By Roger Hudson
I’ve formulated an ambitious plan for Tuesday at the 2012 AEGON International, I’m going to try to watch at least some of the matches played by the top three seeds in the WTA draw – Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki. In the end, I watch as all three are dismissed by lower-ranked opponents.
Kvitova, the defending Wimbledon champion, opened the day’s play on Centre Court against Ekaterina Makarova – a former Eastbourne champion who has beaten seven Top 20 players on these courts over the years.
Kvitova started beautifully to serve for the set at 5-4, but her early fluidity and confidence disappears, and her forehand leaks errors to be broken back. A couple of games later the Czech Republic puts a down-the-line backhand long to lose the opening set 7-5.
Having been played into the match by her opponent’s many errors, Makarova is quick to seize her opportunity. Pressed hard on serve early in the second set, the Russian unerringly targets Kvitova’s forehand whenever she is break-point down, eliciting errors. Kvitova looks increasingly miserable and is broken in short order.
While she finds a flurry of those magnificent winners to break back as Makarova serves for the match, a double fault and poor backhand in Kvitova’s next service game open the door again.
After scampering in to wrong foot Kvitova and a strong return, Makarova eventually wins 7-5 6-4, sending the Wimbledon champion off to SW19 a little earlier than expected.
Over on Court 1 Radwanska fell to Tsvetana Pironkova. Russian star Pironkova had never progressed beyond the 2nd Round here in six attempts, which is surprising as she’s beaten Venus Williams twice at Wimbledon (to reach the quarter-finals in 2011 and the semi-finals in 2010).
The dainty-looking Pironkova has always struggled with slicing her forehand rather than hitting through it. But she had no problems using that side to dictate play today.
As I arrived Radwanska was serving at 2-3 in the first set, as the Bulgarian ran her from side to side. The world no3 is generally considered a crafty player with a bulging bag of tricks, but it was Pironkova who took the initiative by throwing in a short slice and volleying behind it to take the first break of serve.
Two games later Pironkova struck a clean forehand winner for a set point, then a return winner down the line to take the opening set 6-2.
After a brief resurgence in the second set, Radwanska’s poor serving lets Pironkova – who won 6-2 6-4 – dominate the rallies and break back immediately for 2-2.
But I can’t stay because over on Centre Court there’s another upset brewing as Wozniacki has lost the first set to Christina McHale 6-1.
Joining the match at the beginning of the second set I can see how McHale, who already had one win over Wozniacki, managed to dominate the first set so conclusively.
The two are similar in so far that both are more conspicuous for a tireless work ethic and competitive spirit than a particular big shot.
But McHale today did one thing that Wozniacki can’t, or won’t, do – taking the ball early on her forehand, flattening it out, driving the ball deep, and going for winners.
The American is also consistently attacking down the lines, something Wozniacki does reluctantly, if at all.
Watching how a similar player has improved her forehand and aggressive instincts underlines the lack of similar improvement in Wozniacki’s game since she reached world no1. But the Dane is still a top player, and she plays a delightfully cagey rally to break and lead 3-2.
There was a noticeable change in Wozniacki’s service stance today, placing her right foot further behind her to widen her stance and obliquely change the angle at which she stands to the baseline.
McHale was quick to pick up on the change, landing deep forehand returns to break back for 5-4, but also making more unforced errors. It’s one too many, a backhand wide, that loses her the second set 9-7 on a tiebreak.
One thing that McHale did magnificently was to stick to her guns.
Breaking early in the third to lead 2-1, the American continued to go for her shots, even when a poor game leads to Wozniacki recovering the break.
At 4-4 McHale dragged Wozniacki into the net and passes her, then plays another punishing rally and puts the ball too low for the Dane to handle to earn three break points. McHale breaks, but it’s a struggle to serve out the match, as Wozniacki finally hits out on her forehand whenever she is down match point.
On McHale’s fourth match point, earned with a pair of blinding winners, she crosses the finish line to win 6-1 6-7 6-4 for the third big upset of the day.