The race to be the year-end No. 1 is over. There are no fresh new talents to see, or stars of the future to contemplate. One of the tour’s biggest names, Maria Sharapova, can’t make it.
Yet none of that should matter at the WTA’s season-ending championships, which begin tomorrow in Istanbul. What will matter will be the one thing we’re sure to get: matches. Rather than progressing through a single-elimination draw, as they do at every other event, the Top 8 finishers of 2013 will face off in two week-long round robins. Only one match is played at a time, and theoretically at least, none of them are easy. The result is a rotating showcase of the best that the women's tour has to offer.
This system has been popular in Istanbul the last two years; the crowds have come, they’ve stayed late, and they generally haven’t been disappointed. You never know when an epic might arrive, and who might give it to us. Last year Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber turned their round-robin encounter into perhaps the most entertaining match of 2012. When Serena Williams said yesterday that she had "to be ready from the first match on,” in Istanbul, I think she actually meant it.
Let’s see which two women might give us a classic in 2013, which four will survive the week to advance to the semifinals, and who, for lack of a better word, the Istan-bully of 2013 will be.
2013: 73-4 record; 10 titles; French Open and U.S. Open champion.
Head to head vs. group: 13-1. Won the WTA Championships in 2002, 2009, 2012.
There’s not much standing between the semis and Serena, who is coming off titles at the U.S. Open and the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing—no late-season letdown for her this year, even if she has already clinched the No. 1 ranking. Serena's only loss to any of the women in her group came to Kerber last year in Cincinnati, in a match where she did suffer a letdown. It was played just two weeks after she had won Wimbledon and Olympic gold back to back. Serena shouldn’t have much trouble with Kerber or Radwanska this time, but a meeting with Kvitova is one that many of us have been waiting to see. They went three hard-hitting sets in Doha earlier this year.
2013: 56-16 record; 3 titles; Wimbledon semifinalist; 11-2 since the U.S. Open.
Head to head vs. group: 6-14. Record at WTA Championships: 5-4
Radwanska is the third seed at this event, but she doesn’t sound super-confident about her chances.
“It’s especially tough with Serena in my draw, and also the lefties," Aga said yesterday. "It’s never easy, but I hope I can try to play my best tennis.”
Radwanska has reason to keep her expectations low: She’s 0-8 against Serena and 1-4 against Kvitova. Both of those women have too much power for her. The upside for Aga is that she seems to be relaxed and playing with nothing to lose. Two years ago here she won a classic against Zvonareva; last year she lost one to Sharapova. I’m thinking she'll finesse her way into a third somewhere along the way this week.
2013: 49-21 record; 2 titles; Wimbledon quarterfinalist; 8-1 since the U.S. Open.
Head to head vs. group: 6-7. Record at WTA Championships: 5-1
Kvitova was once a big-event player. In 2011, she won Wimbledon and went 5-0 for the title in Istanbul. That’s not the case now. She has had a strong fall, with a win in Tokyo, but her best result at a Grand Slam was a quarterfinal appearance at the All England Club. But there’s hope here. Kvitova is at her best indoors, she can slug with anyone, she should feel good in this arena, and in her last two tournaments she has a win and a semifinal appearance. For Petra, that counts as consistency. She'll need a little more of it right away in Istanbul. Kvitova opens on Tuesday against Radwanska, a player she has generally owned.
2013: 44-21 record; 1 title; Wimbledon quarterfinals; 11-2 this fall.
Head to head vs. group: 6-9. Record at WTA Championships: 0-3
Kerber didn’t win a match here last year, but she made herself a crowd favorite by battling Azarenka through three excellent sets and two long tiebreakers. There’s a chance the German could go 0-3 again; she only got into the draw because Sharapova had to pull out. But like Radwanska, Kerber doesn’t sound stressed about it. “I’m going to have fun, enjoy my tennis, and let’s see what happens," she says.
Unfortunately, the first thing that’s going to happen to her is a match against Serena Williams.
Semifinalists: S. Williams, Kvitova
2013: 42-7 record; 3 titles; Australian Open champion
Head to head vs. group: 17-8. Record at WTA Championships: 7-8
Azarenka has had a good year but a bad fall. She’s 0-2 since the U.S. Open, and she admits that she didn’t get herself physically ready for the Asian circuit. So far in Istanbul, though, Vika is singing a different tune. “Anybody who’s here is going to be a challenge,” she says. “It’s exciting, and I can’t wait to play all those players.” It’s true, the always-boiling Azarenka may come to Istanbul with something to prove again. She reached the final of this event in 2011 but has never won it, and she likely wants to put herself back on a positive track against Serena after ceding ground to her at the U.S. Open. Vika should get off to a good start against Sara Errani on Tuesday. She's won the last 10 sets they've played.
2013: 40-13 record; 1 title; Australian Open runner-up
Head to head vs. group: 14-10. Record at WTA Championships: 2-4
Li Na reached a Grand Slam final this year, in Melbourne, but more surprising and perhaps more impressive was her consistency through the second half of the season. This historically up and down player hasn’t lost before the quarters since the French Open.
We’ll see next year if this is the beginning of a new Li. For now, the question is: Will steadier play translate into wins against the world’s best? As her record attests, this isn’t a bad group for Li. She’s never lost a set to Errani, she has a 5-4 record against Jankovic, and she has four wins over Azarenka (though none of them have come in the last two years). Li will open against Jankovic on Wednesday.
2013: 46-22; 1 title; French Open semifinalist
Head to head vs. group: 1-12. Record at WTA Championships: 1-2
Any assortment of opponents here was going to be a tough one for the Italian. She has a 5-32 career record against the other seven women in Istanbul, and she’s better on clay than she is on indoor hard courts. That said, the draw still did Errani no favors. She has just one win in 13 matches against her group-mates, and that came five years ago against Azarenka. But like Kerber, Errani made things interesting here last year, especially in a long three-set loss to Radwanska.
2013: 45-16 record; 1 title; French Open quarterfinalist; 6-2 this fall.
Head to head vs. group: 8-10. Record at WTA Championships: 14-24
Instead of new blood in Istanbul, we’re going to see a return of the old. Jankovic, the 28-year-old former No. 1, has qualified for the season-ender for the first time since 2010. JJ has a losing career record against her group, but she can hang with all of them, including Azarenka. She has three wins over Vika, and she took a set from her in Cincy this summer. Jankovic is also coming off a runner-up finish, and a win over Kvitova, at the Premier Mandatory in Beijing. As I wrote at the top of this preview, we watch the WTA Championships for entertaining matches above all else. Even if she doesn’t win many, or any, Jankovic should do her part in giving a couple of them to us.
Semifinalists: Azarenka, Li
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Li; Azarenka d. Kvitova
Final: S. Williams d. Azarenka