With the exception of the Fed Cup final and the Tournament of (Lesser) Champions in Sofia, a magnificent WTA season culminates at the second Istanbul edition of the year-end championships. Unlike many indoor tournaments, the event developed a genuine pulse in 2011, not least because of the scintillating matches near its conclusion. The singles draw at the year-end championships begins, though, with four days of round-robin play among two groups of four contenders each. Examining this unique format, we discuss the challenges ahead for each member of this elite eight individually. Ahead also lie individual previews of each day’s action in Istanbul.
Sharapova: Hampered by an ankle injury at the year-end championships last fall, the 2004 champion arrives in far better health and form after a season in which she reached the final at eight of thirteen tournaments. Avoiding both Azarenka and Serena in the round-robin stage, Sharapova owns a winning record against all three rivals in her group, although she did lose her only 2012 meeting with Radwanska. She may find the low-bouncing surface uncomfortable for her height, but she should benefit from its speed and controlled conditions against counterpunchers Radwanska and Errani. Beckoning as the highlight of round-robin play in this group is the slugfest with Kvitova, the newest edition in a rivalry that has tilted decisively in Sharapova’s direction this year after the Czech seized the upper hand in 2011.
Radwanska: Plowing deep into draws throughout the first half, the Pole dwindled in production for most of the second half outside an appearance in the Tokyo final. Like Sharapova, she will not encounter either of her principal nemeses—Azarenka and Li—in group play, but she has struggled for most of her career against both Sharapova and Kvitova. In what amounts to a double-elimination format, Radwanska must solve one of them here on a court that complicates her attempts to absorb pace. She failed to advance from her group last year, falling to the Czech in straight sets and facing match points in her only victory, and none of her fourteen career finals has come indoors. Still, her habitual steadiness positions her to pounce on any stumble by a weary rival.
Kvitova: Undefeated in her march to the 2011 Istanbul title, the defending champion never regained that brilliance during a season in which she has captured only one title of consequence, the Rogers Cup. But Kvitova remains one of the best players in the word indoors, where she has won 25 consecutive matches since the start of last season. The best server in her group, she should win more free points on serve and return than the other three contenders. Her campaign this year at Wimbledon ended in neither triumph or disaster, so one might expect something similar in another marquee title defense. Since she never has lost to either Radwanska or Errani, Kvitova’s path to the semifinals looks clear even if Sharapova continues to stifle her.
Errani: One of two debutantes at this tournament, joining Kerber, Errani did not build her mountain of points upon a clay foundation alone. At her best on that surface, she still reached the quarterfinals or better at both hard-court majors, so one cannot discount her entirely. Nevertheless, the Italian suffered resounding defeats to all three of her fellow group members this year, and she never has won a set from any of them. On the surface least suited to her strengths of consistency and finesse, one sees no reason for that pattern to change, especially at the end of an overstuffed schedule. More plausible are her hopes in the four-team doubles draw, which she enters as the top seed.
Group winner: Sharapova
Group runner-up: Kvitova
Azarenka: Breaking through in Beijing and Linz for her first titles since March, the world #1 has not lost a set since the US Open final and will bring plenty of momentum to a tournament where she reached the final last year. Nearly invincible on hard courts this year against anyone but Serena, Azarenka can reassure herself that their round-robin meeting likely will not matter because she should secure victories over Kerber and Li. A compelling challenge could come from the latter, who extended both of their 2012 meetings to third sets and holds an even record against her overall. When they met here last year, however, Azarenka swept past Li for the loss of only four games. Somewhat concerning is her lack of an imposing serve, but that weakness should not cost her in a group with only one dominant server.
Serena: The presumptive favorite at every non-clay tournament that she enters, Serena has reached the final in four of six previous appearances at the year-end championships (two titles), withdrawing midway through round-robin action in the other two. Returning to the event for the first time in three years, she finds herself in the more formidable group with two aggressive but steady baseliners in Azarenka and Li. Or does she? Serena has compiled a 15-2 record against those two rivals, so her greatest threat may come from a lack of intensity, which the round-robin format could exacerbate with its lower stakes for individual matches. After a year of two major titles and a gold medal, this title may inspire her less than it does her rivals. But, as at Wimbledon, she should prove nearly unbreakable if she can find a steady serving rhythm.
Kerber: In tepid defeats at Tokyo and Beijing, the former leader in WTA matches won this year looked ready for the offseason. Committed to a grinding style of play, she trudged through a relentless schedule more typical of a sub-elite player and paid the price, somewhat like Radwanska, with a second half unremarkable outside a Premier Five final in Cincinnati. There, Kerber became the only woman to defeat Serena since Razzano at Roland Garros, which would add intrigue to their next meeting. Also of note is her victory over Li at Indian Wells this year, nearly repeated in the Cincinnati final. Again like Radwanska, then, Kerber could profit from a rival’s listless effort simply by remaining steady, but her own recent listlessness offers scant hope.
Li: Appearing at the year-end championships for the second straight year, she followed the opposite trajectory in 2012 to Radwanska and Kerber. After she mustered just a single victory in six matches against the top ten in the first half, Li won five of seven in a second half highlighted by a near-sweep of the North American hard courts. The Chinese legend has drawn energy from her partnership with Carlos Rodriguez, also reaching the semifinals at her last tournament in Beijing. As Zvonareva showed in 2008, the last damsel invited to the dance can surge far when she gets there, so Li’s eighth position should not deceive those around her into underestimating this fierce competitor. Her ultra-precise game should prosper in the controlled conditions, but can she control her emotions too?
Group winner: Serena
Group runner-up: Azarenka
Semifinals: Sharapova vs. Azarenka, Kvitova vs. Serena
Final: Azarenka vs. Serena
Champion: Serena Williams