Sunday, July 17, 2016

Local favorites Bellis, Larcher de Brito fall in Stockton

No. 3 seed Alison Van Uytvanck edged 17-year-old
CiCi Bellis of Atherton 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinals
of the Stockton Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   STOCKTON, Calif. -- Alison Van Uytvanck and Anastasia Pivovarova knocked out the last two local favorites on Saturday in the University of the Pacific $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger.
   But fans at the new $4 million Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center shouldn't be too disappointed. Van Uytvanck and Pivovarova (pronounced Pee-vo-VAR-oh-va) have big games and compelling stories.
   Van Uytvanck, seeded third, used her versatility and dominating serve to edge 17-year-old CiCi Bellis of Atherton in the San Francisco Bay Area 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the first semifinal.
   Then Pivovarova overcame a slow start to defeat Michelle Larcher de Brito, who helped the now-defunct Sacramento Capitals win the 2007 World TeamTennis title at 14 years old, 6-4, 6-4 in a matchup of unseeded players.
   Van Uytvanck, a 22-year-old Belgian, and Pivovarova, a 26-year-old Russian, will meet for the first time today at 1 p.m. in a clash of tall, powerful players.
   It's the second straight year that a Belgian has reached the Stockton final. An-Sophie Mestach, the world's top junior in 2011, lost to Nao Hibino of Japan in last year's inaugural tournament. Neither returned this year.
   And coincidentally, a Belgian (Justine Henin) and a Russian (Marat Safin) were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., on Saturday.
   Playing with an ankle injury that eventually would require surgery, the 5-foot-11 (1.80-meter) Van Uytvanck somehow reached the French Open quarterfinals last year.
CiCi Bellis "has a lot of potential," according to Alison Van Uytvanck.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   After qualifying in Nuremberg the week before Roland Garros, Van Uytvanck hurt her right ankle in a first-round loss to Carina Witthoeft of Germany.
   "I was playing one day, and the next day I couldn't walk even," said the red-headed Van Uytvanck, who has plunged from a career-high No. 41 last October to No. 125. "I did pretty well with this (in the French Open), but I had one day in between (matches) always, and that's why I recovered really well."
   Van Uytvanck finally had surgery this past spring and missed two months.
   "I had a pain for like one year already, and we decided to make the surgery because it was getting worse and worse and I couldn't play anymore," she said. "So it was a tough moment for me, but now it's done, I feel good, and the ankle is good. I need matches, and I'm doing pretty well here, so I'm happy."
   The 6-foot (1.82-meter) Pivovarova, meanwhile, has had more physical problems than a UFC fighter.
   "Pretty much every year I was not playing for five or six months," she lamented.
   Pivovarova, who's ranked No. 213 after climbing as high as No. 93 in 2011, even retired in 2012 after contracting mononucleosis and took a government job renting and selling properties in Moscow. However, she recovered after 18 months and returned to the circuit.
Anastasia Pivovarova, who has a long history of physical
problems, defeated Michelle Larcher de Brito 6-4, 6-4.
Photo by Paul Bauman 
   "It was difficult to sit in an office for hours after you've been traveling for years and never in one place for more than a month," Pivovarova said. "So to stay half a year at the same place was a challenge."
   Pivovarova also suffered back, shoulder and elbow injuries, tore an abdominal muscle and broke a wrist.
   Van Uytvanck kept the 5-foot-7 (1.68-meter), 110-pound (50-kilogram) Bellis guessing with her punishing serve and groundstrokes, a fiendish backhand slice and a wicked drop shot.
   Van Uytvanck served for the match at 5-3 in the third set but played a loose game and was broken. She quickly recovered, however, to break Bellis at 15 and advance.
   "She's playing well," Van Uytvanck said. "She's pretty young. She has a lot of potential. It was tough for me sometimes, but I was able to vary my game a lot. I think that made quite a difference, and the serve also made a difference."
   Van Uytvanck blasted nine aces and won 84.2 percent of the points on her first serve (32 of 38). She was even better on her second serve, winning 86.2 percent of the points (25 of 29).
   "It was so frustrating," moaned Bellis, who had no aces and eight double faults. "She has an unbelievable serve. I couldn't really do anything about it."
   A victory in the singles final would give Van Uytvanck a sweep of the Stockton titles. The fourth-seeded team of Van Uytvanck and Kristyna Pliskova beat unseeded Americans Robin Anderson and Maegan Manasse, a Cal star, 6-2, 6-3 for the doubles crown.
   Pliskova, a 6-foot (1.84-meter) Czech, is the 24-year-old twin of Karolina Pliskova, who's ranked 16th in singles.
Michelle Larcher de Brito, now 23, helped the now-defunct
Sacramento Capitals win the 2007 World TeamTennis title
at 14 years old. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Larcher de Brito, a 23-year-old Portugal native who lives in Bradenton, Fla., bolted to a 4-1 lead in the first set, but Pivovarova reeled off five straight games for the set.
   "At the beginning of the match, it was really tough to play," said Pivovarova, who has a strong serve and hard, flat groundstrokes. "I couldn't get the rhythm, but I just tried to keep going, and then finally I found it. When I found my game, it was difficult for her to play against me."
   What the 5-foot-5 (1.65-meter), 125-pound (57-kilogram) Larcher de Brito lacks in size, she makes up for with heart. She has beaten former No. 1s Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic and two-time Grand Slam singles champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, all on grass.
  Larcher de Brito saved three match points against Pivovarova while holding serve for 4-5 in the second set, but Pivovarova held at 30 to end it.
   "She's a big competitor," Pivovarova said. "I know her since a long time ago. We played juniors at the same time. I know she beat a lot of good players.
   "She's a tough opponent, and her strength is fighting spirit. She's quite famous for being down and then winning, so it was quite a challenge for me to close the match."

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