It may not boast the glittering fields of the WTA Premier events in Brisbane and Sydney, but the Moorilla Hobart International has shown an uncanny knack for launching the careers of some of the women’s game’s biggest stars. By MATT TROLLOPE.
Scanning back through the champion’s honour roll of the Moorilla Hobart International, some stellar names jump out, such as Patty Schnyder (1998), Kim Clijsters (2000), Alicia Molik (2003), Anna Chakvetadze (2007) and Petra Kvitova (2009). For most of these women it was their maiden WTA title, and all went on to be ranked in the top 10. In Clijsters’ and Kvitova’s case, they became Grand Slam champions, their winning ways first cultivated by victory at the Hobart tune-up event staged in the week prior to the Australian Open.
And not all players have had to capture the title to enjoy the benefits that the tournament provides in the way of match practice and preparation. Fans were thrilled to have superstar drawcard Serena Williams enter the tournament in 2007, who shortly after her quarterfinal exit proceeded to triumph as an unseeded player at Melbourne Park.
Defending champion Mona Barthel used her victory in Hobart as a springboard to a stunning run in which she went 26-9 through April and slashed her ranking from No.69 to No.31. But the advantage Barthel once enjoyed as an unknown up-and-comer is a luxury she no longer enjoys, with her rivals on the WTA tour beginning to understand how to counter the rangy German’s depth, power and blistering serve. When she arrives at the Domain Tennis Centre in 2013 – the 20th staging of the Hobart tournament – she will have plenty of opponents looking to wrench the trophy from her grasp.
One is Su-Wei Hsieh, the top-ranked entry at world No.25. The Taiwanese player rocketed upward from No.172 at the end of 2011 after winning her first two career titles at Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou. Double-fisted on both sides, the diminutive Hsieh enjoyed the benefits of working with new coach Paul McNamee, and scored wins over bigger and stronger rivals in the past 12 months including Daniela Hantuchova and Laura Robson.
Yet Hsieh is by no means the only contender with soaring confidence. Robson and fellow British youngster Heather Watson will be among the biggest drawcards in Hobart in 2013 after career-best seasons that have drastically increased the presence and credibility of British women’s tennis.
Always considered a hot prospect since her victory as a 14-year-old at junior Wimbledon, Robson delivered on that promise at the US Open, stunning Kim Clijsters and Li Na on her way to the fourth round. And she continued that momentum by reaching the Guangzhou final – the first British female finalist at a WTA event in 22 years – before falling in a three-set thriller to Hsieh. Robson’s powerful left-handed game, in the Kvitova mould, is perfectly suited to the slow hardcourts of the Domain Tennis Centre.
Watson went one better than her teenage compatriot just a few weeks later, winning the title in Osaka to become the first British female tournament winner in 24 years. Watson’s reward for that result was to crack the top 50, and with her compact game and unflappable demeanour, she could potentially rise higher.
Countering Robson and Watson’s relative inexperience will be some WTA stalwarts making the trip to Hobart, including Yaroslava Shvedova. The athletic 25-year-old Russian-turned-Kazakh nearly caused the boilover result of the 2012 Wimbledon women’s event, coming within a couple of points of ousting eventual champion Serena Williams in the fourth round, not long after reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros as a qualifier. Her improved ranking – beginning 2012 at No.206 and now at No.29 – coincided with the diagnosis of vision problems, which she now manages by wearing prescription sports glasses.
Also in action is veteran Czech Klara Zakopalova, who enjoyed her highest-ever year-end ranking in 2012 at No.28. Dangerous on all surfaces and deceptively quick and powerful despite her slight frame, the 30-year-old reached the fourth round at Roland Garros and last 32 at Wimbledon.
Another top drawcard in Hobart is glamorous Romanian Sorana Cirstea, whom most Australians will remember for eliminating Sam Stosur in the first round at Australian Open 2012. Cirstea’s big-hitting baseline game and relentless aggression elevated her to world No.27, her highest year-end mark. Clearly comfortable on Plexicushion following her exploits in Australia last year, she’ll be an opponent no player will want to face.
BREAKOUT – Ones to watch
They may not be the highest-ranked or most-fancied players, but there will be plenty of dark horses peppered through the draw that will make life difficult for the top seeds in Hobart.
One in particular is Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner and who spent much of that year and 2011 entrenched in the top 10. The wily Italian may be most comfortable on clay courts, but she is also a former Australian and US Open quarterfinalist.
A player in the Schiavone mould – with clay court nous and one-handed backhand to boot – is Carla Suarez Navarro, the stylish Spaniard who famously upended Venus Williams on her way to the Australian Open quarterfinals in 2009. She will enter Hobart full of confidence after a 2012 season that saw her jump more than 20 places to world No.34.
A group of talented youngsters will also aim to upset the apple cart, headed by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sloane Stephens and Bojana Jovanovski.
Pavlyuchenkova, a French and US Open quarterfinalist in 2011, struggled to maintain that form in 2012 but did manage to haul herself out of a slump on US hardcourts, a positive sign as she prepares to take to Hobart’s hard surface.
Stephens’ sunny personality almost threatened to outshine her stellar results last season, which included a run to the fourth round at Roland Garros and entry into the world’s top 50, while Jovanovski – who has picked up plenty of pressure-cooker experience representing Serbia in Fed Cup – recently won her first career title in Baku.