WTA Tournament of Champions Sofia 2014 Draw Preview and Analysis

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 Ekaterina Makarova

 

The 2014 Tournament of Champions will be the final edition of the event in its current format. The field for the last few years has been primarily made up of the highest-ranked winners of the International tournaments throughout the year, but in 2015 the draw will be comprised of the players ranked 9-20 in the WTA standings.

Check out the Full Draw: WTA Sofia 2014 Draw

As it happens, six of the eight women in Sofia this year are ranked inside the top 20, which should make for an evenly contested and entertaining set of matches. The Tournament of Champions may not have the same prestige or level of fan interest that last week’s WTA Finals did, but it does offer an opportunity for “second tier” players to end their seasons on a strong note.

Like Singapore, Sofia adopts a round robin format, with the top two players in each group advancing to the semi-finals. Here is what those groups look like…

Group Serdika

Ekaterina Makarova

Flavia Pennetta

Alize Cornet

Garbine Muguruza

 

Group Sredets

Dominika Cibulkova

Andrea Petkovic

Carla Suarez Navarro

Tsvetana Pironkova

 

…and here is a reminder of each player’s main achievements in 2014:

Ekaterina Makarova

Ranking: 11

Head-to-head record with rest of group: 1-1 Pennetta; 0-0 Cornet; 2-1 Muguruza

Age 26, Makarova has quietly put together her best ever singles season on the WTA Tour. She started strongly, beating Venus Williams at the Australian Open and hoisting the trophy in Pattaya City, and did a lot more winning in the summer. She demolished Agnieszka Radwanska on her way to the Wimbledon quarter-finals, made back-to-back semi-finals in Washington and Montreal, and reached the last four of a Grand Slam for the first time at the US Open. One half of one of the world’s top doubles teams, Makarova has used a tricky lefty serve and superior court craft to bamboozle opponents, and she’s usually done it with a smile.

A decent head-to-head record against the rest of the Group Serdika suggests that the Russian can do some damage this week, but what kind of shape will she be in at the end of a long and busy season in singles and doubles? Her recent globetrotting, from Moscow to Singapore back to Sofia, might also leave her less than fully fresh.

Flavia Pennetta

Ranking: 15

Head-to-head record with rest of group: 1-1 Makarova; 4-0 Cornet; 0-1 Muguruza

The Italian veteran won plaudits from fans worldwide when she made the semi-finals of the US Open 2013, and she deserves credit for maintaining that momentum at the beginning of this season. She took out Angelique Kerber to make the quarters in Melbourne, and played arguably the best week of tennis in her career in Indian Wells, where she beat Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens, Li Na and Radwanska to win the title.

A slump followed – she didn’t win more than two matches in a row from mid-March to mid-August, but she managed to take advantage of a favourable draw to reach the last eight in Flushing Meadows and defend most of her points from the previous year. Alas, another trough has followed that peak. Despite earning some late-season success in doubles (with Martina Hingis as her partner), Pennetta has won only one match since New York.

A powerful, savvy all-court player at her best, she is also mentally strong and doesn’t fear big occasions. Will Sofia be another “up” in what has been a decidedly up-and-down season? Or will her lack of consistency continue, leading to an underwhelming round robin exit?

Alize Cornet

Ranking: 20

Head-to-head record with rest of group: 0-0 Makarova; 0-4 Pennetta; 0-1 Muguruza

Cornet is here by virtue of her title win in Katowice in April, but her 2014 will be remembered as the year she beat Serena Williams three times. Granted, she was the beneficiary of a Williams withdrawal in Wuhan, but she beat her fair and square in both Dubai and Wimbledon. Watching Cornet rip the ball on those occasions, playing the big points with poise, clarity and courage, you wondered why she can’t do it more often and therefore inch closer to the top ten. But her record this season proves that, for every remarkable high-profile performance, there is a low-key, head-scratching defeat. Cornet lost to 205th-ranked Taylor Townsend at the French Open, and fell to complete unknown Anett Kontaveit in Bastad. An entertaining game and a penchant for drama are key elements of the Cornet package, but so is inconsistency.

Her record against the other members of her group is sobering, so Cornet will have to clear significant mental barriers if she is to progress beyond the round robin stage.

Garbine Muguruza

Ranking: 23

Head-to-head record with rest of group: 1-2 Makarova; 1-0 Pennetta; 1-0 Cornet

The big-hitting Spaniard is tipped by some as a future top ten player, and she underlined her promise at several points in 2014. At the beginning of the year, she won eight matches in a row to qualify for and take the title in Hobart; that confidence-boosting run helped her upset Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open the following week. Muguruza earned a career-best win in Paris five months after that, destroying a listless Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 without any sign of nerves. Progress was slower and steadier during the rest of the summer, but she produced some of her best tennis again in Asia, where she beat Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep in physically demanding, closely-fought battles.

