By Joshua Rey, special to USTA.com
MIDLAND, Mich. – The longest-running women’s tournament on the USTA Pro Circuit returns to the tennis scene on Tuesday with a field of fast-rising stars seeking their share of $100,000 in prize money.
Of the 40 women’s events on the American circuit, only the Dow Corning Tennis Classic awards its singles champion a check for $15,200 and 140 ranking points on the WTA Tour.
Now hosting the event for a 23rd time, the 2009 ‘Best Tennis Town’ of Midland is welcoming three former top-25 players, 11 Americans and 18 players under the age of 22 this week.
Two-time singles finalist Lucie Hradecka, 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Sabine Lisicki and up-and-coming Americans Irina Falconi and CoCo Vandeweghe kicked off the 2011 event by meeting with media at the Midland Community Tennis Center on Monday. They were joined by Tom Gullikson, the USTA’s lead national coach for women’s tennis.
Hradecka’s fast-and-flat playing style suits her well on the quick indoor courts of Midland. After winning the 2009 Dow Corning Tennis Classic singles title, the Czech captured the tournament’s doubles title with Laura Granville in 2010 and fell in last year’s singles final to Elena Baltacha.
With titanic serves and two-handed groundstrokes, Hradecka has already won 16 ITF singles, 29 ITF doubles and nine WTA doubles titles. Though she’s earned her fair share of trophies elsewhere, the 25-year-old Hradecka holds a special place in her heart for Midland.
"I love this tournament," said Hradecka. "I love the people here, and I stay here with a great family. Everybody here is so friendly, and the tournament does its best for the players."
If there’s one player in Midland who may be able to match Hradecka’s power, it’s Lisicki. She owns the women’s world record for the fastest serve at just over 130 mph.
But after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals and breaking into the top 25 in 2009, Lisicki suffered a string of injuries. She twisted her left ankle 11 months ago in Indian Wells, Calif., leaving her on crutches for six weeks and off the tour for more than four months.
"I basically lost all the muscles in my left leg," said the 21-year-old Lisicki. "To have the whole body working the way you want it to work is quite a big deal. It takes time. It’s not about who can play the best tennis anymore because you have to be fit, you have to be strong, and you have to be fast."
Like many of her peers in Midland this week, Lisicki’s next stop on the tennis tour is tentatively the WTA event in Memphis, where qualifying play begins on Friday. That overlaps with the Dow Corning Tennis Classic quarterfinals, making a tennis player’s life anything but easy to predict.
"A year ago, I did not have problems making my schedule because when you’re in the top 30, you’re getting in everywhere, and you can pick and choose," said Lisicki, now ranked No. 186.
"It’s tough when you’re ranked between 100 and 200 because you don’t know where you’re going to get in. I’m in the main draw here and the qualies in Memphis, so if I get far here, I cannot play there. That makes it tough for us to book our flights, which makes it more expensive. It’s like a big circle."
Standing six inches shorter than Lisicki, the 5’4" Falconi may not appear to be the ideal indoor-court player. But with a steady mix of speed, slice and spin, she is quickly making a name for herself in women’s tennis.
As a varsity tennis player at Georgia Tech, Falconi finished the 2010 collegiate season ranked No. 1 in the nation before joining the WTA Tour last July.
"The biggest difference is that out here, you’re trying to get each other’s lunch money," said Falconi. "In college, you knew the next day that there was another match or another practice, and your scholarship was still going to be there."
In just seven months as a pro, Falconi has qualified at the US Open and the Australian Open and risen to No. 156 in the world. With no ranking points to defend through Wimbledon, the only direction she’ll be going anytime soon is up.
"I’ve been pleasantly surprised, for sure," said Falconi. "At the end of the year, I had to get my ranking up to guarantee a spot in Australia. It was really exciting for my coach and me to go through the steps of planning a trip like that. Being able to qualify in Australia was unbelievable. I like to think that it’s just going up from here."
Vandeweghe is the latest athletic apple to fall from her family tree. She is following in the footsteps of her mother Tauna, a two-time Olympian, and her uncle Kiki, a former NBA All Star and the current general manager of the Denver Nuggets.
But while few know what it’s like to live up to that kind of pressure, the 103rd-ranked Vandeweghe is happy to have company in a class of promising young American players. She is joined in Midland by three other Americans just outside the top 100: No. 108 Christina McHale, No. 115 Alison Riske and No. 133 Jamie Hampton.
"American tennis is always going to be in the tennis world," said Vandeweghe. "For me to be a part of the next group of Americans in the top tier is a great honor."
Gullikson, who coaches Vandeweghe, is excited to be in town for what he believes will be an entertaining event. While the snow falls outside the tennis center, Gullikson foresees fast-paced ball-bashing inside.
