October 22, 2012

Old vs. New: 2012 WTA Championships Preview

It's all come down to this for the ladies on the WTA Tour -- ten months of comebacks, breakthroughs and victories have left us with eight women fighting for the year-end championship. Some have been here before, a couple seem to be missing and a few are here for the first time. But the way these ladies have played all year, you can be sure we'll be in for some fireworks.

The Also-Rans

There are a couple players who'd been fixtures at the year-end tournament left out of the action entirely this time around. Former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, runner-up in 2010, fell a little too far the rankings to qualify. And Vera Zvonareva, whose injury-marred season kept her to just twenty matches on the year, still isn't quite in fighting form, much less ready to compete at this level. But there are a few players whose hope for competing may still be alive.

Moscow runner-up Sam Stosur finished the regular season just outside the Elite Eight, so after two years of making the Final Four, she'll have to settle for an alternate ticket to Istanbul. It's tough, really, to gauge her performance this year -- she didn't defend a lot of points, most notably at the U.S. Open, but she did get back to the semis in Paris and put up her best fight yet against Victoria Azarenka in New York. Several things would have to happen for the Aussie to see any playing time at all this week, but if she sneaks in, there's no reason to believe she won't make an impact.

Marion Bartoli certainly made use of her alternate spot last year -- though she only played one match, her first at the WTA Championships since 2007, she did hand Azarenka her only loss in the round robins. And several months later she dealt out the #1 player's first defeat of the season. The Frenchwoman also had a solid showing in New York, but with a weak 12-30 career record against the eight qualifiers, it might be hard for her to make any impact here should she get the chance to play.

The Old Hat

The women who actually did successfully qualify for Istanbul this year span quite a range, from age to origin to experience. And a couple who've been making the trip since practically the turn of the century are back this year, trying to return back to the winner's podium they occupied several years ago.

Maria Sharapova made her first trip to the year-end championships in 2004, the breakthrough year during which she won Wimbledon and saw her ranking rise from #32 in the world to #4, and the then-seventeen year old stunned the world with another win over Serena Williams in the final. Sharapova's ups and downs since then have been well documented, but this year was the first in which we finally saw her really take back the reins. She made at least the semis of every Major event, and even completed the career Grand Slam in Paris. She may have ceded the #1 ranking she'd regained for a few weeks during the spring, but she's finally performing well, week after week again. And with a solid 11-8 record against the rest of the field this year, no one should expect to walk over her.

But the more intimidating figure might, as usual, be six time Tour finalist Serena Williams. Currently the holder of two Slam titles she's lost just four matches in total this year -- only once to a player in this field. Yes, she suffered a shocking loss at the French Open and yes, her opponents have been able to squeeze a little water out of the rock during those finals. But playing her first year-ends since 2009 -- which, incidentally, she won -- she's certainly going to bring her best to the table this time around. And with the way she's been playing all season, there doesn't seem to be much that will stop her.

The Breakouts

But while experience may be on the side of a few, there are a couple others who've been around the block before and might have just thrown their hats into the mix this year.

Agnieszka Radwanska is playing her fourth Tour Championships but, twice an alternate, it's only the second time she's qualified for it outright. But what a qualification she had -- through mid-May, the only player who could beat her was Victoria Azarenka, and her unexpected run to the Wimbledon final was only surpassed by the amazing fight she put up in it. She won three top-tier titles this year and climbed to #2 in the world during the summer. Injuries marred the second half of her season, though -- she had a disappointing hardcourt season, retiring in New Haven and looking pained at the U.S. Open. She did make her way back to the Tokyo final, but failed to defend titles there or in Beijing. But if she's back in fighting form and has her confidence back, she should be able to get in a few punches to cap off the best year of her career so far.

