Azarenka awarded Australian Open wild card

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If Victoria Azarenka can make it, the Australian Open will welcome her with open arms.

Tournament director Craig Tiley announced Wednesday that the first Grand Slam of the season will give its two-time champion a wild card into the singles draw.

“Vika’s current situation is obviously very difficult for her and we have reached out to offer any support we can. As a two-time Australian Open champion we’ve awarded her a wildcard and look forward to seeing her back on court in Melbourne in January,” Tiley said in a statement.

The press-release quote from Azarenka:

“I’m so excited about coming back to Melbourne for the Australian Open, it’s my favourite tournament. I’ve won there twice and always feel so comfortable on court and the city is great,” Azarenka said. “It’s been a tough year and being able to come back to the AO will be a really positive way to start 2018. I’d like to thank Craig and his team for their understanding and support and can’t wait to see all my Aussie fans again.” 

Will the wild card be used?

The question, of course, is whether Azarenka will be able to resolve the custody of her one-year-old son Leo in time to start the 2018 season.

The WTA tuneup event in Auckland, New Zealand previously awarded the former No. 1 a wild card back on Nov. 21.

With her WTA ranking currently standing at No. 210, Azarenka would have been on the bubble to make the qualifying draw at the Australian Open.

But so far, there has been no indication that her custody issues are nearing a resolution. At times during the fall, she was in court several times a week, Tennis.Life was told.

When she does return, she’s going to be pretty rusty. Azarenka’s last match was a fourth-round defeat at Wimbledon. By the time Auckland rolls around, that’s six months without a match, piled on top of another year away during her maternity leave.

She also finds herself without a team, a consequence of her uncertain situation.

Coach Michael Joyce was the first to leave. He accepted a job coaching top-10 Brit Jo Konta.

Last week, trainer Ashcon Rezazadeh announced he also was leaving.

For a taste of summer: the AO playoff

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Only three weeks remain until the 2018 tennis season officially begins.

But if you’re in one of those parts of the world where a peek outside the window means a look at some of the unwelcome white stuff (a FOOT of snow in the Atlanta suburbs? What’s up with that?), a taste of summer is near.

Monday in Melbourne (Sunday at 6 p.m. EST, 3 p.m. PST), the Australian Open wild-card playoff begins.

This isn’t the Asia-Pacific playoff, but a battle among the best Aussie players who won’t get direct entry into next month’s Grand Slam. They can earn their way in by winning a 16-player, knockout tournament this week.

Withdrawals and no-shows on the men’s side

For the men, each match is best-of-five. That may be one reason Bernard Tomic declined to take part; he may well prefer to take his chances in the regular qualifying next month, which is best-of-three sets.

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It would have been great to see Bernard Tomic in the AO wild-card playoff. But he took a pass. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

It seems gruelling. But it doubles as some invaluable experience in the best-of-five format that many of these players wouldn’t otherwise be able to have. So as a training tool, it’s a great move.

Tomic would have been a marquee attraction that would definitely bring more crowds to Melbourne Park.

Akira Santillan, at No. 145 one spot off a career best, is a flashy player with a one-handed backhand and was expected to be the top seed. But he’s not playing. Neither is Sam Groth, the veteran who will retire at the Australian Open. John-Patrick Smith and Jason Kubler also bowed out.

And the event wasn’t immune to the plague of 11th-hour withdrawals.

No. 4 seed Dayne Kelly pulled out after the draw, and was replaced by an alternate.

On the women’s side, Ellen Perez and Jessica Moore were late withdrawals after the original entry list was released.

Some of the players will be familiar to hardcore fans outside Australia.

There’s also a women’s doubles wild-card playoff.

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Singles draws

On the men’s side, No. 2 seed Alex de Minaur is the best of the recent crop of Aussie juniors.

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De Minaur was gracious in defeat to Denis Shapovalov in the 2016 Wimbledon junior boys singles final. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Currently ranked No. 208, he was the No. 2 junior in the world two years ago at age 16, when he reached the semis of the Australian Open juniors boys’ singles and won the doubles.

De Minaur also reached the Wimbledon junior final in 2016, beating Canadian teen Félix Auger-Aliassime in the quarters before falling to Auger-Aliassime’s good friend Denis Shapovalov in the final.

Omar Jasika, a 20-year-old lefty (currently No. 277), was the 2014 US Open junior singles and doubles champion. He earned the wild card a year ago (down two sets and a break in the third against Marinko Matosevic in the first round a year ago, it wasn’t looking good). 

He’s the No. 5 seed this year.

