Can Caroline Wozniacki end 2011 as WTA Champion?

We bring you a comprehensive preview of the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul

caroline wozniacki
Wozniacki has won more matches than any other woman this year Photo: C Johnson, via Wikimedia

caroline wozniacki

With just days to go, and some of the contenders already practising in Istanbul, the final line-up for the climax of the women’s tennis calendar in Istanbul went right to the wire.

Both Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli were still in contention for the eighth place on the boat to Turkey as the drama in the deciding tournament in Moscow unfolded.

A fortnight ago, with Radwanska making a late unbeaten run to two Premier titles in the Far East””Tokyo and Beijing””the Pole seemed to have the No8 place in the bag. Only Bartoli could overtake her but the French woman needed to win the last two events of the year. Even then, Bartoli had to hope that Radwanska would lose her opening-round match in Moscow.

Fast-forward to this week and two boxes had been ticked for Bartoli. With the Osaka title in the bag, she saw Radwanska lose to her nemesis, Lucie Safarova, in the Kremlin Cup.

The French woman continued to keep her chances alive with a powerful 6-1 6-1 victory over Ksenia Pervak and next faced the unseeded Elena Vesnina for a place in the semis. But disaster struck in the shape of viral illness and Bartoli had to pull out of competition. It handed her rival the final place in Istanbul.

Bartoli can still make the journey to Turkey as first alternate””if she is fit””but to play, she depends on one of the elite eight becoming ill or injured.
For those contesting the Championship, there is big money at stake””a total purse of almost $5 million””as well as important points that could determine who will end the year as world No1.

While Caroline Wozniacki goes into the event at the top of the pile, it is possible for Maria Sharapova to beat her to the end-of-year finishing line””a first for the only multiple-Grand-Slam winner in the competition. However, the Russian would have to play at her peak and the Dane come undone. Not possible? Look at the Bartoli/Radwanska race.

So with 26 titles between them, including three of the four 2011 Grand Slams, what are the chances for cream of the women’s tour in Turkey?

1) Caroline Wozniacki, Race points 7,395, WTA ranking: 1
Third time to qualify: finalist 2010, semis 2009
Titles: Dubai, Indian Wells, Charleston, Brussels, Copenhagen, New Haven

She’s won more matches and more titles than any other woman this year but has failed to win that elusive Grand Slam. The pressure is therefore on to take a big title worthy of a player who has now been No1 for more than a year.

She made a strong start to 2011″”seven finals and five of her titles before Wimbledon””but has had less success since, with poor losses in Cincinnati and Toronto before reaching the semis at the US Open.

She made the quarters in Beijing and has rested since, all of which means she should have enough left, physically at least, to get beyond the Round Robins. And with Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters missing and a 7-2 win-loss record against top-10 players, perhaps it will be third time lucky for Wozniacki.

2) Maria Sharapova, Race points 6,370, WTA ranking: 2
Fifth time to qualify: won 2004, runner-up 2007, semis 2005, 2006
Titles: Rome, Cincinnati

Sharapova’s record against top-10 players is not as good as Wozniacki’s: 6-5. However, she will be many people’s favourite to win her second Championship.

Now fully rehabilitated from her shoulder surgery in 2009, she has shown all her old determination along with some of the most powerful tennis on the circuit. It’s a combination that took her to the semis of Indian Wells and the French Open and the finals of Miami and Wimbledon.

She has been one of the biggest climbers of the eight in the rankings this year, yet her tennis has been erratic, with many matches almost slipping from her hands through unforced errors and double faults. That is a luxury she can ill afford against the best women in the world.

Sharapova was forced to retire in Tokyo last month with a twisted ankle and has not played since, but she has been practising in Istanbul and seems fully fit. If her error count under control, she will be the one to beat.

3) Petra Kvitova, Race points 5,970, WTA ranking: 4
First time to qualify
Titles: Brisbane, Paris, Madrid, Wimbledon, Linz

With five titles, Kvitova comes second on the list of winners this year””and one of those titles was her first Grand Slam. It’s a run that has taken the big-hitting Czech from No34 in the rankings to the top five in an impressive break-through year.

After six finals during the first half of the year, the 21-year-old struggled to maintain her momentum””perhaps due to her inexperience at this elite level. She won only two matches between London and Tokyo, where she reached the semis at the end of September.

But despite losing to the 85-ranked Sofia Arvidsson in her opening match in Beijing, she last week won a significant title in Linz: This timely indoor success provides ideal preparation for Istanbul.

Kvitova also has a good record against top-10 players, and it is entirely possible that she could go all the way in Istanbul. In this roller-coaster year, however, it seems more likely that she will win some and lose some. She may also be mindful of the Fed Cup final””the Czech Republic plays Russia””next month. In 2012, though, it could be Kvitova making the headlines.

4) Victoria Azarenka, Race points 5,590, WTA ranking: 3
Third straight year to qualify
Titles: Miami, Marbella

This year has been a case of “˜so near yet so far’ for the woman from Belarus with the great blend of shot-making and intelligence. Azarenka has been consistent enough to climb from No10 to three in the world, reached her first Grand Slam semi-final, won back-to-back titles in the spring and then reached the finals of Madrid as well.