But the woman who's had Aga's number all year might have something to say about that. World #1 Victoria Azarenka qualified for her fourth straight Tour final in 2012, on the heels of a season that may have finally put to rest doubts over her stamina and attitude. After her runner-up finish last year, she won twenty-six matches and four titles in a row to kick off this season, including that first Grand Slam in Australia. She went relatively radio silent during the summer months, losing four big matches to Serena Williams. But her amazing showing in the U.S. Open final was followed by thirteen straight wins and another two titles to cap the year. She has a more-than solid 14-5 record against these ladies this year and, it seems, if she can finally get the best of Serena, she might have more than a shot at this title.

The Encores

Mixed in with the ladies who've made the post-season year after year are those with slightly less experience. But we've seen in the past that even first-timers can do a lot of damage here.

Petra Kvitova, for example, won the whole enchilada in her debut appearance last year without losing even a round robin match. Her play dropped off a bit this year -- it wasn't until August that she won her first title in Montreal, and with just five wins against the rest of this field in 2012, it seems top players might have finally figured her out. She's also 1-2 since the U.S. Open and may have a hard time repeating her success from last year. Still, she made at least the quarters in her first three Slams this year and her solid summer may have diminished concerns that arose after her post-Wimbledon slump last year. If she can find the power that brought her so close to the top of the game in 2011, she might surprise a couple players in Istanbul.

Veteran Na Li didn't have the same success in her first year-ends, winning just five games in her two round robin defeats last year, but that wasn't terribly surprising. The thirty-year-old won just a handful of matches after her breakthrough French Open last year, ending the season in a slump that seemed, at the time, impossible to get out of. But a new coach helped her regroup to start 2012 -- she made the final in Sydney, the quarters in Indian Wells and Miami and took the title in Cincinnati with a stunning win over Angelique Kerber in the championship match. Proving her performance last year was no fluke, the diminutive Chinese doesn't have much to lose in Istanbul -- if she comes out swinging, she certainly has a chance to get out of the early rounds.

The Fresh Blood

Even further down the experience list are a couple ladies few -- if anyone -- expected to still be around when the season started.

Sara Errani, the only woman playing both singles and doubles in Istanbul, had ended the last four years out of the top forty -- always spunky, she'd never made it past the third round of a Major, hadn't claimed a title since 2008 and won just sixteen matches off the clay last year. Her quarterfinal run in Melbourne to start 2012 kind of seemed like a fluke -- she didn't face anyone in the top thirty -- but when she hit the dirt this season, there seemed to be no stopping her. She more than doubled her trophy count with titles in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest, and then shocked the world by making the Roland Garros final with wins over three former Grand Slam champions on the way. Despite some missteps -- she was, after all, on the losing end of Yaroslava Shvedova's infamous Golden Set at Wimbledon -- the tiny Italian proved herself off clay too, making the semis in New Haven and even at the U.S. Open. Still it'll be a tough order for Errani to do much in Istanbul -- she's only 4-23 versus the rest of the field her entire career and has only notched one win against them off clay in 2012. It would be amazing to see her do something big her first time out, but something tells me her better chance lies on the doubles court.

A more realistic spoiler might be Angelique Kerber, who followed up on her Cinderella semi last year in New York with clear aplomb. Ranked #32 at the end of last year, she won the first two titles of her career in 2012 and broke the top ten after making the semis in Rome. Now at #5 in the world, she's scored ten wins over women who've held the top ranking and is the only one in Istanbul who's beaten Serena Williams this year. She can be spotty at times, but unlike some of her colleagues she's not one to get intimidated by anyone in this field. And with some of the most experience against these ladies this season -- she's faced off against them eighteen times, third only to Vika and Maria -- she's certainly gotten accustomed to playing the sport's elite. If she keeps her game up all week, she really could do some damage.

The mix of ladies contesting the WTA Championship this year seems to be refreshingly diverse. Clearly the players who've been here before have shown they know how to win, but the newbies are more than capable of catching the favorites off guard. And with so many hotly contested battles among this group there's potential for some real fireworks in Istanbul.

But whoever ultimately lays claim to the title will surely have to put up a fight to get there.

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