MIDLAND, Mich., February 11, 2011 â€“ Rebecca Marino is the first to tell you that sheâ€™s not playing her best tennis at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic this week. She was two points from defeat in the first round, pushed by a 15-year-old in the second round and stretched to three sets in the quarterfinals by a qualifier.
Faced with adversity from the moment her flight to Midland was canceled on Monday, the Canadian has been consistently persistent ever since. She ended the Cinderella run of 30-year-old American Alexandra Stevenson 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 on Friday to reach the semifinals.
â€œIn this tournament, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m playing how I would like to play,â€ said Marino, 20. â€œBut I think Iâ€™m improving and I hope I can continue to get my ranking up.â€
The second-seeded Marino entered the $100,000 USTA Pro Circuit event on quite the hot streak. She reached the second round of the US Open as a qualifier, won three consecutive $50,000 ITF tournaments last fall and then pushed Francesca Schiavone to 9-7 in the third set at the Australian Open.
Enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 84, Marino played a pair of singles matches for the Canadian Fed Cup tie in Serbia last weekend, which complicated her plans to compete in Midland. Her third and final flight on Monday was canceled, keeping her overnight in Chicago.
She practiced for the first time at the Midland Community Tennis Center on Tuesday at 6 p.m., before edging Americans Alexa Glatch and Victoria Duval on consecutive days.
Back on court at 10 a.m. on Friday, Marino sluggishly stumbled through the early stages of her third singles match in 48 hours. Stevenson broke the six-foot Canadianâ€™s serve in the opening game, and then bashed a short ball for a down-the-line forehand winner for the insurance break and a 5-2 lead.
Stevenson secured the first set 6-2 in only 24 minutes with a service hold at love.
â€œI had a rough start and Iâ€™m not very happy with that,â€ said Marino. â€œBut I think as soon as the second set started, I told myself that I had a clean slate. That was pretty much it. I woke up a bit.â€
After being limited to three forehand winners in the first set, Marino found her strongest stroke when she needed it most. Facing two break points in the first game of the second set, Marino saved both with unreachable forehands, and a third when Stevenson sliced a shot into the net.
Following six deuces, Marino held with an ace up the tee. That sparked a stretch in which Marino hit seven aces in nine service points â€“ including three on second serves.
But there was still the issue of breaking Stevenson. Through the midway point of the second set, Marino had yet to earn a break point.
Leading 3-2 in the second set, Marino managed to reach 15-40. The 1998 Midland champion saved the first break point with a daring down-the-line backhand winner off of a deep ball, and then the second with a service winner.
One deuce later, the players engaged in the longest rally of the match as Marino crushed forehands and Stevenson stayed alive with slice backhands. After opening up the court, Marino ended the exchange with a crosscourt forehand winner.
She finally broke Stevensonâ€™s serve by stretching to return a strong first serve, and then bashing a backhand winner.
Marino went on to serve out the set with another second serve ace down the tee.
â€œI thought she was going to clue into it a bit, but I guess not and I donâ€™t mind,â€ said Marino. â€œI love hitting that one because it catches everyone off guard.â€
Neither player faced a break point in the final set until Stevenson let two game points slip away at 3-3. All Marino needed was one chance to take a 4-3 lead, unloading on a backhand return deep down the middle of the court that Stevenson couldnâ€™t get out of the way of.
Though her serves and forehands draw undeniable attention, Marinoâ€™s backhand proved to be the difference in Fridayâ€™s match.
â€œI was happy that it was better today than it was yesterday,â€ said Marino. â€œThat was one thing that I thought I could have improved. So after I got off the court, I worked on that and I think that helped a bit to get the feel.â€
Marino hit her 12th and 13th aces of the match to hold for 5-3 before clinching a spot in the semifinals by forcing a Stevenson error.
In the semifinals, Marino will take on another player currently at a career-high ranking: Irina Falconi. The unseeded American will move up to around No. 143 on WTA Tour after defeating countrywoman Madison Brengle 6-2, 6-3.
Competing in college at this time last year, Falconi is fast approaching her goal of direct entry into the French Open main draw. Sheâ€™ll need to be in the Top 104 by April 11 to guarantee a spot.
â€œIâ€™ve been traveling a lot, just getting used to the whole weekly in-and-out,â€ said Falconi, 20. â€œAll these girls have been doing it for such a long time and Iâ€™m playing catch up. Iâ€™m getting there quicker than I thought.â€
Falconi is eight inches shorter than Marino, which creates a mismatch in power when the two play. But the American is adept at other facets of the game, and has not been afraid to serve-and-volley on a regular basis in Midland.
In their only career meeting, Marino defeated Falconi 7-6(6), 6-7(3), 6-2 at the USTA Pro Circuit event in Troy, Ala., last fall.
â€œIt helps when youâ€™re six-feet-tall and have a 130 easy serve and a 120 second serve,â€ said Falconi. â€œIâ€™ve played her before and sheâ€™s a hell of a competitor. Sure she can hit the ball hard, but all these girls can hit the ball Mach 50.â€
Joining Falconi and Marino in the semifinals is No. 7 seed Ksenia Pervak of Russia, who has yet to drop a set at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic this week. She defeated qualifier Ahsha Rolle 7-6(4), 6-4 on Friday.
With Rolle hampered by a right ankle injury, Pervak played a patient match while the American unleashed ferocious forehands and serves in an effort to shorten the points.
