WTA Championships Istanbul 2012 Draw Preview and Analysis

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The draw for the season-ending WTA championships was made in Istanbul on Sunday evening, at a high-profile ceremony featuring all of the title contenders. The elite tournament sees the eight best-performing players of the year split into two round robin groups, with the top two from each making it through to the semi-finals. The format is unique on the WTA tour, and adds a level of intrigue to what is already a blockbuster event.

The players were drawn as follows:

Red Group

Victoria Azarenka

Serena Williams

Angelique Kerber

Li Na

White Group

Maria Sharapova

Agnieszka Radwanska

Petra Kvitova

Sara Errani

Fans – and no doubt players too – had been waiting with anticipation to see where Serena Williams would be placed. The American has not played since she won the U.S. Open in September, but she is undoubtedly the favourite for the title. Although it isn’t possible for her to snatch the number one ranking with victory in Istanbul, winning the tournament would cement her status as the best player of 2012. So the question is: who can stop Serena?

The big story of the Red Group is that Serena will face Azarenka during the round robin stages of the tournament. She holds a dominant 10-1 winning record over the Belarusian, and is the only player to beat the world number one multiple times this season. Most of those wins were comprehensive, including straight sets beat-downs in the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the Olympics. But the pair’s clash in the U.S. Open final was one of the most dramatic contests of the year. Matching the American legend in terms of intensity, determination and level of play, Azarenka was within two points of the title before Serena stormed back to clinch her 15th Grand Slam. It was a heartbreaking loss for Azarenka, but there were finally signs that she was closing the gap on her rival. Their guaranteed face-off in Istanbul is likely to be one of the highlights of the first few days.

Regardless of the outcome of that match, Williams and Azarenka will be favoured to lead the Red Group come Friday, thereby securing places in the semi-finals. However, the very nature of the event means that there are no easy matches, and neither Angelique Kerber nor Li Na will act as mere fodder for their more illustrious opponents. Although both of these players have a decisive losing record against Serena, they have both beaten her at some point, and Kerber is the only player to score a victory over Williams since May. Should Serena prove rusty in her first couple of matches – a possibility given her lack of match play coming into the tournament – Kerber’s solid defence could prove problematic for her. Li is less consistent, but a big hitter when she finds her range and is one of the few players on tour not intimidated by the American.

Azarenka’s record against Li is even at 4-4. The Chinese hasn’t beaten her since the French Open in 2011, but both of their matches this year have gone to three sets. The top seed has faced Kerber twice this year, winning both clashes in straight sets. Aside from Williams, only three other players have beaten Azarenka this season. Since winning her first Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January, the Belarusian has been the most consistent world number one since Justine Henin, and it would be a surprise if she were to lose to anyone but Serena in the Red Group.

Li’s year has been unspectacular but solid; although she failed to defend her French Open title, she reached nine quarter-finals and won a major hard court tournament in Cincinnati, beating Kerber in the final. Until recently, Kerber had won more matches than anyone else this season, reaching ten semi-finals. Unfortunately for the German, she has a 1-5 losing record against Li, and will have to produce some stunning tennis to progress to the semi-finals in Istanbul.

The White Group is headed by Maria Sharapova, the only player in the tournament who has a chance of unseating Azarenka from the number one ranking. Happily for the Russian, she has a winning record against all three women in her group. She scored a comprehensive win over Errani to take her first French Open title in June, and avenged her defeat to Kvitova in the 2011 Wimbledon final by beating her three times in 2012. Radwanska upset Sharapova in the Miami final earlier this year, but that was the Pole’s first victory over Sharapova since 2007, and only her second overall. Sharapova does have her “off” days, and can sometimes struggle against counter-punching opponents, but the world number two will expect – and be expected – to reach the last four.

Predicting who will join her from the White Group is a trickier task. Petra Kvitova not only has the tools and talent to defend her title in Istanbul, but also to dominate the game. At her best, her serve is unreturnable, her groundstrokes confounding and her intensity unrivalled, but the Czech has suffered something of the “sophomore slump” this year following her Wimbledon-winning breakthrough in 2011. Although she reached three Grand Slam quarterfinals, and won her first major hard court tournament in Montreal, she has also endured head-scratching defeats to the likes of Christina McHale, Ekaterina Makarova and Petra Martic. Possibly the least predictable player in the entire draw, Kvitova is capable of beating anyone, including Serena, but it would not be shocking to see her exit the tournament without winning a set. Nonetheless, she has never lost to either Radwanska or Errani, and will not give up her title without a fight.

Agnieszka Radwanska and Sara Errani are two of the more low-key participants in Istanbul, both in terms of their personalities and their games. Radwanska made a superb start to the season, winning titles in Dubai and Miami and not losing to anyone other than Azarenka until May. The second half of her year has been slightly less impressive, but she still managed to reach her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon and climb to a career-high ranking of 2. The Pole has a game unlike any other top player, based on guile, creativity and misdirection, and is one of the most entertaining players to watch. She has had a tendency to overplay at times this year, but enters Istanbul well-rested. She holds a formidable winning record over Errani, and knows she is capable of beating Sharapova, but Radwanska generally struggles against powerful opponents, who have the ability to hit through her. This will be her fourth appearance at the WTA Championships, but she had yet to make it past the round robin stage. Doing so this year would be a major achievement.

At the beginning of the year, it would have been difficult to find anyone predicting that Sara Errani would make the field in Istanbul. The Italian is a talented player, crafty, consistent and blessed with steely nerves, but she has never had big results before 2012, and her singles achievements were outshone by her doubles success with compatriot Robert Vinci. This season, however, the 25-year-old reached the final of the French Open, the semi-finals of the US Open, won four titles and reached a career high ranking of 7, having begun the year ranked 45. Furthermore, she is the sole singles player to be participating in the doubles championships in Istanbul. Errani is fun to watch, and can frustrate heavy-hitting opponents with effective use of slice and angles, but she has a losing record against the other three players in the White Group, and it would be a big surprise if she made it to the semi-finals.

Predicted Red Group semi-finalists: Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka

Predicted White Group semi-finalists: Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova

The action begins on Tuesday in Istanbul. Last year was the first time the WTA Championships had been held in the Turkish capital, and the event was hugely successful, with players receiving a rapturous reception from local fans. This year’s $4.9 million event promises to provide an exciting and worthy finish to the WTA season.

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