All of them already have Slams to their names, all have felt the altitude of the No1 ranking, all have won multiple titles this year.
Currently top of the pile, Victoria Azarenka opened 2012 with four straight titles and stacked up a 26-match unbeaten run that did not end until the quarter-finals in Miami.
Along the way, she won her first Grand Slam in Australia and showed her not inconsiderable ability on clay, reaching the finals of Stuttgart and Madrid. She reached the final in Madrid last year, too, having first won in Marbella and then closed her clay season in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.
Next in line is Maria Sharapova, challenging for the top ranking seven years after she was first No1.
The Russian has just won her second clay event of the year in Rome, but also reached the finals of Miami, Indian Wells and the Australian Open. In the opinion of many, it is only a matter of time before she wins her first Slam since 2008 and, just possibly, it could be her first French Open title.
That is if the third of the triumvirate does not determine to take her second French title 10 years after her first. Serena Williams’s 17-match-win run on clay took her back into the top five this week, ready also to challenge for the No1 ranking.
But there is a fourth Grand Slam winner limbering up at Roland Garros who has her own aspirations and expectations.
Petra Kvitova has been talking with Laureus.com — she was nominated for two Laureus World Sports Awards this year — about her rivals, about winning Wimbledon last year and about her ambitions for the Olympics. And, yes, she too sees Azarenka and Sharapova as the leading contenders this year and beyond.
“I think Vika started very well this season and she played very well. She is more constant than before, and Sharapova is playing very well. She won some tournaments again — and I think that those two players will be at the top for a long time.”
And yet, at the end of 2011, it was Kvitova who found herself in that No2 spot, ahead of both these women and trailing only Caroline Wozniacki.
Notice of her arrival on the big stage came even earlier, at Wimbledon 2010. Still barely 20-years-old, and ranked in the 60s, Kvitova dismissed Azarenka, Wozniacki and Kaia Kanepi before falling to Williams— and already she played big, left-handed, fearless tennis.
Even so, despite winning three titles from five finals before Wimbledon 2011, few expected such serene progress to the title.
Seemingly unprepared for such success, her form dropped before she regrouped for the Asian swing, reached the semis in Tokyo, won the title in Linz and powered to the WTA Championships. To cap it off, she led the Czech team to Fed Cup glory.
So coming into 2012 at No2, and riding a wave of form, she looked set to be the next No1. But things did not quite pan out as expected, with Azarenka sweeping all before her and the predatory Sharapova tracking the Belarusian’s every move.
Yet the maturing Kvitova has, if anything, acquired more confidence as she heads into the summer of 2012 than she had during her run of five finals before Wimbledon last year. And that self-belief is not confined to grass. Bearing in mind that last year she won Madrid — over Azarenka — and won on Prague’s clay, she seems more than justified in her confidence that she can win on all surfaces.
“Everybody was surprised that I won Madrid in 2011 and I think I learned that I can play on the clay too,” she said.
“I think from last year that I can play on all surfaces – on the clay, Wimbledon and I won on hard courts as well, so I think that I have a game to play very well on different surfaces.”
She revealed that it was, in fact, on the clay where it all started for her: “Maybe the first time I picked up a racket I was four or five and I practised with my father, who coached my two brothers. I was on the tennis courts every day, and I played with the clay, so I was always orange!”
“I did not think that I could be a professional tennis player, because my father just wanted me to have some hobby or play something because he wanted me to have something to do at school with sport. So I only played for fun — and look where I am now.”
Whether she can convert her ability on clay into a good run at Roland Garros is hard to predict.
The Williams and Sharapova records, together with Na Li peaking ahead of her title defence and the likes of Angelique Kerber continuing to impress, all suggest that others will outstay the big game, the serve and volley, the left-handed slice and attacking game of Kvitova.
But after her success on grass in the last two summers, she naturally has other ambitions this year.
“I am really looking forward to the Olympics. I played Beijing — unfortunately only doubles, so I am looking forward to having good matches on the grass. I am also playing mixed with a very good doubles specialist, so we will see.”
She revealed to Laureus, too, that she still checks back on that 2011 Championship match in London: “I remember the final very well and sometimes, when I have time, I watch it again on YouTube…It was a great result for me and Wimbledon gave me new experiences and good confidence.
“I have small goals – I want to improve every part of my game, techniques and the mentality and the fitness side.”
The tall, smiling, unassuming Kvitova may have a lower profile than the Sharapovas, Williams and Azarenkas. But count her out of the 2012 equation at your peril.
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