But three times she has lost opening-round matches and seems beset by niggling injuries such as the recent foot problem that forced her out of Beijing.

Azarenka is a dangerous player when fit, which she now appears to be””she has reached the semi-finals this week in Luxemburg with ease. Nevertheless, with a win-loss record of 4-6 against top-10 opponents, she faces an altogether harder test in Istanbul and could again stall at the Round Robin stage. If she is confident and healthy, though, she should improve on the last two years.

5) Na Li, Race points 5,351, WTA ranking: 7
Never qualified
Titles: Sydney, Roland Garros

Li lit up the first half of the year with her sharp, clean tennis on court and her wit and charm off court. Her year-on-year rise up the rankings took her, at the age of 29, to a career-high No4 in 2011 via the final of the Australian Open and the French Open title.

She had a dramatic fall in form after Melbourne, only to improve on clay with semis in Madrid and Rome. But her fall-off since Paris has been dramatic. She has won only six matches, the latest shock coming at her home tournament this month. She lost 6-4, 6-0 to a qualifier and afterwards admitted: “Right now I’ve just lost all confidence.”

Li has not beaten a top-10 player since Paris and, with so little match play during the second half of the year and so little confidence, it’s hard to see her making an impression in Istanbul.

6) Vera Zvonareva, Race points 5,190, WTA ranking: 5
Qualified four times: finalist 2008, semis 2010
Titles: Doha, Baku

Zvonareva came into 2011 on the back of a year in which she reached two Grand Slam finals and a career high of No2. By that standard, 2011 has been less showy, though still consistent.

She made the final of Carlsbad, had semi finishes in Melbourne, Miami and Cincinnati, reached the quarters at the US Open and, perhaps most tellingly, the finals in Tokyo.

Zvonareva has been fine-tuning her game at home in Moscow this week, falling in the quarters, and she will arrive in Istanbul with more hard-court wins this year””43″”than any of her opponents. She has twice advanced beyond the Round Robin stage unbeaten and could prove to be the dark horse of the tournament.

7) Samantha Stosur, Race points 5,115, WTA ranking: 6
Qualified 2010, reached semis
Titles: US Open

After a slow start to 2011, the quiet Australian reached the finals in Rome and Toronto and looked increasingly impressive throughout the US Open, beating Nadia Petrova, Maria Kirilenko, and then Zvonareva in the quarters. However, it was her defeat of Serena Williams in the final””and the confident style of her win””that propelled Stosur into contention for Istanbul.

Her return to the tour in the Asian swing showed an initial stutter, with two early losses at the hands of Kirilenko, but Stosur bounced back to reach the final in Osaka last week.

She is a woman who seems to thrive on long, hard tournaments and could be hitting her formidable stride at just the right time. She also happens to be 5-1 against top-five players this year. She should match her 2010 run to the semis and, as one of the fittest players in Istanbul, may even outlast the rest to the finals.

8) Agnieszka Radwanska, Race points 4,940, WTA ranking: 8
Qualified (as alternate) 2008, 2009
Titles: Carlsbad, Tokyo, Beijing

It looked like a done deal for the young Polish woman after her two straight Premier titles in Asia. Playing the kind of thoughtful, all-court tennis that seems to bamboozle her opponents, all she had to do was win one match in her last remaining tournament. Instead, she looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights against Safarova in Moscow and lost in three sets.

Nevertheless, she makes the cut for the first time””she played in 2008 and 2009 as an alternate””thanks to Bartoli’s ill fortune.

Her campaign will stand or fall by her nerves. If she is to get beyond the Round Robins for the first time, she will have to find the calm concentration that beat Andrea Petkovic in the Beijing final. And with the most wins against top-10 and top-five players this year out of the eight qualifiers, she should be confident.

9) (alternate) Marion Bartoli, Race points 4,610, WTA ranking: 9
Qualified 2007
Titles: Eastbourne, Osaka

Smart, hard-working, determined and consistent: One has to admire the focus and fight of the French woman who looked out of contention only a fortnight ago.

By any measure, Bartoli has had a good year, equalling her career high ranking of 2007. She reached the finals of Indian Wells, Strasbourg and Stranford, the semis of the French Open and the quarters of Wimbledon before her all-or-nothing Far East campaign of four tournaments in four straight weeks: the quarters in Tokyo, third-round in Beijing and a win in Osaka. No surprise, then, that she has played more matches this year than any other woman.

The prospect of Bartoli winning the Championship title would have been laughable a month or two back. But now, given full health and a chance to play, anything seems possible.

10) (alternate) Andrea Petkovic, Race points 4,580, WTA ranking 10
Never qualified
Titles: Strasbourg

Petkovic was due to play in Linz and Luxembourg but withdrew with a recurrent knee problem. However she is expected to be fit to play in Istanbul if called upon.

The newest addition to the top 10 is enjoying her highest ever ranking in what has been an outstanding breakthrough for the extrovert German: the quarters of three Grand Slams, the final of Brisbane, the semis in Miami, Cincinnati and Carlsbad and her first Premier final in Beijing.

Her chance to prove herself may be slim but, if called up, she would not be star-struck by her fellow-players: She has beaten Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kvitova and Bartoli this year.

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