Two Rodionovas in the women’s draw

A feisty final for the women’s wild card would be No. 1 seed Arina Rodionova against her old sister, No. 7 seed Anastasia. Who doesn’t want to see that?

First up, though, Arina Rodionova faces Tomic. That’s Sara Tomic, Bernard’s younger sister.

Tomic, just 19, reached the semis of the junior girls’ singles two years ago out of the qualifying, reaching a career-best junior ranking of No. 36 in the process.  She’s currently ranked No. 466 on the WTA Tour, and played her entire 2017 season within Australia with the exception of a couple of small events in Thailand in May.

Destanee Aiava, who lost a marathon match this weekend in the finals of the national 18-and-under event to Jaimee Fourlis, is the No. 2 seed.

Livestreaming from all four courts

All four match courts are being livestreamed. That’s a big uptick from a few years ago, when one main court was streamed, with a look-in on a second court.

There’s commentary as well. Tennis Australia uses the event to give less-experienced and aspiring tennis broadcasters an opportunity to work on a live broadcast, which is also a great tool.

Here’s the order of play for Monday (play begins at 10 a.m. in Melbourne, 6 p.m. EST and 3 p.m. PST back in North America).

Men’s singles only on Monday (plus women’s doubles). The women’s singles kicks off on Tuesday.

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It looks as though there will be one hot day. But the rest of the week, the temperatures should be conducive to great tennis.

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(Accu-Weather forecast)

Here are the livestream links.

Court 8

Court 7

Court 10

Court 11

Wang, Kwon earn Australian Open wild cards

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A 16-year-old, Wang Xinyu of China, has won the Australian Open’s Asia-Pacific wild-card playoff.

Wang, currently at a career-high No. 6 in the ITF junior rankings, defeated wild card Abigail Tere-Apisah of Papua, New Guinea 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in a dramatic women’s final Sunday.

There’s a small cheque involved. But the biggest prize is a wild card straight into the singles main draw at next month’s Australian Open.

Part of the trophy ceremony is the bestowing of a player’s accreditation for the Australian Open, which is a really nice touch.

On the men’s side, No. 1 seed Kwon Soon Woo of South Korea rolled over No. 4 seed Li Zhe 6-1, 6-1 to earn his own wild card into the men’s singles draw.

(Yes, that’s former top-20 player Zheng Jie, a former Australian Open doubles champion, in the photo with Wang).

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Kwon was impressive in earning the Asia-Pacific Australian Open wild card in Zhuhai, China.

Wang’s high junior ranking might be a little misleading, given she has piled up ranking points at smaller tournaments in Asia.

She reached the second round at the Australian and US Opens and the third round at the French Open and Wimbledon this year.

But she clearly has potential – a tall, hard hitter who can rip groundstroke winners from anywhere, although with a wildly inconsistent serve.

And it’s an impressive result after a difficult fall in which Wang either retired or handed her opponent a walkover in three matches in the pros. She also went 1-4 in her singles matches at the ITF Junior Masters in late October. There may well have been an injury; she had her right knee taped during the final.

Wang currently is No. 763 in the WTA Tour rankings. Little doubt she’ll be the lowest-ranked player in the women’s singles draw.

As for Kwon, who is 20, the victory means he can skip the regular qualifying at the Australian Open. Ranked a career-best No. 168, he would easily have made the cut there.

Kwon played the Asian Challenger circuit all of 2017 with a couple of exceptions: the qualifying at Wimbledon and at the US Open, where he lost in the first round.

Rare player from New Guinea

Wang’s opponent, Tere-Apisah, has a great story. 

The 25-year-old, whose career-high junior ranking of No. 124 came back in 2009, is at career highs in the WTA Tour rankings nearly nine years later. Unlike her opponent, she wasn’t decked out in the latest Nike. She wore a Wilson dress from several years ago, Nike shoes from the summer of 2016.

Tere-Apisah is the only female player in the history of New Guinea to even have a WTA Tour ranking; another player, Nicole Angat (now retired) played Fed Cup and juniors, but never in the pros.

Wang

She’s at No. 334 in singles, No. 242 in doubles after spending the first and last parts of the year playing ITF events in Australia, and the middle of the year in the U.S. She received a grant from the ITF’s Grand Slam Development Fund this year.

Wild cards galore

The singles wild cards weren’t the only ones at stake in Zhuhai.

The juniors earned wild cards as well. The criteria was an ITF junior ranking higher than 100 (with the expected cutoffs for the junior event at the Australian Open being 100) and at least one WTA/ATP ranking point in singles or doubles on their resumés.

