No (Istan)bul

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 /by

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by Pete Bodo

The WTA Championships is going where it hasn’t gone before, in more ways than one. The tournament is being played in Istanbul for the first time, where—everyone hopes—tennis-thirsty fans won’t be too distressed by the fact that only one of the elite eight who comprise the singles field is a multiple Grand Slam singles champion.

The exception is Maria Sharapova (three majors, but none since the 2008 Australian Open), who’s going to have to make up for the absence of the Williams sisters as well as Kim Clijsters. So this will be a less of a showcase for established stars—the only other one in the field is WTA No. 1 and ranking glamorpuss, Caroline Wozniacki—than emerging ones (Petra Kvitova? Victoria Azarenka? Agnieszka Radwanska?) or, in what might seem fitting the way things have gone, late-blooming, mature veterans at the peak of their powers.

These aren’t ordinary times at the WTA. Wozniacki, who's on track to finish as the year-end No. 1 for the second year in a row, still hasn’t won a Grand Slam title. And it isn’t like the more well-known players have been lording it over her.

True, Clijsters won the Australian Open. But after that it got real western at the majors, with a first-time winner popping up at each one. China’s Li Na won the French Open, the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon, and Slammin’ Samantha Stosur of Australia won the U.S. Open. Yet none of those rookie winners took advantage of the breakthrough to separate herself from the WTA pack. Thus, this WTA Championships is shaping up as the least predictable in recent memory.

Given that there’s no break between this week’s final two regular-season tournaments (Moscow and Luxembourg) and Istanbul, let’s take a quick look at the prime contenders—the first seven women have qualified, with the last spot down to two ladies—and rate their chances. We’ll do it on a scale of 1-10, with the 10 representing the strongest chance. We’ll start with the top seeds and work our way down:

Caroline Wozniacki, the pride of Denmark (but a resident of Monte Carlo), needs to win this for the sake of her credibility. Once again in 2011, Wozniacki came down with AMD (Andy Murray Disease) and was unable to find her A-game when it most counted—in the majors.

Wozniacki competed well in secondary events, but even there she didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Apart from New Haven, she last won a tournament way back in early June. Yet Wozniacki has been able to hold onto that No. 1 ranking because she’s consistent—and she plays her brains out (she’s played more tournaments than all of her Top 10 rivals but one, Marion Bartoli). Given the trouble she’s had seizing big opportunities this year, I can’t give her more than a 7.

***

Maria Sharapova will compete with all her heart and soul, but she hasn’t played since she had to pull out of Tokyo with an ankle injury. Ordinarily, that might suggest that if the ankle is healed, she could be especially dangerous because she’ll be well-rested and is the most experienced woman in the lineup. But when you have the service yips the way Sharapova does, time away can make you more, rather than less, nervous. She's just been too erratic to merit more than a 5.

***

Victoria Azarenka goes on these great tears, and then something always goes wrong—an injury (at Beijing, most recently, it was a left thigh strain—but she’s back in action at Luxembourg), an upset, a meeting with an unexpectedly strong if worthy opponent (at the majors, Azarenka lost to the winner at two and the losing finalist at the other two). I see nothing to make me think something won’t go wrong again, but I like her game and she’s ambitious. Give her an 8.

***

Petra Kvitova lost her head after that remarkable performance at Wimbledon—what do you expect of a shy, self-conscious, barely 21-year-old? But did you notice that after failing to get out of the second round at three consecutive summer tournaments—including a first-round loss to no. 46 Alexandra Dulgheru—she made the semis in Tokyo and won last week’s event in Linz?

I like her chances, but this will be her first WTA Championships and the format, choc a bloc with quality players, is new to her. The newness of it all will probably be too much for her to handle. She could go all the way but I can’t go higher than a 6.

***

Vera Zvonareva has stores of experience and that's usually an enormous plus. But it’s also an albatross, because Zvonareva has never quite won the big one, and you know that's lodged in the back of her mind. You get only so many chances in a career.

Still. . . Zvonareva is a former finalist and two-time semifinalist in the year-end championships. She’s coming off a disappointing second-round loss in Beijing, but she's extremely versatile. If she lives up to her top seed in Moscow, under the home-crowd pressure, she could complete her “always a bridesmaid” resume by winning the championships. Rate her a 7.

***

PicSamantha Stosur was the runner-up to Bartoli at Osaka last week. That had to provide some balm for the wounds Stosur suffered after losing back-to-back matches to Maria Kirilenko in Tokyo and Beijing. She still seems to be reeling from that terrific U.S. Open win and I don’t see her getting out of the round robin. Rate her a 5.

***

Li Na went to pieces after she made the Australian Open final, and then again when she won Roland Garros. I’m almost tempted to say that, given how little she’s done since she won in France, she’s due to clean house again. But I can’t see her doing it. It seems like her mind has been a million miles away, and she hasn’t won a match—that’s right, a match, not a tournament—since before the U.S. Open. Give her a 3.

***

Both Marion Bartoli and Agnieszka Radwanska are still in contention as I write this, although a win by Radwanska in her first match in Moscow will clinch the eighth and final spot. (Editors' Note: Radwanska lost to Safarova on Tuesday.) Should Radwanska lose to Lucie Safarova and Bartoli go on to win the tournament, you'd have to consider Bartoli a major contender for the title. Why? Well, the confidence dividend of her great finish (she won Osaka last week), and her pure elation will more than offset any residual fatigue. Ifand it's a big IFBartoli makes it to Istanbul, I'd rate her an 8 to take the whole danged thing.

As well as Bartoli has played recently, Radwanska has been the real scourge of the WTA since her disappointing second-round loss at the U.S. Open. She had wins over two of her fellow Istanbul qualifiers (Azarenka and Zvonareva) as she pulled off an impressive Asian double just weeks ago, winning back-to-back premier events in Tokyo and Beijing.

Radwanska has an understated but tricky game, and for that she deserves at least a 7. She may not quite be ready for prime time but If she can keep up her momentum through Moscow, she could pull off the ultimate surprise in Istanbul. I mean, somebody will have to, right?

That’s the state of the WTA these days.

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