The Big Cats, Part II

Thursday, August 04, 2011 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Yesterday, we looked at how the men's field is shaping up at the big summer hard-court tournaments, and today we'll check out the women. The big news, though, is that Cincinnati is a full-fledged combined event this year, bringing us one step closer to completion in the "back to the future" narrative shaping the pro game. Although the WTA is holding its own at many women-only events, this idea that it's somehow smart (business-wise) as well as, well, socially progressive for women to stand alone seems to have lost some of its pioneering appeal, and perhaps outlived its usefulness.

Of course, the women originally went rogue because they felt they could never attain the parity they sought any other way (in that, they probably were right). So in the really, really big picture, it may turn out that the women had to go off and start their own tour to give them leverage when the conditions seemed favorable to play dual events on a regular basis again. It seems a terrible waste, if that's the right word, of energy, time, work, effort—you name it. But that's how it works sometimes, and not just in tennis. In fact, that's how it works most of the time in most areas where large institutions, values and habits are in conflict (politics, anyone?).

Never mind. Let's celebrate that we have another combined event to savor, and have a look at what might lie in store in Toronto and Cincinnati, the upcoming WTA Premier events. And keep in mind that the order is flipped this year. In 2010 Montreal followed Cincinnati; this year the order is reversed to accomodate the combined format.

The Contenders

Serena Williams. Those two words ought to cover it.

No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki: She started her U.S. Open drive in Montreal last year, winning it in a big way with a 6-3, 6-2 shellacking of Vera Zvonareva. Although this year the WTA is in Toronto, expectations will still be high, and the pressure on Wozniacki to back up that No. 1 ranking with a Grand Slam title is still mounting. And in truth, Wozniacki hasn't really been getting it done. The early effort to atone for that third-round loss at the French Open and a fourth-round wipeout at Wimbledon came to a grinding halt when Wozniacki pulled out of Gstaad with a shoulder injury.

But this is the time of year when Wozniacki thrives, and she's done a pretty good job treading water. If she doesn't turn it up a notch this summer, the feeling that she can't win the big one will only grow stronger and make it that much tougher for her to perform up to par at the American major.

No. 2, Kim Clijsters: My question: How is this woman ranked No. 2 when she didn't play Wimbledon and lost in the second round of the French Open to the No. 114 player in the world? Relax, it's rhetorical. We know that the computer doesn't lie, but it sure tells a whale of a fib. Clijsters has been out with injury ever since shortly after the French Open.

Still, if this is all it takes to keep the No. 2 ranking (no fault of Kim's, btw), why not show up now and then to play. Just juggle the domestic and professional lives and see what happens. How can you walk away from it? It's like finding a 30-gallon garbage bag stuffed with hundred dollar bills in the street. It's worth taking home even if it's kind of a pain to drag it all the way to the door.

Clijsters won Cincy last year (d. Sharapova) but lost to Zvonareva in Montreal. My gut feeling is that the posse might catch up with Kim this summer, mainly because so many of the women suddenly are so much better and mentally tougher. She has her work cut out.

No. 3, Vera Zvonareva: As impressive as it is to be the third-best player in the world (rankings-wise, anyway), Zvonareva just plain blew it this year. She was within striking distance of the No. 1 ranking after making two Grand Slam finals last year, but hasn't played well enough in 2011 to take advantage of Wozniacki's moth-to-flame relationship with the majors and overtake her. Now, it seems, the window Zvonareva had is closing.

Zvonareva bombed out early in Cincy (l. to Pennetta), but recovered to make the final at Montreal (l. to Wozniacki). She needs to pull her game together, and winning at Baku was at least a good start.

No. 4, Victoria Azarenka: You can be charitable and say she's had bad luck at the majors, running into the tournament winner at both the French Open (l. to Li, quarters) and Wimbledon (l. to Kvitova, semis). Or you can take the ultra-insider's view that Azarenka is too much of a one-trick pony to beat the very best players—that is, she plays at one speed, with a limited, predictable repertoire of shots, and is almost alway destined to miss enough of those booming groundies (especially when the pressure is turned up) to lose to quality players.

