision. I am retiring from professional tennis. This was not an easy decision, despite the fact that it has been on my mind for quite some time…I gave tennis my total devotion. With all my energy and my love I achieved things I never believed possible. Along the long road, there were many great moments and some which were not so great. Today I am proud to say that I enjoyed my career so very much. All of my titles in singles and doubles will forever hold a very special place in my heart….

- Gisela Dulko, November  18th, 2012

Gisela Dulko first made a name for herself amongst tennis fans in 2004, when she defeated the then 47-year-old Martina Navratilova in back-to-back Grand Slams. Navratilova was looking to become the oldest player to ever win a singles match at a Grand Slam at Roland Garros that year, but was soundly defeated by the then 19-year-old Dulko in the opening round, 6-1, 6-3. It was her first Grand Slam main draw win. Navratilova said after the match that she would love to play Dulko on grass. She got her wish a few weeks later, as the two faced off in the second round of Wimbledon. Dulko triumphed again, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

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that’s a wrap! …The 2012 WTA Season in Review

WTA Championships: (4) Serena Williams d. (3) Maria Sharapova 64 63  

Tournament of Champions: (2) Nadia Petrova d. (1) Caroline Wozniacki 61 62

A week after Serena Williams thumped the field at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, Nadia Petrova’s victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of the Pironkova Invitational WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia, and the Czech Republic’s 3-1 victory over Serbia in the Fed Cup final, officially closed the book on the 2012 WTA season. Let’s take a look back at this season’s most memorable and/or cringeworthy moments. For the record, the two are not mutually exclusive.

To quote Anabel Medina Garrigues, “Hola Mr. Foo.” Remember when we thought he was just a phase?

There was dancing.

Also, candy.

Okay, there was *lots* of dancing.

My vote for WTA Newcomer of the Year: Marija Cicak. You dun mess. #fifteenthirt #umpiresarepeopletoo

In all seriousness, this was probably the best season on the WTA since 2009, and here’s why:

Five Things to Take Away from the 2012 WTA Season

1. We’ve got our own big three. While parity has run rampant on the WTA for the better part of the past five seasons, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams dominated the big events in 2012. Azarenka, to her credit, has restored some of the credibility back to the #1 ranking. The 23-year-old Belarusian won her maiden slam at the Australia Open, started the season 26-0 (the best start to a WTA season since Martina Hingis in 1997), picked up five other titles and bagged two medals at the London Olympics. Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros and went undefeated on red clay in 2012. The Russian suffered only one loss in three-set matches (to Azarenka in the US Open semifinals) and also finished runner-up in Australia, at the Olympics and at the Year-End Championships. Williams had arguably here best season since 2002, taking home the Wimbledon and US Open titles as well as the Olympic gold medal. While Williams amassed an 8-0 record against Azarenka and Sharapova in 2012, the fact that she could not end the season higher than #3 in the world is a testament to the stellar years put together by both Azarenka and Sharapova.

2. The young guns are coming. The WTA has moved away from the 15 and 16 year-old prodigies we were accustomed to seeing in the ’90s and early ’00s. In fact, players have been peaking later in their careers, as evidenced by Li Na, Samantha Stosur and Francesca Schiavone taking home major titles in their late 20s over the past two years. In 2012, however, 13 players in the year-end top 100 are 21 years of age and younger, and six of them are teenagers. Three of them (Kiki Bertens, Bojana Jovanovski & Camila Giorgi) will turn 22 in December. Six of these players took home their first career WTA titles in 2012, (Jovanovski, Bertens, Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, Heather Watson, Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos) while Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens and Laura Robson have all had their breakthroughs in Grand Slam events. The youngest player in the year-end top 100 in Germany’s Annika Beck (DOB: 02/16/1994), who was the junior Roland Garros champion and a six-time title winner on the ITF Circuit. Keep an eye out for Donna Vekic, who very well could’ve been the seventh teenager on this list. Vekic, at the tender age of 16, reached her first career WTA final in Tashkent in 2012 (l. to Begu).

