Monday, August 6, 2018

Buzarnescu blitzes Sakkari for San Jose title

Mihaela Buzarnescu poses with her trophy in front
of two San Jose State Spartan statues and a Spartan
helmet. The inaugural Mubadala Silicon Valley Clas-
sic was held at San Jose State University. Photo by
Paul Bauman
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   SAN JOSE, Calif. -- After the inaugural Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, it's safe to say the tournament has nowhere to go but up.
   Not that there was anything wrong with the event itself at San Jose State. The organizers did a remarkable job pulling it together in six months after the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford abruptly ended after 21 years.
   But Mihaela Buzarnescu's 6-1, 6-0 shellacking of Maria Sakkari in Sunday's final capped a bizarre week marked by the exits of all five marquee players before the semifinals. One came by a shocking loss, two by withdrawal, one by retirement and one by a big upset.
   Serena Williams' stay lasted all of 51 minutes. Admittedly distracted, she suffered the worst loss of her career -- also 6-1, 6-0 -- to Johanna Konta on Tuesday night in a first-round matchup of former Bank of the West champions.
   The top two seeds, Garbine Muguruza (arm) and 2017 Bank of the West champion Madison Keys (wrist), pulled out on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, before hitting a ball in a match.
   Victoria Azarenka retired with a back injury against American Danielle Collins in a Friday afternoon quarterfinal, and third-seeded Venus Williams, 38, blew multiple leads in a straight-set loss to the unseeded Sakkari that night.
   As if all that wasn't enough, the fifth-seeded Buzarnescu topped an ailing Elise Mertens, seeded fourth, in three sets in a Saturday afternoon semifinal.
   The Williams sisters, Muguruza and Azarenka are all former world No. 1s with multiple Grand Slam singles titles. Keys climbed to a career-high No. 7 in 2016 and reached last year's U.S. Open final.
   Withdrawals and retirements are common at this time of year. Players are cautious, especially in the heat, with the U.S. Open only three weeks away.
   Today's final was the most lopsided in the 48-year history of the San Francisco Bay Area stop of the WTA tour, the longest-running women's tournament in the world. Four times, the champion had surrendered two games in the final. Most recently, Martina Hingis thrashed both Monica Seles 6-2, 6-0 indoors in Oakland in 1996 and Conchita Martinez 6-0, 6-2 outdoors at Stanford the following year. All three are International Tennis Hall of Famers. 
   The left-handed Buzarnescu claimed her first career WTA singles title at age 30 in her third final, all this year. Unable to play for 2 1/2 years because of two knee surgeries, she earned a Ph.D. in sports science in her native Romania in December 2016.
   Buzarnescu, who also has had shoulder problems, notched her 35th tour-level win of 2018. Before this season, her career total was three. Ranked No. 142 one year ago, she rose four notches to No. 20 with the title.
   "I just didn't give up because I had my closest friends and family who supported me, and the other coach (Fratila Septimiu) I started working with last year, they all trusted me and believed in me," said Buzarnescu, who pocketed $136,695 for the title. "They said I'm capable to come back and reach top hundred, which I never believed would be possible."
   The low point, Buzarnescu said, was "after my second surgery when I got the result and there was nothing good with my knee and I still had the pain. I didn't know what to do anymore. I was seeing so many doctors and doing everything that I was able to do in order to get the pain away, but it didn't happen. That's when I thought that maybe I have no chances to play tennis and I started the Ph.D. because I thought I have to find some other job. I was really sad and depressed that I wasn't able to play tennis."
Mihaela Buzarnescu, who earned a Ph.D. while recovering from two knee
operations, won her first WTA title at age 30. Photo by Mal Taam
   Sakkari, 23, of Greece could not overcome the physical and mental toll of come-from-behind victories on the previous two nights and a case of nerves in her first WTA final. After upsetting Venus Williams, a two-time Bank of the West champion (2000 and 2002) and six-time runner-up, Sakkari rallied from a set and two breaks down to stun Collins on Saturday night.
