Uninspiring field limps into WTA Championships

The top eight women's tennis players in the world gather in Istanbul, Turkey, this week for the annual WTA Championships, ostensibly to crown the best overall player in 2011. Good luck with that.

Can you name one player who truly deserved the title after all that happened in 2011? Didn't think so.

Right now, women's tennis is filled with players capable of winning a tournament. Nineteen of the top 20 have won at least one WTA title in their careers. And judging by the results of the four Grand Slams, there are plenty with the mettle to capture a major -- four this year, to be exact, and none of them named Serena Williams. In some ways, that's good for the WTA. The more talent, the better.

But what 2011 has revealed in the absence of Williams and Belgium's Kim Clijsters, both of whom missed significant portions of the season with injuries, is that women's tennis lacks a standard-bearer for the future. Williams, the 13-time Slam champion, turned 30 in September; Clijsters, a four-time Slam winner, including this year's Australian Open, is 28.

Without those top players in the game much of the year, and with a chance to declare themselves the next great one to come along and elevate women's tennis, nobody showed. No one emerged from the pack to become a star.

And without star power, the WTA becomes as forgettable as the LPGA.

All of which makes this week a fitting close to a season of fits and starts for the WTA. The eight-player field is full of players who at various times this season have earned the right to be thought of as … maybe runner-up to the best player in the world? But surely not No. 1.

You'll get some argument about that from Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, of course. Wozniacki has spent most of the past year as the No. 1-ranked player in the world -- she has held that spot for 54 weeks overall now and is taking that ranking to Istanbul this week. Yet would anyone argue she's the best in the world today?

Wozniacki won six tournaments in 2011, more than any other player. But none of those titles came in a Grand Slam. As much as she defends her record and bristles at criticism that she hasn't won a Slam, it still diminishes her status. And frankly, even Wozniacki would have to admit she made more headlines for her relationship with golfer Rory McIlroy than with her play in recent months. Then again, that's one way to become a star …

Maria Sharapova of Russia, the three-time Slam champion, completed her comeback from shoulder problems in 2011. But she hasn't won a Slam in nearly four years, and in 2011 she fell to Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon final before a disappointing third-round exit at the U.S. Open.

Sharapova's unreliable serve has left some wondering if she will ever win another Slam. And yet she's the No. 2-ranked player in the world going into the WTA Championships.

Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, ranked No. 4, suffered a title drought that lasted from April until this Sunday, when she won in Luxembourg. And No. 6 Vera Zvonareva of Russia has one title since February, but none in a premier tournament. Neither Azarenka nor Zvonareva has won a Slam.

As for the major winners in the Istanbul field, No. 3 Kvitova, No. 7 Samantha Stosur and No. 5 Li Na each showed how fleeting that moment of greatness can be. Kvitova, fresh off her Wimbledon championship, was dropped in the first round of the U.S. Open. Stosur lost her first match in Tokyo and second at Beijing, both against Maria Kirilenko of Russia, a player she defeated on the way to winning the U.S. Open. Li captured the French Open, becoming the first Chinese player to take home a Grand Slam title. But she followed that by losing in the second round at Wimbledon and first at the U.S. Open.

Were Kvitova, Stosur and Li one-Slam wonders, or are they destined for something more? All three have left that an open question with their performances.

So for those looking for a favorite in Istanbul, there's always No. 8 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. She won back-to-back tournaments in Japan and Beijing earlier this month to play her way into the Istanbul field. No one is playing better right now.

Is Radwanska an up-and-coming star? If she is, she hasn't showed it in 22 Grand Slams, with her best finish in the last two years a quarterfinal exit at the Australian Open this past January.

But maybe one of them is on the verge of being a star. Maybe it's Wozniacki, who has an unmistakable presence about her that many of the others have yet to display. Or Kvitova, who arguably had the best season of them all, with victories from January to October and Wimbledon in between. Maybe Istanbul will be their launching pad and 2012 their year.

As for 2011, let's just call it a wash and say there was no No. 1 after all. No one earned it.

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