3. You can’t keep a good woman down. There were several feel-good, comeback stories on the WTA this season. Yaroslava Shvedova started the year ranked No. 208, and finished 2012 ranked No. 25; Shvedova’s career has long been frought with injuries, and she had previously made the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2010. Along the way, Shvedova reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros (again) and came the closest of the field to defeating Serena at Wimbledon. Oh, and of course, there was that little history-making matter of the Golden Set. In upsetting Errani at Wimbledon, Shvedova won all 24 points of her first set bagel; she was only the second player in the history of tennis to do so. LIKE EVER. Alisa Kleybanova returned to the WTA cancer-free. The Russian returned to the court at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami after a 10-month battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Although her return was brief, as she did not play another event in 2012 to focus on getting back into competing shape, she defeated Johanna Larsson before falling to Maria Kirilenko in the second round. Kleybanova has made a full return in 2013 her priority. Of course, let’s not forget Venus Williams, who continues to inspire and amaze us all. Venus won her first WTA title in two and a half years with a win in her final event of 2012 in Luxembourg; her 44th career title was her first since being diagnosed with  Sjögren’s syndrome.

4. [cliché]Hard work pays off[/cliché]. It’s hard not to respect what Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber have achieved this year. Both ended the year in the top 10 as the highest ranked players from their nations and made their debuts at the WTA Championships; Kerber ended the year at No. 5 while Errani ended one spot behind her at No. 6. Errani reached the Roland Garros final, the semifinals at the US Open and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, while taking home six titles. Kerber won her  first two WTA titles in 2012 and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. If we’re going to talk about hard work, we also have to show some love to Roberta Vinci, who reached her career high ranking in singles (at age 29) this season and reached her first grand slam quarterfinal in singles at the US Open. She and Errani took home two grand slam titles in doubles and ended the year as the #1 team in the world.

5. Crossroads and questions. Many of the WTA’s household names face serious questions about their futures heading into next season. Russian team stalwarts Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva struggled the majority of the season with injuries after taking home the doubles title at the Australian Open; Kuznetsova ended the season No. 72 and Zvonareva fell to No. 95. Italian veterans Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta are also question marks heading into next year; Pennetta, who missed out on all action after the Olympics due to wrist surgery, has already announced she will continue to play in 2013. Schiavone, 32, finished the year at her lowest year-end ranking since 2002. Schiavone’s year was one to forget, as she did not win back-to-back matches after Wimbledon. Caroline Wozniacki finished 2012 at No. 10 with two titles to her name, a far cry from the six titles she bagged in 2012 and her year-end #1 ranking. Despite showing some better form post-US Open, Wozniacki has some decisions to make. Coaching partnerships with Ricardo Sanchez and Thomas Johansson were colossal failures in 2012, and each time, she returned back to father Piotr as coach. Piotr Wozniacki proclaimed that they would ‘return to basics’ to bring Wozniacki back to form. Azarenka and Radwanska, Wozniacki’s closest rivals in age, made substantial improvements in 2012, Wozniacki stalled and even regressed.  Jelena Jankovic was reduced to tears in the Fed Cup trophy ceremony, having went 0-2 in her singles matches in the Fed Cup final, winning a combined seven games. Jankovic spoke to Serbian press following the tie, stating she has plans to retire from Fed Cup participation next season. Is it the beginning of the end for Jankovic? Only time will tell.

So that’s it! 2012’s been fun, and I’ll bet 2013 will be even better.

Have a good offseason ladies, you’ve earned it.

Actually wait. See you in less than two months.

Fed Cup Finals Preview

Czech Republic vs. Serbia: O2 Arena, Prague, Czech Republic

Czech Republic: Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka (Sub: Klara Zakopalova)

Serbia: Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Bojana Jovanovski, Aleksandra Krunic

It’s that time of year again – the 2012 Fed Cup final is upon us. The 2012 edition will pit the defending champions, the Czech Republic against Serbia, who are making their first appearance in the Fed Cup finals.

