©Colette Lewis 2015--
Eight years ago, Nicole Vaidisova was in the WTA Top Ten. Now, after more than four years away from the game, she is back competing, and after a difficult start to the year, the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic has qualified for the $100,000 Dow Corning Tennis Classic.
In the first three tournaments Vaidisova competed in this year, all $25,000 Pro Circuit events in Florida on Har-Tru, she failed to make it out of qualifying, losing to teenagers Anna Bondar, Natalia Vikhlyantseva and Tena Lukas. But on a wintery Tuesday morning, in front of a sparse crowd inside the Midland Community Tennis Center, as far removed from the atmosphere at in her Australian Open semifinal eight years ago as can be imagined, she looked every bit the top player she once was, defeating Nicole Melichar 6-0, 6-3.
But as well as she played, serving well, hitting big, making few errors, Vaidisova said it is way too early in her comeback to take any win for granted.
"I've been off the game for almost five years, and no match is an obvious win for me at this point," said Vaidisova, who began her comeback last fall and is playing in her eighth tournament since then. "Any match I win, for me is great. I had two shoulder surgeries, and it was a combination of a lot of factors, but a long time of it was because of my injuries."
As for what changed between last month in Florida and this week, when she won all three of her qualifying matches in straight sets, Vaidisova mentioned two possibilities.
"I think this surface suits me better, and just match play," she said. "I obviously haven't played in a long time, and a lack of matches is a huge factor for me, so the more I play the better for me, obviously. Of course it feels good. That's why we're here, to win matches and get as far as possible."
As for getting back to the top of the game, Vaidisova is cautious about making any predictions.
"I've just played five or six tournaments, so we'll see how it goes each week, but so far I'm healthy, which is the biggest factor for me. How well I'll do, I don't know and I don't really set myself up for a goal at this point. For me, it's playing the best I can, performing and feeling good about my body, my matches, my performances and being patient. I need to be patient."
Such is the interest in her comeback that she has been given the prime evening feature match for her second round Wednesday against unseeded Nao Hibino of Japan. Admission is free to the tournament during the day, but the evening session, played on the stadium court surrounded by corporate boxes, draws large crowds out for an evening of dinner and tennis, producing an atmosphere that Vaidisova surely remembers from her years on the WTA tour.
Tuesday night's crowd saw a major upset, with Jessica Pegula, who was out with an injury for almost all of 2014, defeating No. 2 seed Sorana Cirstea of Romania 6-3, 6-3. The 20-year-old, who used a protected ranking to get in to the tournament, went 1-2 in the two Florida tournaments she played last month.
In addition to Vaidisova, Naomi Cavaday of Great Britain, Danielle Lao and Alexandra Stevenson also qualified. Stevenson, who won this tournament back in 1998, defeated Kristie Ahn 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in a match that went nearly three hours. Cavaday, another player coming back from an early retirement, defeated Jacqueline Cako 6-4, 6-4, and Lao topped Oleksandra Korashvili of Ukraine 6-4, 6-1.
In main draw play Tuesday, Naomi Osaka of Japan defeated Emily Webley-Smith of Great Britain 6-1, 3-6, 7-5; No. 8 seed Louisa Chirico defeated Maria Sakkari of Greece 7-6(2), 6-1, Asia Muhammad beat Samantha Crawford 6-0, 6-2 and Katerina Vankova of the Czech Republic downed Julie Coin of France 7-5, 6-3.
Caitlin Whoriskey, the former Tennessee All-American, posted one of her best wins, defeating Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, the No. 4 seed 7-6(3), 6-2. Whoriskey, who is at a career-high ranking of 316, had expected to play qualifying, but several late withdrawals moved her into the main draw. After several years of not seeing her ranking improve much, Whoriskey moved up more than 200 spots last year, a rise she attributes to her return home to Cape Cod.
"Once I finished up school (2010), I thought I could do it on my own," said the 26-year-old. "It turned out I wasn't able to, so I ended up maturing a little bit, asking people for help, scheduling practices, having a coach work with me. I've also moved back to my home town, so I feel a little bit more at ease. My family's there, and it's not just travel, travel, travel. Since last year, I've been working really hard on fitness and my mental game."
Against the 127th-ranked Jabeur, the 2011 French Open girls champion, Whoriskey was prepared for a tight match.
"I felt it was indoor tennis, so it might come down to a third set tiebreaker," Whoriskey said. "I wanted to focus solely on my service games, and try to hold as much as I could, and if I did that, the pressure would be on her. The time I did get broken, it happens, but she played a good game. After the first set, I did relax a little bit more and maybe she was tight and going for a little too much on her shots. My game plan worked well."
Whoriskey slices well with her one-handed backhand, but the 20-year-old Jabeur is also effective with her slice, and many of their rallies saw that shot featured, including match point, which Whoriskey won with slices followed by a drive backhand that forced an error.
"I kind of thought maybe indoor doesn't suit her game," Whoriskey said. "But because I've been training up in Massachusetts, playing inside all the time, I feel right at home."
And that goes for all the snow piled up around the Tennis Center too.
"We've gotten like three feet," she said, as she zipped up her University of Tennessee down jacket.
Top seed Nicole Gibbs is in action on Stadium Court against Mayo Hibi on Wednesday, immediately after No. 3 seed Jovana Jaksic plays wild card Caroline Dolehide. Sara Daavettila, the Williamston High School junior who won the wild card tournament for a place in the main draw, will play No. 5 seed Anna Tatishvili at 10 a.m. on Court 5. Daavettila and her partner, 14-year-old Alyvia Jones of Midland, who received a wild card into the doubles draw, battled Sachia Vickery and Cako in a first round doubles match Tuesday afternoon on Stadium court, but eventually fell 7-6(3), 6-3.
The draws and order of play for Wednesday is available at the tournament website. A link to the live streaming of Stadium Court matches can also be found there.