The juniors also could enter the women’s doubles event, if they were eligible. Tang Qianhui, 17, currently ranked No. 154 on the WTA Tour in doubles and Jiang Xinyu, 18 and ranked a career-high No. 90, won the doubles wild card.

The pair defeated Alicja Rosolska and Anna Smith at the Zhuhai Elite Trophy event last month. They also defeated the British team of Katy Dunne and Laura Robson at a $100,000 ITF tournament in Shenzhen a couple of weeks ago.

So they weren’t exactly long shots.

Here’s a list of the other wild-card winners.

Men’s doubles: Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwatana (THA)

Women’s doubles: [2] Jiang Xinyu / Tang Qianhui (CHN)

Boys’ singles: [6] Xiao Linang (CHN)

Girls’ singles: Tang Qianhui (CHN)

(Screenshots from the Aus Open’s Asia-Pacific wild-card livestream)

Bouchard gets wild card into Beijing

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Genie Bouchard will not have to suffer the rigors of qualifying this weekend.

The 23-year-old Canadian has been issued a wild card into the big Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing. Bouchard left her home in Miami Wednesday to head for Asia for the first time during this Asian swing.

It will be Bouchard’s first tournament since losing in the first round of the US Open to Evgeniya Rodina of Russia.

(Update: she’ll play Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia in the first round. For an explanation on how she was able to get a fourth wild card this season, click here).

The China Open offers nearly $6.4 million in prize money. Other than the 10-day events in Indian Wells and Miami, that’s the biggest purse on the WTA Tour.

Bouchard’s ranking stood at No. 74 at the entry deadline. So she was still 14 spots out of the 60-player main draw as of Thursday evening back home. The Canadian would have been unseeded in the qualifying draw as well.

There certainly was a possibility Bouchard would just end her season. Or, at the least, skip the Asian swing entirely. But with a main-draw spot in Beijing, and a main-draw spot in the International-level event in Hong Kong the following week, the issue of a match-rusty Bouchard trying to qualify was off the table.

First appearance in Asia

Citing a slow recovery from the virus she contracted in New York after her first-round exit at the US Open, Bouchard withdrew from the Quebec City WTA event the week after the US Open.

She also withdrew from scheduled participation in the Korean Open in Seoul (main draw). And then, she also pulled out of qualifying for the Premier 5 tournament in Wuhan, China this week.

With the departure of coach Thomas Högstedt, Bouchard will not even have Roberto Brogin with her in Asia. Brogin, who worked with Bouchard when she first returned to the national training centre in Montreal from Florida nearly a decade ago, had filled in at various events in Högstedt’s absence this season.

He also has a full-time job with Tennis Canada at their training centre in Vancouver.

Blast from the past

Diego Ayala will be on board in Asia. Ayala, a coach based in south Florida, began the season with Bouchard down in Australia in 2015 after her split with Nick Saviano. Bouchard knew him from her younger days at Saviano’s academy.

Ayala’s agreement, we’re told is that he’ll be on board for the three tournaments remaining on Bouchard’s schedule for 2017.

So, barring anything unforeseen, that could well mean she intends to remain on the road for both Hong Kong and Luxemberg, two smaller events, to close it out.

At the time, Bouchard would not refer to Ayala as her “coach.” She preferred “hitting partner.” And upon returning home, she hired current Garbiñe Muguruza coach Sam Sumyk as a permanent replacement for Saviano.

But despite not playing any official warmup events, and under pressure to back up her breakthrough semifinal the previous year, Bouchard reached the quarterfinals in Australia with Ayala on board.

She lost in three sets to Maria Sharapova.

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Ayala, whom Bouchard has known since she was a young teenager, will reportedly be on the rest of the Asian swing with her. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Coincidentally, Sharapova also has a wild card into Beijing, announced last month.

The two names have been linked often recently, for other reasons. Their last meeting was blockbuster.

This linkage is a little more unexpected.  First-round wild-card popcorn, anyone?

(Chinese players Zhu Lin, Wang Yafan and Duan Ying-Ying also have wild cards into the main draw).

US Open wild cards announced

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The US Tennis Association announced its US Open wild cards Tuesday.

And, as usual, with the exception of the reciprocal wild cards bartered with the Australian Open and the French Open, they are going to Americans.

There is one notable exception.

Maria Sharapova has been awarded a pass into the women’s singles main draw.

It’s a privilege she was denied at both the French Open and Wimbledon. But as a longtime US resident and a former champion, it seemed a reasonable slam-dunk.

