Big 4 batten down the hatches

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Elena Vesnina took down Ana Ivanovic at Eastbourne

Perhaps there will come a time this summer when a big tournament is about to kick off and a player outside of the top 5 will be mentioned a having a serious chance of winning the title. After Roger Federer won Halle and Andy Murray took Queens on Sunday, all was standard in the ATP tennis universe again.

Rafael Nadal stormed through the clay court season, managed to tip his top rival in the Roland Garros semis in Novak Djokovic and then thumped his fellow Spaniard, now No. 4 David Ferrer, in the final. But No. 2 Murray didn’t play RG due to a back injury and Federer was out hit by Jo Wilfried Tsonga.

So if Federer didn’t respond on grass in Halle and if Murray did not play well in Queens, then perhaps the 2012 Wimbledon finalists could be taken down a notch when it comes predicting final four candidates at the 2013 version of the Big W.

But not now, as Federer took care of two fine veterans in Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny, and Murray stopped a terrifying twosome Tsonga and Marin Cilic. So now the Big 4 are once again the favorites to reach the Wimbledon semis. Ferrer isn’t good enough on grass to get there, so the dark horses would be Tsonga – even though he was vacuous in his loss to Ferrer at RG—Tomas Berdych and possibly Juan Martin Del Potro if his health improves. Other potential semifinalists would be Cilic, Haas, Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic, Jerzy Janowicz and Grigor Dimitrov and much of their hopes depend on their draw,

Boring? Not so much if you like great rivalries and the Big 4 has plenty of that, but if you are tired of watching the same men play for big titles over and over again, consider this: the depth of the ATP World Tour in 2013 is over rated. It’s been that way for a good three years now.

Queens and Halle are more significant tournaments than the WTA had last week, but was nice to see veteran Daniela Hantuchova come through and win Birmingham because she’s a super committed player who almost never gives up on herself, even when many others have. She took down 16-year-old Donna Vekic in the final, which made for an attractive match-up given that by reaching the final that the tall and powerful Vekic showed that she clearly has top-20 stuff. Beyond that, I’m not sure of her upside at this point, but given how rare it is to see baby teens make an impact at WTA events, Vekic’s results point way upward.

Hantuchova has seriously struggled with injuries over the past year, even falling out of the top 75. For a former top 5 player who really did believe she could reach No.1, that is very uncomfortable spot to be in. Throughout her career, the Slovak was more of a top- 20 player than a top 5 competitor, reaching only one Slam semifinal at the 2008 Aussie Open. She’s fine ball striker, a dogged competitor (she’s the queen of 3 setters), but she is pretty slow, especially moving horizontally and that has largely proved to be the reason why she has been unable to raise a big trophy. But can she reach another Slam quarter of even a semi? Sure she could with the right draw.

Simona Halep has had some good results over the past few months and on Saturday won Nuremberg on Clay over Andre Petkovic. The 21-year-old Romanian is a big hitter who can go in and out of matches, but if she can stay injury free and more calm on court, the top 20 isn’t out of the questions. Petkovic got a well-deserved WC into Wimbledon.

The WTA’s biggest pre Wimbledon warm-up tournament takes place in Eastbourne and once again it has an excellent field. While none of the WTA ‘s Big 3 are playing there – Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka – six of the top 10 are, including top seed Aga Radwanska, 2011 Wimby champ Petra Kvitova and new No. 10 Maria Kirilenko, who bested the talented Bojana Jovanovski 7-6(5) 6-1.

But there was another Russian who had a bigger win, Elena Vesnina, who rather quietly has become a solid singles player and a standout doubles player, as she and Ekaterina Makarova won their first Slam together in doubles at Roland Garros a little more than week ago, stunning top seeds Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani. That was a very special win on clay, not just because of the size of the occasion, but because it serves notice to the Italians that should the Fed Cup final go down to the doubles that it’s no Slam dunk.

In Eastbourne, Vesnina took down Ana Ivanovic 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. Recall that last year at Wimbledon, she upended Venus Williams (who turned 33 today) in the first round. It was a big win for the 36th-ranked Vesnina, as she had a rough stretch on clay in singles. But she’s a better fast court player than she is on the slow stuff and with her firepower and ability to volley, she’s capable of threatening a number of seeded players on grass. However, the 26 year old  can be extremely erratic, so it’s very hard to gage whether her very good or very bad side will show up on particular day. She’ll face Britain’s Heather Watson in round two.

The Pliskova twins faced of again, with the lower ranked Karolina besting he higher-ranked Kristyna  7-6(5) 3-6 6-3 in the final round of qualifying. Kristyna is the lefthander and Karolina the right-hander. The Czech twins don’t yet appears to be another version of the successful Bryan twins as they have yet to win a doubles title together, but they should improve with time. The twins  are now 4-4 in their career head-to-heads. Jaime Hampton also qualified. Other main draw winners were 
Marion Bartoli  and Yanina Wickmayer.

Given that  the Eastbourne’s women’s field is far stronger than the men’s, it’s surprising that three ATP matches are scheduled on Centre Court on Tuesday and only two WTA contests.

I get starting with Britain’s James Ward vs. Bernie Tomic
 and ending with local hero doubles with Jaime Delgado/Ward vs. Colin Fleming/Johnny Marray, but how does one put what should be a good but not great match between Kevin Anderson and Julien Benneteau ahead of say Tamira Paszek vs. Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber vs. Sorana Cirstea or top seed Aga Radwanska vs. Jamie Hampton (all will be played on Court 1)? And really, while it’s appropriate to  put Laura Robson’s match against Yulia Beygelzimer on Centre, I’m not sure I would go with  Alize Cornet vs. second seed Li Na as the other WTA match there.  In fact, I would take any of the other  aforementioned Court1 matches over that because Cornet may really struggle transitioning from clay to grass.  I’d also might put the match of Court 2 between Samantha Stosur and Nadia Petrova
 on Centre over the guys’ match. That is very quirky scheduling.

BTW the top male seed in Eastbourne is No. 15 Milos Raonic. Ryan Harrison scored a big win over Paul Henri-Mathieu on Monday, but James Blake fell to Albert Ramos. In the Netherlands, John Isner fell to Evgeny Donskoy 6-7(3) 6-3 6-4, while Carlos Berlocq bested Marcos Baghdatis  6-2 6-4, who is in a slump.

The new issue of Tennis-Journal will be out this week with plenty to chew on.