Storming past Sharapova, Wickmayer, and two other seeded opponents, the unheralded Hungarian Greta Arn etched her name upon the Auckland trophy during the first week of the WTA season.  Although one can discard her improbable title run  as evidence of the Tour’s current chaos (glass half-empty), one also can celebrate her achievement as a testimony to the Tour’s parity (glass half-full).  We favor the latter interpretation and doff our hat to the world #88, who displayed poise under pressure as she closed in upon the second title of a 14-year odyssey through outer courts and qualifying draws.  In Brisbane, meanwhile, another unseeded champion emerged in 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Petra Kvitova.  The Czech lefty battled past Petrova and Pavlyuchenkova en route to a reassuring statement of intent after a tepid second half raised concerns about her durability as a prominent threat.  Also impressive in the Queensland capital was German runner-up Petkovic, who progressed smoothly past Bartoli and the surging Groth.  While Stosur, Sharapova, Wickmayer, Peer, and other top seeds floundered, therefore, a trio of unseeded players bravely seized the spotlight with opportunistic tennis.

Will this trend continue in Sydney?  With seven of the WTA top ten participating in the most prestigious Australian non-major, the underdogs must battle even more vigorously to leave an impact.

Top half:

Pulverized by Zvonareva in a Hong Kong exhibition, Wozniacki would benefit immensely from a confidence boost before her first Slam as the world #1.  Her opening match pits her against Kirilenko or Cibulkova, both of whom she defeated convincingly on hard courts last season.  Since neither of those opponents can outduel her from the baseline, the Dane should advance to an equally winnable quarterfinal against Schiavone.  Nursing an injured thigh at the Hopman Cup, however, the Roland Garros champion might succumb to Kleybanova in her opener.  Yet the mighty Russian fell in her Brisbane opener to Sally Peers, suggesting that she has not carried her momentum from last fall to the new season.  The most entertaining match in this quarter might occur between the enigmatic Martinez Sanchez and the stylish Hantuchova, juxtaposing the Spaniard’s arrhythmic assault upon the forecourt assault with the Slovak’s rhythmic baseline style.

Unflustered in her first-round victory over Dulgheru, 2007 champion Clijsters eyes an intriguing encore with 2010 Australian Open nemesis Petrova.  Handing the Belgian the most devastating loss of her career on that occasion, Nadia lost her first Brisbane match in straight sets to eventual champion Kvitova but opens against a qualifier here.  Among the most intriguing questions of 2011 concerns whether Azarenka can rebound from a generally deflating 2010 to regain the promise of 2009; her path also opens against a qualifier before colliding with the tenacious Peer.  Struggling to hold serve throughout a Brisbane loss to Safarova, the Israeli star unleashed an eye-opening campaign last season.  She has not relished her two previous meetings with Vika, who generally has basked under the Australian sun.  In a potential quarterfinal with the Clijsters, Azarenka will aim to reverse a three-match hard-court losing streak against Belgian that has featured a bagel and two breadsticks.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Wozniacki

Bottom half:

Leaping out from the draw is a first-round clash between Auckland finalist Wickmayer and home hope Stosur, who collaborated on a hard-fought clash at Stanford last year.  The Belgian #3 wobbled rather than rolled through last week, navigating around three three-setters and a recalcitrant serve.  On the other hand, the Aussie did not impress during a sporadically shaky victory over a qualifier and a routine loss to Groth.  Elsewhere in this section lurks 2010 Australian Open semifinalist Li Na, who defeated Venus last week in Hong Kong; currently free of injuries, she could ambush any of the equally streaky opponents in her section.  Unseeded after a protracted slump, Kuznetsova hopes to follow in the footsteps of Arn and Kvitova after an imposing victory over Dokic in her opener.  Suffering a listless loss to Peng in Auckland, the two-time major champion probably lacks the confidence to venture deeply into the jungle of the overstuffed Sydney draw.

Aligned to intersect in the bottom quarter are Jankovic and Rezai, both of whom soared in the clay season before sagging in the second half.  The pugnacious Frenchwoman dispatched the equally pugnacious Serb in Madrid amidst a war of words that often overshadowed their tennis.  Can Jankovic exact her revenge at a tournament where she once came within a tiebreak of the title but fell in the first round last year?  Even if she survives Rezai, though, 2010 nemesis Kanepi lurks to intercept her once again.  Confronting a potentially challenging opener against Pennetta, world #2 Zvonareva hopes to reverse a streak in which she has lost three of four matches to the Italian Fed Cup heroine.  The Russian laid waste to Venus and Wozniacki in Hong Kong last week, so she carries considerable momentum to Sydney—much more than anyone in her vicinity here.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva d. Li

Final:  Clijsters d. Zvonareva

***

We return shortly with a preview of the leading WTA contenders at the Australian Open, a companion to the ATP article below.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates a point during her match against Greta Arn of Hungary during day four of the ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 6, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.

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