First Ball In, 7/14: Transition Time
Hard-court and clay-court tournaments share space on the calendar this week before the start of the U.S. Open Series, which leads up to the season's final Grand Slam in Flushing Meadows. While several top players are recovering from grass-court—and wedding—season, many of the rank-and-file are back on court making mid-summertime moves.
Defending champion Serena Williams' withdrawal bumps her Wimbledon and Dubai vanquisher, Alize Cornet, to the top spot here. Three of Cornet's four career titles have come on clay, but she's just 2-4 on dirt this season.
The 21st-ranked Frenchwoman can crack the Top 20 for the first time since 2009 with an extended run in the seaside resort town—if she can navigate players capable of making waves. Cornet could face two-time former champion Polona Hercog in the quarterfinals. The 58th-ranked Hercog, who was sidelined for nearly three months during the spring with a right rib injury, is undefeated in Bastad. No. 4 seed Yaroslava Shvedova, a two-time former French Open quarterfinalist and two-time doubles Grand Slam champion, and German Annika Beck, the 2012 Roland Garros girls' champion, are also threats to reach the top-half semis.
Fresh off her run to the Bad Gastein semifinals, 114th-ranked American Grace Min stunned second-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-0, 6-4, in the opening round. The 5'4" Min redirects pace effectively and was sharp striking down the lines last week. She will play the winner of an all-Alexandra clash—Cadantu or Panova—for a quarterfinal spot. No. 7 seed Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor opens against Julia Goerges in what could be a highly-competitive first-rounder. Since winning her first WTA title on clay in Marrakech, Torro-Flor has slumped in a 3-8 skid, including six opening-round exits. No. 3 seed Camila Giorgi, who has reached at least the quarterfinals in all three International-level events she's played this year, could face hard-hitting and erratic Mona Barthel for a quarterfinal spot in the bottom half.
The largest Turkish city returns to the regular-season schedule after a three-year break while hosting the year-end WTA Championships. And while Caroline Wozniacki should be comfortable back on hard court, her draw isn't exactly a welcoming party.
The former No. 1 opens against talented Belinda Bencic. The 17-year-old Swiss showed her potential playing through qualifying to reach the Charleston semifinals, but her second serve is suspect. Wozniacki has been trying to hit her first serve with more vigor. The former No. 1 is 11-4 in her last 15 hard-court matches. She could face No. 8 seed Karolina Pliskova, who has twice pushed Wozniacki to three sets, in the quarterfinals. Third-seeded Klara Koukolova is experienced, tough on fast surfaces, and already has 27 wins this year. No. 7 seed Bojana Jovanovski beat Wozniacki at Roland Garros last year and could face her in the semis, but has yet to beat the Dane on a hard court.
Roberta Vinci completed the career Grand Slam in doubles at Wimbledon, then lost to Simona Halep in the Bucharest final on Sunday. Playing on her third different surface in as many weeks, the second-seeded Italian opens against Anna Tatishvili and could be challenged early: Vinci owns a 2-10 hard-court record this season, including seven opening-round exits. Elina Svitolina has struggled lately, but the No. 4 seed has played her best on the hard stuff. Svitolina, who opens against either Stefanie Voegele or Tsvetana Pironkova, beat Vinci in Paris, 6-3, 0-6, 7-5 earlier this year. The 19-year-old, who has hard-court wins over Eugenie Bouchard, Sloane Stephens, and Svetlana Kuznetsova this year, could go deep in a wide open bottom half, which features five qualifiers.
The son of a meteorologist, 6'11" Ivo Karlovic knows a little bit about rare air. Returning the thunderous serve of tennis' tallest man in the high altitude of Bogota can be as demanding as catching a marble tossed from the top of a building—Karlovic won all 61 of his service games in capturing his first title in five years here last year. Though he has a quick turnaround coming off Sunday's Newport final, the second seed should go deep again if he's landing that lethal serve.
No. 4 seed Radek Stepanek, who has won four of five meetings with Karlovic, including an epic 16-14 in the fifth-set Davis Cup triumph in 2009, could face the big man in the semifinals. Colombian No. 6 seed Alejandro Gonzalez grew up in the high altitude and could be a factor in the bottom half, though Gonzalez has just three main-draw wins on hard courts this year.
Despite battling back issues, top-seeded Richard Gasquet remains a threat. But the Frenchman could be tested by any of three top-half challengers: 2013 finalist Alejandro Falla, wild card Bernard Tomic, or 34th-ranked Vasek Pospisil.
Falla, runner-up to Roger Federer in Halle last month, won a Challenger event in Colombia earlier this year and is a flat hitter who thrives in the quick conditions and enthusiastic support of his hometown tournament. Pospisil, who beat Gasquet in their lone meeting last year, should be empowered after winning the Wimbledon doubles title earlier this month. Tomic's flat strokes should play well in the altitude, though the enigmatic Aussie is hardly a road warrior. During the last two years, Tomic has won just 14 main-draw matches on foreign soil.
Fabio Fognini withstood three championship points and plenty of emotional carnage to capture the biggest title of his career in Hamburg last year. Now, the theatrical Italian aims to become the first man since Roger Federer in 2004-2005 to win successive Hamburg titles.
It won't be easy. No. 15 seed Carlos Berlocq, Fognini's potential round of 16 opponent, went four sets with the Italian in Davis Cup earlier this year, and should be confident after beating David Ferrer in Bastad last week. Former Hamburg champions Tommy Robredo and Gilles Simon, and seventh-seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber, who has contested seven of his 11 career finals on home soil, are in all in Fognini's half of the draw. Twenty-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem could be a dangerous floater. Thiem faces No. 8 seed Marcel Granollers, whom he beat in Barcelona earlier this year, for a place in the round of 16.
The top-seeded Ferrer, who has reached at least the quarterfinals in seven of eight clay-court events this year, should have a relatively stress-free route to the elite eight. No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco, who snapped a four-year title drought winning Houston on red clay in April, could meet Ferrer for the 17th time in an all-Spanish quarterfinal.
Since losing to Rafael Nadal in the Rio de Janeiro final in February, Alexandr Dolgopolov has gone 2-5 on clay. The No. 4 seed will face either Jerzy Janowicz or Albert Ramos-Vinolas in round two, with the winner potentially playing 2013 finalist Federico Delbonis for a quarterfinal spot. Qualifier Delbonis upset Federer last year en route to his first final. No. 5 seed Mikhail Youzhny reached the Hamburg semifinals three years ago. The Russian will face either Robin Haase or 17-year-old German Alexander Zverev, who won a clay-court Challenger in Germany last month, in the second round. Haase snapped a five-match losing streak to Youzhny with a 6-3, 6-3 win en route to the Bucharest semifinals in April.