by Matt Cronin
There is one month left in the season and 11 players are vying for the eight spots in season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul. Here’s a look at what the top 11 would like to accomplish before they go on much needed vacations.
1. Victoria Azarenka
Outside of her failure to shut the door on Serena Williams in the the US Open final when she served for the match in the third set, the Belarusian had a tremendous run in New York, edging Samantha Stosur and Maria Sharapova in two highly dramatic three setters and then showing Serena that she could actually play with her. Azarenka has been the 2012’s most consistent player on hard courts and if she can grab a title in Tokyo or Beijing and then win the Championships, the Australian Open and Indian Wels champ could legitimately called the best hard court player on the planet. Plus she will then very likely finish the year at No. 1, an admirable feat for any player.
2. Maria Sharapova
This has been by far, Sharapova’s most impressive season since she came back from shoulder surgery in 2009. She completed the career Grand Slam by winning Roland Garros, reached the final of the Australian Open and the semis of the US Open, plus she won two other clay court titles.
But she was by no means pleased by how she performed late in her loss to Azarenka in New York or against Serena at the Olympics. If she can score wins over both at either Beijing or the WTA Championships, she will end her season quite satisfied with the knowledge that she can still compete with anyone on tour.
3. Serena Williams
Despite her ranking, the American already has Player of the Year honors locked up with two Slam victories (Wimbledon and the US Open) and the Olympic gold medal. If she plays well in Beijing (she’s the only member of the top 11 not to have played Tokyo this week) and at the WTA Championships, she has a terrific shot to finish the year at No. 1, a spot that she belongs in. The 14-time Grand Slam champion has truly been a dominant player since April and it appears she has at least two more good years left in her, which should scare the rest of the tour.
4. Agnieszka Radwanska
The Pole has certainly become a fan favorite due to her remarkable touch and savvy overall play, but since having such an impressive Wimbledon when she reached her first major final and then pushed Serena hard in a three- set loss, she’s largely been a disappointment, overplaying with a bad shoulder and not being able to score one win over a top 20 since she left the All England Club. She’s won six titles in the past 13 moths (including Tokyo and Beijing last year) and has clearly advanced a player. She is capable of winning a major and the WTA Championships, but Radwanska has to start making smarter decisions about her schedule so she peaks at the right time.
5. Petra Kvitova
The Czech is without question the most enigmatic member of this group, spectacular at times and downright disappointing at others. She finally found a way to play well on North American Hard courts during the US Open Series and then despite being one of the strongest and most powerful players on tour, somehow took a bagel in the final set of her loss to Marion Bartoli in New York. Then, she lost early in Tokyo.
The left-handed 22-year-old has improved her movement some, but she could get a little quicker, and with her height, she should be able to develop a bigger first serve. The 2011 Wimbledon champion has most of the tools to be No. 1, but she needs to step up in the next month to show the rest of the field that she isn’t about to go on another mental walkabout.
6. Angelique Kerber
The German has made remarkable progress over the 14 months, leaping from a No. 100 ranking in July of 2011 to No. 6 today. She’s rock solid from the baseline, a relentless defender and has power off both wings. But when I think about Kerber now, my thoughts go back to all of her close losses this summer when I thought she might have a chance to make a huge breakthrough, such as her defeats to Sara Errani at Roland Garros and US Open, and to Radwanska at Wimbledon. She is still missing a champion’s X factor where she can rise up during the big moments and seize the day. I think Kerber has it in her somewhere, but she needs to take more risks during the next month so she can prove to herself that she a truly elite player.
7. Sara Errani
Talk about making a real improvement, the 25-year-old Errani went from being a solid top 50 player from 2008-2011 to a real Grand Slam contender despite a lack of overwhelming weaponry. She’s fast, resourceful, incredibly steady and is a very smart player who can volley more than a touch. She showed by reaching the US Open semis that she is not just a clay courter, but she is going to have to move further inside in the court if she’s ever going to make a sustained impact on fast hard courts. She’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that in the next month in trying to reach her first WTA Championship in singles.
8. Li Na
China’s top player may not be quite as enigmatic as Kvitova, but she’s close. When she’s on she’s rock solid and powerful everywhere, but when she is in a negative mental space she can’t keep a ball in the court. Li made a very positive move in hiring Justine Henin’s former coach Carlos Rodriguez as she trying to make one last push at the age of 30, but she has never shown that she can put full trust in any coach except for her husband and Rodriguez will demand some strategic changes. The jury is out as to whether she will initiate them any time soon, but the tennis world sees when she competes in Beijing next week how open-minded she is.
9. Samantha Stosur
This has been a so-so year for the Aussie, highlighted by her three-set semifinal loss to Errani at Roland Garros (a match she at least for a little while appeared to have in the bag) and her third- set tiebreaker defeat to Azarenka at the US Open, the first time that she has actually played the Belarussian tough. Stosur has improved her backhand, which was huge weakness to prior to 2011, and her lateral movement, but on a bad serving day when she can’t dictate with her huge forehand, she’s vulnerable to most good players. But if she plays her best, she still has top-5 material. Winning her first title of the season sometime in the next month would give her confidence going into the 2013 Aussie summer and given how poorly she played at home this season, she’ll need it.
10. Marion Bartoli
Over the years I have really grown to appreciate the effort Bartoli gives week in and week out. The Frenchwoman has been overplaying for years (she currently has 22 tournaments in her 52-week ranking, the most of the top 11), but she is a mainstay of the circuit and even when she’s off she’s fun to watch because she wakes up and goes to bed with the same ferocity every day. But because she plays so much, the soon to be 28 year old’s body is gradually wearing down. She may have two more solid years left, but at the rate she is competing, Bartoli is going to have hard time peaking at the big events. She lost in the second round of Tokyo and if she doesn't go deep in Beijing, she’ll have hard time qualifying for the Championships.
11. Caroline Wozniacki
This has been the Dane’s worst season since 2007. While she finished that year ranked No. 12. she was only 17 then and clearly on the upswing. Now she is just trying to stay relevant while she and her new part-time coach, Thomas Johansson, try and institute some changes in her game.
Last week in Korea, Wozniacki won her first title in 13 months and while she didn't beat a standout field, she needed the crown after a very trying summer when she flamed out early at every Slam and at the Olympics. On Wednesday in Tokyo, the Dane scored her first win over a top-10 player since she upset Serena in Miami when she wore down Li in three sets. In order to qualify for the Championships Wozniacki is going to have to go very deep at either Tokyo or Beijing.
But really, what should matter to her is to keep trying to institute the changes in her game that will bring her back to No. 1, which is to play further inside the court, and add pace to her forehand and serve. She is super- determined person so I do believe she can do it, but she is also stubborn and has been somewhat resistant to change. Novak Djokovic made similar improvements back in 2011 and it brought him four more Grand Slam titles. With the right attitude, Wozniacki can do it, too.