Family Circle Cup Gets Underway
April 13, 2009 -- Spring is here; and, it's time to separate the women from the men -- not separate the men from the boys, as the passˇ saying goes. It's also time to put the hard blue courts of Indian Wells and Miami behind and transition to the green clay here in Charleston, South Carolina, while the men battle on red clay in Monte Carlo. So, au revoir les monsieurs! And hello WTA Family Circle Cup!!!
Charleston is proud of its tennis. The Family Circle Cup is the largest sporting event of the year, and it is the longest running women's sponsored event in the United States. Rosie Casals was the first winner, taking home the biggest paycheck in tennis that year -- $30,000. Her final match against Nancy Richey was also the first women's tennis match seen on NBC.
You've come a long way baby... and these sixty-four women couldn't have been any happier today as the main draw action took off.
While all 16 seeds had byes, many of today's matches featured fresh American faces that strived to improve their rankings and their motivation.
Wild card Mallory Cecil has been coming to this event for five years. She grew up in nearby Spartansburg and cut her teeth at the event as a ball girl. Although she lost earlier today to veteran Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano on stadium court, Mallory was upbeat.
"It was a great experience for me, but she was definitely the veteran," Mallory began. "She was mentally tougher and played the big points better."
The eighteen-year-old Duke freshman had played on stadium court as a junior, but never in a WTA tour event. "I wasn't nervous," she said honestly. "Once the match got started, I wasn't aware of the people either."
Mallory, who plays right-handed and swings with a two-handed backhand, doesn't have a coach, which is understandable for a college student. However, she trains at The IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In May, Mallory will play in the NCAA tournament and then move on to several tour-level events. She would like to improve her current ranking, which is 380. She also would like to play in the U. S. Open in August.
Madison Brengle and Melanie Oudin (pronounced you-den) were two of the five Americans who qualified for berths in the main draw.
Madison Brengle didn't have the confidence or the game to get past her first-round opponent, Russian Anastasia Rodionova, who is 146 on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Rankings. Madison was off balance on many shots, when compared to the Russian. Brengle tried to make a run of it in the second, and last, set when she stretched the match to a tiebreak. Unfortunately, experience won out as Rodionova defeated the American hopeful 62 76(4).
Melanie Oudin, on the other hand, did advance to the next round when she defeated Olga Savchuk of the Ukraine 64 60, on the court named for tennis great Althea Gibson. Set at the periphery of the site, the court lays at right below the tall spans that support I-526. The roar of trucks carrying freight boxes from the ports toward Charleston lent an urban feel to an otherwise tranquil setting on Daniel's Island. But the noise didn't bother the petite Oudin.
After winning points fans could hear a subtle "come on," as she nodded for the next ball. However, her faint response would exploded when she hit game-ending clean winners. She had a determined bounce to gait, as she moved from one side of the court to the other. Her groundstrokes were deep off both sides, and she wasn't afraid to go for what looked like her favorite shots -- down-the-line forehands and backhands.
She broke Savchuk twice in the first set, but couldn't hold on to that advantage which was disappointing considering that Savchuk had called the WTA trainer twice due to a nagging back problem. However, on the third break opportunity, she pocketed the set 64 and didn't look back. She rode the momentum through the second set, as double faults eroded Savchuk's defensive ground game and her drop shot percentage fell off.
In the next round, Melanie could meet another American qualifier, Abigail Spears, or #9 seed Aleksandra Wozniak, the finalist from last week's MPS Group Championships.
While the up-and-coming American stars toughed it out on court, eight of the top ten seeds talked with the media in an hour-long roundtable session held at the Saulisbury Business Machines Media Center.
Elena Dementieva, the #1 seed, was whisked off for a one-on-one before anyone could approach her. Dominika Cibulkova, seeded 7th, spoke with several reporters about her break-through debut year of 2008 and her fitness regime, which has been critical to her rise in the rankings. Although she is not done with high school, the Slovakian sees a long career in front of her even though she relies on an aggressive baseline strategy to win matches.
When she takes a couple days between tournaments, Dominika is happy to relax with friends. "When I have a day off I don't do anything," she emphasized. That means not picking up her racquet and no fitness regime. "It's maybe one or two days when I'm at home, though," she added with a smile.
Dominika thinks Victoria Azarenka is one of the best women on tour today. "She has gained a lot of experience and confidence this year with her win in Miami," Cibulkova said. She admits that Agnieszka Radwanski is another formidable opponent. "She has her own style. She plays slice, topspin and mixes it up. It's tough to play against her."
Caroline Wozniacki always seems to smile and today was no different. She should be happy, too, after having won her fourth career title last week at the MPS Group Championships in Ponte Verde Beach. "It was my first clay-court win and a good start to the clay-court season," she began. "I feel real comfortable now on the clay."
One key to her ascent in the rankings -- she's seeded 5th -- is her revised fitness program. She had spent more time training on court, but now has upped her time in the gym. "I go to the gym for two and a half hours and on court for only two hours," she said.
"I want to get fitter, stronger and faster," she said. "You don't forget how to play tennis once you get to this level. It's more important how the body is."
Caroline eats lots of carbohydrates and protein. She doesn't count calories, though, saying, "I like to eat."
Venus Williams is seeded second this week, but was treated as if she were the main attraction. She arrived alone escorted by a WTA official. She also drew the most attention. Instead of sitting at a small table outside the building to take questions, she filled the main interview room with inquiring media minds.
"I'm ready to play. I'm looking forward to beginning the tournament," she told the crowded room.
Asked if she was happy that her sister Serena wouldn't be across the net any time this week, Venus replied, "On tour everyone is my opponent. Off tour it's not that way at all." She will talk with Serena several times this week, which is normal for the sisters.
Hopefully, the dreary and chilly weather that greeted fans and players today will blow through by tomorrow. The rows of blooming azaleas and hanging baskets of coral-colored geraniums await their day in the sun, too, just like the women who have come to play this week at the 37th annual Family Circle Cup.