Main Draw Day 1
The Minnesota Challenger is different this year. Not just a new site (though the new location means that I can't watch more than one match at a time; the old site had the main court and #2 court back-to-back, so you could sneak peeks at the other court between points). It's a fairly new field, too. Many players who played in 2001 were back in 2002. Not this time. Maybe the weather scared them off (though in fact winter is probably the best time to play in Minnesota: You know it's cold. In summer, you might face extreme heat or rain or almost anything). It's largely a new group in 2003. Last year's finalist Stanislava Hrozenska is here, but neither previous winner is back; 2002 champion Els Callens has seen her ranking rise enough that she's playing all WTA events, and 2001 champion Dawn Buth is off the rankings; 2001 finalist Yvette Basting has only three events left on her record after injury and is down to #1136. It's a tough life, the Challenger circuit.
Of course, that lets me see even more players I hadn't seen before. Though it appears to be a slightly weaker field than last year; in 2002, the lowest entrants were around #180; this year, several players around #225 were getting in. Strange week, given that they couldn't fill Scottsdale qualifying either.
The first match I saw pitted Tiffany Dabek of the United States against Francesca Lubiani of Italy. It's hard to believe that Lubiani is only 25; she peaked almost six years ago, falling just short of the Top 50. She came here ranked #201. But Dabek was #225.
If you just read about Lubiani's "vital statistics" (left-handed, two-handed on both sides), she sounds like Monica Seles. But, of course, she doesn't have anything like that much power. Her serve was rather shaky, especially at the start of the match; she hit three lets in the first five points. She was called for two foot faults as well. She gives the clear air of a clay player. Like most two-handers, she can sometimes be induced to hit a one-handed forehand. She also has a tendency toward strange shots where she sort of half-blocks the ball; most of these occurred on returns, but also on groundstrokes. They were actually rather effective, because they floated all over the place.
Dabek is much more conventional: Right-handed, two-handed backhand. Standard-model player. Her serve was rather shaky, too -- not so much inaccurate as lacking in power. She seemed fairly quick, though.
The match was just plain strange. Both players faded in and out. The first seven games were very long, but server held each time, making it 4-3 Lubiani. Then Dabek came unglued. Game eight featured the best point of the match so far: Dabek served, came in on about the sixth stroke of the rally. Lubiani forced her back with a lob, Dabek worked her way in again, Lubiani hit a short lob, Dabek hit the overhead right to her -- and Lubiani dumped it into the net. But, somehow, that disheartened Dabek, not Lubiani. Lubiani broke, and it was 5-3. At this point a ball was removed from play, leaving them with only three (Challengers, or at least this Challenger, play with only four balls, and change them at games nine and eleven; it's different on other surfaces, of course.) But the next game was short. A drop dead net cord gave Lubiani set point, and a solid serve drew a weak return; she won the set 6-3. Whereupon Dabek took a bathroom break.
Which didn't help; Lubiani proceeded to win the first four games of the next set (a total of seven straight); Dabek was getting sloppy, and seemed to have lost her gameplan; in game three she managed only one point on serve. But after many, many deuces, she held in game five. She then broke, and it was Lubiani looking grumpy. Dabek broke to make it 4-2 after Lubiani foot-faulted on first serve and then made a double fault. Dabek held, with Lubiani starting to question the umpire's own calls. (Some of them were questionable; that's inevitable with the umpire calling the baseline. But this one looked correct to me. Though it was across the court from me.) Lubiani managed to hold for 5-3, but in the next game, she made four unforced errors (including one in a point where she had Dabek way off the court) and a weak return on a good Dabek serve. 5-4 Lubiani. In the next game, Lubiani managed one clean winner but four groundstroke errors and it was 5-5. Lubiani wanted a call in the next game, and didn't get it; the game went to deuce but Dabek held. Lubiani, serving to stay in the set, won the first point but lost the next four, and it was 7-5 Dabek.
The third set consisted of Lubiani doing her best to vanish. Dabek held for 1-0, broke at love for 2-0, held at love with an ace for 3-0. Lubiani was spraying everything long; Dabek broke at love for 4-0. Dabek hit an ace for 30-0, and Lubiani earned a warning for racquet abuse (she kept pounding the court, though). After another sprayed return, it was 5-0 Dabek. Lubiani didn't even bother sitting down for the changeover; she just stood there muttering to herself. She earned the first point when Dabek hit a return long, but then double-faulted and produced three groundstroke errors. Dabek, who at one point had lost seven straight games, won the last eight, and the match, 3-6 7-5 6-0.
What that says about the players must be left as an exercise for the readers.
Next up was an all-Canadian contest between Vanessa Webb and Marie-Eve Pelletier. These two were both here last year. At that time, Webb was coming back from injury, and barely made it to the main draw as a lucky loser. This time, she came in as the #3 seed.
I've heard Webb called the last serve-and-volleyer on the WTA Tour, and certainly she has the mechanics of a netrusher: Left-handed, tall and not fast, with a one-handed backhand that she can chip. But while she showed willingness to come to net, she stayed back on most of her second serves and a lot of her first, usually waiting several strokes before coming in; in the early going, it seemed as if Pelletier (a more standard player: Right-handed, with a two-handed backhand) was charging the net more.
