By Erik Gudris/ Monday, October 21, 2013
The elite eight of women's tennis arrived in Istanbul for the WTA Championships. Tennis Now's Erik Gudris previews the field that once again chases world No. 1 Serena Williams for the title.
Photo Credit: Getty
After another exciting and, if sometimes, tumultuous 2013 season, the WTA finds itself back in Istanbul for the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships. WTA Chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster expressed bittersweet feelings that this is the final year Istanbul would be the host city. After all, few expected that Istanbul would provide some of the best attendance numbers in recent memory during its three years as the host city for the eight-woman round robin season-ending event.
World No. 1 and defending champion Serena Williams once again has all eyes on her. Not only because she was "the lady in red" during the draw ceremony, but also because she enters Istanbul yet again as the pre-tournament favorite. The question once again, as it has been all year, is, "Can anyone stop Williams from winning the title?" Or more to the point, does anyone in the field actually believe that they can?
Williams enters with a combined 13-1 record against the other women in her group. No wonder the others might be feeling doubtful about their chances this week. The early matchup that everyone will be looking forward to will be between Kvitova and Williams who haven't played each other since the quarters of Doha earlier this year.
It was in that three-set tussle that Williams reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and from there put together yet another career defining season that included winning two major titles. Kvitova, after a roller coaster year that included winning more three-set matches than any woman in recent history, steadied herself with some solid results during the Asian swing. The Istanbul winner in 2011, Kvitova excels indoors and certainly has the game to trouble Williams. Many feel Williams needs another rival on tour and Kvitova could be it, especially if she can lay down a marker for 2014 with a win this week.
After losing to Williams in the Beijing semifinals, Radwanska joked later that maybe she should try playing with her left hand against the American if they should meet in Istanbul. Ironically, Radwanska now finds herself in a group not only with Williams but two lefties (Kerber, Kvitova). If she wants to get out of the red group into the semis, Radwanska will probably have to rely on someone beating Williams and Kvitova to keep things close in the group. She will also have to beat Kerber, the only player in the group she has a winning record over. Tossing in a few left-handed surprises when we least expect it probably couldn't hurt Aga's chances either.
And what about Kerber, who squeezed into the eighth and final spot after getting a last-minute wildcard and then winning the Linz event a few weeks ago? The sometimes-cranky German said that she was just happy to be in the event and felt like she had nothing to lose. That kind of thinking could make her a dangerous foe, especially for Kvitova who, as we all know, often finds herself in three-set matches. The Kerber/Kvitova match could well decide who finishes first and second in the group.
First place: Williams
Second place: Kvitova
Though she's the event's No. 2 seed, Victoria Azarenka may be the biggest mystery coming into these championships. After pushing Williams to the brink in the US Open finals, Azarenka abruptly crashed out of both her opening round matches in both Tokyo and Beijing. Citing poor preparation for both of those losses in Asia, Azarenka says now she is fully rested and ready for Istanbul. If so, then she is the clear favorite in this group. But if not, or she finds herself struggling again, then this group becomes a toss-up.
So who could take advantage? Despite her plucky intensity, it's hard seeing Errani (who is a collective 1-12 against all her three fellow group members) breaking out of here into the semis. That leaves the powerful if streaky Li Na and the solid if sometimes suspect Jelena Jankovic.
Jankovic, back into the top 10 and making a return trip to the championships for the first time in three years, is relishing being in the spotlight once again. She certainly could make life difficult for anyone in her group, especially if she could drag Azarenka into yet another grinding three-set slog like their last meeting in Cincinnati earlier this summer.
But Li Na seems the more likely choice. It's hard to believe she will face Azarenka for the first time since their clash in the Australian Open finals way back in January. If it weren't for those two falls she suffered in that three-set clash, it may have well been the Chinese superstar holding up her second major trophy. Like Kvitova, many have waited for Li to become a more consistent challenger in the final stages of the biggest events. A win over Azarenka in Istanbul would certainly help.
First place: Azarenka
Second place: Li
As they have all season, the elite of the WTA find themselves chasing after Williams, who currently holds a 4,000+ points lead over her nearest rival Azarenka. Though Azarenka has proven this year she can not only test, but also beat Williams on the biggest stages, is anyone else ready to do the same, especially next year? That may be the biggest question to ask for this year's end-of-season finale rather than who will raise the coveted Billie Jean King trophy. We'll see who's ready to answer it.
Semis: Williams d. Li; Kvitova d. Azarenka
Finals: Williams d. Kvitova