"On quick courts like these, you’re going to see some big serving, some finishing at the net and girls playing defense," said Gullikson, "because if the ball is sitting up, these girls can all rock it pretty good. I think you’re going to see an exciting brand of all-court, all-around tennis."
Main-draw play begins on Tuesday with four doubles and five singles matches, highlighted by Hradecka taking on Hampton in the feature match at 7 p.m. on Stadium Court. Following that contest, four products of college tennis will take center stage, when Elizabeth Lumpkin (UCLA) and Story Tweedie-Yates (TCU) face Oregon alum Courtney Nagle and Houston alum Sarah Borwell.
The day session is highlighted by the Midland singles debuts of Lisicki, Falconi and McHale. No. 1 seed Varvara Lepchenko will also be in action.
Dow High teammates Daniella Patton and Kelli Close are back in the doubles draw for the second straight year. They open their 2011 campaign against Gabriela Dabrowski and Whitney Jones on Stadium Court at about 4 p.m.
Before the main draw commences, the qualifying competition with conclude on Tuesday at 10 a.m., as four women try to win their way into the Dow Corning Tennis Classic. Among those in contention are 1998 Midland champion Alexandra Stevenson and U.S. Fed Cup veterans Mashona Washington, Ahsha Rolle and Alexa Glatch.
Admission to the Dow Corning Tennis Classic is free until the 7 p.m. feature session. General admission tickets to see Hradecka vs. Hampton and Lumpkin/Tweedie-Yates vs. Nagle/Borwell cost $12 for adults and $8 for children.
Dow Corning Tennis Classic
Midland Community Tennis Center
Monday, February 7 – RESULTS:
Qualifying Singles – Second round
Alexandra Mueller (United States) def.  Beatrice Capra (United States) 7-6(3), 6-3
 Mashona Washington (United States) def. [WC] Diana Ospina (United States) 0-6, 6-3, 6-4
 Ahsha Rolle (United States) def. Story Tweedie-Yates (United States) 6-2, 6-1
 Lena Litvak (United States) def. Anna Livadaru (Germany) 4-6, 6-0, 6-2
 Marina Erakovic (New Zealand) def. Whitney Jones (United States) 6-0, 6-0
 Alexandra Stevenson (United States) def. Robin Anderson (United States) 6-3, 6-2
 Alexa Glatch (United States) def. Katie Ruckert (United States) 7-6(3), 6-0
 Amanda Fink (United States) def. Jan Abaza (United States) 6-2, 6-2
Tuesday, February 8 – SCHEDULE:
Stadium Court – starting at 10 a.m.
Qualifying – Alexandra Mueller (United States) vs.  Mashona Washington (United States)
 Varvara Lepchenko (United States) vs. Anna Tatishvili (Georgia)
[WC] Shelby Rogers (United States) vs. Sabine Lisicki (Germany)
Stadium Court – not before 4 p.m.
[WC] Kelli Close (United States) and Daniella Patton (Dominican Republic) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski (Canada) and Whitney Jones (United States)
Stadium Court – starting at 7 p.m.
Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) vs. Jamie Hampton (United States)
Elizabeth Lumpkin and Story Tweedie-Yates (United States) vs.  Sarah Borwell (Great Britain) and Courtney Nagle (United States)
Court 5 – starting at 10 a.m.
Qualifying –  Ahsha Rolle (United States) vs.  Lena Litvak (United States)
Irina Falconi (United States) vs. Katie O’Brien (Great Britain)
Christina McHale (United States) vs. Anastasia Pivovarova (Russia)
Court 3 – starting at 10 a.m.
Qualifying –  Alexa Glatch (United States) vs.  Amanda Fink (United States)
Qualifying –  Marina Erakovic (New Zealand) vs.  Alexandra Stevenson (United States)
Christina Fusano and Sanaz Marand (United States) vs.  Ksenia Pervak (Russia) and Ipek Senoglu (Turkey)
Brittany Augustine and Alexandra Mueller (United States) vs. Irina Falconi and Alison Riske (United States)
ABOUT THE USTA PRO CIRCUIT:
With more than 90 tournaments throughout the country and prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, the USTA Pro Circuit is the pathway to the US Open and tour-level competition for aspiring tennis players and a frequent battleground for established professionals. The USTA launched its Pro Circuit 32 years ago to provide players with the opportunity to gain professional ranking points, and it has since grown to become the largest developmental tennis circuit in the world, offering more than $3 million in prize money. Last year, more than 1,000 men and women from more than 70 countries competed in cities nationwide. Among those who have played at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic are seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin, former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova, reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and 2011 Australian Open runner-up Na Li.