â€œShe is not the quickest player, but she has big serves, big forehands and itâ€™s not typical for women to hit backhand slices, which are very uncomfortable,â€ said Pervak. â€œHer weapons help her not to run, so the injury was not a big deal.â€
Pervak held the only break point of the entire first set in the opening game, which Rolle saved with a running forehand winner. On serve in the tiebreak at 3-4, Rolle lost her two service points, allowing Pervak to take a one-set lead with a crisp cross-court backhand.
Pervak prevented trouble at 3-3 in the second set by calmly taking her time between points. She held for 4-3 after saving two break points with winners and a third when Rolle ripped a forehand long.
â€œI was already nervous, so to show this would have been too difficult,â€ said Pervak. â€œI tried to be calm and I knew that my serve was very important because her serve was pretty hard to break.â€
The Russian broke Rolleâ€™s serve for the first time in the last game, dipping a crosscourt forehand pass at the Americanâ€™s feet to wrap up the win.
She and Marino are roommates this week at the residence of Bruce and Carey Racey. Mr. Racey is the transportation coordinator at the tournament and has housed players 13 of the last 14 years during the Dow Corning Tennis Classic.
Heâ€™s never hosted a semifinalist before â€“ much less two.
â€œItâ€™s my first time staying with a family and I can say that itâ€™s been very good,â€ said Pervak. â€œAt first, I was a little bit scared because I didnâ€™t know them, but they are very nice people. Theyâ€™ve done their best for us and I appreciate it.â€
For Raceyâ€™s dream final of Pervak vs. Marino to come true, the Russian will need to dethrone one of the most successful players in the history of the Dow Corning Tennis Classic.
Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic is one win away from becoming the first player to reach three consecutive singles finals in the tournamentâ€™s 23-year history.
Playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,300 spectators on Friday evening, Hradecka saved two match points to edge German Sabine Lisicki 6-1, 2-6, 7-6(3).
â€œWe played good tennis and I was trying to concentrate and put in all my power,â€ said Hradecka. â€œIt was very tough to concentrate on my serve. There was a lot of pressure if I were to lose my service games.â€
In the first set, Lisicki missed too many first serves, allowing Hradecka to hammer return winners as if the tennis ball were placed squarely on a tee.
But the 2009 champion and 2010 runner-up lost the range on her flat, two-handed groundstrokes in the second set, allowing Lisicki to even the match.
Twice in the final set, Hradecka had a break advantage against the German, who until an ankle injury last season was a regular on the WTA Tour and ranked inside the Top 25.
Lisicki rallied each time, erasing 0-3 and 2-4 deficits before breaking Hradecka with an inside-out forehand winner to take a 6-5 lead and serve for the match.
She double-faulted her first match point away at 40-30, and then lost an advantage when Hradecka cracked a deep return that drew an error.
â€œOn her first match point when she hit the double fault, I thought to myself that maybe I had a chance,â€ said Hradecka.
She was right.
Hradecka converted her first break point of the 12th game to force a tiebreak when a Lisicki down-the-line forehand was called wide.
The German argued that the ball hit the line, but to no avail, and Hradecka hit consecutive forehand winners to secure her first match point at 6-2 in the tiebreaker. She clinched victory on her second chance with another crosscourt forehand that Lisicki could not handle.
â€œI certainly never gave up, even after a pretty bad first set for me,â€ said Lisicki. â€œI had my chances to win and I didnâ€™t take them. The muscle memory is still not 100 percent there, where everything goes automatic. I think that was one of the reasons why I couldnâ€™t finish it off because usually I have no problems serving a match out.â€
After the match, Lisicki was honored with the tournamentâ€™s Barbara Malan Toughest Competitor Award. Having been generous all week with media, volunteers and fans, Lisicki left Midland in the same manner in which she arrived: Graciously.
â€œI didnâ€™t get the trophy that I wanted to, but I got an amazing award,â€ Lisicki told the fans in an on-court presentation. â€œI enjoyed my time in Midland. Iâ€™m really sad and disappointed that I cannot continue to play in front of you.
â€œIt was a really tough year for me last year. Iâ€™m just coming back now and Iâ€™m fighting. I want to get back where I was. I hope that soon Iâ€™ll be up there again and I donâ€™t have to come back, but I wouldnâ€™t mind coming back.â€
Semifinal Saturday at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic features two separate sessions. General admission tickets to each session cost $12 for adults and $8 for children.
Falconi and Marino will contest the first singles semifinal starting at noon. Following a short rest break, the American will return to the court with Alison Riske to play Gabriela Dabrowski and Whitney Jones in a doubles semifinal.
In the 6 p.m. evening session, Hradecka will play Pervak, and then Jamie Hampton and Anna Tatishvili will take on Ahsha Rolle and Mashona Washington in the other doubles semifinal.
By Joshua Rey
ABOUT THE USTA PRO CIRCUIT:
With more than 90 tournaments throughout the country and prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, the USTA Pro Circuit is the pathway to the US Open and tour-level competition for aspiring tennis players and a frequent battleground for established professionals. The USTA launched its Pro Circuit 32 years ago to provide players with the opportunity to gain professional ranking points, and it has since grown to become the largest developmental tennis circuit in the world, offering more than $3 million in prize money. Last year, more than 1,000 men and women from more than 70 countries competed in cities nationwide. Among those who have played at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic are seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin, former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova, reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and 2011 Australian Open runner-up Na Li.