Say "hello" to your WTA top 8, the players who after 44 weeks of competition have amassed the most points and lead the rankings for 2012. The locked down rankings look like this:
1. Victoria Azarenka / 10190
2. Maria Sharapova / 9115
3. Serena Williams / 7900
4. Agnieszka Radwanska / 7095
5. Angelique Kerber / 5470
6. Petra Kvitova / 5215
7. Sara Errani / 4855
8. Li Na / 4726
Samantha Stosur and Marion Bartoli make up the places as first and second alternates respectively in case of withdrawals.
With a boy-girl-boy-girl draw system, the groupings for the round robins have thrown up a red group (Azarenka, Williams, Kerber, Li Na) and a White group (Sharapova, Radwanska, Kvitova, Errani). Taking a round robin group stage format followed by semis and a final, it is easy not to look past the top three in determining the standings next Sunday.
Fairly dominating the finals of the slams this year, Azarenka, Sharapova and Williams have taken 8 slots of the allocated 10 in the majors (Australia, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open). And with no Serena in the first half of the year, or rather, with a somewhat palsied Williams recovering her standing on tour with some average showings in the run-up to the grass court season, it was Sharapova and, particularly Azarenka, who ruled over proceedings. A phenomenal start to the season saw the Belorussian woman make it nearly all the way to April without conceding a game, capturing her maiden slam in Melbourne and wrestling the #1 spot in the rankings away from Caroline Wozniacki on the way. When she was eventually derailed by Marion Bartoli in Miami, it allowed Sharapova to flirt with the top spot as she finally realised that she could play on the clay of Paris and collect the final slam missing from her set at Roland Garros.
However, although given fair warning, neither were quite ready for Hurricane Serena who touched down right around Wimbledon time, ripping up the turf of the All England Club to claim her 5th Wimbledon title and an Olympic gold medal. She carried on the form to the US Open where she once again entered as the overwhelming favourite for the event, and after two weeks of dominant tennis captured yet another slam trophy to add to the 14 already in her cabinet. The US Open final was, however, the closest that the world #1, Victoria Azarenka, has ever come to beating Serena this year. A tense three-setter, Azarenka was defenceless against the American in the first, but showed solidity from the baseline and unnerving consistency to claim the second and pull out a lead in the third. It was Williams, however, who showed the greater fortitude, eventually claiming the third set with 4 straight games.
That both head up the red group at Istanbul, would suggest that the round robin is a straight fight between the two, and should see them both progressing to the knockout stages of the event. Azarenka has posted 26-0 win/loss stats post-US Open, although, Williams should go through as group winner by virtue of her 10-1 record against the world #1. However, that would be to do an immense disservice to Kerber and Li Na. 2012 was Angelique Kerber's breakout year. Two titles and 60 matches won this year have catapulted her into the top 10. A consistency that has come at the expense of players such as Jelena Jankovic, Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic who have struggled and slipped down the rankings throughout the year. There is a suggestion that Kerber's run of form was a feature of the opening half of the season, and she, like many of the others, has waned in the Autumn months. She also holds negative head-to-head records against both Azarenka (0-2) and Li Na (1-5) while sharing a 1-1 record with Serena from their two previous meetings.
Contrastingly, Li Na has finally come into some form at the rear end of the season, some 18 months after she elevated her status with her maiden slam in Paris in 2011. She won her first tournament of the year pre-US Open, and has looked to be recapturing some of the accuracy that blasted her past Francesca Schiavone 18 months ago. Squaring off against Azarenka in the past has been 50:50, and she will be more likely to cause an upset than Kerber this week.
Advancing: Williams (group winner), Azarenka (runner-up)
By contrast, the white group, containing #2 seed Maria Sharapova, looks more straightforward in its outcomes. Sharapova should top the group at the end of the round robins, although it should be noted that all of her 2012 victories have come on clay. With Istanbul played on indoor hard court, Sharapova needs to find a way to tune back in to the consistency, particularly on serve. that propelled her to victories in 2008 and 2009. It would be unlikely that Errani will get past the Russian, but Kvitova and Radwanska may prove trickier opposition and could prevent her topping the group.
Sara Errani is the anomaly at the WTA Year End Cup. With all of her tour wins this year (4) coming on clay she bolstered her ranking prior to the French Open. After her runner-up showing in Paris, many expected her season to tank coming in to Wimbledon and the US hard court season. A semi-final showing at the US Open suggested that Errani may just have more to her than clay court prowess. The only player in either group to post negative stats against all her group-stage opponents, though, Errani shouldn't be expected to advance beyond her three statutory matches.
Rounding out the group are Radwanska and Kvitova, whose fortunes over the past 12 months have been so contrasting that they fairly negate any meaningful head-to-head between the pair. Radwanska scaled the rankings right up to #2 by virtue of some strong showings in Miami and Indian Wells, and a spirited runners-up trophy to Serena at Wimbledon. But the suspicion is that she will inevitably struggle when she comes up against a big hitter. Although posting 2 victories this year against Sharapova, they don't really dent the 7 previous defeats at the hands of the Russian in past campaigns. Should Radwanska make it out of the group she will most likely face Williams or Azarenka in the semi-final and neither will be as kind to her as Sharapova was in the spring of 2012.
For Kvitova, the defending YEC champion, her season failed to get started until August. Frequently struggling with illness and injury, the left-handed Czech snagged her 2 victories of 2012 in the run-up to the US Open. However, although expected to be one of the main contenders for slams this year, she has failed to make any of the four finals, losing her Wimbledon crown along the way. She should have the edge over Radwanska on a hard court to advance to the knock-out stages, but the match will undoubtedly not be as one-sided as Kvitova's playing style should make it.
Ruling Errani out of advancing from this group, it will be a tight fight between Sharapova, Kvitova and Radwanska. And although Radwanska's defences are second only to Azarenka's, the superior firepower of Kvitova and Sharapova should take them through to the final stages.
Advancing: Sharapova (group winner), Kvitova (runner-up)
Image from WTA twitter feed
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