Lucie Safarova 21st Challenge Bell Champion


The 21st professional women's tennis Challenge Bell tournament ended over the weekend with a disappointing loss on Saturday for the only remaining Quebecer, young Eugénie Bouchard, who lost in the semi-final. The up-and-coming tennis player from Westmount is just 19 years old and is ranked 57th in the world by the World Tennis Association (WTA), but she is already showing skills beyond her years and has had a promising start as a professional player.

Bouchard began strongly in the semi-final, taking the first set six games to three. Lucie Safarova from the Czech Republic was not going down without a fight and matched Bouchard, also winning six games to three in the second set. Despite the scoreboard being equally matched, the experience of the 26-year-old Czech was apparent in the third set and Bouchard appeared discouraged, throwing her racket down in frustration. In the end, experience won over youth, sending the left-handed Czech on to the finals against the other semi-final winner, Marina Erakovic. A disheartened Bouchard quietly and quickly left the court. Knowing Bouchard was the hometown favourite, third-seeded Safarova sweetly apologized to the large numbers of supporters of the Quebecer.

On Sunday, the Challenge Bell finals started off with the doubles match at noon. Four fierce competitors sought the honour of being called Challenge Bell doubles champions, but only two could take home the title. In the end it was the tournament's second-seeded Alla Kudryavtseva from Russia and her teammate Anastasia Rodionova from Australia, who defeated the first seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka from the Czech Republic. The Czech pair were the doubles champions at the US Open last week but couldn't surpass the skills of their adversaries, who won in two sets of 6-4 and 6-3. Hradecka was also last year's Challenge Bell singles finalist, losing to Kristen Flipkens from Belgium. Flipkens returned to defend her title but, in an upset, was beaten during her first match.

It was not the first time Erakovic and Safarova competed against each other, but this was just their second match in a WTA tournament. Both women, who are in their mid-twenties, have competed four times in the Challenge Bell. The New Zealander is one year Safarova's junior and the underdog, seeded sixth in the tournament and 68th overall in the world. It was her second time as a Challenge Bell grand finalist, but she was defeated in 2011.
It was also Safarova's second time in the singles final of the Challenge Bell; she lost to Melinda Czink in 2009. But losing was not on her agenda in Quebec City this year and she used all her competitive spirit and aggressive style to finish the job. The Czech is placed 41st in the world and was seeded third in the tournament. This was Safarova's fifth WTA singles final, breaking a dry spell of five years.

During a press conference, Erakovic approved of the new PEPS stadium at Université Laval, inaugurated for the tournament. "This new facility, and everything they have done, is really first-class." The new stadium can hold up to 2,800 spectators. At the awards ceremony a poised Erakovic congratulated Safarova and thanked the sponsors for making the tournament possible. She also thanked her family in New Zealand for "getting up early to watch" and support her.

Safarova had the last word, thanking all the generous sponsors, organizers and volunteers. The grand champion also divulged to spectators that her coach, Rob Steckley, would be getting a haircut very soon. "We make a bet at the beginning of the tournament that he'll shave his hair if I win," laughed the delighted Safarova. The long-haired Steckley seemed content to have lost the bet. Referring to the wall of fame displaying photographs of past Challenge Bell champions, Safarova added, "I'm just so happy to finally be on those pictures. It's just amazing." The 22nd edition of the Challenge Bell will be presented next year from September 6 to 14, 2014.