Two days ago, I wrote about 10 men who, going by the rankings of exactly one year ago, appear to be in trouble and need to put up a few Ws at this critical, event- and rankings-points rich time of year. I called them a kind of "Anti-Top 10."
Let me repeat for those of you who missed that post: Before the month is out, we'll have watched two ATP Masters events, three WTA Premier events, and a good portion of the second Grand Slam event of the year, the French Open. The only caveat is that all the action will be on clay, a surface on which some solid hard- and grass-court players are to varying degrees ineffective.
By now, we know who the runaway favorites are when Madrid gets underway in a few days' time: the Sharapovas, Nadals, Djokovics, and Azarenkas. But other players will be struggling not for dominion but survival, or at least to reverse declining or even plummeting fortunes. An awful lot can happen in tennis in just a few weeks, never mind a handful of months or, heaven forbid, a year. Which is why I'm going to look at the WTA rankings of a year ago today and identify 10 players at risk:
No. 3 Petra Kvitova (Ranking as of May 2011: No. 18): It's hard to criticize a woman who climbed to within a few dozen rankings points of No. 1 during last year's spectacular rise. She won Wimbledon (her first major) and almost snatched the year-end No. 1 ranking away from Caroline Wozniacki. But Kvitova just hasn't built on that momentum in 2012, despite finishing 2011 with a great flourish.
Although she's played well in Fed Cup, Kvitova's tournament play since the Australian Open (where she had a chance to grab the top ranking but fell just short, losing in the semifinals to Maria Sharapova) had been very disappointing until Stuttgart, where she at least made a semifinal. But she was beaten at that stage by Sharapova, and the message was clear: Sharapova intends to make Kvitova pay—and pay, and pay—for having beaten her in last year's Wimbledon final. Kvitova needs to step up or she'll go into Wimbledon with too much pressure and too little confidence.
No. 5 Sam Stosur (No. 8): While all those rankings points Stsour earned by winning last year's U.S. Open will tide her over, she has been playing in fits and starts this year. She was spectacularly bad in her homeland of Australia at the start of the year, leaving it without having won a match, or even a set. Sure, the pressure makes her uncomfortable, but while you can't lose if you don't show up, you can't win, either.
Stosur has made just one final, Doha, where she lost to Victoria Azarenka. But she posted two big wins on clay in Fed Cup (defeating Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber) just weeks ago, and pushed Sharapova to three very tight, tough sets before she bowed in the third round at Stuttgart. Stosur is good on clay; the time is ripe for her to get her game back together following the distractions that attended her triumph in New York—it was her first Grand Slam singles title, earned at age 27.
No. 6 Caroline Wozniacki (No. 1): Wozniacki is loving life; she's one of the most popular and well-adjusted women on tour, and she's media friendly—a dream, really, for the WTA. But she's been loving life so much that she forgot to take care of one little piece of business during the two years that she ended up with the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking: She never won a Grand Slam event. Now she's slipping, and not just at the majors.
Wozniacki hasn't won a tournament this year and was beaten a few weeks ago in what amounts to her personal tournament (Copenhagen) by Kerber. Then Wozniacki lost to Kerber again just last week in her first clay-court event, Stuttgart. The field was loaded with talent; Wozniacki didn't get out of the first round. She's the type of person who whistles past the graveyard, but her decline since the start of the year has had a chilling air of inevitability. She needs to turn it around—and fast.
No. 8 Li Na (No. 6): All you need to know about how Li is playing is that, like Stosur, she still has all of her ranking points from the Grand Slam title she won last year, also her first, at Roland Garros. Yet her ranking has fallen two places below where it was before that historic breakthrough. Li's results have always been given to wild fluctuations; partly, it seems, because she just doesn't like to be the one with target on her back.
Now she's 30 years old, and an iconic figure as the first Asian of either sex to win a Grand Slam singles title. She has nothing to prove. But be warned: She's been to the quarterfinals of the last three events she's played (all big ones: Indian Wells, Miami and Stuttgart). I wouldn't put anything past her.
No. 10 Vera Zvonareva (No. 3): This 27-year-old Russian's story is similar to that of Wozniacki, although she's significantly older and has actually come closer to getting over the Grand Slam hump. Zvonareva had a career year at the Grand Slams in 2010, making finals at Wimbledon (losing to Serena Williams) and the U.S. Open (losing to Kim Clijsters). But as 2011 unfolded, it appeared that Zvonareva's great chance had come—and gone. She was stopped in the third round at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, finishing the year at No. 7. Zvonareva has played so-so tennis this year, and his been out with a shoulder injury for a few weeks now.
No. 11 Francesca Schiavone (No. 4): This is a fairly simple story, making it pretty hard to fault Schiavone. She's 31 years old and became a Grand Slam champion very late in life (at the 2010 French Open), for which she was much celebrated. In fact, she's still living in the afterglow. Schiavone got off to a good start this year, but she quickly fell of the pace and hasn't won two matches in a row since Brisbane, the first tournament of 2012. Still, the memory of her Roland Garros miracle just might inspire her to have one more good season on the red clay she loves.
No. 17 Jelena Jankovic (No. 7): Nobody, but nobody, has had as much of a moth-to-flame relationship with success as Jankovic. Once again, she's been fluttering away from the heat and light—at least she has been for most of the year. Recently, though, she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on clay in a Fed Cup tie, both in straight sets. Last week Jankovic retired after losing the first set to Wozniacki at Stuttgart, but she says she's fit and ready for Madrid.
No. 22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (No. 21): A gifted striker of the ball who has been ranked as high as No. 13 despite still being just 20 years old, she's presently spinning her wheels, mired in a terrible slump. How bad? Pavlyuchenkova has won just three singles matches this year, and has lost 11. And it isn't like she's running into an Azarenka or Sharapova every week, either. Can it be that she hit that career high of No. 13 just last July? Odds are that she'll continue to find rough sledding on the blue clay.
No. 26 Svetlana Kuznetsova (No. 14): Kuznetsova is one of those players who's specialty seems to be disappointing the hopes of her fans. Unlike a Schiavone, she's just 26, and unlike Wozniacki. she's won two Grand Slam singles titles. She just seems to lose her appetite, or focus, or whatever, at intervals.
This wouldn't be so bad—the game needs flaky, interesting characters, like the much loved Sveta—but those intervals appear to be getting longer, and that always makes it that much harder to rebound. In only her first clay-court tournament to date (she was 1-1 on clay vs. Serbia in Fed Cup), Kuznetsova retired at Fes during her second-round match with IIrina-Camelia Begu, citing a leg injury. Her status for Madrid is uncertain.
No. 70 Venus Williams (No. 16): We all know what Venus has been through, what with that late-career diagnosis of Sjogren's Syndrome and a pile of other, cumulative injuries. We also know she's 31 years old, and trying to marshal her resources with the main goal of qualifying for the Olympics.
Given the direct-entry rules, the effective qualifying ranking now appears to be No. 65 (that's because no nation may send more than four players, and not all the players who qualify by ranking will be available to play). Right now, she's the No. 4 American behind, respectively, Serena (No. 9) Christina McHale (No. 36) and Vania King (No. 52), but three other American women are within 13 ranking places of Venus.
Good luck to all of them; some will need it more than others.