by Pete Bodo
The fiery responses to the men's Hot. . .or Not? post suggest that we've found a fun, somewhat novel way to look at the players as they prepare for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. I also realize that I'd better restate the chili pepper concept here, as so many readers took the ratings as either a comparative exercise, or some sort of overarching judgement of the players in question. So let me repeat:
Each player is assigned one to five chili peppers to denote his or her degree of "hotness." This rating is relative, not comparative. In other words, just because two players have the same rating, it doesn't mean they have an equal chance to win the tournament, or are competing at the same level. It's just an attempt to quantify the state of each individual's game at this moment in time as the first major of the year looms.
So let's break out the chilis for the WTA Top 10:
As if it isn't bad enough to have Petra Kvitova breathing down her neck, endangered and still-Slamless Wozniacki (yes, Generalissimo Franco is still dead) suffered a wrist injury that brought her to tears in her third-round loss to Angiezska Radwanska in Sydney. Wozniacki left the court at the mega-tune-up yesterday with her wrist strapped and her chances to start at the Australian Open in jeopardy. You don't have to be a cynic to mutter, "Why am I not surprised?" Wozniacki did very little to protect her top-ranking toward the end of last year, and Kvitova's win over the Dane in the Hopman Cup seems an omen. It's hard not to deduce that the wheels are falling off for Wozniacki.
Are we looking at the female Novak Djokovic here? Maybe not. But at this stage, a consistent, reliable, uncontested WTA No. 1 would be a novel development. Kvitova is just 21, and she's still given to losing the plot in her matches. But she's also shown an ability to get back on track before it's too late, and her strong finish in 2011 suggests that she's maturing by leaps and bounds. Everyone on earth is jumping on the bandwagon, which is irritating to some, but the WTA is dying for a heroine, and Kvitova is the only contender who doesn't have "issues," ranging from injury to age to an inability to win the big ones. No question about it: Kvitova has the momentum.
Azarenka hasn't lost a set at Sydney, where she's posted back-to-back wins over former Caroline Wo, er, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and tough-out Marion Bartoli. So how come this model of consistency gets just four peppers? Well, there's that element of doubt that every player who hasn't won a major must live with, and after each passing year that has to be ingrained in Azarenka. Her game is in good order, but she hasn't provided enough data this year to dispel the suspicion that she's the new Elena Dementieva.
Forget that No. 4 ranking. Sharapova hasn't played a competitive match since the WTA Championships, where she was sub-par—presumably because of an ankle injury. The feeling here is that she's not the kind of player who can go in cold and produce her A-game. Unless she's sandbagging, she'll do well just to produce a B, C, or G game as she begins a new year.
Stop the presses! Li is in the semis of a tournament that isn't a Grand Slam event. Whenever the reigning French Open champ survives a round or two at a sub-Slam event, it's time to take notice. Given her track record at the Australian Open, where she gave Kim Clijsters all she could handle in last year's final, Li's competence in Sydney is an encouraging sign.
Stosur has been as far as the fourth round of the Australian Open just twice in her career; she's Australia's version of Amelie Mauresmo, the former No. 1 who was a threat at every Grand Slam but the one played in her homeland. Nothing about Stosur's results this year suggests that she'll go deep into the second week Down Under. Stosur lost to Iveta Benesova in her second match at Brisbane, and she lost to Francesca Schiavone in the first round at Sydney. Granted, that's a tough opener, but it has to leave Stosur feeling under duress as she prepares to meet the expectations of her countrymen.
The former No. 2 has something in common with Stosur: She had a daunting first-round match at Sydney event. And, like Stosur, Zvonareva lost—to Sventlana Kuznetsova. Actually, she got crushed, 6-1, 6-2, which over time may be seen as yet another incremental step down from the standard she established with her career-high year of 2010, when she was in two Grand Slam finals. Historically, Zvonareva has been good Down Under (two semis in the last three years). But right now her momentum seems to be going in the wrong direction.
She finished last year on fire, with back-to-back wins at Tokyo and Beijing. She likes outdoor hard courts, and has just beaten Wozniacki at Sydney to set up a semifinal match with Azarenka. Radwanska is steady, and seemingly ready to serve as a roadblock to anyone who would fancy herself the champion of Australia.
Does anyone personify the concept of hanging in there better than Bartoli? She played her heart out last year, and got off to a good start this year, losing to Azarenka in the quarterfinals of Sydney. Give her credit—she plays hard and often, and always stays within striking distance of the top players.
No. 10 Andrea Petkovic (none)
Petkovic had postioned herself to make a run in 2012, but sustained a stress fracture in her back that will keep her off the tour for six to eight weeks. In her two events this year, she lost in the quarterfinals at Brisbane to surprise winner Kaia Kanepi and in the second round at Sydney (ed. note: corrected from original). But it's all academic now.