What remains to be seen is whether she can play, after only one match since early May because of injuries.

The awarding of the wild card to the Russian Sharapova is exceptional. Tennis.Life looked back in the draws going back to 2007. And the only non-American or non-reciprocal wild card on the men’s side was … Juan Martin del Potro last year. On the women’s side, the only exception was in 2009, when Kim Clijsters received one.

Both, as with Sharapova, are former champions. 

Here are the wild cards.

Women’s singles

-Former champion Maria Sharapova
-Newly-crowned girls’ national 18s champion Ashley Kratzer
-NCAA champion Brienne Minor
-Taylor Townsend
-Kayla Day
-Wild-card challenge winner Sofia Kenin
-Amandine Hesse (French Federation reciprocal)
-Tennis Australia reciprocal (to be announced)

Men’s singles wild cards

-Taylor Fritz
-Bjorn Fratangelo
-Christopher Eubanks
-NCAA champion Thai-Son Kwiatkoswki
-Newly-crowned boys’ national 18s champion Patrick Kypson
-Wild-card challenge winner Tommy Paul
-Geoffrey Blancaneaux (French Federation reciprocal)
-Alex de Minaur (Tennis Australia reciprocal)

Women’s qualifying wild cards

-Usue Arconada
-Kelly Chen
-Francesca Di Lorenzo
-Victoria Duval
-Ashley Lahey
-Ann Li (junior Wimbledon runner-up)
-Claire Liu (junior Wimbledon champion)
-Whitney Osuigwe (junior French Open champion)
-Katerina Stewart  

Men’s qualifying wild cards

-William Blumberg 
-Marcos Giron
-Christian Harrison
-Evan King
-Bradley Klahn
-Austin Krajicek
-Raymond Sarmiento
-JJ Wolf   

A note of interest is that the average age of the men’s qualifying wild-card recipients is nearly 24; many are former college players. There’s a big group of current Americans either still teenagers or just out of it whose rankings are high enough to get into the main draw or qualifying on their own. But perhaps not so many in the high junior age range – or at least no one good enough that the USTA decided they merited wild cards.

In stark contrast, the average of the women’s qualifying wild-card recipients is just a shade over 18. 

Rogers Cup wild cards announced

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – There were no surprises as the wild cards for the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal and Rogers Cup women’s Premier 5 event in Toronto next week were announced Tuesday.

On the men’s side, Vasek Pospisil and 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov had already received wild cards. Peter Polansky and Brayden Schnur will join them.

On the women’s side, Genie Bouchard and Maria Sharapova already has received free passes. Canadian Françoise Abanda was awarded the third wild card.

Abanda lost her first-round match Monday at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., 6-4, 6-4 to No. 4 seed Julia Goerges.

Veterans and youngsters in qualies

The qualifying wild cards also were announced.

The men: Philip Bester (who announced he was retiring in a few weeks), 2012 Wimbledon and US Open junior champion Filip Peliwo, 18-year-old Benjamin Sigouin and veteran Frank Dancevic.

The women: veteran Aleksandra Wozniak, top doubles player Gabriela Dabrowski, and teenagers Bianca Andreescu and Katherine Sebov.

There was one other qualifying wild card available. But Tennis Canada bartered it, trading it to Tennis Australia in exchange for a main draw wild card in Sydney for Bouchard at the beginning of the season.

Andreescu made her WTA Tour-level main-draw debut Monday at the Citi Open. She upset Camila Giorgi of Italy in the first round.

One final wild card into the qualifying will go to the winner of a pre-qualifying tournament taking place this week in Toronto. Among those expected to play was Carol Zhao, the former Stanford University player.

Zhao is at the Stanford WTA Tour event this week, having received a wild card into the doubles draw.

Sharapova, Azarenka among Cincy WCs

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The joint ATP/WTA Tour event in Cincinnati next month announced its women’s wild cards Thursday.

The lucky recipients are Maria Sharapova (who also has a wild card into the Rogers Cup event in Toronto the previous week), Victoria Azarenka, comebacking American Sloane Stevens and Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Vondrousova, who just turned 18, already is at a career-high No. 74 in the WTA Tour rankings. 

She won her first Tour title in Biel, Switzerland in the spring. And in that event, she went from the qualifying to the trophy. Vondrousova upset No. 1 seed Barbora Strycova in the semifinals and Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in the final.

