The WTA Tour resumes on Monday with tournaments in Australia, New Zealand and China to begin the 2014 season. We take a look at some of the key storylines heading into the season and what to expect as well as a few predictions.
How will the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka rivalry play out?
The back end of 2012 suggested Azarenka was getting much closer to Serena after the Belarussian served for the US Open and a 2-2 record in 2013 would confirm that we have a legit rivalry at the top of the women’s game right now. Azarenka’s weaknesses on clay are still there for all to see but she had a winning record on hard courts although she would lose in three sets in their only slam meeting of the year.
Since Azarenka became a real contender, they are yet to play in Melbourne and a final between the two clear best players over the last two years would be a great way to kick off what could be a thrilling season. A title defence that includes a win over the World No.1 would also silence the remaining doubters who suggest that Azarenka is not capable of winning in this matchup on the biggest stage.
Despite now being 32, Williams showed no signs of slowing down with 77 tour wins and two slams to her name in 2013. At her best, she is near unstoppable and was defeated just five times last year. Remaining fit will be one of her biggest challenges especially given her Australian Open losses in 2012 and 2013 were impacted by injuries. Having won her last 28 clay court matches, the French Open will be hers to lose – especially with the lack of elite clay courters these days. Serena could have the opportunity to win her 19th at SW19, an idea to get marketing and journalism minds alike excited.
Meanwhile, the back end of 2013 was a disappointment for Azarenka with injury impacting her form in Asia and at the year ending championships in Istanbul. While on both occasions she picked up one slam, there was some regression from her outstanding 2012 season with just three trophies won this year, half of her 2012 haul. Proving her staying power will be one of her goals in 2014 while the winning a slam outside of Australia is still a possibility. Since the start of 2012, she has only lost to Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams at them.
How will the best of the rest fare?
While in the men’s game there is a clear gap between the elite and the rest, it isn’t so obvious in the women’s game with a number of contenders outside of the top two. Five other slam winners reside in the top 20 although expecting much from Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic seems unlikely. Na Li reached a career high No.3 at the end of this year and appears to be getting better with age. Her year began with injury hugely damaging her chances of a second slam in the Australian Open final while she was a set away from winning Istanbul.
Maria Sharapova, matches against Serena Williams aside, is still capable of winning at the highest level and it has to be remembered she has made the French Open final each of the past two years. However, the impact her injury has had remains unknown and how she fares in Australia should give a better idea of how the season will play out. Petra Kvitova will most likely continue to frustrate, mixing astounding tennis with the worst of losses. 2012 suggested that despite her inconsistencies, slam losses would come against the elite only. Losses to Kirsten Flipkens and Alison Riske are unforgivable especially for someone with the talent of Kvitova.
The form player of 2013 outside of the top 10 was Simona Halep with six titles to her name. Injuries and a poor start to the year lumbered her with difficult slam draws so how she goes this year with a high ranking to her name which should give her much easier draws.
What to expect from the youngsters this year?
The future of WTA looks in good hands with a whole host of young players ready to step up in the next few years. Sloane Stephens will always lead any list. The American is a supreme athlete and capable of mixing with the best as her slam runs have shown but attitude issues and consistencies when it comes to the lesser events will always be a mark against her until she wins her first WTA event.
Laura Robson was amongst those expected to reach the top quickly but she failed to advance as much as expected in 2013 despite the odd flash of brilliance. She was surpassed by Eugenie Bouchard who made her first WTA final in Osaka while picking up impressive wins against the likes of Jelena Jankovic and Sloane Stephens in the second half of the season. Bouchard’s list of losses from Wimbledon onwards were against players she would likely be the underdog against and eradicating losses against much lesser players bodes well for 2014. Winning a set against Serena Williams showed she could hang with the best although she faltered in the latter part of that match.
There is a whole host more of young stars ready to make the charge including the likes of Elina Svitolina, Madison Keys and Monica Puig while Garbine Muguruza returns after missing much of 2013 through injury.
Australian Open – Victoria Azarenka
French Open – Serena Williams
Wimbledon – Serena Williams
US Open – Victoria Azarenka
1. As above, Victoria Azarenka to win multiple slams this year
2. Eugenie Bouchard to make the top 10
3. Petra Kvitova to make a slam final