The crown fits but not this week
Caroline Wozniacki more than deserves the World number 1 spot after a stellar season including six titles yet the Dane is not my tip for Doha. Recent victories in Tokyo and Beijing seem to point to momentum swinging Woziacki’s way but a rested Kim Clijsters looks better placed to make a run at the WTA Championships title.
The Belgian is the only player in Doha this week to have previously claimed the end of season crown, with victories in 2002 and 2003. It’s her more recent form however that has me backing her to lift the trophy on Sunday. Much like the Williams’ sisters, Clijsters has taken measures to build her season more around specific events so as to extend her career. This kind of behaviour has led to complaints of players not appearing at enough tournaments but it also means Clijsters will be much fresher than most of her opponents in Qatar this week. Having retained the US Open title in her last outing, Clijsters looks well placed to claim her fifth title of 2010 this week.
Dementieva and Jankovic are dangerous when the pressure is off
Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic rarely play well when a breakthrough is expected. Neither are expect to challenge this week which makes both of them interesting prospects. Dementieva closed out the year in reasonable but unspectacular fashion, falling to Samantha Stosur in the third round of the US Open before going down to Wozniacki in the Tokyo final and a resurgent Ana Ivanovic in the last 16 of Beijing. The Russian was the penultimate qualifier for WTA Championships and won’t attract too much hype. Dementieva however is capable of hanging with the best in the business over multiple matches, albeit not usually for more than a tournament at a time. She looked well placed to make a run at the French Open title before injury derailed her campaign in Roland Garros. A win in Doha would make up for some of that disappointment.
Ever the enigma, Jankovic looked ready to give a career-defining performance in Rome as she dispatched Venus Williams in the quarter final and Serena Williams in the semi-final. Then true to form, the Serb threw it away by losing to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the final. Not that 2010 has been any old year for Jankovic. She recorded the biggest win of her career by taking the title in Indian Wells, including straight-sets wins over Stosur and Wozniacki and reached the semi-final in Roland Garros. Since the French Open, where Stosur swept her aside in straight sets, the Serb hasn’t recorded any performances of note and nothing is expected of her this week. Based on past experience with the erratic Jankovic, the rest of the field should be on Defcon 1.
Azarenka has the hot hand
Victoria Azarenka claimed the final spot in the eight woman tournament by winning her first round game against Andrew Petkovic at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last week. Not content with merely securing her place in Doha, Azarenka stormed through the competition and took the title with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Maria Kirilenko in Sunday’s final. The win was Azarenka’s second of the year and her fifth career title. Momentum is the only thing that will give the Belorussian an edge over her higher ranked opponents this week. Fatigue from the week in Moscow could play a factor but if she can suck it up and ride the high of the win, she could make the knockout stages.
The rest of the field contains one Grand Slam winner and two runners-up. French Open Champion Francesca Schiavone is a fan favourite but she still seems to be celebrating that career-best performance, having made just one semi-final since Roland Garros. Vera Zvonareva and Samantha Stosur look much better placed to challenge. Stosur, who lost out to Schiavone in the final at Roland Garros, has only one title to her name in 2010 but has consistently made the latter stages of tournaments all year. The Australian’s form has stuttered somewhat since losing to Clijster in the US Open semi-final but she is still capable of turning it on when facing her peers in Doha.
Zvonareva has risen to a career-best number 2 in the rankings on the back of an impressive finish to the year. The Russian beat Wozniacki in Flushing Meadows before losing to Clijsters in the final. In addition to that US Open defeat, Zvonareva made the final at Wimbledon, Charleston and Montreal but her only win of the year came in Pattya City. The Russian’s mental resolve was questioned after she collapsed in the Wimbledon Doubles final, just hours after losing the singles decider to Serena Williams. Her strong showing in Flushing Meadows however showed Zvonareva has the mental game to come back from setbacks. That could prove particularly useful during the group phase of the WTA Championships.
Group format makes draw even more crucial
The draw can be crucial in standard knockout play and it matters even more in the unusual format of round-robin. The potential for longer matches that are more demanding, both physically and mentally, when playing three group games against the world’s best is huge. If either the White or Maroon group is one-sided early it will play heavily into the hands of players that emerge from that group. Dead rubbers are rare in this format, indeed both groups in last year’s ATP Tour Finals went right to the final game, but even the chance of getting this edge makes a fast start essential.
At the time of publication the draw for the groups, called the White and Maroon groups respectively, had yet to be made. Further information will be available at the WTA Tour Championships homepage.