Following the showcase WTA Championships in Istanbul, this week sees another elite player event take place in Sofia. The Qatar Airways Tournament of Champions features eight players who have performed well on the International Series of tournaments this season. The six highest-ranking women to have won an International title, along with two wildcards, will compete for a top prize of $270,000 and 375 ranking points.
Like Istanbul, the event has a round robin format, with the eight players drawn into two groups. The top two performers in each will go through to the semi-finals on Saturday.
Caroline Wozniacki is the highest-ranked player in the tournament and undoubtedly one of the favourites for the title. Although the Dane has had a disappointing season, featuring a loss of confidence as well as several demoralising defeats, she has posted much more encouraging results of late, including tournament victories in Seoul and Moscow.
In the Group Serdika, only doubles specialist Roberta Vinci holds a winning record against Wozniacki, the Italian having won the pair’s sole meeting. Wozniacki has never lost to Hsieh, and is 5-1 against Hantuchova. Although the Slovakian veteran is capable of the kind of power tennis that causes problem for the counter-punching Wozniacki, it would be surprising if the Dane did not emerge within the top two of her group.
Su-Wei Hsieh, ranked 27 in the world, earned her place in Sofia by winning titles in Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou. Unfortunately for the player from Taipei, she hasn’t beaten any of her rivals in the Group Serdika, so securing a semi-final berth will be a tough task. The decisive match could be Vinci vs Hantuchova, who have split their four previous clashes. Vinci is ranked number one in doubles and is a solid singles player, while Hantuchova, although a prolific and talented player has a tendency to be erratic.
Predicted semi-finalists: Wozniacki and Vinci
The Group Sredets is perhaps more difficult to call. Interestingly, it features two doubles partners who also happen to be the doubles world champions. Fresh from their win in Istanbul on Sunday, Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko will be hoping that their joint success translates into singles glory in Sofia.
Seeded second for the tournament, Petrova is favoured to come through her group. She qualified by winning the title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in June, but more significant was her performance in Tokyo last month, when she beat the likes of Sam Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska to win her biggest title in years and prove that she is still a force in the game, despite tumbling from a career-high ranking of 3.
Not having won an International title this year, Kirilenko is a wildcard entrant. Nevertheless, the Russian has an excellent chance of making the last four. She performed exceptionally well on grass, reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and the semi-finals of the London Olympics, and the fast indoors courts in Sofia should suit her style of play.
Aiming to stop a clean sweep of Russians emerging from the Group Serdets are Zheng Zie and Tsvetana Pironkova. Pironkova, from Bulgaria, was awarded the second wildcard, and will no doubt enjoy a rapturous reception. While her nationality is perhaps the main reason for her participation in Sofia, she has scored some impressive wins in her career, and owns the rare distinction of beating Venus Williams twice at Wimbledon. Zie, the champion in Auckland at the beginning of the year, has a winning record against both Pironkova and Kirilenko. The Chinese has not enjoyed her best season in 2012, but she has been a solid member of the top 30 and famously pushed Serena Williams to a 9-7 third set at Wimbledon.
Predicted semi-finalists: Petrova and Kirilenko
While some may question the scheduling of the Qatar Airways Tournament of Champions in the week following the star-studded and drama-packed WTA Championships in Istanbul, the tournament offers an opportunity for lower-ranked players to earn some late-season glory. This will be the first year with Sofia as host city, and with some notable players as well as a home favourite competing, there is potential for some high quality tennis.