October 30, 2012

The Junior Leagues?

We may have crowned the season's WTA champion on Sunday, but the action isn't over yet -- quite an interesting field made it to the Tournament of Champions in Sofia this week. The year-end event for players who've won at least one International-level title during the year includes the woman who began 2012 at #1 in the world and a full three who were part of the doubles field in Istanbul. There are a few, of course, who have a bit less experience in this second-tier championship, but something tells me the quality of play we'll see could be top notch.

The "Serdika" Group

Caroline Wozniacki took a while to find her groove this year -- after winning six titles in both 2010 and 2011, including some big ones in Montreal and Indian Wells, she went nearly nine months without a single trophy this year. Long chastised for holding the top ranking spot without winning a Grand Slam, she finally ceded it after the Australian Open and has since fallen out of the top ten. But she did her best to find redemption in the fall -- Wozniacki won two titles to end the season, scoring an important victory of Istanbul alternate Sam Stosur in the Moscow final, and was able to take the top seed in Sofia. If she makes good on the position, she could end the year the way she wishes it began.

Roberta Vinci may have made a bigger dent on the doubles circuit in 2012 -- she and Istanbul breakout Sara Errani played in three of the four Major finals, winning two of those trophies along with six others on the year, and ended the year as the #1 team in the world. But she did manage a singles crown in Dallas and made the quarters in New York, her best ever showing at a Slam. Now just a shade off her career-high ranking, the Italian is hitting her singles stride too, and after demolishing veteran Daniela Hantuchova in her first round robin, she certainly seems to have the leg up in Sofia. Vinci might have lost her only match at the year-ends, but if she does well here, she could easily make this year about more than her doubles career.

Su-Wei Hsieh could be the least recognizable name on the Sofia roster -- the twenty-six year old was ranked well into the triple-digits when 2012 began and ran to the semis as a qualifier in Pattaya City and to the trophy as a qualifier in Kuala Lumpur. She didn't make much of an impact at the Majors, but with a second WTA title in Guangzhou, she is the only one in the field with two International victories this year. Now ranked #27 in the world, she'll kick off her ToC campaign later today against Wozniacki, a woman who bagelled her in the last set of their latest meeting in Beijing. But Hsieh has little to lose this week, so I wouldn't be surprised to see her come out swinging from the start.

Daniela Hantuchova has had a tougher year than many of the players here this week. The one-time world #5 didn't play at the French Open because of a foot injury and has trouble winning many matches at all since. She did, however, manage a title in Pattaya City, beating two of the players in this field in the process, and a run to the semis in Luxembourg with wins over tricky players like Arantxa Rus and recently dominating Kirsten Flipkens. Her loss to Vinci today was not encouraging, but the beauty of round robins is that no one match decides your fate -- if Hantuchova can right the ship she might turn her year around when it counts.

The "Sredets" Group

The second group of round robins is led by a pair of ladies coming off a big win in Istanbul -- Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko were the last to qualify for the year-end championships, but with wins over the top two seeds they came away with the top prize, their fourth together. Petrova also made a late-season surge in singles, not dropping a set for the title in 's-Hertogenbosch and beating three top-ten players for another in Tokyo. She's been a little spotty at the Slams, hasn't gotten past the fourth round in over two years, but she did score some big wins this year, including two over recent rival Sam Stosur, and climb back into the top fifteen again. At thirty years of age, she's easily the oldest woman in the draw, but we've seen this year just how little age matters in this sport.

Petrova's doubles partner may not have won a singles title in 2012, but she nevertheless has put together one of the most successful years of her career. Very sneakily she made the quarters in Indian Wells and Wimbledon, the semis at the Olympics and put up some big fights in Cincinnati and New York. She climbed to a career-high ranking of #12 in the world in August and notched wins over resurgent Yaroslava Shvedova, feisty teammate Petrova, and 2011 Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. It's been more than four years since her last trophy though, and two losses in finals this year, it's hard to see her hoisting the trophy at the end of the week. But if she's on her game there's no reason we can't see the Russian surprise us all.

Jie Zheng has been a little more quiet in recent months. After winning the title in Auckland -- thanks, in part, to a retirement by Flavia Pennetta -- she hasn't made much of a dent at any tournament, save a semifinal run in Birmingham. A back injury hampered her play in the back half of the year, and she only won more than two matches at two events after that. She kicks off her Sofia campaign against wildcard Tsvetana Pironkova, a woman she's beaten in their last two meetings, so at least her early outlook is bright. And with some huge results in her past, we know she's capable of outhitting some favorites -- if she's in fighting form, this could be a stage for her to do just that.

The final wildcard in Sofia is homegrown Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, the only woman from this country to make a semi at a Grand Slam. The world #44 hasn't had the best year -- having made the at least the quarters the last two years at Wimbledon, she fell this time in the second round, but not without putting up a fight against Maria Sharapova and taking the 2004 champion to three sets. She also beat Nadia Petrova in Brussels, Dominika Cibulkova at the Olympics and Aggie Radwanska in Eastbourne. She may be the bottom seed in the field, but Pironkova has shown she can hit with the big girls and her native crowds might give her the confidence she needs to succeed this week.

These may not be the ladies who've made the loudest statements on Tour this year, but that doesn't at all reflect how much they've accomplished during the season -- some big doubles victories, a couple breakthrough titles, and more than a few wins over top-tier players, these athletes certainly have what it takes to be crowned a champion. And with their performances this week in Sofia, they each have a chance to get some long-deserved recognition.

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