I'm in the "hard luck" camp, although I understand the case against her. Azarenka was upset by Ana Ivanovic in the first round at Cincinnati last year, but reached the semis in Montreal (retired with injury against Zvonareva). She's been very consistent this year and I expect her to do well.

No. 5, Maria Sharapova: Let's see how she responds to the dreadful loss to Serena at Stanford. She belted her way to the final at Cincinnati last year (l. to Clijsters) but then pulled out of Montreal. With that wildly unreliable serve she's like a ship without a rudder. Anything can happen—and probably will.

No. 6, Li Na: She fell apart after making the Australian Open final, losing in the first round in five of her next six events—the pressure and celebrity she suddenly enjoyed in her native China was overwhelming. She hasn't exactly lit it up since winning Roland Garros, either. But at least she won a match at both of the events she's played since (Eastbourne and Wimbledon, where she lost to hard-charging Sabine Lisicki). Li lost to Yanina Wickmayer and Azarenka, respectively, at Cincinnati and Montreal last year—so-so perfomances at best. This one is very hard to figure.

No. 7 Petra Kvitova: Montreal will be her first tournament since the big win in London, and given that she flamed out in the first round in the two big summer events last year (and got just three games off Clijsters in the third round of last year's U.S Open), I'm guessing she'll still be high on her Wimbledon victory and not entirely focused. And this is a pretty erratic and easily distracted player to begin with.

The Long Shots

No. 9, Marion Bartoli: A finalist at Stanford (l. to Serena Williams) a week ago and one of the best returners in the women's game, she could have a great summer—it's obvious that she really—no, really—wants it. She was in the quarters and lost to a much higher seed at Montreal (l. to Azarenka) and Cincy (l. to Sharapova) last year.

Pic No. 11, Andrea Petkovic: She seems stalled, but she's good on hard courts and will need to regain some of the confidence she seems to have lost after Sharapova blew her out of the French Open quarters, 6-0, 6-3. Keep in mind that this girls wasn't even on the radar a year ago.

No. 12, Svetlana Kuznetsova: You know the old saying, Sveta fans: expect the worst but hope for the best. Let's face it, this former U.S. Open champion has a fine hard-court game and the summer seems to be when she's most likely to pop up and pull off a surprise. But those surprises are growing fewer and further between these days.

No. 15, Jelena Jankovic: It may be hard to believe, but she was top-seeded at both events last year—and lost in the second round each time (thanks to first-round byes). So you could say there's room for improvement. Some have given up entirely on Jankovic, and find that she may be most useful as a cautionary tale for Wozniacki. I'm not one of those people. I think she has a shot.

No. 16, Julia Goerges: The jury is still out on her—is she just a journeywoman on a tear this year, or can she harness those big groundies and become a Top 10-level force?

No. 20, Dominika Cibulkova: This little Slovakian dynamo has played big—really big—in recent months and while she might not win either of the big Premier events, she could stop a lot of better-known players from realizing that same goal. Look for her to make some waves.

No. 26, Sabine Lisicki: She's made great strides in her comeback, losing mostly to Top 5-caliber players (Sharapova at Wimbledon, Zvonareva at Roland Garros, Serena Williams at Stanford) in a rapid rise from her injury-affected No. 175 ranking. She could do a lot of damage with that big serve and master-blaster groundies.

Most Likely Breakout

No. 13, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: This 20-year-old has loads of talent, even if she's still carrying what appears to be baby fat—or the "freshman 15," if you prefer. She had a great tournament in Cincinnati last year (l. to Sharapova, semis) and at her age, 12 months makes a huge difference. I wouldn't be surprised if she won one of the Premier events. Caveat: She's played indifferently since making the Roland Garros quarters (l. to finalist Schiavone).

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