After three years in Doha, the cosmopolitan city that sits astride two continents will host the best eight in womenâ€™s tennis as they contest one of their biggest prizes. The WTA Championships carry not just kudos but a share of $4.9m in prize money.
There are just five more events before the cut for Istanbul, and the biggest of them is under way this week in Beijing. It will be followed by three Internationals in Linz, Osaka and Luxembourg and a Premier in Moscow.
With only four women already safely throughâ€”Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenkaâ€”these scant weeks are vital for the remaining women in contention.
Three of the current qualifiers are in action this week in Beijing, with just Sharapova missing after she twisted an ankle in her quarter-final match against Kvitova last week in Tokyo.
Her injury is not expected to prevent the 2004 champion from joining the competition in Istanbul, and this could be her best chance since then to regain the prestigious Championship title. However, the Russianâ€™s form can be erratic.
When she is playing well, she is devastating, but many of her matches are marred by unforced errors and double faults, a luxury she cannot afford against the best women in the world.
There are two other notable Championship winners missing from Beijing this week, but this pair will also be absent from Istanbul.
Serena Williams, though scheduled to play in Tokyo last week, withdrew at the last moment citing â€œmedical reasonsâ€. She has been the WTA Champion twiceâ€”in 2001 and 2009â€”but, with no more scheduled tournaments this year, she cannot make the cut to compete this time.
Kim Clijsters has appeared little on the tour since the early summer, withdrawing from Wimbledon with an ankle injury and pulling out of her first match in Toronto in August with an abdominal tear.
She was also unable to defend her US Open title and pulled out of both Tokyo and Beijing. It means she will not defend the Championship titleâ€”her thirdâ€”that she won in Doha last year.
Clijsters has said on her website, however, that she will return to defend her Australian Open title in January. She added: â€œIn my head, I focus now on 2012, the Olympics and who knows, if Iâ€™m spared from injuries, maybe one last US Open.â€
In the absence of Williams and Clijsters, Sharapova, must be one of the favourites for the title. But who from amongst the rest will pose the strongest challenge?
Top of the pileâ€”and perhaps with the most to prove to her many doubtersâ€”is Wozniacki. She took over the top ranking by winning in Beijing last year and, apart from one week in Clijstersâ€™ shadow after the Australian Open, has stayed clear of the pack ever since. She is now ninth on the list of longest-serving No1s in the Open era, she tops the winnersâ€™ list for 2011 with six titles, yet still her resume lacks the kudos of a Grand Slam.
Last week, she lost in the third round of Tokyo to the big-hitting Kaia Kanepi, having already barely resisted another big hitter, Jarmila Gajdosova, in her first match. As luck would have it, Wozniacki faced and beat Gajdosova again in the second round of Beijing and faces Kanepi again in the third round.
Whether it is end-of-season fatigue, uncertainties over the coaching partnership with her father or simply a slip in form, Wozniacki is not enjoying a strong end-of-season and itâ€™s hard to see her winning her first really significant title in Istanbul.
Kvitova, too, has struggled to maintain the peaks she found during her break-through year. From May to July, she won Madrid and Wimbledon, reached the final in Prague and Eastbourne and the fourth round of the French Open. Since then, until last weekâ€™s Tokyo Premier, she has won only two further matches.
Kvitova seems, simply, to have run out of steamâ€”perhaps a sign of her inexperience at the elite level. How else to explain a 6-0 trouncing by Zvovareva in the second set of the Tokyo semi-final or her loss to the 85-ranked Sofia Arvidsson in her opening match in Beijing?
The good news for the young Czech is that she has no more commitments before Istanbul and, as she said after qualifying for her first Championships, â€œI’m looking forward to playing indoors on hard court, which is my favourite surface.â€ Whether she can maintain her form through five matches against the very best seems doubtful on current evidence. Next year, though, could be a whole different story.
Two other 2011 Grand Slam champions have yet to qualify for Istanbul. Na Li should have enough points to see her through, but her fall-off in form since winning the French Open is significant. She has won only six matches since Paris, the latest shock coming at her home tournament this week. She lost 6-4, 6-0 to a qualifier and afterwards admitted: â€œRight now Iâ€™ve just lost all confidence.â€
She did not sound optimistic about Istanbul, either: â€œThe end of the season is coming and thereâ€™s a long breakâ€”hopefully Iâ€™ll be able to stand up again and prepare for next year.â€
Even if she earns one of the eight remaining berths, then, there are signs that she may not take it.
In contrast, the other Slam winner of the year, Sam Stosur, whose results steadily improved through the US Open series towards the New York title, has bounced back from a first-round loss in Tokyo with a 6-4, 6-0 win in Beijing.
Although she came lost in Round Two against the same opponent who beat her last week, Maria Kirilenko, Stosur has two more events lined up to all but guarantee her spot in Istanbul.
And she is a woman who seems to thrive on long, hard tournaments. By the time the round robins begin in Istanbul, she should be hitting her formidable stride.
Francesca Schiavone, like Li, is another player to lose form since reaching the French Open final and, although she had an outside chance of qualifying in Beijing, a first-round loss has ended her hopes unless she takes a wild card for one of the remaining events.
Victoria Azarenka, if she is fit, should make the cut without difficulty, as should Vera Zvonareva. Both played strongly in Tokyo and both will score points in Beijing and one further event.
Marion Bartoli, too, ought to put on enough points this week and next to qualify for the first time in four years.
And so to a pair of late challengers. Andrea Petkovic is a big, strong addition to the top 10 this year and is playing her first tournament this week since a quarter-final finish at the US Open. She was a quarter-finalist at the French Open, too, and made in impression in Miami, Strasbourgâ€”which she wonâ€”and Cincinnati. With two more events lined up after Beijing, she looks a good bet to qualify and may ruffle some feathers in Istanbul.
The other likeable addition is the tourâ€™s most recent title winner, Agnieszka Radwanska. She is in a different mould from many of her opponents: slight, quiet and trading outright power for timing and touch. If she continues her Tokyo form through Beijing and Moscow, she could be a popular addition to the Istanbul event.
1) Caroline Wozniacki, 7,270 points
Third time to qualify: finalist 2010, semis 2009
2) Maria Sharapova, 6,370 points
Fifth time to qualify: won 2004, runner-up 2007, semis 2005, 2006
Playing: Nothing scheduled before Istanbul
3) Petra Kvitova, 5,687 points
First time to qualify
4) Victoria Azarenka 5,451 points
Third straight year to qualify
Playing: Beijing and Luxembourg
Favourites to qualify (including two reserves):
5) Na Li, 5,347 points
Playing: Beijing (lost in the first round)
6) Vera Zvonareva, 5,175 points
Qualified four times: finalist 2008, semis 2010
Playing: Beijing and Moscow
7) Samantha Stosur, 4,925 points
Qualified 2010, reached semis
Playing: Beijing, Osaka and Moscow
8) Marion Bartoli, 4,435 points
Playing: Beijing and Moscow
9) Andrea Petkovic, 3,950 points
Playing: Beijing, Linz and Luxembourg
10) Agnieszka Radwanska, 3,941 points
Qualified: 2008, 2009
Playing: Beijing and Moscow
Francesca Schiavone, 3,821 points
Playing Beijing (lost first round): needs to take a wild card
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 2,616 points
Playing Beijing, Linz and Luxembourg: needs big points from all three
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