WTA Championships: Wozniacki and Sharapova Contest Year-End No.1 in Istanbul
With just days to go, and some of the contenders already practising in Istanbul, the final lineup for the climax of the women’s tennis calendar in Istanbul went right to the wire.
Both Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli were still in contention for the eighth place on the boat to Turkey as the drama in the deciding tournament in Moscow unfolded.
A fortnight ago, with Radwanska making a late unbeaten run to two Premier titles in the Far East—Tokyo and Beijing—the Pole seemed to have the No. 8 place in the bag. Only Bartoli could overtake her, but the French woman needed to win the last two events of the year. Even then, Bartoli had to hope that Radwanska would lose her opening-round match in Moscow.
Fast forward to last week and two boxes had been ticked for Bartoli. With the Osaka title in the bag, she saw Radwanska lose to her nemesis, Lucie Safarova, in the Kremlin Cup. The French woman continued to keep her chances alive by advancing to the quarterfinals, but then, disaster struck in the shape of viral illness, and Bartoli had to pull out of competition.
It handed her rival the final place in Istanbul.
Bartoli will still make the journey to Turkey as first alternate—if she is fit—but to play, she depends on one of the elite eight becoming ill or injured.
For Radwanska and the other seven contesting the Championship, there is now big money at stake—a total purse of almost $5 million—as well as important points that could determine who will end the year as world No. 1.
While Caroline Wozniacki goes into the event at the top of the pile, it is possible for Maria Sharapova to beat her to the end-of-year finishing line—a first for the only multiple-Grand-Slam winner in the competition. However, the Russian will have to play at her peak, and the Dane will have to play very poorly.
Not possible? Look at the Bartoli/Radwanska race.
So with 26 titles between them, including three of the four 2011 Grand Slams, what are the chances for the cream of the women’s tour in Turkey?
RED GROUP: Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki, WTA ranking No. 1, points 7,395
Third time to qualify: finalist 2010, semis 2009
Titles: Dubai, Indian Wells, Charleston, Brussels, Copenhagen, New Haven
She’s won more matches and more titles than any other woman this year but has failed to win that elusive Grand Slam. The pressure is therefore on to take a big title worthy of a player who has now been No. 1 for more than a year.
She made a strong start to 2011—seven finals and five of her titles before Wimbledon—but has had less success since, with poor losses in Cincinnati and Toronto before reaching the semis at the U.S. Open.
She made the quarters in Beijing and has rested since, all of which means she should have enough left, physically at least, to get beyond the round robins.
She will guarantee the year-end No. 1 by reaching the final with at least two round-robin wins or by winning the title.
While Sharapova has the best chance of depriving the Dane of the year-end top spot, if she fails to win a single match in Istanbul, there is a theoretical chance for Petra Kvitova to beat her to the finish line as well.
However, with Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters missing—Wozniacki lost to the Belgian in three sets in last year's final—and a 7-2 win-loss record against top-10 players this year, perhaps it will be third time lucky for Wozniacki.
H2H vs. Kvitova, 3-1; not met since Beijing 2010—won by Wozniacki.
H2H vs. Vera Zvonareva, 4-4; Zvonareva won last match in Doha, Wozniacki won in Doha Championships and Beijing last year.
H2H vs. Radwanska, 4-1; Wozniacki won last four matches, including Tokyo last year.
Advance to semifinals
RED GROUP: Petra Kvitova
Petra Kvitova, WTA ranking No. 3, points 5,970
First time to qualify
Titles: Brisbane, Paris, Madrid, Wimbledon, Linz
With five titles, Kvitova comes second on the list of winners this year—and one of those titles was her first Grand Slam. It’s a run that has taken the big-hitting Czech from No. 34 in the rankings to the top five in an impressive breakthrough year.
After six finals during the first half of the year, the 21-year-old struggled to maintain her momentum—perhaps due to her inexperience at this elite level. She won only two matches between London and Tokyo, where she reached the semis at the end of September.
But despite losing to the 85th-ranked Sofia Arvidsson in her opening match in Beijing, she won a significant title in Linz a fortnight ago—this timely indoor success provides useful preparation for Istanbul.
Kvitova also has a good record against top-10 players, and it is entirely possible that she could go all the way in Istanbul. In this roller-coaster year, however, it seems more likely that she will win some and lose some.
She may also be mindful of the Fed Cup final—the Czech Republic plays Russia—next month. In 2012, though, it could be Kvitova making the headlines.
H2H vs. Wozniacki, 1-3; not met since Beijing 2010—won by Wozniacki.
H2H vs. Zvonareva, 2-3; Zvonareva won all hard-court meetings, including Tokyo 2011.
H2H vs. Radwanska, 2-0; last met in Eastbourne this year.
