Saturday, 20 October 2012

Ghosts of Tournaments Past

One of the final stop-offs of the WTA tour, this week's Kremlin Cup, boasts a wealth of top twenty players vying for the final slots in the Year End Cup and the Road to Sofia race standings. However, a closer look reveals that the leading seeds in the event are those whose consistencies this season have come only in the struggle to capitalise on past glories rather than any semblance of form.

Seeds 1 through 4, Samantha Stosur, Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic have between them accumulated one trophy this season: Wozniacki's recent win in Seoul the only time that any of the four have handled silverware this season. The ghost town empty seats of Moscow's Olympic tennis arena represent one final opportunity for the others to rescue their seasons.

Marion Bartoli

At the beginning of the week Bartoli was embroiled in a battle with Stosur for the ignominy of being first alternate at the Year End Cup; the race for ninth place. Complicated mathematics calculated that Bartoli needed to reach the final while Stosur must fall by the quarters to allow the Frenchwoman her seat on the substitute bench. When Bartoli fell at the first hurdle, losing to the fourth semi-finalist Sofia Arvidsson, she ended the race, gifting the Australian the Istanbul ticket.

The last time that Bartoli won a tournament has just tipped over the year-mark.  Capturing Osaka last autumn, it has been a year of mediocrity for the Frenchwoman, who flirted with a top 7 ranking back during the Australian leg of the season.  However, an ankle injury seemed to derail her progress, and while the stars of Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani rose in the sky of 2012, Bartoli posted solid, but uninspiring results throughout the rest of the year, losing to Kerber in her only final appearance of the past 12 months in her hometown tournament at Paris.

With all the ugly French Tennis Authority rumours resurfacing in this Olympic year, Bartoli's summer is perhaps best forgotten, but her single standout moment must come at Miami where she posted a semi-final appearance, and along the way inflicted Victoria Azarenka with her first defeat of 2012 - ending the Belorussian's 26 match unbeaten run.

At 28 Bartoli may only have a few years left on tour, particularly as the physicality of Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova could see her attendance at the end of major competitions increasingly sporadic.  Looking forward to 2013 she will do well to hang on to her ranking inside the top ten, and she definitely won't manage it if she posts another year without a tournament win.

Sam Stosur

The top seed in Moscow, as in Osaka, is Sam Stosur, playing the tournament solely to secure a tournament victory and a ticket to Istanbul (albeit as substitute).  With Bartoli's second round loss, the latter of those goals has already been achieved.  However, the difficult part arrives in the form of posting a tournament win.  It seems a long time ago that Sam Stosur won only her third ever WTA title at the US Open in 2011.  A year later, she finds herself just inside the top ten, but one of the least decorated women within that echelon.  Indeed, the only player with less WTA titles to her name is #6 seed Angelique Kerber, who has only this year made the breakthrough to the top 10 and started posting significant results.

In last week's Osaka event, Stosur found herself as the top seeded player.  Apparently cruising through the draw she made it through to the weekend semi-final to face a Chinese nobody from outside the top 130.  With two more low-ranked opponents making up the opposite semi-final the Australian should have been guaranteed her first campaign victory since September 2011.  However, Chang proved hard work for Stosur, and the Chinese player advanced to the final against the odds taking the most significant scalp of her infant career.  For Stosur, it was her seventh loss this year to a player ranked outside of the top 50 (that's a third of all her losses this season). It would also have been the major spur for her to enter the Kremlin event, where she must now win her semi-final against Ana Ivanovic and the final to salvage something from her doldrumic season.

Moscow so far has been interesting for the top seed.  An atrocious second round match against Alize Cornet had Stosur firing twice as many unforced errors as winners as she persisted with a barmy net-approach game  that clearly wasn't working.  Cornet served for each set, but eventually succumbed to an 86 tie-break in the first and a 75 in the second as she ran out of gas in what was a 2-hour plus 2-set encounter.  It allowed Stosur to post the 400th match win of her career, but only by relying on the stamina characteristic of her matches this year.  The third round was kinder to Stosur, but her first real opposition will come from her semi-final opponent this afternoon.  Stosur should win Moscow - she is the leading seed after all.

Ana Ivanovic

Facing Stosur in today's semi-final will be Ana Ivanovic.  That the pair haven't met since 2009 is as much to do with the varying fortunes of the two and the inconsistencies of their seasons over the past couple of years as it is the rise of bigger characters and the the return of old faces within the women's game.  Since winning the French Open in 2008, Ivanovic hasn't really competed at a similar level, sliding down the rankings and barely denting the second week of the slams.  Winning smaller European events and keeping her hand in with the Bali Championship cup, she has fairly struggled to keep pace with the promise of her solitary slam particularly in the wake of the newer stars of the tour.  This year she has yet to make a final, and has stumbled at the slams when facing higher ranking opposition:

Australia - lost to Kvitova (4th round)
Roland Garros - lost to Errani (3rd round)
Wimbledon - lost to Azarenka (4th round)
US Open - lost to Serena Williams (quarter final)

For most of the year, it would seem, and most significantly evidenced in her slam fortunes, Ivanovic has been playing at the level of a top twenty player, but unable to really advance beyond that to trouble those right at the top of the game.  With an apparent lack of confidence primarily responsible for her dry season, Ivanovic, like her fellow Serbian Fed Cup mate Jelena Jankovic, is severely in need of a trophy moment to propel her back to the forefront of the game.  Unfortunately, there is a sense that her time may have passed as the Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova evolution of the game may preclude her from competing in the increasingly physical and aggressive environment.

Caroline Wozniacki

Finally in Moscow is the #3 seed Caroline Wozniacki whose fortunes over 2012 have been much publicised as she wanes in the WTA, slipping 12 spots in the rankings and forfeiting all six of the championships she captured in 2011.  Some respite was given when she won Seoul in September, but the dismal season for the young Dane had been established long before September.

However, the significance of that September victory cannot be underestimated.  Wozniacki is one of the hardest working players on tour, and although she has struggled in 2012, she is still only 23 and therefore capable of adapting to new challenges on tour.  Although beleaguered for most of the first half of the year, the pick-up in her season post-Olympics suggests that she may have turned a corner and could be ready to compete once again at a high-level in major events.  The realisation seems to be, that she needs to grow in the lesser events to build towards the bigger ones.  It is the smaller steps to recovery after the trauma of her season that will take her back to the level she needs to be at.

With the obviously easier semi-final against the Swede Arvidsson, Wozniacki will be hoping to progress to the final and claim her second title of the year.  But as with Ivanovic, the winning these days is a whole lot harder than it ever used to be.  And as for Stosur and Bartoli, it begs the question of whether they actually want to win at all.

Bartoli image from brecoder.com
Ivanovic image from topnews.in

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