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No matter the end result at the year-end championships in Istanbul, Serena Williams is the female player of the season after winning two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold. But Victoria Azarenka won't be far behind.
Had nerves not intervened in September, the world No. 1 could have grabbed two majors and left Serena with just one.
Williams and Azarenka were paired in the same group in Turkey, which is beneficial for tennis fans: They can face off twice.
Here's an analysis of both groups, with our usual predictions:
Victoria Azarenka (2012 record versus group: 4-4)
That record against the group is slightly misleading: All four defeats have come against Williams, including the heartbreaker at the U.S. Open when Azarenka failed to serve out the final.
|Victoria Azarenka has not lost a set since falling to Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final last month.|
Azarenka, though, hasn't capitulated since New York. She officially hasn't lost -- there was a walkover in Tokyo -- or even dropped a set, cruising at tournaments in China and Austria.
In her case, it's a question of whether she'll finish first or second. But Vika, please: Don't semi-tank as you did last year in Istanbul against Marion Bartoli.
Serena Williams (2012 record versus group: 4-1)
This is almost new territory for Williams.
It's the first time she'll play at an indoor event -- not including the Federation Cup -- since February 2009 in Paris and the first time in a season she'll play at a tournament after the U.S. Open since '09, when she triumphed at the year-end championships that were then held in Qatar.
Will Serena's inactivity post-Flushing Meadows cost her? Unlike at a major, she won't be allowed to ease into proceedings because the field is stellar. However, how much more potent will the serve be indoors?
Angelique Kerber ( 2012 record versus group: 3-3)
Who engineered the heftier upset in landing a berth at the year-end championships, Kerber or Sara Errani? It's 50-50. But one thing is certain: Kerber has the better chance of reappearing at the extravaganza in the years ahead.
If you're wondering why the left-handed workhorse hasn't played since the Asian swing, it's because of a foot injury that forced her to retire in Beijing. Given the number of matches she's contested in 2012, the rest leading into Istanbul won't be a negative -- assuming the foot is healed.
Kerber is sure to be buoyed by her victory over Williams in Cincinnati.
Li Na ( 2012 record versus group: 2-3)
After winning the French Open in 2011 and becoming China's maiden Grand Slam singles winner, Li said several times that the rest of the season essentially was a blur. The newfound pressure was overwhelming.
Her campaign ended miserably in Turkey: Li took advantage of an ailing Maria Sharapova to beat the Russian but lost her four other sets to Azarenka and Samantha Stosur, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0.
We're not sure what to expect this week. Since teaming with Carlos Rodriguez, she's had highs (Cincinnati) and lows (U.S. Open, Tokyo and suffering a bagel at home).
PREDICTION: Azarenka, Williams advance
Maria Sharapova ( 2012 record versus group: 4-1)
Sharapova admirably tried to compete at last year's event with an ankle that was less than 100 percent. She lost twice, then withdrew.
Now, her body is cooperating and Sharapova will be pleased, at least privately, to be in the White Group. Yes, it's the weaker group, despite three players reaching Grand Slam finals in 2012 and all four surfacing in a Grand Slam semifinal.
Sharapova comfortably dispatched Errani in the French Open final and is 3-0 against Petra Kvitova this year. When she fell to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, it came during the Pole's most sizzling stretch of tennis.
The bad news? Facing Azarenka or Williams in the semifinals.
Agnieszka Radwanska ( 2012 record versus group: 1-0)
Radwanska took part in the most dramatic match of the 2011 edition, saving three match points to edge Vera Zvonareva (remember her?). On the third, a desperate Zvonareva bettered Azarenka and Sharapova in the shriek category as she attempted to put away her scurrying opponent.
Does Radwanska have anything left to make a final push? Since Wimbledon, where she extended Williams to three sets in the final, her record is a modest 13-7.
Sara Errani ( 2012 record versus group: 0-5)
Another diminutive, spunky Italian. With Francesca Schiavone fading -- Schiavone went 1-7 in her final eight matches of 2012 and won just one set in the losses -- Italian tennis needed a pick-me-up. It came in the form of Errani, who finds herself in the doubles competition in Istanbul, too.
Though Errani prefers and had most of her success on clay, she is by no means a one-surface threat: Errani achieved a first Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance in Melbourne in January and, more surprisingly, advanced to the semifinals in New York.
That said, realistically, her lone opportunity to win a match will come against Radwanska.
Petra Kvitova ( 2012 record versus group: 3-3)
Kvitova and Roger Federer have this in common: In recent times, they've been nearly untouchable under a roof. Their only reverses in 2012 came on indoor clay, and Kvitova last lost a match on an indoor hard court in Moscow in 2010.
The Czech's streak included Istanbul last year, when it was Kvitova herself -- not the competition -- that made matches tougher than they needed to be.
Kvitova made progress this year, although it was slower progress than anticipated. Yet with Istanbul this week and the Federation Cup final next week, the possibility of a second consecutive year-end double shouldn't be discounted.
PREDICTION: Sharapova, Kvitova advance
FINAL: Williams defeats Azarenka