Women’s tennis’ best battle for Doha place

By Online Editorial

Serena Williams WTA Tour

The Grand Slams might be done and dusted for 2009 – but the battle for places at the season-ending WTA Tour Championship is still far from over.

Four places remain to be claimed and the line-up is likely to be decided at this week’s China Open – the big Premier level tournament taking place in Beijing.

It’s a very rich tournament, with a very rich history. The season-ending WTA championships take place in Doha in next month – the second instalment of a three-year, $42 million deal which is heavily bankrolled by the Qatari government.

The event started in Florida 27 years ago and previous winners include virtually all of the greats from the Open era: Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Justine Henin are just a few of those to have been crowned WTA Tour champion.

The prestigious event features the top eight singles players in the WTA Race.

They don’t qualify on the strength of world rankings, but only by points accumulated from sixteen various events in 2009. Big rewards await those who make it to the desert. Prize money in Doha will be a record $4.55 million – with a potential $1.55 million on offer to the eventual champion. Even three group stage defeats still mean a $100,000 take-home cheque.

This year, four of the eight available spots are already spoken for in Doha. World number one Dinara Safina qualified a couple of months ago, while Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Serena Williams (currently 3.65 on Betfair to win this week’s China Open) is also through to the season-ending showpiece. They are joined by Caroline Wozniacki and Elena Dementieva (5.0 to win in Beijing.)

So four places now remain, and the simplified WTA calendar means that results during this week’s Premier level event in Beijing – where huge ranking points are on offer – are likely to prove decisive over who else qualifies.

The ‘mandatory’ status of the China Open (ie. all the top women are in Beijing) also means it must count towards everyone’s ‘best sixteen’ results total.

Svetlana Kuznetsova is currently fifth in the points table and is virtually a nailed-on certainty to qualify for the WTA Championship for what would be the fifth time in her career. Kuznetsova has tailed off somewhat after her stellar clay-court exploits in the spring – which culminated in a second Grand Slam title at the French Open. But the Russian has enjoyed great success at the China Open in the past. She won Beijing in 2006, and has reached the final on her other two appearances there. As such – despite her early exit in Tokyo last week – there remains some logic (11.0) in backing her to win the China Open for a second time.

Both Victoria Azarenka (sixth in the WTA points race; trading at around 13.0 to win the China Open) and Venus Williams (seventh) are also highly likely to qualify for Doha – although they are not quite mathematically safe yet. Venus is actually the defending WTA Tour champion but she still doesn’t enjoy automatic entry back into the WTA Championship. The American lost early on in Tokyo last week and has now also been beaten in Beijing – but despite her failure to deliver during either of the big Asian swing events – Venus still has a lead of 700 points over her nearest challenger.

Therefore, the scramble up the desert dune for the final place at the WTA Championship is the real issue to be decided this week. Realistically, there are three women who could take the final qualifying berth. Jelena Jankovic (15.0 to defend her China Open title this week) is currently in eighth spot. But the former world number one only has a small lead over both Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta.

Jankovic overtook Zvonareva in the race by reaching last week’s final in Tokyo – but the Serb was then forced to retire hurt from that title match against Maria Sharapova with a knee injury. So with Jankovic’s fitness now uncertain, it may be wise to avoid backing her in Beijing.

Zvonareva will get the opportunity to eliminate Pennetta from the Doha qualifying battle if as expected they meet in the third round this week. If the Russian can win that match – it could also give her impetus to go on and win the title. Zvonareva has previous form in Beijing: she won the Olympic bronze medal there last summer and then also reached the China Open semi-finals the following month. If she can go better this time, Zvonareva should also take that final place on the drive for Doha.

Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. © The Sporting Exchange Limited

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