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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Starting the Finish: WTA Year-End Championship 2011 Preview

Predictions from Kedzie Teller and Joe Barkus
The WTA is always full of its ups and downs, but something about the 2011 season has been particularly stunning. Let's take a quick moment to review:

It all started with Kim Clijster's run in Australia, where the agile Belgian proved (once again) that there are few women who can match her athleticism and determination on hardcourt. Then we were awed by Li Na, the woman who carried an entire nation's expectations in her pursuit to be the first Chinese grand slam champion, and succeeded. Soon after we moved to grass, where the not-so-silent and deadly Maria Sharapova looked to reclaim her spot atop tennis' greatest stage, but instead we rose to congratulate the sleeper, Petra Kvitova, who steamrolled her way to her maiden slam title. And finally, at a time when world no. 1 Wozniacki seemed to be slipping, Serena Williams returned and looked ready to reestablish order, only to fall to the might of Slammin' Sam Stosur.

Ten months of action are coming to a close and the Elite Eight have been set for the year-end championships. Here's a break down of what you can expect to see.

Red Group: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Zvonareva, Radwanska

This section definitely appears to be the bigger toss-up of the two. Will Radwanska continuing her winning ways of the fall, or will she succumb to the pressure of facing top ranked opponents all week? Is Zvonereva’s shoulder okay, and can she muster up more than one good rally a game? Then there's Wozniacki who has had the most trouble playing against women ranked no. 15 to 30—will she step up her game against the big guns like she did at this time last year? And, for the love of tennis, which Petra Kvitova will show up to play?

It's all about the match-ups. Zvonareva has had Kvitova's number lately, but Radwanska has consistently beat Zvonareva all season. Wozniacki has close records against all of them, but generally comes out on top against Radwanska. Radwanska is likely to continue her winning ways against Zvonareva, especially with the Russian's hurt shoulder and inconsistency, but the Pole could fall to either of her other opponents should she fail to keep them on their heels. If Kvitova is sharp, she could win the match 6-2, 6-2, but odds are that this match will be going three sets. 

In all honesty, Kvitova is an easy pick to advance out of the round robin if she comes to Istanbul with her gears in full motion. She could repeat her Wimbledon 2010 performance against Wozniacki, pummel Radwanska's defense-game, and outlast a frustrated Zvonareva.

But then what about world no. 1, Wozniacki? For everything she has accomplished in the past year, the Golden Retriever is still lacking the predatory nature she needs to win it big. At times we see her throw out spectacular shots, incredible speed and gutsy defense, but she's lacking the big guns needed to fight in a war of baselining behemoths. Her head-to-head with Zvonareva is even, and she has the edge on the other ladies in the section, but she'll need to up the level of play we saw this fall if she wants to come out on top.

White Group: Sharapova, Azarenka, Li, Stosur

A double whammy of baselining banshees, expect to see some heavy hitting from Sharapova and Azarenka, the likely winners from this group. Li stands little chance to advance if she plays at the level she has been showing the past few months, but a sudden spark like we saw at the start of the season could hush naysayers in a hurry. Where's that biting forehand that launched her to a championship in Paris? Unfortunately for Stosur, she too faces an uphill battle. Have you seen her head-to-head against Sharapova and Azarenka? It's a combined 0-13, and needless to say, that doesn't give the US Open champion much hope...

That's right, Stosur has never managed to beat either of these big hitters in her entire career. Eve worse, she's only managed to snag one set from the Russian in nine attempts. The main reason for Sharapova's dominance over Slammin Sam is her height; at six feet, two inches tall, Sharapova likes to take shots up high, flattening them out with brutal force. A kick serve or lots of top spin (aka, Stosur's game) then allows the Russian to play comfortably. The main reason Azarenka has had so much success against Stosur is because she likes to take the ball early, so Stosur’s mix of top spin and slice does not affect her inside the baseline style.

And then there's Li Na. In Australia and France, the Chinese no.1 showed great courage and skill, but since then has been rater shaky. Odds are she won't fully show up to this tournament and will be carved up by hungry Maria and Victoria. Who knows, though... maybe she can have a consolation victory over Stosur? Then again, she's never beaten her...

* * * 

Barkus’s SemifinalistsRed Group: Kvitova and Radwanska (with Wozniacki 2-1 but being knocked out due to sets lost)
White Group: Sharapova and Azarenka

Teller's SemifinalistsRed Group: Kvitova and Wozniacki
White Group: Sharapova and Azarenka

Barkus's Championship PredictionAzarenka gets revenge against Kvitova and wins in two tight sets.

Teller's Championship PredictionAzarenka takes advantage of Kvitova's inconsistent play in three sets.

AP Photo
Fact: Three recent players who won the WTA Championships went on to win their Maiden Slam soon after. (Novotna, '97; Clijsters '02-'03; Mauresmo '05). So, Vika and Caroline. Do you have what it takes?

Full more information, check the WTA Championship website.

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor & Joe Barkus, Contributing Writer


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