The x-factor in this tie is Petra Kvitova. The World No. 8, who went 2-0 in the Fed Cup final in 2011, has had a somewhat disappointing year plagued by injuries and illness following her breakout year in 2011. Kvitova, who was forced to withdraw from the WTA Championships as defending champion after just one match with bronchitis, was not cleared to practice by her doctors until Wednesday. When healthy, Kvitova is a force indoors – her loss to Radwanska at the WTA Championships was her first loss on indoor hard courts in more than a year.

Due to the question marks surrounding Kvitova, much of the pressure for the hosts falls on the shoulders of Lucie Safarova. Safarova will open singles play on Saturday against Ana Ivanovic, who she leads 3-2 in head-to-head meetings. Safarova has won three straight matches against Ivanovic, the last coming in the quarterfinals in Sydney in January. Her head-to-head against Jelena Jankovic is a much different story, as the Serb hold a 5-1 advantage. It’s going to be crucial to Czech hopes for Safarova to get them off to a good start in the opening match.

The Serbian squad is not without their own issues. Ivanovic is entering the tie suffering from lingering right hip issues, an injury she sustained in her final tournament of the year in Moscow. Despite the injury, Ivanovic is coming off her best season in singles since 2008; she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open, her first appearance at that stage since winning Roland Garros in 2008. She will also finish the year ranked World No. 12, her highest ranking since dropping out of the top 10 in 2009. And Jankovic? Sometimes I wonder if Jelena is really a tennis player anymore. Jankovic did not win a title in 2012, nor did she make it past the fourth round at any Grand Slam. However, Jelena tends to show up for Fed Cup. She’s 3-0 in her Fed Cup matches this year, and was just awarded her second Fed Cup Heart Award.

If the tie comes down to the doubles, no doubt the Czechs would have the advantage. Hlavackova/Hradecka won the 2011 French Open title, and were runners-up at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Year-End Championships in 2012. They also took home a silver medal at the London Olympics, as they fell to the Williams sisters in straight sets. While Serbia has Krunic/Jovanovski listed on paper, Dejan Vranes could also go with Krunic/Jankovic. Hlavackova and Hradecka are the #3 and #4 doubles players in the world while Krunic is ranked #335 and Jovanovski is ranked #1067. Despite all odds, I think this rubber could be the most interesting of them all.

Regardless of her partner, Aleksandra Krunic has to see action at some point in this tie. The 19-year-old Krunic is a bit of a Fed Cup wonder; while she’s struggled in a sense to make her breakthrough on the WTA tour (she’s currently ranked 167 and made her first WTA quarterfinal in Baku this year, losing to….Jovanovski), she’s shone brightly when thrust into the pressure cooker of Fed Cup. What Krunic lacks in size, as she can’t be taller than 5’4”, she makes up for in heart and incredible doubles prowess. Her reactions are my favorite thing in tennis. Krunic and Jovanovski have vastly out-performed their doubles rankings in high-pressure Fed Cup situations. Observe.

Exhibit A: Krunic and Jovanovski led a Jankovic and Ivanovic-less Serbia past Canada in the 2011 World Group II Quarterfinal, securing Serbia’s place in the World Group Playoffs last year.

Exhibit B: Krunic (partnering Jankovic) singlehandedly saved two match points in what became a 26 75 97 win over Slovakia in the deciding rubber of the World Group Playoffs in 2011 on the road.

Krunic and Jovanovski also clinched victory for Serbia over Belgium in the 2012 World Group First Round with a 76(2) 46 61 win over Wickmayer/Van Uytvanck, also on the road.

If I’m Vranes, I’d go out on a limb and stick with Krunic and Jovanovski. Granted, they’ve never been in *this* big of a situation before, but the pair have clinched two ties for this team in the past 18 months. Considering Serbia is a huge underdog in the doubles rubber anyway, how can it hurt?