The WTA’s 2013 season culminates this week with the 38th edition of the WTA Championships. After ten months of globe-trotting, countless memorable matches and the odd bit of off-court drama, the eight best-performing players of the year will convene in Istanbul.
As well as being incredibly lucrative, both in terms of ranking points and prize money, the Tour Championships give the elite a final chance to end their seasons on a high note. Moreover, the unique round robin format provides plenty of intrigue for fans, as an early defeat for a favourite player doesn’t lead to automatic elimination.
The draw took place at a glitzy gala on Sunday evening, and here is how the athletic octet have been split:
On first glance, it would appear that draw’s biggest winner is Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian knew she wouldn’t be placed in the same group as arch-rival Serena, but she has managed to avoid a round robin clash with the in-form Petra Kvitova, arguably the only other player in the world who can overpower her. She also sidesteps Kerber, who held match points against her last year in Istanbul. Not only does Azarenka have a 17-8 win-loss record against the rest of the White Group, she is also undefeated against Li since 2011, hasn’t lost to Jankovic since 2009 and was beaten by Errani only once, way back in 2008.
If Azarenka plays like she did in Beijing earlier this month, she may have a few problems. There, she played a stinker of a match against Andrea Petkovic, lacking in focus and riddled with unforced errors. Jankovic and Errani, two of the best counter-punchers in the business, could capitalise on such an inconsistent performance, and Li would win comfortably. But if the determined, clinical, mentally sound Azarenka turns up in Istanbul, the player who won the Australian Open and scored two wins over Serena this year, she will be a heavy favourite to reach the semi-finals.
Which of her fellow White Group members will join her there? Li Na has been brilliant at times this season: she reached the final in Melbourne, the last four of the US Open and the latter stages of many Premier events. Yet the world number five has also faltered, most notably when the stakes have been high. She had Radwanska on the ropes at Wimbledon before fading, and was overwhelmed by Serena in New York, winning just three games in an embarrassingly one-sided semi-final.
At the beginning of 2013, few would have expected Jelena Jankovic to be a contender in Istanbul. Several disappointing seasons had sent the Serb’s ranking plummeting from its number one peak, and that trajectory looked set to continue. But she won her first title since 2010 in February and used that as a springboard for an impressive season, the most recent highlight of which was a run to the final of the China Open. Jankovic is a famously stubborn opponent and no respecter of reputations. She will do all she can to unseat Azarenka, and would love to even her head-to-head with Li, which currently stands at 5-4 in the Chinese star’s favour. She may not succeed – for all her accomplishments this year, Jankovic has still had her fair share of head-scratching losses – but it will certainly be fun watching her try.
It’s tempting to view Sara Errani as the punchbag of the White Group. She is slighter of stature than her rivals, has a less powerful game and recently admitted that she was struggling to deal with the pressure that comes with being a top player. She owes her place in Istanbul to her exploits in the first half of 2013, when she reached four quarter-finals, three semi-finals (including at the French Open), two finals and won the title in Acapulco. Since Wimbledon, however, the Italian has advanced beyond the last 16 in only two events. It would be wonderful to see Errani stand her ground as she did in last years’s Championships (when she beat Sam Stosur and pushed Radwanska to the limit), but there’s no escaping her 1-12 record against the rest of the White Group.
Prediction: It’s unlikely that Azarenka will produce another substandard display on one of the sport’s biggest stages, so we’ll tip her to win all three of her round robin matches. The winner of the Jankovic-Li match will most likely be the other semi-finalist – based on how happy she is to be in the field, let’s pick Jankovic to come through that one in three sets.
Moving on to the Red Group, it’s difficult to get past the incredible statistical story of Serena Williams’ year. The American has won 10 titles including two Grand Slams, a personal best 73 matches and has lost only four times. Not so long ago, Serena was known as a player who peaked at the majors and cared little for lesser events. This year, she has brought her legendary will to win everywhere, from Charleston to China, Brisbane to Bastad. The 32-year-old is in the form of her life and loving her tennis more than ever. With a 13-1 record over the other members of the Red Group, who can possibly stop her?
Petra Kvitova secured her spot in Istanbul thanks to a title run in Tokyo and a semi-final appearance in Beijing, a successful Asian Swing that made up for what has mostly been an underwhelming season. Aside from a trophy in Dubai and runner-up finishes in Katowice and New Haven, Kvitova had done little of note before September. Illness was a frequent nemesis, but the former Wimbledon champion also played far too many loose matches against lower-ranked opponents. Nevertheless, anticipation surrounding her round robin cash with Serena is high. Healthy, rested and playing well again, can Kvitova upset the world number one on a fast indoor court, her favourite surface? The pair’s most recent encounter – a three-setter in Doha – was a cracker. Another big-hitting battle in Istanbul would showcase women’s tennis at its very best.
What of the other contenders in the Red Group? Agnieszka Radwanska has been rock solid throughout 2013. Opting for a busier schedule than any other member of the top ten, she scooped three titles, reached the latter stages of most other tournaments and won 56 matches. Yet it’s becoming increasingly doubtful that she has what it takes to succeed at the very highest level. The Pole’s unique game and peerless tactical awareness bamboozle the vast majority of opponents, but they rarely prevail over the more powerful players ranked above her. Maria Sharapova’s absence and Azarenka’s placement in the opposite group makes things easier in Istanbul this year; however, she will not relish another bout with Serena, having lost all seven previous encounters.
Angelique Kerber was the last player to book her place at the WTA Championships and arguably has the least impressive 2013 résumé of any player in the field. Her sole title came at the International event in Linz; other standout moments were runner-up finishes in Tokyo and Monterey and a semi-final appearance in Indian Wells. Yet the left-hander deserves credit for following up her maiden Istanbul trip last year, and will fancy her chances of making it out of the Red Group. A defeat of Serena is unlikely (although Kerber is the only player in the group to have beaten her before), but wins over Radwanska and Kvitova are achievable. Kerber beat Radwanska at the Japan Open a few weeks ago, and although she lost to Kvitova in the Tokyo showpiece, she did beat the Czech twice in 2012.
Prediction: even if Kvitova fails to beat Serena, current form and past records make her the favourite to join the 17-time Grand Slam champion in the semi-finals. She will be buoyed by her recent win over Kerber, and is 4-1 in her head-to-head with Radwanska.
Semi-finals: Serena v Jankovic; Azarenka v Kvitova
Final: Serena def. Kvitova
Perhaps too much is being made of Kvitova’s resurgence, but we’ll tip her to come through the Red Group and take down Azarenka in the semi-finals. The pair haven’t met since the final of the 2011 WTA Championships, and a clash this year has the makings of a classic.
But until Serena Williams starts losing matches, it’s folly to predict that she will lose matches. She has played a busy schedule this year, but won’t be too fatigued to chase yet more history in Istanbul. She might be pushed by Kvitova, both early on and in the final, but she has so many gears to her game that it’s unlikely she’ll be held down for long. Even if Serena runs into a rampant Azarenka – the only woman in the draw to have beaten her this year – she’ll summon the courage that brought her the US Open title to maintain an edge in their rivalry. This has been Serena’s year; it would be a huge surprise if she didn’t end it with her dominance intact.