Fall at RR stage
RED GROUP: Vera Zvonareva
Vera Zvonareva, WTA ranking No. 6, points 5,190
Qualified four times: finalist 2008, semis 2010
Titles: Doha, Baku
Zvonareva came into 2011 on the back of a year in which she reached two Grand Slam finals and a career high of No. 2. By that standard, 2011 has been less showy, though still consistent.
She made the final of Carlsbad, had semi finishes in Melbourne, Miami and Cincinnati, reached the quarters at the U.S. Open, and perhaps most tellingly, the finals in Tokyo.
Zvonareva has was fine-tuning her game at home in Moscow last week, falling in the quarters, and she will arrive in Istanbul with more hard-court wins this year—43—than any of her opponents.
She has twice advanced beyond the round-robin stage unbeaten and could prove to be the dark horse of the tournament.
H2H vs. Wozniacki, 4-4; Zvonareva won last match in Doha; Wozniacki won in WTA Championships and Beijing last year.
H2H vs. Kvitova, 3-2; all Zvonareva wins on hard courts, including Australian Open and Tokyo this year.
H2H vs. Radwanska, 2-3; Radwanska won all three 2011 meets, including Tokyo.
Advance to semifinals
RED GROUP: Agnieszka Radwanska
Agnieszka Radwanska, WTA ranking No. 8, points 4,940
Qualified (as alternate) 2008, 2009
Titles: Carlsbad, Tokyo, Beijing
It looked like a done deal for the young Polish woman after her two straight Premier titles in Asia. Playing the kind of thoughtful, all-court tennis that seems to bamboozle her opponents, all she had to do was win one match in her last remaining tournament. Instead, she looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights against Safarova in Moscow and lost in three sets.
Nevertheless, she makes the cut for the first time—she played in 2008 and 2009 as an alternate—thanks to Bartoli’s ill fortune.
Her campaign will stand or fall by her nerves. If she is to get beyond the round robins for the first time, she will have to find the calm concentration that beat Andrea Petkovic in the Beijing final. With the most wins against top-10 and top-five players this year out of the eight qualifiers, she should be confident.
However, that confidence went missing in her last match where she was playing for Istanbul qualification.
H2H vs. Wozniacki, 1-4; Wozniacki won last four matches, including Tokyo last year.
H2H vs. Kvitova, 0-2; last meeting in Eastbourne this year.
H2H vs. Zvonareva, 3-2; Radwanska won all three 2011 meets, including Tokyo.
Fall at RR stage
WHITE GROUP: Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova, WTA ranking No. 2, points 6,370
Fifth time to qualify: won 2004, runner-up 2007, semis 2005, 2006
Titles: Rome, Cincinnati
Sharapova’s record against top-10 players is not as good as Wozniacki’s: 6-5. However, she will be many people’s favourite to win her second Championship.
Now fully rehabilitated from her shoulder surgery in 2009, she has shown all her old determination along with some of the most powerful tennis on the circuit. It’s a combination that took her to the semis of Indian Wells and the French Open and the finals of Miami and Wimbledon.
She has been one of the biggest climbers of the top eight in the rankings this year, yet her tennis has been erratic, with many matches almost slipping from her hands through unforced errors and double faults. That is a luxury she can ill afford against the best women in the world.
Sharapova was forced to retire in Tokyo last month with a twisted ankle and has not played since, but she has been practising in Istanbul and seems fully fit. If her error count is under control, she is likely to be the one to beat.
To grab the year-end No. 1, however, Sharapova must reach the final with at least two Round Robin wins or win the title.
H2H vs. Victoria Azarenka, 3-3; Sharapova won in Rome, but Azarenka won last two hard-court matches including Miami this year.
H2H vs. Na Li, 5-3; last three to Li, including French Open this year.
H2H vs. Samantha Stosur, 9-0; two of three wins this year on hard courts.
Advance to semifinals
WHITE GROUP: Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka, WTA ranking No. 4, points 5,750
Third straight year to qualify
Titles: Miami, Marbella, Luxembourg
2011 has been a case of "so near yet so far" for the woman from Belarus with the great blend of shot-making and intelligence. Azarenka has been consistent enough to climb from No. 10 to three in the world, reached her first Grand Slam semifinal, won back-to-back titles in the spring and then reached the finals of Madrid as well.
But three times, she has lost opening-round matches and seems beset by niggling injuries such as the recent foot problem that forced her out of Beijing.
Azarenka is a dangerous player when fit, which she now appears to be—she has just won her third title of the year in Luxembourg without dropping a set and losing just 22 games in five matches.
Nevertheless, with a win-loss record of 4-6 against top-10 opponents, she faces an altogether harder test in Istanbul and could again stall at the Round Robin stage. If she is confident and healthy, though, she should improve on the last two years.
H2H vs. Sharapova, 3-3; Sharapova won in Rome, but Azarenka won last two hard-court matches including Miami this year.
H2H vs. Na Li, 1-4; Li won both meets this year in Australian and French Opens.
H2H vs. Samantha Stosur, 4-0; all meetings on hard courts, but none this year.
