The last WTA Premier Mandatory event of the year is underway in Beijing. The China Open has been a regular stop on the women’s tour since 2004, but over the years has developed into one of the most lucrative of all, with over $5 million of prize money on the table.
Check out the Full Draw HERE: WTA Beijing 2013 Draw
Despite the absence of last year’s runner-up, Maria Sharapova, the 2013 edition boasts an incredibly strong field. Serena Williams (Bio) returns to China for just the third time in her career, but she has never been more motivated or consistent, and will be happy with nothing less than the trophy and the 1000 ranking points that come with it. Already assured of the year-end number one spot, victory in Beijing would widen the gap between her and the chasing pack even further.
Serena would be the favourite this week regardless, but her relatively easy draw makes her an even hotter pick for the title. In the first round, she’ll play Elena Vesnina, to whom she has never lost a set, and in the second round she’ll face either Alize Cornet or Francesca Schiavone, against whom she also has commanding records. Things should get more interesting at the third round stage, where Serena is due to face Simona Halep. The Romanian pushed sister Venus to three sets in Tokyo last week as she continues her seemingly inexorable march towards the top ten, and if she can come through a section that also features Maria Kirilenko and home hope Jie Zheng she would no doubt produce some equally gutsy tennis against Serena. An upset seems unlikely, however. Serena and Halep have faced off twice this year, with the American winning both matches in straight sets.
The biggest stars battling for the role of Serena’s quarter-final opponent are Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki. Stephens lost to Eugenie Bouchard in Tokyo and needs to do well in Beijing to keep alive her hopes of reaching the season-ending WTA Championships. Wozniacki produced some of her best tennis to reach the last four in Japan and will have the benefit of a first round bye this week. Another match in the intense Serena-Sloane rivalry would be highly anticipated, but Wozniacki is more than capable of getting in the way: she beat Stephens in straight sets in New Haven last month.
The second quarter of the draw is headed by one of the busiest players of the season, Agnieszka Radwanska (Bio). The Pole has already won more more matches than anyone else in Asia after triumphing in Seoul and reaching the quarter-finals in Tokyo. Will her remarkable consistency see her through to the latter rounds of the China Open or will she finally succumb to fatigue? Radwanska has a straightforward opener against Stefanie Voegele, but in the second round she’ll meet either Madison Keys, who pushed her to the limit at Wimbledon, or the streaky but always dangerous Dominika Cibulkova, who beat her in the Stanford final in July. Ironically, Radwanska’s slated third round opponent is less troublesome: she has beaten Ana Ivanovic seven times in a row dating back to 2009.
If she can get to the quarter-final stage in Beijing for the third consecutive year, Radwanska could face a rematch with her Tokyo conqueror, Angelique Kerber. The German is playing well again after a so-so season, but she could find the going tough against fellow lefty Laura Robson in the second round and Roberta Vinci, who has beaten her twice on hard courts, in round three. But that’s only if Vinci can overcome the promising Elina Svitolina in the opening round and one of two Chinese players, Shuai Zhang or Shuai Peng, in the second.
Moving onto the bottom half of the draw, we find one of the most intriguing first round matches: Sara Errani versus Kirsten Flipkens. Errani’s results have tailed off in the second half of the season, and after an early US Open exit, she admitted that she was struggling to deal with the pressure that comes with being a topflight player. Flipkens unexpectedly made the semi-finals of Wimbledon but has done little of note since. This match is therefore a great opportunity for both women to regain some confidence, and the reward will be a date with a qualifier in round two.
Going by current form, however, the player most likely to come through Errani’s section is Petra Kvitova (Bio). The Czech looked fit, motivated and assured in Tokyo, recalling her Wimbledon-winning days of 2011. After an opening round bye, she won’t fear a second round meeting with Varvara Lepchenko or Heather Watson, and unless she suffers a major letdown, should have too much hard court firepower for either Errani or Flipkens.
Might we see a rematch of the thrilling Tokyo semi-final between Petra and Venus? It’s easy to see the elder Williams sister getting past either a qualifier or struggling 13th seed Sabine Lisicki in the second round, but to set up another showdown with Kvitova she’d probably need to upset fourth seed and home favourite Li Na (Bio). All three of the pair’s previous matches have been close, but each time Li has prevailed; it seems she is able to summon the necessary killer instinct against Venus that she appears to lack when playing Serena. So even if we miss out on a Kvitova-Venus quarter-final, a Kvitova-Li clash is more than adequate consolation. Li leads the hard-hitting duo’s head-to-head 3-2, but Kvitova won the most recent hard court clash in Montreal last year.
Ordinarily, Victoria Azarenka (Bio) would be the player most likely to halt Serena’s march to the title, or at least offer her serious resistance. Yet the world number two was clearly unwell during her second round loss to Venus in Tokyo last week, and she has been handed a brutal draw in Beijing. Her possible opponents en route to the semi-finals are: Andrea Petkovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur and Jelena Jankovic. On their best days, Kuznetsova and Stosur can outhit Azarenka, while Petkovic and Jankovic are superb defenders who could give her hell if she isn’t playing well. Even if the aforementioned players lose their early matches, there are many more dark horses capable of galloping past Vika. The final quarter also features world number 34 Mona Barthel, Tokyo quarter-finalist Lucie Safarova and Seoul runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Kerber; Li def. Azarenka
It would be great to see another hyper-competitive Serena-Vika final. Theirs has become the marquee rivalry in the women’s game, and it’s clear that Azarenka challenges Serena in a way that no other active player does. But we might have to wait until Istanbul for the next chapter in their ongoing power struggle. Azarenka is unlikely to have fully recovered by the time she gets to Beijing, and even if she can reach the latter stages by sheer force of will, she’ll be worn down and vulnerable to a Li Na who wants to give her home fans something to cheer about.
And if Li can summon her best form and make the China Open showpiece for the first time, there’s no doubt it would be a huge story in one of tennis’ fastest growing markets. Yet it’s just too difficult to see her going one better and beating Serena. Even if the top seed is running on empty by the time she reaches the final (she’s also entered the doubles draw with Venus), she is just too imposing, too powerful and too intimidating for the mentally fragile Li. Expect Serena’s astonishing 2013 to get even better with a 56th career singles title and first in China since 2004.