Climbing the Big Tree
Let’s start by stating the obvious and getting it out of the way: This isn’t the WTA season-ender we wanted. With no Serena or Venus or Justine, the traditional top tier has been decimated and the brand names, at least from an American fan’s perspective, have been reduced to one: Kim Clijsters. Without a ruling class of players, or any kind of hierarchy whatsoever, this has the feel of an utter free-for-all. In that sense, it's a fitting end to a WTA year in which, from Serena Williams’ strange second half to Caroline Wozniacki’s ascension to No. 1 to the triumphs and travails of Clijsters, we’ve learned just to sit back and expect the unexpected. And hopefully enjoy what comes our way.
Eight women are in Doha—"the big tree" in English. Who will fall first, who will climb highest? The best way to approach this potential roller-coaster week may be to ask a few questions and see if a few plausible insights into the future present themselves. And then sit back watch the opposite happen.
1. With the various the ups and downs these players have endured this season, does anyone come in having built up the kind of momentum that can carry them through the week?
Caroline Wozniacki is the obvious candidate here. Since the U.S. Open, she’s won in Tokyo and Beijing, taken over the No. 1 ranking, and beat the woman who beat her at Flushing, Vera Zvonareva. And then she got some rest. In that time, she has been steadier mentally than ever, surviving a few three-setters that she appeared due to lose. That kind of consistency will serve her well in a round-robin event based on cumulative performance. She also has to be favored in her group, where she’ll see Schiavone and Stosur, as well as Dementieva, who she beat for the title in Tokyo.
On the other side, two women come in with two different types of momentum. Victoria Azarenka, jump-started by a chance to take the last spot in this event, won in Moscow this past weekend. This may not be a long-term confidence-builder, and Azarenka has had mirages of quality play through the season—Melbourne, Stanford—that were never made concrete. But it’s a start.
Zvonareva, on the other hand, has built a year’s worth of confidence, as unlikely as that may sound for someone who has traditionally been so volatile. She made the finals of Wimbledon and the Open, as we know, but she followed it up with a strong fall as well, reached the final in Beijing, and rose to No. 2, a career-high. Zvonareva is in the tougher group of the two, if only because the woman who ran her off the court in the Open final, Clijsters, is there with her. This tournament is an opportunity for the Russian. She’s been to her share of big finals, including Doha in 2008. Will she ever go farther?
2. Who could surprise us?
Or, should I say: Who do we want to surprise us? Samantha Stosur teased us with perhaps the best first half of anyone in 2010, and showed off a game with force and variety from serve to forehand to volley. Then, after a disappointing—crushing, surely—upset loss in the French Open final, she struggled to put that game back together on a regular basis again. Even a good U.S. Open run didn’t set her straight. She began the fall with two opening-round losses before reaching the quarters at the HP in Japan. Granted, she lost to 40-year-old Date Krumm there, but it was something positive anyway. You never know exactly which Stosur will show up, but her group gives her a shot if the right version makes a couple of appearances. She can beat Schiavone, despite what we saw in Paris, and she has a 2-2 record against Wozniacki; three of those matches have gone the distance. I guess I’d be surprised if she made the semis, but it would be a pleasant one.
3. Can anyone beat Kim Clijsters?
The U.S. Open champ is the, well, she’s not the 10-ton gorilla, exactly, but you know what I’m talking about. Clijsters has lopsided winning records against all seven of her prospective opponents here. And she has the most experience at this type of event, as evidenced by the fact that she won it way back in 2002 and ’03. Since her comeback, Clijsters has been sporadically unbeatable, most notably at the Open, but hasn’t extended that into any kind of dominant run. Partly that’s because she doesn’t play an all-out schedule; more recently it’s because she cut her foot and has missed the fall season thus far.
Despite the rust, Clijsters must be the favorite on paper. After two losses to her, she took the top seed in her group, Zvonareva, apart in the Flushing final, and she did the same to this tournament’s No. 1 seed, Wozniacki, the year before. But dominant performances have been followed by surprising defeats over the last 14 months. Clijsters beat Henin in three sets in Brisbane, then went out dismally to Petrova in Melbourne. She beat Henin again in three at Wimbledon, and then went out to Zvonareva in the next round. Sense a pattern? Fortunately for Kim, she hasn’t beaten Justine lately.
4. For those of us with no particular rooting interests, what should we watch for from Doha?
Stosur’s kick serve wide, the strongest this side of Serena’s, with a vicious but exemplary shoulder rotation. The two sides of Schiavone: Her understatedly carved slice backhand in transition, and her roundhouse, open-stance, feet-off-the-court topspin forehand when she has time to hit it from the baseline. Wozniacki’s discretion with her down-the-line backhand; she has a knack for finding the right time to go for it, and the right spot to hit it to. Azarenka’s hop-step footwork; it’s almost more than necessary, but the wasted energy is fun to watch. Zvonareva’s emotional state; generally calm and thoughtful off the court, can she continue to overcome her long-standing reputation for being anything but on it?
5. Who is going to win?
I’ll take Kim Clijsters. You?