Who Will Deliver in Doha?
When tennis players talk about the schedule, they rarely fail to mention that no matter how many tweaks, nips, and tucks are made at the edges, the season always ends around the same time—i.e., too late. It's hard to say that's still true on the women’s side in 2009. Didn’t the year-end Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, which begin tomorrow, sneak up on you a little? Can the WTA really be wrapping it up before the World Series finishes? The tour’s Roadmap has its tradeoffs—you might say that it lowers expectations for the tour as a whole—but schedule-wise it has put the women a big step ahead of the men, some of whom must keep slogging for another month and a half. If anything is going to get the ATP to shorten things up, it will be this glaring new discrepancy in workload. With the women resting at home, these last six weeks for the men look more brutal than ever.
Those questions are for the future; Doha’s draw is out now. It consists of the familiar pair of four-person round-robin groups, the White and the Maroon, which are made up of the top eight players from 2009—you'll see right off the bat that one of them is weighted more heavily with talent than the other. Either way, the top two performers from each group advance to the semifinals. All eight qualifiers have made the trip, and all of them appear to be healthy, another victory for the WTA. Let’s see what’s going to happen when they face off against each other this week.
The first thing that catches your eye here: No Williams sisters. This makes the Whites a free-for-all, and a land of opportunity. None of these players are what you would call red hot; they’ve basically staggered their way into the desert. Jankovic's No. 1 ranking was fumbled away long before she posted good results in Cincinnati and Tokyo. Wozniacki has slumped after her run to the U.S. Open final; she retired with an injury in Luxembourg last week and may be shaken by an investigation over it (she quit when she was up a set and 5-0). Azarenka expended all of her energy by mid-year. And bad has turned to worse for Safina since the Open. This may sound like a depressing litany for a year-end event, but in a perverse way it makes the Whites more intriguing. All of their matches will be crucial and unpredictable.
The first of them takes place Tuesday between Jankovic and Azarenka. JJ has won their last three meetings, the most meaningful of which came this summer in Cincinnati, and Azarenka has reached just one quarterfinal since Wimbledon. As for the other Whites, Wozniacki and Safina have played only one time, on clay this year in Madrid, where the Russian won in straight sets. But a lot has changed in their levels of confidence over the last six months. Wozniacki, despite her feeble fall results, is still a rising commodity. Her fundamental trait, her steadiness, should serve her well as she faces her less reliable opponents.
Semifinalists: Wozniacki, Jankovic
The first thing that catches your eye here: Two Williams sisters. With fellow big hitters Dementieva and Kuznetsova, they comprise a fearsomely strong foursome—look for the missiles to be fired, both accurately and inaccurately, on the Maroon side. The upside to this imbalance of power is that the two top finishers here can only meet in the final.
Perhaps the most significant statistic to keep in mind is that the ostensible favorite and top seed, Serena Williams, has never been at her best in the season-ending championship. She’s won it just once, in 2001, and hasn’t qualified for the semis since ’04. Last year, her sister got the better of her and went on to win the whole thing.
Which means that the Maroons should be nearly as chaotic as the Whites. You might think that Dementieva would thrive at a sub-Slam event like this, but her career record in year-enders is a stunning 5-16 (though she did reach the semis last year), and she has had a poor last third of 2009. Still, despite her periodic disasters, Dementieva is capable of beating anyone and has made herself a better player with age. As for her countrywoman, who can predict what Kuznetsova will do next? She also has the raw pace and mobility to hang with anyone—she beat Serena on her way to winning the French Open this year—and she won the Premier event in Beijing a few weeks ago. But Kuzzie is even worse than Dementieva at this time of year. She comes to Doha with a 2-10 career record at this tournament. You get the sense that she feels like the heavy lifting is done and she’s ready for the season to be over.
Who doesn't feel that way? Somebody has to win it each year, right? Last season it was Venus Williams, and she should at least be well rested this time around—she's won only five matches since July and may just be happy that Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the Russian teen who beat her twice this fall, didn’t make the cut. Venus starts with Dementieva on Tuesday, while Serena goes up against Kuznetsova. Predictions aside, we’ll see four superb, if erratic, athletes go toe-to-toe in one day. Call it one more small win for the WTA.
Semifinalists: S. Williams, Dementieva
Final: Serena Williams d. Elena Dementieva