Serena Williams heads familiar field
If there was any doubt that a certain amount of order has returned to the women's game, the field at this week's WTA year-end championships in Istanbul should settle the issue.
Seven of the eight players taking part are the same as last year -- Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Li Na, Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. Since the participants qualify based on their results during the season, it means the upper ranks of the WTA have now looked very similar for two years running.
The only player in the draw who wasn't there a year ago, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, is also hardly a rookie. She qualified for the event four times between 2007 and 2010 and is back after reversing two years of declining results. So there are no first-timers this year, the only time apart from 2006 that has happened in the 41-year history of the event.
Like Jankovic, most of this year's crew are established names who have made it to the round-robin event multiple times. Errani and Kerber are the only ones who have played just once before, both making their first appearance last year. And even Kerber only got in when Maria Sharapova's injury withdrawal opened up another spot in the field.
In keeping with the general aging trend on the tour, they also tend to skew older. The average age of those taking part is about 27, ranging from 23-year-olds Azarenka and Kvitova to 30-somethings Li and Williams. That's a long way from the days when most of the players would be in their early 20s. Martina Hingis had already won the tournament twice and announced her first retirement before she was the age Azarenka and Kvitova are now.
In this context, it's no surprise that Williams is coming in as the heavy favorite -- the oldest, most experienced and familiar of all. The top seed and defending champion made her first appearance 14 years ago but has a rather unpredictable record at the year-end event. She has qualified 11 times, played seven times and completed the tournament without withdrawing just five times. But in those five finishes, she has won the title three times and reached the final twice. And expectations have never been higher than this year because it is perhaps the most consistent season of her career, with 10 titles and two finals in 14 events.
Williams has a 48-10 record against the rest of the field, and Azarenka is the only player in the field who has beaten her this year. The two can't meet till the final, so getting injured or overwrought is likely to be the biggest threat to Williams over the first few days.
Second-seeded Azarenka, the Australian Open champion, probably remains the second favorite, though she's coming off two first-round losses. She's playing not only for her first year-end crown, but to reinforce her position as the biggest threat to Williams, having beaten her twice this year and taken her to three sets in a Grand Slam final.
Apart from Williams, however, it's players like Kvitova, Jankovic and Kerber, at the lower end of the field, who have been making a mark in the past few weeks. They could be dangerous in the round-robin portion of the tournament, and Kvitova has a shot at the whole thing if she can sustain her best play over the week.
That's a big if, because since winning Wimbledon in 2011, Kvitova has only managed to play well in stretches. But she may be in the midst of one of those. In the last four weeks, she has taken the title in Tokyo and then reached the Beijing semifinals. Beating Williams has been her sticking point, but she won the year-end event in 2011 and knows what it takes.
After sneaking into the field just a couple of weeks ago, Kerber calls herself an "underdog" but one with "nothing to lose." She has surged in the past few weeks after a nondescript year, reaching the semifinals in Tokyo and winning Linz. While fatigue could be a concern, her steady hitting means the bigger names won't want to have a bad day against her.
But it won't be easy for either Kvitova or Kerber. They not only have Williams in their round-robin grouping but also Radwanska, who is a bit of an unknown quantity coming into this event. Her subtle, varied game can hang with the big hitters in this field, but as usual, she's played up a storm this year and often been tired or injured at the big events. Let's see if two weeks' rest coming in helps.
Jankovic is in what looks like a slightly easier round-robin grouping that contains Azarenka, Li and Errani, and the Serb could use a bit of breathing room. After drifting out of the top 20 last year, the Serb has rediscovered the sting in her counterpunching game and is ready to resume her pleasing battles against the big hitters. But as she confided at the US Open, she is no longer as confident at big moments in a match.
The player who looks the most vulnerable in the whole tournament is Errani. The Italian had her best results during the opening half of the season and on clay, and it would be a surprise if she wins more than one round-robin match.
Li is likely to be a strong contender in that group and has been having decent success with attacking the net more, as her coach Carlos Rodriguez suggests. But that's also a difficult transition to make at this stage of her career, and she still finds it hard to manage her emotions in big matches like the US Open semifinal against Williams or in front of the local crowds in Beijing.
Unlike many previous years when injuries and exhaustion were the main feature, the players seem to have a little left in reserve as they head into the latest WTA TEB BNP Paribas Championships, which is also the last in front of the big crowds in Istanbul before the event moves to Singapore next year.
But though the field is a strong one, it's Williams, Azarenka and the missing Sharapova who have dominated most of the big events this season. Victory by anyone else this week would mean not only winning the title, but also creating a little disruption in the fragile order that has emerged on the WTA tour in the past couple of years.