Saturday, April 5, 2014

The kids are alright

While the veterans--Serena Williams, Li Na, Flavia Pennetta, etc.--have taken over the tour lately, in Charleston, the upstarts are alive and well, thank you very much. Friday's quarterfinal action brought about the exits of Jelena Jankovic, Sara Errani and Daniela Hantuchova. They were shown the door by Genie Bouchard, Belinda Bencic and Jana Cepelova, respectively. Bouchard and Cepelova are 20; Bencic turned 17 last month.

Eugenie Bouchard (photo by Daniel Ward)

What's going on here? One thing that's going on is that some pretty talented young players (including Elina Svitolina, who lost to Bencic in the third round) showed up for the action. Also, the Family Circle Cup has a history of "star-making": Players do tend to break out during this hard court-to-clay court transition. It's a tradition.

Photo by Daniel Ward
In the case of Jankovic, who many thought would win the tournament again (she won it seven years ago and was the runner-up last year), it was a combination of a "bad day" and a tough opponent. Jankovic came out flat and lost the first set, as Bouchard kept pushing her back. In the second set, the Serbian star had to work awfully hard for the points, but she was able to break Bouchard--who had a bit of a lull--twice and win the set.

The third set was up for grabs, and Bouchard grabbed it. After Bouchard broke JJ to go up 3-2, she went up 30-15 and blurted out a very loud "Come on!" It felt like a turning point, and it probably was. The two then began pulling each other around the court in a very entertaining rally, which ended when Jankovic hit a forehand up the line, which Bouchard put into the net. But then, when JJ hit what looked like a perfect lob, it turned out that the ball went just over the line. Bouchard won on her second game point.

Jankovic then held, and then Bouchard held with a 106 mph ace. Jankovic was broken in her next game, which meant that Bouchard had won the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Later, Jankovic said she thought it was her movement that betrayed her. "...a lot of things had to depend on me," she said. "That's my fault that I did not move my feet or I did not turn to hit the ball clean. I was kind of flat and waiting for the ball to kind of come to myself, not that I move up and do the right thing."

That was a pretty good assessment of what happened. The 2nd seed went on to say that Bouchard's strength is that she stays low, takes the ball early "and just picks them up so easily and kind of directs them, and that's her biggest strength, that she can absorb someone's ball and just use it."

Later in the afternoon, Errani and Bencic came to the court, and qualifier Belinda Bencic--after she got settled down--put on a show that left the Italian star literally shaking her head in disbelief. An argument can be made that Errani wasn't herself; she came to the net less than one would expect, and she hit fewer drop shots than usual. But an argument can also be made that she wasn't herself because the Swiss teenager messed with her head.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
Bencic understands tactics, and one tactic she used throughout the match was to change the pace of her ball, sometimes in surprising ways, which included hitting a few soft, high shots down the line. Errani would get into a groove, then Bencic would destroy her rhythm. This is, of course, the Swiss Way. Bencic was also quite aggressive when she needed to be, and she took Errani out 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 in what was turned out to be an intriguing performance.

When she left the tunnel, Errani hopped into the cart to be driven to
the players' lounge. I happened to step outside at that moment, and I watched the cart move across the grounds while the Italian--one hand covering her face--shook her head repeatedly.

Not to be outdone, Jana Cepelova made pretty easy work of Daniela Hantuchova (6-2, 6-1) in the night match.

Cepelova may be having the most interesting experience of any player at the tournament. First, she got some instant fame by beating Serena Willams. But then she had to deal with shoulder pain. Her next job was to defeat 2011 finalist Elena Vesnina, but during that match, she had to contend with a calf injury. Friday morning, she said, she woke up "and I was, 'whew, I am physically dead'."

Jana Cepelova (photo by Daniel Ward)
There's more. Cepelova is alone at the tournament--no coach, no physio, no family members, no companions. Her coach went home after the Miami tournament, so Janette Husarova signed on to be her Charleston coach, but then Husarova went home. Cepelova is in touch with her coach via Skype and messaging, but she's on her own when it comes to dealing with her aches and pains and with the reality that she has reached the semifinals of a premier event. Asked if she would name anyone else to be her on-court coach, Cepelova replied, "I don't need it."

For someone who's exhausted and dealing with some physical tweaks, the young Slovak is moving awfully well and showing some great form. She took what looked like a nasty spill in tonight's match, falling backwards onto the court, but she rose immediately and signaled to the crowd that she was fine.

Photo by Daniel Ward
There was also a quarterfinal that didn't feature teenagers and almost-teenagers. Andrea Petkovic defeated 2012 runner-up Lucie Safarova 6-3, 1-6, 6-1. And while it pains many of us that we can no longer be entertained by Jankovic, Petko has done a rather nice job of stepping in to fill the void. After her quarterfinal match, the German player regaled the press with stories about her father's vanity and her bad poetry.

On a more serious note, Petkovic said that--since returning to the tour after having sustained some serious injuries--she has changed her training schedule to give herself more rest. Another major change, she noted, is that she now pays attention when she has pain, rather than toughing it out and not telling anyone or doing anything to treat it.

The last doubles quarterfinal was played tonight. Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova defeated 4th seeds Julia Goerges and Anna-Lena Groenefeld 6-1, 6-4.

A final word about youth: In Friday's Monterrey quarterfinals, being young got you a trip to the airport. 43-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm defeated 20-year-old Monica Puig 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.

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