Tennis: Carrying the flag for NZ

By Dylan Cleaver

Marina Erakovic of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images
Marina Erakovic of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images

The tournament may be shorn of its karaoke-singing star attraction, but it's nothing a little local intrigue can't fix.

Venus Williams may not be here, but Sacha Jones and Marina Erakovic are and both will appear on centre court today, although the former will be starting her doubles campaign only.

Instead it will be up to Jones to carry the flag in the ASB Classic singles, ironic perhaps given this is her final tournament before she swaps the classic Southern Cross for an ugly six-starred ensign.

She faces Ukrainian-born Briton Elena Baltacha. Given that Baltacha is ranked 224 places higher than Jones' world ranking of 274, it would require a leap of faith to predict a Jones victory, but stranger things have happened.

There has been some hand-wringing in tennis circles over the 21-year-old's switch of allegiance to Australia. It is hardly Martina Navratilova defecting from behind the Iron Curtain to the United States, but even so Sparc has been accused of underfunding the sport and Tennis New Zealand is in the dock for taking its eye off the ball.

Regardless of where the blame lies, today's match would be a perfect time for Jones, the 2011 national champion, to show the Stanley St crowd what Tennis NZ will be missing. Jones' match is the third up on centre court.

Before her, up-and-coming American teenager Christina McHale faces Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru and tournament fourth-seed Flavia Pennetta plays Sorana Cirstea.

After Jones' match Marina Erakovic will open her doubles campaign with Canadian Rebecca Marino. They play Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina, whom Erakovic teamed up with to win a WTA tournament in Linz, Austria, late last year.

There are two intriguing night matches on centre court. Australian Jelena Dokic faces German Mona Barthel in the day's final match, but before them top seed Sabine Lisicki plays Virginie Razzano.

Lisicki, 22, is not only the most accomplished player in the draw with a world ranking of 15, but she has a game based on a powerful serve that could go some way to making up for Williams' absence.

Losing the American was a bitter pill for tournament director Richard Palmer, who compiled a strong field but one lacking magnetic pulling power following the withdrawal of the seven-time grand slam champion.

Williams featured prominently in all the pre-tournament marketing campaigns and continues to stare out at pay-TV subscribers in the latest issue of Skywatch.

Williams' health has been affected by Sjogren's syndrome, an auto-immune condition that causes fatigue as well as dry eyes and mouth, though it did not compromise her ability to belt out a few classics on a karaoke machine while partying in the Caribbean last month.

Williams will bypass Auckland and instead head straight to Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open.

Lisicki, on the other hand, wants to win as many matches as possible before the year's first grand slam, which begins on January 16.

Last year she came to Auckland as a qualifier after an injury-plagued 2010. She scraped past Mirza into the main draw before losing to defending champion Yanina Wickmayer.

It wasn't until the grasscourt season that her year took off. She won at Birmingham, thrashing Daniela Hantuchova in the final, then reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she lost to Maria Sharapova.

In August she won a title on the hard courts of Dallas.

An ASB Classic win would set her up nicely for the Australian Open and further her quest to break into the world's top 10.

- NZ Herald

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