As the only member of the Group Serdika to have beaten all the others, Muguruza will have a useful mental edge in Sofia. If she can find the right balance between her aggressive instincts and the need for consistency, the 21-year-old will be tough to beat.

Dominika Cibulkova

Ranking: 12

Head-to-head record against rest of group: 1-2 Petkovic; 1-0 Suarez Navarro; 6-1 Pironkova

Has any player gone off the boil as much as Dominika Cibulkova this season? The diminutive Slovakian was a force of nature at the Australian Open. There, she edged Maria Sharapova in a three-setter before thrashing Halep and Radwanska to reach the final. Her title in Acapulco, followed by strong showing in both Indian Wells and Miami, suggested that she was ready to become a firm resident in the top ten, but unfortunately the wheels came off a short time later. After losing the Kuala Lumpur final in a third-set tie-break, Cibulkova went 7-14 in the remainder of the year; the low point was her US Open defeat at the hands of 15-year-old Catherine Bellis, ranked 1208th at the time.

On her best day, Domi can knock the stuffing out of the ball, hitting the lines and corners and playing like a woman of much bigger stature. But to do that she needs confidence, and that has been sorely lacking since the spring. A solid result in Sofia would allow her to end the year on an upward swing. However, it’s difficult to see where a strong result will come from. She has Pironkova’s number and could eke out a win in that round robin match, but both Petkovic and Suarez Navarro are steady and savvy enough to make her pay for overhitting and poor shot selection.

Andrea Petkovic

Ranking: 17

Head-to-head record against rest of group: 2-1 Cibulkova; 2-1 Suarez Navarro; 0-1 Pironkova

Reduced to playing qualifying rounds and ITF events not so long ago thanks to a series of injuries, Andrea Petkovic has done a remarkable job of reclaiming a place in the upper echelons of the game. Ranked 43 at the beginning of 2014, she made progress in fits and starts until Charleston, where she took advantage of a weakened draw to win the third title of her career. A maiden Grand Slam semi-final was to follow at the French Open, and the clay court success continued when she lifted the trophy in Bad Gastein in July.

Petkovic’s indoor results this autumn do not bode well for Sofia – she lost in the first round in both Linz and Luxembourg. But her game can be a force on hard courts, as her gutsy three-set defeat of Venus Williams in Stanford proved. Stylish, fun and versatile, the German will give fans at the Tournament of Champions their money’s worth even if she fails to make it to the final four.

Carla Suarez Navarro

Ranking: 18

Head-to-head record against rest of group: 0-1 Cibulkova, 1-2 Petkovic; 3-0 Pironkova

The Spanish number one scooped her first career title at the sixth time of asking when she overcame a battling Svetlana Kuznetsova in Oeiras in early May. Suarez Navarro’s best results of the year were on clay – she made the last eight in Rome and Paris – but she also proved a contender on hard courts, reaching the latter stages in Florianopolis and Katowice. In terms of big scalps, her three-set defeat of Sharapova in Montreal was the high point, although she also dispatched Petra Kvitova in a third set tie-break in Dubai and sent Venus Williams packing at the Italian Open.

Owner of one of the most varied games in the top 20, Suarez Navarro is occasionally guilty of sacrificing consistency for cuteness, which can cost her dear in tight matches. That said, her one-handed backhand is one of the best-looking shots in women’s tennis and it can be a major weapon when used cross-court. Like Makarova and doubles partner Muguruza, she’ll need to recover quickly from her trip to Singapore in order to have a chance in Sofia.

Tsvetana Pironkova

Ranking: 41

Head-to-head record against rest of group: 1-6 Cibulkova; 1-0 Petkovic; 0-3 Suarez Navarro

As Bulgaria’s top player, Tsvetana Pironkova has been handed a wild card into Sofia for the past three years. The fact that she went title-less in both 2012 and 2013 meant that such a decision raised a few eyebrows, but the nay-sayers have less to argue with this time, given that she exceeded the minimum requirement by winning a Premier title in 2014.

Known as one of the game’s few grass court specialists, Pironkova surprised almost everyone by winning her first ever main tour trophy in Sydney back in January. She had to qualify for that event, but finished it by beating three top ten players in a row: Errani, Kvitova and Kerber. Her ranking shot up from 107 to 57, and she crept towards the top 50 by winning roughly half of her matches until September. She is currently ranked 41st thanks to strong runs in recent events: she reached the third round in Beijing and the quarter-finals in both Linz and Moscow.

This recent form suggests that Pironkova might have a decent shot at reaching the latter stages in Sofia for the first time. Her record against fellow members of the Group Sredets is modest at best, but if the courts are playing fast then Pironkova’s trademark mix of flat shots, slices and spins could pay dividends.

 

Predicted semi-finals: Makarova v Suarez Navarro; Muguruza v Petkovic

 

Final: Makarova def. Petkovic

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