October 31, 2009

Looking to Defend -- and For Revenge

I have to admit, I'm not terribly excited about this year's final at the WTA Championships. To me it seems like yet another all-Williams final, with the two sisters' twenty-third professional meeting -- and second this week -- taking place amid the sands of Doha.

It's not terribly surprising that the two finalists came out of the same half -- the much less stacked White Group not only contained two of the last women to qualify, but it also suffered a couple of withdrawals. Dinara Safina only lasted two games before a back injury caused her to retire against Jelena Jankovic. Her replacement, 2008 runner-up Vera Zvonareva, lost her first match to Caroline Wozniacki and subsequently pulled out herself because of ankle problems. Her spot was filled by Aggie Radwanska who incidentally won her only match when Victoria Azarenka, the last girl in the group, also retired during their third set.

The Maroon Group clearly had the more powerful contenders -- Serena and Venus, of course, as well as the French Open champ and another player who had herself won three titles this year.

When the tournament began on Tuesday, it didn't look as though last year's champ had much of a chance. She started off falling to Elena Dementieva after holding a one-set lead and then notched her third straight loss to her baby sister during the Round Robins. While Serena advanced easily to the semis, Venus had to wait to see what Svetlana Kuznetsova would do before claiming the unlikely last spot in the final four. Wins by both sisters today -- Venus this time coming from behind to take out Jankovic and Serena benefiting from yet another withdrawal by Wozniacki -- set up the once impossibly inevitable match-up.

It seems clear that the younger Williams is the favorite in tomorrow's final -- she regains the #1 ranking next week regardless of the result. Besides, Venus has fallen to a #7 ranking after a couple of early-round exits in Asia and the loss of a slew of points from a year ago, and she hasn't claimed a title since Acapulco in February. And she's dropped six sets this week, more than anyone else in Doha.

But for some reason I'm pulling for Venus this time. After all she was similarly the underdog in Doha in 2008, seeded eighth there, and she didn't lose a match during that tournament. And one of my Twitter followers points out that she might be out to prove a point -- the Times of London earlier this week suggested she wasn't quite in form to handle the younger, hotter crowd. Nothing sparks the competetive fight in an athlete than someone counting you down and out. And, after falling to a 10-12 career record against Serena, Venus has some ground to regain.

It'll be a battle, of course -- it almost always is. And while I can't bring myself to care too much about the result, I can't help but root just a bit for the elder statesman of the group.

And that we see some new faces in the mix next year!

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