Pain is Pironkova’s gain as she wins first title in Sydney

pironkova wins sydney

Pironkova’s career has turned around.

By Matt Cronin

SYDNEY – It is very rare to find a veteran player who was sitting outside of the top 100 and, at times, who thought about quitting, who can find a way to come though qualifying and mow down an elite WTA field at a Premier level event.

Welcome to Tsvetana Pironkova’s world, one that was filled with angst and now is filled with joy. In one of the most impressive weeks in recent memory, the Bulgarian  won the Apia International Sydney on Saturday, besting the favored fifth-seed Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4  in the final. That win followed brilliant performances against two other top 10 players, Sara Errani and Petra Kvitova; the world No. 107 became the first qualifier to win a WTA Premier since Ekaterina Makarova at 2010 Eastbourne.

The 26-year-old needed to win eight matches  to grab the crown When she came on court against Kerber, both of her legs hurt. But she would not give in, even though the German is a terrific defensive  player who is capable of grinding anyone down.

“In the beginning of the match I was feeling pain all over my legs actually, in my thighs,” Pironkova recalled. “I said, ‘You’re in the final now.  You cannot let this affect you that much.  Play until you pass out.’”

Pironkova outhit Kerber on the backhand side with low laser shots, served much bigger and more effectively and kept her weaker forehand deep enough so that Kerber was unable to eat her alive. She broke the weak-serving German six times, nailed 32 winners to Kerber’s  23 and did not appear to be nervous while closing the match out, even though it was her first career final. But, in reality, she was riddled with anxiety until she took a  deep breath and  focused on the task at hand.

“I felt very nervous, but I tried my hardest not to show it,” she said. “I was trying to concentrate so hard that I just see only the ball.  I was only watching the ball and I’m like, ‘Okay, just watch the ball and follow every point.’ ”

She won the contest when Kerber pushed a groundstroke wide, fell to her knees and cried a bit in her chair. Her first words in an on-court ceremony were to her parents, her father and coach Kirlei who was on site, as was her mom, Radosevta.

“Mom, Dad, we have trophy!” she said with a big smile on her face.

Her emotion flowed freely, which was not surprising given that there were times in 2013 when she couldn’t win a match.

“When I know what I’ve been through, not only last season but throughout my career, it hasn’t been easy for me,” she said. “This is something that I’ve been waiting for so long and something that I’ve missed so much.  Now that I finally have it, it’s all surreal.  I still cannot believe it, honestly. My mom and dad are the people that have always been with me. Good or bad, they have always been behind my back and pushing me.”

Pironkova admitted that retirement did cross her mind last season, but she stuck with her sport because she’s been chasing that elusive trophy her whole career

“One bad season. I said to myself, ‘Okay, it sucks, but you have to keep pushing. You have to go forward. Just take all your chances and do what you have to do, and then we’ll see what happens.’ So that’s what I did,” she said.

The Bulgarian added that  all of her improvement is due to her newfound mental stability and that she didn’t lose her head once she reached the latter stages of he event. After she upset Errani in the quarters, she knew she had a chance to win it, but she couldn’t afford to daydream, couldn’t think too much ahead. She actually had to wins points, games, sets and matches. And that is what she did. The former Wimbledon semifinalist will head out of Sydney to Melbourne a very happy camper, a top-60 player and a much more dangerous competitor.

“That’s for the first time it came to my mind,” she said of her Errani upset. “ ‘Whoa, you are on a roll here, you play really good, you feel confident, so why not win the tournament.’ But I try to push that thought deeper in my mind and not to think too much about it. Just to take each match on its own.  I think that’s the right strategy for me.”

Brains vs  Brawn: Tomic  vs Del Potro in men’s final

Brains will go up against brawn in the final of the Apia International Sydney on Sunday, with Juan Martin del Potro facing  Bernard Tomic. That description is more apt on court as the Argentine is more thoughtful off court than the Australian is, but Tomic tends to be a more of thinking man’s player while Del Potro’s style consists of huge serves and bigger forehands. The two have faced off only once, last year in Washington, which appeared to be a routine win for Del Potro. But Tomic thought he had chances in that contest.

Then 21-year-old Aussie has created a lot of his own opportunities during the week and was mentally strong in his last two matches against two tricky opponents who are as hard to read as he is. Those men would be Alex Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, whom he bested  6-7(4) 7-5 6-3  in the semis. Tomic was drained during the semi, but his fitness level appears to have improved and he was able to out leg  the Ukrainian when he needed to in the third set.

But he is going to have a tougher time against Del Potro, who is not going to hesitate at key moments like Stakhovsky did.  Del Potro appears to have adjusted to the quick  courts now and thumped Dmitry Tursunov 6-4 6-2.

As Tomic said, DelPo may very well have the best forehand on tour these days. While Nadal has the best left-handed one and Federer is right there with him on good days, the Tower of Tandil can rock the shot

“Best forehand I think on tour now.” Tomic said. “Very, very good first serve. Not much you can do when he’s playing good. He can play amazing.  I have to stick with him to have a chance I play a little bit differently, so hopefully I can get buzzed up and play my tennis. know what Juan is gonna be doing.  Obviously he’s very, very good at what he does.  This is why he’s there.  I have to do something different.  I have to play my game. It’s a final.  I’ll go out there, have fun, relax, and I’m going for the win.”

Del Potro praised how intelligent Tomic’s game is, but it’s the Aussie’s first serve and more powerful forehand that has been most impressive this week, not his backhand slice or drop shot. Having a lot of variety can help players win matches as long as they can execute, which Tomic has not been very adept at outside of Australia. But he is playing at home, where he frequently displays top-20 stuff.