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Vondrousova played Kasatkina, who defeated her in that French Open junior final, in the big girls’ division this year. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years ago, when she was still just 15, Vondrousova was the No. 1 junior in the world. She never won a junior Grand Slam title. But at 14, she was a semi-finalist at the junior French Open (losing to Daria Kasatkina) and at Wimbledon (losing to Jelena Ostapenko).

Vondrousova also was a semifinalist in the Paris juniors the next year, in 2015.

Stephens, Azarenka and Sharapova all coming back

Stephens is on the comeback trail from foot surgery. The American made her return at Wimbledon this year, playing singles, doubles and mixed. She won one round in women’s doubles. But at least the former world No. 11 is back.

Technically, her actual current ranking is No. 926. And Azarenka’s actual ranking this week is No. 203.

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Stephens, who had been out all season after foot surgery, got her tennis shoes wet at Wimbledon earlier this month. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Sharapova, who hasn’t played since suffering a thigh injury and retiring from her match at the Italian Open in early May, is scheduled to return next week at Stanford after playing a few matches in World Team Tennis.

Azarenka doesn’t technically need wild cards, as she can use a protected ranking of No. 6 to enter wherever she likes. But the new mom didn’t enter either Cincinnati or Montreal before the deadline.

She can avail herself of top-20 wild cards, without them counting against the limited number of tournaments in which she uses the protected ranking.

Citi Open WCs add to stellar field

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The fields – especially on the men’s side as a 500-level tournament – were already very good at the Citi Open.

But on Wednesday, the tournament announced even more players for the joint ATP/WTA event, which will take place the first week of August.

On the men’s side, Canadian Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, the No. 9 and No. 10 players in the current ATP Tour rankings, have accepted wild cards.

On the women’s side, No. 2 Simona Halep also has taken a wild card. The other women’s wild card is American Sloane Stephens, who is returning from foot surgery and only debuted her season at Wimbledon.

The Citi Open already gave one to Kei Nishikori. So with these additions, as well as the entry of Dominic Thiem, that’s a total of four current top-10 players.

Add to that No. 11 Alexander Zverev, Gaël Monfils and Juan Martin del Potro, and that’s a stellar cast.

Halep boosts women’s field

On the women’s side, the addition of Halep is a much-needed boost. Prior to that, the only top-40 players were Kristina Mladenovic and Lauren Davis. Canadian Genie Bouchard is also in the field. The tournament competes with the Premier-level event in Stanford, California, held the same week.

That event not only has Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, it also has new Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza as well as top Americans Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe.

The addition of Raonic, who defeated countryman and Davis Cup teammate Vasek Pospisil to win the tournament in 2014,  is an interesting case.

After his quarter-final loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Raonic said that he would likely ask for a wild card into the D.C. event.

Players ranked in the top 30 have certain minimum requirements in terms of tournaments played. If they don’t play them, they get what’s called a “zero-pointer” that counts in their rankings calculation. 

For example, if they skip Indian Wells, they can’t substitute a smaller event’s ranking points under any circumstances.

ATP rules mean tough commitments

The players (unless they are exempt) have to play four 500-level tournaments every season. And one of those has to be after the US Open.

Raonic had some interesting things to say about those commitments during that Wimbledon press conference. The thoughts came in response to a question about Federer’s six-month sabbatical, and the possibility that No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic might also be considering a break.

Team World
Raonic has played one 500 level so far this season, a first-round loss at Queen’s Club. He needs to play three more, or risk getting zero points in his rankings calculation.

I guess that’s the one thing, the tour, everything is about sort of equality week in and week out. Everybody has the same standards they have to play against. Over the last few years, there’s been this standard that if you’re above a certain age, have played a certain amount of matches, or certain years of service, you can start missing out on Masters, these kind of things, without any penalties,” Raonic said.

“I find myself in that sort of situation right now, where I do have to find a 500 to squeeze into my schedule so I don’t sit with a zero (points) for 52 weeks. Sitting with a zero for 52 weeks is something else. I sat with a zero because of Indian Wells for 52 weeks.

“I think it should be the same rule for everybody. As long as you’re playing on tour, for obvious equality, everybody should be expected to show up at each and every tournament if that’s the standard. Or nobody should have to have it as a mandatory event. I don’t think there should be any differential, which there is at this moment,” he added.

Raonic needs three more 500s

Raonic has played just one 500-level tournament so far (Queen’s Club) along with four 250-level tournaments. Players like him can get nice guarantees for showing up at that tier of event. So the rules can certainly affect their livelihood, along with their ranking.

The result of those parameters is that the Citi Open is getting another top-10 player. So perhaps the question answers itself.