Sneaking up in the night before Big Ben has tolled the knell of parting 2012, the first balls of the new WTA season have already been hit, with the qualifying rounds of the Brisbane and Auckland Opens contested in the past few days, and the main draw starting in earnest today. Starting very much as the last season had ended, Serena Williams chalked up her first win of the season, breezing past her first round opponent in typically dominant fashion.
The rankings in 2012 ended with a clear triumvirate heading up the table as the WTA graduated from the stumbling block of slamless #1s and the stigma of apparently rewarding undeserving worker bees, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina, for example. It gradually took shape over the course of the year, morphing into a realistic indicator of the players who would most be likely to win a tournament. The rankings frozen at the end of the season looked like this:
Victoria Azarenka / 10595
Maria Sharapova / 10045
Serena Williams / 9400
Agnieszka Radwanska / 7425
Angelique Kerber / 5550
Sara Errani / 5100
Li Na / 5095
Petra Kvitova / 5085
Samantha Stosur / 4135
Caroline Wozniacki / 3765
Here's what the next 12 months may hold for the top 10 in the women's game.
1. Victoria Azarenka
Before 2012 had even kicked off, Victoria Azarenka was being heralded as one of the two bright young things set to herald in a new era of the WTA. That the other predicted future starlet, Petra Kvitova, failed to make much of her 2011 promise in the subsequent 12 months goes part way to explaining why Azarenka had such a phenomenal season, particularly in the lean Williams-free months at the beginning of the year.
A 26 match unbeaten run, her first grand slam victory and three other tournament wins under her belt before the end of March marked the Belorussian's ascent to the World #1 ranking, a position she was to hold for much of the year, despite a clunky clay-court campaign usurping her after the French Open.
For her to retain her stranglehold on the WTA won't require her to do too much different from what she did throughout 2012, the majority of players immediately below her likely to play a style of tennis that she can readily handle. And it is probable that the Belorussian will add to the solitary slam trophy with at least one more from the four on offer this year. However, the only player with a realistic chance of stealing her top dog status will be Serena Williams. How and how often Azarenka matches up against the former number 1 and whether she can work out a way to finally beat the 31-year-old could well be the sole factor determining whether Azarenka repeats her feats of 2012.
2. Maria Sharapova
It is difficult to decide what is the most surprising thing about Maria Sharapova's 2012. Whether it was the completing of her career slam at Roland Garros and her domination of the premier clay tournaments of Europe in the Spring. Or that she allowed herself to be bossed into the runners-up spot on numerous other occasions by Azarenka, Serena Williams and, perhaps most surprisingly, Agnieszka Radwanska.
Although it is good to see Sharapova back after her career-threatening shoulder injury and surgery, there is the sense that she still needs to take one more step to be considered once again a competitor on the Wimbledon grasses and the hard courts of Australia and America. Her 63 60 routing by Azarenka in the finals of the Oz Open, and her 60 61 dismantling by Serena in the Olympic final highlight fundamental weaknesses, both mental and tactical, on surfaces where she previously enjoyed success.
Her 2013 needs to see her overcome the Azarenka and Serena hurdles in finals of significant tournaments; for if she comes up against either one of them when they are fully fit and motivated for the win, she will be at a distinct mental disadvantage. The best case scenario for the Russian is to battle these demons early in the season, else she will have to settle for lesser tournament silverware rather than slam trophies in '13.
3. Serena Williams
Discounting walkovers, Serena Williams lost only 4 matches in 2012. In addition, from Wimbledon through to the Year End finals in Istanbul she lost just 1 match out of the 32 she played and ceded only 5 sets to her opponents. These phenomenal stats indicate that the oldest lady in the top 10 still has the power and the desire to win, a marked about turn from the statements she was making this time last year, when she declared a falling out of love with tennis.
7 titles later, including a coveted Olympic gold medal, and Serena has set herself up as the player to beat in 2013. Should she triumph in January's Australian Open she could regain the number one ranking and be closer to holding all 4 of the slams at the same time - the second time in her career she will have completed a non-calendar "Serena Slam". Her nearest rivals, Sharapova and Azarenka were a combined 8 defeats to 0 wins against Serena in '12. Playing the way she has been, with increased consistency and ruthless domination, coupled with the drive, love and desire that had deserted her since her foot surgery/blood clot injuries of 2010/11, could mean that Serena Williams is the only name that the etchers need to engrave on the four major trophies this year.
4. Agnieszka Radwanska
Perhaps the most unlikely incumbent within the WTA top 4, Agnieszka Radwanska's January to July of 2012 was a dictionary definition of peaks and troughs. Throughout the first half of the year, the peaks saw her amass three titles, defeating Maria Sharapova for one of them, and making it all the way to her first slam final where she took a set from Serena Williams before fading away to hand the American her 5th SW19 title. More significantly though, the troughs of the first half of 2012 were wholly down to her inability to work out a way past world #1 and personal nemesis Victoria Azarenka. The second half of Radwanska's season largely fizzled away with only a semi-final appearance in Istanbul suggesting that she may be able to rejuvenate her breakthrough successes in 2013.