“He’s very smart to play,” Del Potro said. “He has everything to be in the higher ranking very soon.  He’s a local guy, so he has a little advantage to the rest.  He already won this tournament last year, so he must feel confidence to play down the center court.”

Tomic added that it is possible that the Argentine will get nervous and that would give him a  chance.

 

Picture of the Day: Tomic goes Disco style after his win in Sydney

tomic in purple

‘Unlucky’ Wozniacki in questionable form for Aussie Open

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Despite loss, Caro feels she’s ready for Melbourne

 

SYDNEY – Caroline Wozniacki may be in slightly improved form heading onto the Australian Open than she was last year, but the former No. 1 does not appear to be playing substantially better. The newly engaged Dane is in a happy place in her personal life (she is wearing a diamond the size of the Rock of Gibraltar on her finger, which is the engagement ring that her pro golfer fiancée Rory McIlroy gave her), but she can’t be terribly pleased about her career, as she is struggling to beat very good players. After pulling out of Brisbane due to shoulder injury, she decided to played the Apia Sydney International, taking out Julia Goerges in three sets on  Monday night, but then falling 6-4 7-6 (7) to Lucie Safarova on Tuesday afternoon.

The lefty Czech has cracked the top 20 before and is no pushover, but under a new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, No. 10 Wozniacki did not look much  better than last season. Her serve is rarely a weapon, her forehand doesn’t have enough depth or pop and her style is currently is one of  “tweener:” stuck between playing standout defense and headstrong offense. Her defense is still there – that’s what brought her to the No. 1 ranking – but her offense is still a work in progress. Her forehand has improved, but she still has trouble hitting it for winners and she can’t belt it down the line. Her flat first serve is pretty decent, but her slice and kicker are nothing to write home about. She isn’t a bad volleyer, but does not attack the cords enough. She is an accurate return of server. but doesn’t take an enough big rips at the ball.

She held four set points in the tiebreaker and had she won one of those, the lefty Safarova might have faded in the third set. Wozniacki  could have pushed herself  harder in rallies and taken more risks, but she didn’t see it that way.

“The first one we have a really long, good rally and I really felt like I put pressure on her there.  She just really stepped it up and won that point,” Wozniacki said. “She served me to the backhand where I miss‑timed it a little bit and missed it by a little.  And then I served on the third set point, and again we have a very long rally.  Again I felt like I put pressure on her, and then it was going back and forth.  I think it was at least 12 or 15 shots going back and forth. You know, again, she hit the line a few times as well.  Just unlucky really.  Fourth one I had a chance.  She served a second serve but it attacked me right in the body.  I misread the ball a little bit and it got too close to my body. Yeah, unlucky really. I feel like I did everything right.  What I could have done, maybe one of the returns of the returns if I had returned it differently, but, again, you can always say that.”

If the Dane feels she was just unlucky, than maybe that will aid her confidence headed into Melbourne, the one Grand Slam tournament that perhaps she should have won back in 2011, when she held a match point against Li Na in the semis and then pushed the ball around in a three set loss. She says she feels good going into the 2014 edition, which begins next week. Perhaps she make a mini run, or maybe her campaign will end in the fourth round, like it did last year when she lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Against Safarova, she looked no better than a potential quarterfinalist, but she doesn’t seem to feel that way.

“I played two matches here then I get a few days over there and get to play a few sets as well with some of the girls and with different types players,” she said. “I should be ready for Melbourne.  I just need to push hard and I need to serve and return well.  I think those are the keys. Then obviously try to put the pressure on the opponent.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY Defending champion Bernard Tomic discussed having his banned father and coach John be allowed back on a site this year. John Tomic, who was banned from the tour last May for assaulting his son’s former hitting partner, was allowed to attend Bernard’s 6-3 6-0 wipe out of  Marcel Granollers as a fan on Tuesday. “Having my dad there a very good feeling.  Obviously winning my first title here gives a lot of memories to me.  I’m happy the way I played today.  Having my dad there for the first time in a while, it’s good. I know his ban will finish very soon, in a few months, and back to helping me.  I’m happy.  Today that was the position.  I played very good.  Felt very good.  I’m happy to be back playing like this.”

DEVELOPMENT OF THE DAY The US men continue to struggle Down Under, with qualifier Ryan Harrison falling to Nicolas Mahut and Lucky Loser Albert Ramos of Spain upending Sam Querrey. There are no US men left in the Sydney singles draw.

What to watch for on Wednesday American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands takes on US teenager Madison Keys, whom she mentors a bit. “She’s a great upcoming player,” said Mattek Sands “Plays aggressive shots, big serve. “She goes for her shots.  She’s not afraid.”

Bury Isner’s AO chances on his wounded knee?

Isner 2nd week prospects don't look good.

Isner’s 2nd week prospects don’t look good.

FROM THE APIA SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL – John Isner was hoping to turn his fortunes around at the Grand Slams in 2013, but now it looks like he

Wozzy Wozzy, Wozzy, Oh no, Oh no, Oh no

wozniacki asian swing 12

FROM THE APIA SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL – Deep in the first set of her 7-6, 1-6, 6-2 loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round, Caroline Wozniacki engaged in a sharp, hard-hitting rally where she had her money shot, her two-handed backhand lined up to end the rally, and she plunked it into the net. She then threw her racket angrily on the ground, knowing that yet another opportunity had been lost.

The likeable Dane is once again in a tough spot in her now not-so-young career. She