Advance to semifinals
WHITE GROUP: Na Li
Na Li, WTA ranking No. 5, points 5,351
Titles: Sydney, Roland Garros
Li lit up the first half of the year with her sharp, clean tennis on court and her wit and charm off court. Her year-on-year rise up the rankings took her, at the age of 29, to a career-high No. 4 in 2011 via the final of the Australian Open and the French Open title.
She had a dramatic fall in form after Melbourne, only to improve on clay with semis in Madrid and Rome. But her fall-off since Paris has been dramatic. She has won only six matches, the latest shock coming at her home tournament this month. She lost 6-4, 6-0 to a qualifier and afterwards admitted:
“Right now I’ve just lost all confidence.”
Li has not beaten a top-10 player since Paris and, with so little match play during the second half of the year and so little confidence, it’s hard to see her making an impression in Istanbul.
H2H vs. Sharapova, 3-5; last three to Li, including French Open this year.
H2H vs. Azarenka, 4-1; Li won both meets this year in Australian and French Opens.
H2H vs. Stosur, 0-5; three meets this year, including hard courts at Toronto and Cincinnati.
Fall at RR stage
WHITE GROUP: Samantha Stosur
Samantha Stosur, WTA ranking No. 7, points 5,115
Qualified 2010, reached semis
Titles: U.S. Open
After a slow start to 2011, the quiet Australian reached the finals in Rome and Toronto and looked increasingly impressive throughout the U.S. Open, beating Nadia Petrova, Maria Kirilenko and then Zvonareva in the quarters. However, it was her defeat of Serena Williams in the final—and the confident style of her win—that propelled Stosur into contention for Istanbul.
Her return to the tour in the Asian swing showed an initial stutter, with two early losses at the hands of Kirilenko, but Stosur bounced back to reach the final in Osaka a fortnight ago.
She is a woman who seems to thrive on long, hard tournaments and could be hitting her formidable stride at just the right time. She also happens to be 5-1 against top-five players this year.
However the draw has not been kind to her. She has a winning record over Wozniacki (including their last two matches), Zvonarava (including the last eight of their 10 matches) and Radwanska (including their last two matches). But in the White Group, she may struggle to win more than one of her Round Robins.
To match her 2010 run to the semis, she will have to find her U.S. Open form to beat an Azarenka who is playing well, but as one of the fittest players in Istanbul, should she make it that far, she could outlast all of them.
H2H vs. Sharapova, 0-9; two of three wins this year on hard courts.
H2H vs. Azarenka, 0-4; all meets on hard courts, but none this year.
H2H vs. Li, 5-0; three meets this year, including hard courts at Toronto and Cincinnati.
Fall at RR stage
The ALTERNATES: Marion Bartoli
Marion Bartoli, WTA ranking No. 9, points 4,610
Titles: Eastbourne, Osaka
Smart, hard-working, determined and consistent: One has to admire the focus and fight of the French woman who looked out of contention only a fortnight ago.
By any measure, Bartoli has had a good year, equalling her career-high ranking of 2007.
She reached the finals of Indian Wells, Strasbourg and Stranford, the semis of the French Open and the quarters of Wimbledon before her all-or-nothing Far East campaign of four tournaments in four straight weeks: the quarters in Tokyo, third-round in Beijing and a win in Osaka. No surprise, then, that she has played more matches this year than any other woman.
The prospect of Bartoli winning the Championship title would have been laughable a month or two back. But now, given full health and a chance to play, anything seems possible.
The ALTERNATES: Andrea Petkovic
Andrea Petkovic, WTA ranking No. 10, points 4,580
Petkovic was due to play in Linz and Luxembourg but withdrew with a recurrent knee problem. However, she is expected to be fit to play in Istanbul if called upon.
The newest addition to the top 10 is enjoying her highest ever ranking in what has been an outstanding breakthrough for the extrovert German: the quarters of three Grand Slams, the final of Brisbane, the semis in Miami, Cincinnati and Carlsbad and her first Premier final in Beijing.
Her chance to prove herself may be slim, but if called up, she would not be star-struck by her fellow-players: She has beaten Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kvitova and Bartoli this year.
H2H Wozniacki vs. Azarenka, 4-2
Last three wins, all on hard court, including Tokyo last year and Indian Wells this year, all to Wozniacki. She is also one of the fittest on the tour and the more rested of the two women.
H2H Sharapova vs. Zvonareva, 7-3
All matches but one were on hard courts, Sharapova winning the last three, including Cincinnati this year. Their recent matches have been close, but Sharapova’s experience in pressure matches, together with her determination, make it hard to call against her.
H2H Wozniacki vs. Sharapova, 2-3
Sharapova won on Rome’s clay but Wozniacki won their previous two hard-court matches—U.S. Open 2010 and Indian Wells this year.
If they face off in the final with at least two round-robin wins apiece, they could also be playing for the year-end No. 1.