It’s probably appropriate that the three women who ended up on the medals podium of the Olympic women’s singles event were each responsible for dominating the three seasons that make up the first half of the tennis calendar. But with the summer hard court swing already underway this week in Montreal, the question remains who among them will find themselves as No. 1 either at the end of the U.S. Open or by the end of the year.
For bronze medalist Victoria Azarenka, she still remains the hunted as she continues to keep hold of the top ranking that she first claimed after winning her first Major in Melbourne. “Queen Victoria’s” reign, that includes a 26-match win streak until Miami, hasn’t been the most popular ruler of the WTA despite having the legitimacy that former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki never got no matter how consistent she was.
“Vika” is proving in 2012 she can be just as consistent as Wozniacki in reaching finals, but if she is going to keep a close grip on her crown, she’ll have to do much better on the hard courts of America than she has in years past including a mediocre career best fourth round showing in New York back in 2007. But in her favor, Azarenka doesn’t have that many points to defend from this time last year and since she desperately wants to prove she can win another Major, it wouldn’t be a surprise to not see Azarenka’s name on top of the rankings list just after Flushing Meadows comes to an end.
Maria Sharapova may have been disappointed with silver in London, but she certainly isn’t feeling glum about her year so far that includes winning in Paris to complete a career Grand Slam and with it a brief return to No. 1. But Sharapova’s chances for a successful summer on the hard courts may not be that easy. Azarenka has won all their meetings on hard courts since 2010 and her matchup against the Belarusian is never an easy one for her. Then she has the additional headache of trying to figure out how to beat Serena Williams who hasn’t lost to Sharapova since 2004.
With her early loss last year in New York, Sharapova goes into the event this year with points to gain, a critical factor if she wants to stay close with Azarenka in the rankings race. Sharapova certainly has the game to beat 98% of the rest of the tour, but it’s that 2% in Azarenka and Williams that has frustrated the Russian all year that may well force her to accept second place as her prize for a very successful 2012.
Serena Williams’s gold medal certainly raised her status as one of the all-time greats even higher with the completion of a rare “Golden Slam”. The American’s hard-driving schedule of late that saw her win Wimbledon, fly all the way to Stanford to defend her title there and then go back to London to win the Olympics have many saying that Williams wants to literally be on top of the WTA again and not just remain a de facto number one in the minds of tennis fans.
But Williams has her work cut out for her if she wants to reach No. 1 by the end of the U.S. Open. Unlike Azarenka or Sharapova, Williams is defending quite a few points from her very good summer hard court season last year. She’s not defending her title in Toronto, so that means she would have to try and win Cincinnati, an event she only won one round in last year before withdrawing with an injury, and then at least equal her run to the finals of New York or go one better and win her fourth title there. And then she’d have to hope that both Azarenka and Sharapova have really bad summers and lose early everywhere they play, a scenario that seems very unlikely.
While Williams will be the favorite heading into New York, one can’t forget how her emotions there over the last few years have ended up costing her in the final stages. Even she keeps her cool and takes the title, it’s more likely Williams will have to keep racking up the frequent flyer miles and ranking points in Asia if she wants to stand on the top rung of the WTA again.
While not forgetting Agnieszka Radwanska who certainly could play spoiler if she herself has a stellar summer, the battle for No. 1 in the WTA will most likely come down to the three women who stood side by side on the podium in London. The race is still going and it could well end up in a “photo finish” if not in New York then perhaps in a city hosting the year-end finals with its own Olympic aspirations – Istanbul.