   "I woke up, and I was still tired from yesterday," conceded Sakkari, who jumped 18 places to a career-high No. 31 by reaching the final and collected $72,835. "I didn't have so many hours to recover, but that's not an excuse. I didn't lose the match because I was tired. She was very good today. I was not a hundred percent. I was not moving great. It's one of my weapons. It wasn't easy after two long matches and very intense days to go out there and be exactly the same person I was the last couple of days."
   Sakkari's 19-year-old countryman, Stefanos Tsitsipas, reached the semifinals of the concurrent Citi Open in Washington, D.C., on the ATP World Tour. Recent wildfires on the outskirts of Athens, like those that have ravaged Northern California the past two summers, have killed 91 people. Arson is suspected.
   "I left Greece 10 days ago, and it was maybe the worst situation we've had for the last ... for a long time with fires, and a lot of people died," Sakkari said. "Me and Stefanos, we made people a little bit more happy. I received so many messages saying, 'We're very proud of you two.' "
   On a breezy, 85-degree (29.4 Celsius) afternoon, the slender, 5-foot-9 (1.75-meter) Buzarnescu was as steady as the muscular, 5-foot-8 (1.72-meter) Sakkari was erratic in their first career meeting.
   "She was extremely solid from the beginning of the match," said Sakkari, whose mother, former player Angeliki Kanellopoulou, peaked at No. 43 in 1987. "She was not hitting winners, but she was not missing. She was serving clever. I was doing nothing on court, so she could do anything she wanted. She took the opportunity because I was not playing good."
Maria Sakkari said her success and that of Stefanos Tsitsipas last week lifted
the spirits of their fellow Greeks after wildfires near Athens killed 91 people.
Photo by Mal Taam
   Buzarnescu -- backed by a vocal group of flag-waving Romanians in the half-full, 3,100-seat stadium -- triumphed in 1 hour, 13 minutes. The last two games of the first set, one of which Sakkari actually won, consumed a good chunk of that time with nine deuces and Sakkari surviving four set points. But that was all the fight she had left.
   Buzarnescu saved all four break points against her in the match and won 72 percent of the points on Sakkari's second serve (18 of 25).
   Three of Buzarnescu's five singles matches in the tournament went to three sets, bringing her total to a tour-leading 19 this year.
   As for Sakkari, how's this for irony? She crushed eighth-seeded Timea Babos of Hungary 6-0, 6-1 in 56 minutes in the second round. Now she knows how Babos felt.
   "I have to erase it once I leave this tennis club," Sakkari declared. "I play in two days (against 12th-seeded Daria Kasatkina in Montreal), I have to travel tonight, (and) I have to practice tomorrow. You don't have so much time to think.
   "OK, it was a very good week. I lost today, but it's over. Now my mind has to be on the next tournament."
Romanian fans wave flags during Sunday's final. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Buzarnescu, meanwhile, eyes another milestone after cracking the top 20.
   "Maybe reaching top 10 is the next goal for me," she said. "First of all, I need to stay healthy. Then we will see."
   In the doubles final, top-seeded Latisha Chan (formerly Chan Yung-jan) of Chinese Taipei and Kveta Peschke, 43, of the Czech Republic beat third-seeded Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadiia Kichenok, 26-year-old twins from Ukraine, 6-4, 6-1.
   Both Peschke and Chan, who were playing in their first tournament together, have won one Grand Slam championship in women's doubles to reach No. 1. Peschke took the 2011 Wimbledon crown with Katerina Srebotnik of Slovenia, and Chan captured last year's U.S. Open title with Hingis.
   Here are the complete San Jose singles and doubles draws.
   Here are the singles and doubles main draws, qualifying draw and Monday's schedule in the $100,000 Nordic Naturals Men's Challenger at the Seascape Sports Club in Aptos, a one-hour drive south of San Jose.

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