October 15, 2015

On the Bubble

We've gotten to that time of year when players are looking to put in their last arguments to qualify for the year-end championships. And with Serena Williams withdrawing from the event in Singapore, perhaps the field is more wide open than its been in ages, so it's no surprise everyone still in contention -- even a couple new faces -- is fighting for those last available spots.

Lucie Safarova didn't do too much to strengthen her case this week, but she still might be in good shape to qualify for her first ever season-ender. Long among the second tier players in the sport, the veteran Czech had a breakthrough last year when she reached the Wimbledon semis. And in 2015 she scored her biggest title to date in Doha, scoring wins over Ekaterina Makarova and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Her real crowning achievement, though, came in Paris where she stunned two former titleists in Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic on the way to her first Major final and even took a set off Serena in the championship match. She's slowed down a bit since then -- after a first round loss at the U.S. Open, she only got back on court this week in Linz and lost her opener to fellow Roland Garros standout Andreea Mitu. Still, at #7 on the year-end leaderboard with just a week of play left, she's in a solid spot -- after all she's already qualified for the doubles draw, winning crowns in Melbourne and France with Bethanie-Mattek Sands, so why not make the most out of her trip?

Angelique Kerber has a little more experience in postseason play, and is trying to wrap up her case for a third appearance at the WTA Finals this week. After a shocking first round loss in Melbourne and more than a few tough draws early in the year -- Victoria Azarenka in her Doha opener, Sam Stosur in Madrid -- she got herself back on track with some top-notch wins. She beat Maria Sharapova on her way to the Stuttgart title, and Aga Radwanska in Stanford. She's currently ranked #9 in the world, but with four Premier-level titles this year she leads the pack of bubble contenders, and her performance this week could seal her spot. The second seed in Hong Kong, she was tested early by former Grand Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in her first round, but scored an easy win over Kurumi Nara earlier today. Next up she'll face always tricky Caroline Garcia, but if she lives up to her potential she could not only walk away with this trophy but also make a return to the season finale. She missed the cut last year and has only won one match in her previous two appearances, but she's shown she's got the ability to cause a stir among the highest ranks and might just be able to turn around her luck this time.

There are actually more than a few ladies trying to make the Singapore cut in Tianjin this week, and their experience runs the gamut. Veteran Flavia Pennetta, who unexpectedly picked up her first and likely only Grand Slam trophy in New York last month, is on the verge of qualifying for her first year-end championships at the very twilight of her career. She lost her first round in China, but at #8 on the Road to Singapore, there's a chance she hasn't yet played her last match on Tour. Trying to usurp her position, though, is 2015 breakout star Karolina Pliskova, also looking for her WTA Finals debut. The young Czech rose to a career high #7 in the world just ahead of the U.S. Open, with wins over formerly top-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic and trips to five finals this year -- she picked up her fourth career title in Prague. She lost a little ground last week, dropping points she won in Linz last year, but she's alive and kicking in Tianjin and could make them up quickly. Aga Radwanska certainly rebounded herself -- after falling to a recent low #15 in the world over the summer, a title in Tokyo brought her back up into the top eight, and she's well in the running to make her seventh postseason appearance. She's lost just three games this week, and if she keep her play at this level, it might not be long before she seals the deal.

There's a lot at stake, after all, for the four ladies who have yet to make the year-end final -- of the four already there, three have been struggling with injuries and form in the last few months, and any one of these women could certainly pounce on that opening. And who knows when they'll get another opportunity to close out the year with a bang.

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