October 26, 2015

Opening Salvos

This year's WTA Finals could be one of the most interesting year-end championships we've seen in years -- with the most dominant player on Tour sitting out the postseason, nearly half the qualifiers making just their first appearance at this event, and each and every entrant showing a little vulnerability since the U.S. Open, it really is anybody's game. And with the first round robin matches in the books, we've gotten a glimpse of who might be most willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Play kicked off Sunday with a rematch of the first shocking semi in New York this year -- eventual champion Flavia Pennetta, who at thirty-three has said this would be the last professional event of her career, hoped to repeat against top seed Simona Halep. Both have been below their best recently -- the Italian was upset by a qualifier in Tianjin and withdrew from the Moscow quarters with a foot injury, just after clinching her entry to Singapore, while the world #2 retired from the draw in Beijing after early losses in both Guangzhou and Wuhan. That could have presented an opportunity for Pennetta to pounce, but this time the Romanian was able to take charge, dropping just three games in the barely hour-long match. It was an important start for the favorite, who in her debut last year reached the final with a victory over Serena Williams in the early rounds. If she wants to go one better this time, she'll need to show her recent struggles were just a fluke and such a decisive win to start off may have done just that.

The second match in Singapore was just a little more challenging -- Maria Sharapova, by far the most experienced of the field, took on Aga Radwanska, who'd made a solid late-season push to qualify for her seventh appearance here. MaSha, who won this event an entire eleven years ago, started the year off strong, but a leg injury sustained during her Wimbledon semifinal lost forced her out of summer events and the U.S. Open -- when she finally did return to play in Wuhan, she retired in the third set of her opener with an arm ailment. The Pole meanwhile, who'd fallen as low as #15 in the world after a weak start to 2015, made a nice jump higher with a semi showing at the All England Club and titles in Tokyo and Tianjin. While she pulled out of Moscow last week, she seemed to have the momentum that could take her far at the Finals, but Sharapova may have stopped that. After dropping the first set the Russian roared back in the second and fought off a late surge from her opponent in the decider and, in the nearly three-hour match, Sharapova was the one left somewhat unexpectedly standing. But she'll have to regroup quick if she's going to keep up her streak -- with a match against a decidedly more rested Halep on Tuesday, she'll need every ounce of energy she's got.

Things were just as interesting in Monday's contests, where the first match-up in the White Group pitted two newbies against each other. Wimbledon finalist GarbiƱe Muguruza faced off against Roland Garros runner-up Lucie Safarova, both of whom scored their best Major results this year, and both of whom are also playing the doubles event in Singapore. Here too though, there were some questions hanging above the players -- the Spaniard retired from the final in Wuhan, seemed to recover for a title in Beijing a week later, and then pulled out of Hong Kong. Safarova, meanwhile, has struggled a bit more -- the last woman to qualify for this event lost openers in Linz and Moscow, not to mention at the U.S. Open and now hasn't won a match since New Haven. And that gave Muguruza the opening she needed -- the twenty-two year old fired off ten aces and forced fifteen break opportunities -- and even though the Czech was able to keep things tight at the end, the second seed may have shaken off her debut nerves a bit better and be in the prime spot to power through from here.

The last round robin might have resulted in the only real surprise we've seen at the tournament so far. Relative veterans Petra Kvitova, the only one in this group to beat Serena Williams this year, and Angelique Kerber, who's very quietly picked up four titles in 2015, might have been two of the most closely matched opponents to open against each other -- all but one of their six previous meetings have gone three sets. Still Kvitova lost early in both Wuhan and Beijing and Kerber, after reaching the final in Hong Kong skipped out on Moscow, leaving her fate in qualifying for Singapore in other players' hands. But the sixth seed came out swinging in her opener, grabbing the first set without allowing a break opportunity. Though things were closer in the second, Kerber was able to stay more focused in the tiebreak, able to score her first win over the Czech in more than three years. The only player to have notched an upset, the German is actually at the top of her round robin group and if she keeps hitting the way she did Monday, she might just stay that way.

Of course there is still plenty more ball left before this year's final trophy is awarded. And while the ladies who opened their campaigns with a win are certainly at an early advantage, anything can still happen from here. And in just about a week one of these players might have just established herself as the one to beat in the new year.

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