I have to think that Webb could be a better player if she didn't hit over the ball so much on her serve. She hit some into the bottom of the net, and made a lot of faults. She has the height to have a big serve, but she didn't look like she was really hitting all that hard (there is, of course, no radar gun). And this should be a nice, fast surface for her -- indoors (though a hardcourt), at a higher elevation than most WTA events, with very dry, cold air (Webb and Pelletier, who are Canadians after all, took off their warmup clothes quickly, but several other players waited until well into the match, and I saw several players, including Australian Bryanne Stewart, conduct a whole practice session without taking off their warmups. One appeared to keep a winter jacket on the whole time). But Webb's serve simply wasn't a weapon in this match; both players were pressured on their serves.
Another curiosity was the sound of Webb's shots. I suspect she has her racquet strong very loose; it made a much more hollow sound than most of the other women's -- almost like a mishit. This seemed especially true on her backhand, but even her forehand had a bit of a "thunk" in it.
One little mystery I never managed to solve was why Webb put on a cap in game three. I had no trouble seeing balls against the ceiling, and her eyes are younger (and certainly far better) than mine.
The match was extremely tight, with both players running all over the place, coming in and retreating; quite a few points went a dozen or more. I have to suspect that some of the points ended because the players ran out of gas -- Pelletier in particular would play a fine point, and be in position for a winner, and hit a stupid error. And the games were even longer than the points. Pelletier's second service game went, I think, five deuces, and her fourth went eight or nine. The quick games were often the breaks: Webb broke in game five of the first set, Pelletier broke back in game eight. I couldn't help but think that both were just a little short of being really good -- but that their slight sloppiness was costing them dearly. Pelletier earned the last break of the first set to win it 7-5. By that time, both were stretching a bit; that's how long the set was. I also saw Webb practicing her splitstep the way most players practice a shot after muffing it. Then, as Pelletier took a bathroom break at the end of the first set, Webb started practicing volleys. It didn't help much; on the first point of the second set, she hit a gimmee way long, and three points later muffed another to help Pelletier hold to start the second.
Webb held for 1-1, then the four traded four straight breaks. Pelletier was throwing her racquet in game five, but she held together well enough. From 3-3, everyone held, though often with difficulty, until 6-5, with Webb having to hold to force a tiebreak. Webb served and volleyed on the first point, hit three volleys straight to Pelletier, then missed volley #4. 0-15. A Webb groundstroke wide made it 0-30. The third point saw Webb paint three lines (I thought all three balls were out, but no one called them), and Webb earned the point after Pelletier muffed a volley. 15-30. But Webb double-faulted, then allowed herself to be passed, and Pelletier had supplied the tournament's first upset, 7-5 7-5.
Just in case you think the WTA Tour is suffering from a shortage of pretty young Russians, you can add Maria Goloviznina to the list. She took on Maureen Drake in a match of right-handers. Both have two-handed backhands, but there is a big difference in style. Drake is willing to attack the net, and she looks strong ("burly" might even fit), but she isn't very tall and her serve isn't much of a weapon. Goloviznina is taller, but slight; she seems quite quick, and likes to scramble. She was wearing a bandage on her left wrist, but it didn't seem to bother her. Her one real problem seems to be her serve; she seems to be yet another victim of Russian Blonde Double Fault Disease, twice hitting five straight faults in the second set.
If you've ever seen Drake play (and she is a veteran, though she has spent most of her career in relatively low-level events), you know that she is quite the tennis commentator, quite willing to ask herself what is wrong with her own serve, or volley, or backhand. She threw her racquet in game 3 (in which she saved three break points but finally yielded), and was talking to herself (and anyone within earshot; if the chair umpires talked this loudly, we wouldn't need a sound system) by game five.
This match seemed really to come down to physical ability. Drake had the more varied game, with a willingness to attack and a big bag of shots. Goloviznina hugged the baseline (except when she was called for a foot fault), and acted very moody after errors, and rarely did anything except hit groundstrokes deep, but she could outhit and outrun -- especially outrun -- Drake. Goloviznina broke twice in the first set to Drake's one break, and won 6-4 (whereupon Drake threw her racquet again and was warned; really, that set wasn't as close as the score implies), and the Russian broke again in game one of the second set. Goloviznina showed her inexperience a few times (e.g. one of her strings of faults in game four of the second set gave Drake a break chance, which the Canadian eventually converted), but Goloviznina broke right back for 3-2, and held -- despite more double faults -- for 4-2. Then it was Drake's turn for a double-fault, this one on break point, giving Goloviznina a 5-2 lead. Goloviznina held routinely for a 6-4 6-2 win, and the #2 seed was out. For a player with only four WTA events, and a 3-4 record, Goloviznina looked pretty good. And she looks like she would be even better on clay (her first WTA win was at Roland Garros last year).
Perhaps the saddest result came in doubles qualifying. Rika Hiraki is a doubles specialist now, and was last year's finalist here, but she hooked up with a new partner and they had to play qualifying. And she lost. A very expensive trip for no results.... There was a "feel good" story, too, though, as cancer survivor Sonya Jeyaseelan managed to qualify.
Pictures of Webb and Goloviznina are available with the (unrevised) version of this story on the Tennis News web site.