Venus seeks retribution, title in Moscow
Swarming with Russians, Venus Williams looks to play spoiler at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow this week and get back into victory lane for the first time since Wimbledon. New world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina may have something to say first.
A Russian has won Moscow's Kremlin Cup four times in the past five seasons, and it might happen again this week: Ten of the 24 direct acceptances in the draw represent the home nation, including 2007 champion Elena Dementieva and the transformed Dinara Safina.
Mind you, Jelena Jankovic, in a battle with Serena Williams for the year-end No. 1 ranking, and Venus Williams are also present at the season's final Tier I event. Serena is absent due to an ankle injury, so won't be able to avenge last year's defeat to Dementieva in the finale.
Jankovic is considered a bit of a drama queen, but give the Serb some credit for toughing out victories. Against Venus Williams in the semifinals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix Saturday in Stuttgart, Germany, Jankovic battled past the reigning Wimbledon champion 6-7 (8), 7-5, 6-2 in almost three hours. Prior to the encounter, she received a pair of pain-killing injections after splitting a toenail against Vera Zvonareva in a tight quarterfinal. Of course, Jankovic let everyone know she's averse to needles and thus let out a few screams.
In action for a fourth straight week, Jankovic faces a possible rematch against Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. Given a first-round bye, Jankovic need only win one match to advance to the last eight, and neither wild-card Vera Dushevina or the slumping Nicole Vaidisova figure to pose a problem.
Without the luxury of a bye, Williams opens against a familiar foe, Flavia Pennetta. The steady Italian leads their head-to-heads 2-1 and upset Williams in the third round at this year's French Open.
Second Quarter: Dementieva, Petrova on collision course
Dementieva, the Olympic champion, has cooled slightly, eliminated in the quarterfinals in her last two tournaments. Playing at home and defending the title may give the soon-to-be 27-year-old a boost.
Her opener in the second round is likely against Ukraine's Alona Bondarenko, who was thrashed by Jankovic in Germany.
The probable quarterfinal pits Dementieva against countrywoman and 2006 finalist Nadia Petrova. Petrova, inching closer to 2006 form, reached the Stuttgart final following semifinal showings in her previous two events.
Petrova starts with a qualifier, which could be more difficult than normal given the depth in qualifying -- Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik and Italian Francesca Schiavone, both inside the top 25, were the top two seeds.
Kremlin Cup on ESPN360.com
Watch the Kremlin Cup live on ESPN360.com, beginning Wednesday at 7 a.m. ET.
Third Quarter: Ivanovic in tough
Ana Ivanovic needs a lift.
Riding high from winning her first major at the French Open and ascending to the No. 1 ranking only four months ago, Ivanovic has posted a paltry 5-5 record since, thanks in part to a thumb injury.
Like Jankovic and Dementieva, Ivanovic benefits from a free pass in the first round. Unlike those two, a tricky opponent surfaces next, either rising Slovak Dominika Cibulkova or France's Marion Bartoli. The latter has struggled with injuries, too, and is barely over .500 in 2008. Yet, you never know.
The all-Russian battle between Maria Kirilenko and Zvonareva, the seventh seed, is another enticing first-round pairing. Kirilenko, still devoid of consistency, claimed the Korean Open two weeks ago; Zvonareva, one of the most consistent performers this season, won the Guangzhou International in China a week earlier.
Stop the presses: Safina lost in a tournament before the semifinals. In Germany, Venus Williams eased past Safina in the quarterfinals. Her coach, Zeljko Krajan, must have been ruing the defeat more than usual -- Safina promised to give him the sporty Porsche that goes along with the winner's check if she won the tournament.
Safina has a comfortable-looking opener in the second round versus fading two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo or Mauresmo's younger French compatriot, Alize Cornet, who struggles on hard courts.
Seeded fifth, Svetlana Kuznetsova is involved in perhaps the most mouth-watering first-round tussle. For the third time since mid-August, Kuznetsova meets surging Chinese Na Li. Li prevailed on home turf at the Olympics, while Kuznetsova returned the favor in Tokyo last month.
Kuznetsova, who recently split with her longtime coach, Stefan Ortega, reached back-to-back finals before losing in the first round in Stuttgart.
Williams doesn't get bageled often, but Petrova did the honors in the Fed Cup semifinals last year in Vermont. She still lost in three and is 0-4 lifetime against Williams.
Safina is 0-2 this season versus Zvonareva. Both losses, however, came prior to her blossoming under Krajan. Safina hadn't defeated Petrova in five tries prior to this season, and then she dropped a single game when they squared off in Tokyo last week.
Prediction: Williams, Safina to advance
Trailing 4-3 in the first set against Safina in Stuttgart, Williams won seven straight games to effectively end the contest. Safina led Serena Williams early in the U.S. Open semis, too, with the Russian eventually steamrolled.
If Venus Williams is on her game, which partly means serving well and staying focused, the home crowd might not be able to help Safina much.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.