The coming months will be a significant time for the Pole. She lacks the weapons of the three players above her, the power and accuracy that prove decisive for them during the final stages of tournaments. However, her tactical play and beguiling craftsmanship often frustrate lesser players to rush their strokes, to go for too much in a bid to end a point prematurely, and can afford her some unexpected victories and ranking points, as it did for much of 2012. But if the power players immediately below her in the rankings, Petra Kvitova specifically, are on form throughout 2013 it will be hard to see Radwanska holding onto a top 4 spot. A top 10 player by the end of 2013, but not as high as top 4.
5. Angelique Kerber
Asked to pick a German to break the top 10 by the end of 2012 and most people would have suggested Sabine Lisicki as the most likely candidate. The rest would have plumped for Andrea Petkovic provided her run of bad injury luck was to come to an end. Very few would have opted for Angelique Kerber whose consistent controlled baseline game was one of the unanticipated, but ultimately appreciated, stories of 2012.
Garnering herself a reputation for crushing dreams of hometown heroes (Marion Bartoli in Paris, Caroline Wozniacki in Copenhagen), the German racked up two victories for the season, but made the final of 2 others and the semi-final of 7 more. Such consistent latter-stage showing saw her leap 25 ranking places to end the year in the top 5.
2013 could see her take another step towards those above her, perhaps with a Premier 5 title. She may be a regular attendee during the second week of the slams, but may struggle to go beyond the quarters, and the year should see her maintain her position within the top 10.
6. Sara Errani
A fabled longer racquet was seen as the catalyst for Sara Errani's rise into the top 10 of the WTA in 2012, an ascendancy that was largely facilitated by four clay titles across Europe and South America. However, more significant was probably the Italian doubles partnership alongside Roberta Vinci, that grafted to bag them 8 titles in 2012, including 2 at the slams. That Errani was able to transfer her doubles dominance into singles success was most notable through her on-court speed and resilience particularly on clay courts.
However, what also improved greatly were her hard court results, that saw her make the second week of both the Australian and US Opens, a confidence and assured nature to her play and court coverage masking her small stature. Unfortunately, there will always be a question mark over her ability to compete against players with superior firepower, Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena and Kvitova and any others marching up the rankings, and particularly her match-ups against them on the faster surfaces. Her weak serve and limited baseline power perhaps proving her undoing against her peers in the top 10.
Regardless, her greatest opportunity for success in 2013 will inevitably come on the slower surface of Roland Garros where she made her first slam final back in May. Like her fellow-countrywoman, Francesca Schiavone, who bagged the title through sheer determination in 2010, Errani may just come alive in Paris. A repeat performance at that tournament wouldn't be out of the question for the 25-year old, but she may struggle to find traction on any other surface, and could drop out of the top 10 by the end next year.
In doubles, though, she is most likely to maintain a top 5 ranking for a second successive year.
7. Li Na
Imploding under the national media buzz that surrounded her maiden slam at Roland Garros in 2011, Li Na needed nearly 18 months before she returned to tennis successes. A favourite to make the second week of each slam she played in 2012, she regularly struggled to make it beyond the third round.
However, more stable coaching under the watchful eye of Carlos Rodriguez began to turn her fortunes around towards the tail end of 2012, and an expo in Thailand saw her defeat World #1 Victoria Azarenka. This perhaps suggests that the honeymoon silliness is over for the Chinese woman, and 2013 could see her reassert herself at the business ends of the majors this season. Similar in age to Serena, Li Na is perhaps aware that she has been a late bloomer, and the shape of the WTA top 10 is determined more by the youngsters around her. The high profile retirement of Kim Clijsters at this year's US Open perhaps highlights the shortlivedness of a tennis career, and 2013 may be the last realistic opportunity for Li Na to shine on court. A strong showing at Melbourne Park may be the kick start to an impressive season from the #7 seed.
8. Petra Kvitova
As she said after winning Wimbledon in 2011, "It's still an unbelievable feeling. [...] Maybe I'll accept it after, I don't know, some days". Unfortunately for Petra Kvitova, the some days have ended up being closer to some months.
For the Czech 23-year-old, 2012 appeared to be one long year of stomach upsets, and while this is probably a viable excuse for many of the smaller tournaments, her inability to raise her game at the four majors and the Olympics suggests that there was an underlying problem, be it fitness or motivation, that prevented her from scaling the heights that her 2011 Wimbledon and Year End Championship suggested she was capable of.
However, seeds of potential began to spring up during the US hard court swing, salvaging her two trophies from an uneventful season. Likewise, the team accolades of a successful defence of the Fed Cup must be taken forward as the positive pointers for her 2013 season. In the minds of many people, the top four of the WTA should most accurately contain Serena, Azarenka, Sharapova and Kvitova, which made the Czech player's absence from the party both mystifying and disappointing.
If those slivers of hope from her 2012 season are in fact a gradual reassertion of intent, then Kvitova could have her most successful year on tour this year. And the potential meetings between herself and Victoria Azarenka could be the next big rivalry in the WTA.
9. Samantha Stosur
When Sam Stosur blasted past Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic en route to her maiden slam final at Roland Garros in 2010, many people became fans of the hard-hitting powerhouse from Down Under. A year later, when she snaffled the US Open title from under Serena's nose, she repaid those fans with the success that many suggested she was due after 10 years on tour. Unfortunately for all those followers that she won along the way to that unexpected triumph, the lifting of the US Open trophy was the last time that she played victorious at any tournament as a series of uninspired, inconsistent and often ugly performances left her as the only member of the WTA top 10 to finish 2012 bereft of a title.
It is a sorry state of affairs for a player to routinely cave at the decisive moment of a tournament, making it to finals or semi-finals, but failing to drive home the advantage or eke out a win. But it is even sorrier to see a player with the potential of Stosur post a series of stats over the course of a year whereby she failed to win a single match, or two consecutive matches in over 50% of the tournaments she entered.
She opens her 2013 campaign playing at her home tournament in Brisbane, which is undoubtedly the place of her biggest failures. Perhaps a better option would have been for the Aussie to take the unpopular decision and play at this week's Shenzhen Open in China. An unpressurised opening to the year, away from the hotbed of top 10 action in Brisbane may have allowed her to reboot her confidence ahead of bigger events. As it is, she could add to her Australian disappointments with yet more early defeats under the exacting eye of the national press.
In 2013, Stosur needs to gain at least one title in the first half of the year, be it on the hard courts of Asia, Australia or the Middle East, or on her preferred clay during the spring. Failure to do so in the first six months may lead to yet another dry year for the Aussie, and will almost certainly see her slip out of the top 10, losing touch with the pacemakers on tour.
10. Caroline Wozniacki
The final member of the WTA top 10 was the player who began 2012 as the World #1, and only just scraped back into contention with two post-US Open victories to prevent herself from having a calamitous year.
Caroline Wozniacki was much misaligned during her incumbency as World #1, a position she held for the best part of 18 months, her style of conservative, defensive play often generating more critics than fans. However, where she was a worthy champion was through her work ethic and her demeanour. One of the hardest working players on tour, she exhibited a sunny disposition, taking both the ups and the downs in typically good spirits. Her fall from the #1 spot, though, has led to the WTA top 10 becoming a more ruthless place; not exactly cutthroat, but definitely more fiercely competitive as players such as Azarenka, Radwanska and Sharapova resurrected the idea of rivalry amidst a climate of combative determination.
It is hard to see a player such as Wozniacki surviving within this arena unless she develops her game significantly. She needs to formulate abilities to kill off points instead of reverting to frustrating defence in the face of WTA showmanship. More crucially, this can only be facilitated by shifts in mentality - the development of a thicker skin to prevent her wilting when facing such players, and also a killer instinct to allow her to seize opportunities when they come her way.
One of the hardest practicing players on tour, one hopes that Wozniacki can find a way to survive within this climate, evolving her game to deal with the alien conditions. It is unlikely, though, that this kind of wholesale redevelopment will occur within the space of one season, and may lead to 2013 being another largely unfruitful year for Wozniacki and she could drop out of the top 10 come December while she builds a better foundation for future competitiveness.
11-13. Three to watch in 2013
Talking about future stars when the new faces of the WTA top 10 (Azarenka, Kvitova, Radwanska and Wozniacki) are just approaching their prime could be considered an unnecessary exercise. However, with places up for grabs within the top 10 should Errani, Stosur and potentially Wozniacki struggle in the new year, it is likely that some of the chasing pack will seize the opportunity to move into the upper echelons of the rankings.
With the US already having a great champion in the top 10 in Serena Williams, but one who cannot realistically continue at the same all-conquering level that she has enjoyed over the last decade, the nation needs to look ahead to players of the future to continue their successes in the sport. The most obvious successor to Serena would be the 19-year-old Sloane Stephens. Finishing the last two years as the youngest player in the top 100 (2011) and top 50 (2012), Stephens looks set to make 2013 the year she really moves into the consciousness of the tennis-watching public. Currently ranked #38, if the young American stays injury free, she can only improve on that ranking, perhaps securing her first WTA trophies in the progress.
During the London 2012 Games, tennis finally overcame its demons to be embraced as a viable Olympic sport. Alongside Andy Murray, Laura Robson won silver in the mixed doubles, as the spirit of Team GB buoyed the performers to an unexpected achievement. Making her first WTA final a couple of months later, and claiming some significant scalps at the US Open has added to the experiences that many expect to transform Robson from a junior champion into a senior one. Perhaps the most significant part of her development could come from having fellow-Brit Heather Watson alongside her. The Jersey native went one better than Robson in 2012, securing the first British win on the WTA tour for 20 years. A healthy rivalry between the pair could see a two-pronged attack on the rankings as they both look to move into the top 20 by the end of the year
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