Sunday, January 2, 2011
From the WTA: 11 questions for 2011
Can Caroline Seal It With A Slam?
In 2010 Caroline Wozniacki reigned supreme by many measures, her 62 match wins and six titles resulting in a well-deserved rise to No.1. But it seems only a Grand Slam title will satisfy some critics of the ranking system, and no doubt the young Dane herself is desperate for major success. The Australian Open offers up a perfect opportunity, and not just because Serena Williams won't be there: hardcourts suit Wozniacki's game and her top seeding at the US Open, though she was ranked No.2 at the time, added to her growing store of experience. But as well as learning to beat Kim Clijsters in big matches, Wozniacki will need to keep her nose in front of contemporaries such as Victoria Azarenka, Aravane Rezai and Alisa Kleybanova, who are also capable of a breakthrough.
Will Serena and Venus Remain a Force?
If there's one thing the tennis world has learned over the past decade, it is this: No matter how down-for-the-count they may appear to be, the Williams should never, ever be underestimated. Exhibit A is Serena's feat of winning the Australian Open in 2007, having played just four tournaments in an injury-marred 2006 season that saw her tumble outside the Top 100. But as any athlete knows, age only makes it harder to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. The 13-time Grand Slam champion's return from a droopy toe (caused by that cut to her foot) now looks to be in the spring at best, while the state of Venus' knee is also uncertain. We can only hope that both sisters come back with a vengeance in 2011, because it feels way too early to say goodbye to them as contenders.
Will The Belgians Be Better Than Ever?
What with her successful US Open title defense, defeat of Wozniacki in the final of the WTA Championships, and tour-leading 10-1 (.909) record against Top 10 opponents, 27-year-old Clijsters would not have found much argument had she ended 2010 as No.1. Missing the Asian fall swing due to injury ended any chance of that, but assuming she is healthy, the alpha mom of tennis may threaten Wozniacki's crown in 2011. With only third round points to defend in Melbourne, and none at Roland Garros, the Belgian is certainly poised for an intriguing season, motivated by her desire to win a Grand Slam away from New York. In 2010 Henin, too, showed signs she could be as good as she was before, until an elbow injury wrecked her season at Wimbledon. Keen to keep expectations realistic, this week's Hopman Cup is set to provide the first real gauge of her form.
Can Sam and Vera Take The Extra Step?
Samantha Stosur and Vera Zvonareva went home empty handed from their maiden Grand Slam finals in 2010. Calmer than before, Zvonareva, in particular, was far from her best in the Wimbledon and US Open finals but things will surely be different should another opportunity present itself - especially if her opponent isn't a Williams or Clijsters. Ditto Stosur, who was favored to beat Schiavone in the French Open final but showed only flashes of the form that took her there. As the host nation's best hope in three decades, she'll certainly be in the glare of the spotlight at this month's Australian Open. The 26-year-old says she can handle the pressure - even thrive on it: "At the end of the day I'd much rather have lots of people cheering for me than against me, so I think I can use it to my advantage," she says. Twenty million Aussies will be hoping she means it.
Will There Be Another Francesca?
Francesca Schiavone's triumph at Roland Garros was the feel-good story 2010, and her title defense will be closely scrutinized come May. It will be equally fascinating to see whether her colleagues in the locker room truly believe they can emulate the Italian veteran. Among those who claim a major title is there for the taking is Marion Bartoli, runner-up to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2007. Bartoli arrived in Australia weeks early to practice in the heat, and unlike last year will play lead-ins at Brisbane and Hobart. Other players with plenty of game in their late twenties include Li Na, Daniela Hantuchova, Flavia Pennetta and Nadia Petrova. But do they possess the fierce conviction that got Schiavone over the line? (Kimiko Date-Krumm, anyone?)
Can The Former No.1s Relive Former Glories?
The resurgence of Ana Ivanovic in 2010, at first steady but punctuated by a two-title acceleration at the end of the season, was another heartwarming storyline of 2010. "If I prepare properly I believe I will have a chance in Melbourne," she has said, and with a halfway decent seeding on the cards it's hard to argue. The player who beat the Serb in the final at Melbourne Park three years ago, Maria Sharapova, is equally determined to crack the Top 10 again, as evidenced by her decision to play Auckland and possibly Sydney as warm-ups. Then there's Jelena Jankovic, who had a great first half of 2010, clawing her way back to No.2 before slumping in the second half; and Dinara Safina, who might look to Ivanovic for inspiration that all is not lost. It's hard to believe the oldest player in this group, Jankovic, is still only 25. All of them have time.
Who's Primed For A Top 10 Debut?
Three players, Stosur, Schiavone and Li Na made their Top 10 debuts in 2010. The player at the front of the queue to crack the elite for the first time in 2011 is Shahar Peer, who rose from No.31 to No.13 last year. With a 5-9 win-loss record against the Top 10 last season (the same as Schiavone) the 23-year-old Israeli would be a worthy addition, and she also has the ranking system on her side: A former quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Peer has only third round points to defend in Melbourne this month, while the players ranked immediately ahead of her (Li and Henin) have much more at stake (semifinals and finals, respectively). Besides Peer, just two of the current Top 20 have never featured inside the Top 10: Rezai (No.19) and Maria Kirilenko (No.20).
Ranking Risers To Watch
Not counting Henin, who was unranked at the start of the year, the player who rose the most places in 2010 was Romina Oprandi, who rose from No.220 to No.66, a leap of 154 places. Watch out in 2011 for British hope Laura Robson, who only turns 17 this month and will attack the season with Patrick Mouratoglou as a full time coach; she won't be No.217 for long. Sixteen-year-old Daria Gavrilova is currently stationed outside the Top 500, but last year the Russian won the junior US Open, the Youth Olympic Tennis Event, and was crowned ITF Junior World Champion. Her forays at the senior level will be limited, but solid progress seems likely. Established campaigners who are much better than their current rankings suggest include Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anabel Medina Garrigues, Alizé Cornet and Anna Chakvetadze; their fans will be hoping the only way is up.
What Delights In Store For Doubles?
The 2010 doubles season was deliciously unpredictable. Cara Black and Liezel Huber dissolved their formidable partnership, while the Williams sisters collected their 11th and 12th Grand Slam titles as a unit at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, duly rose to co-No.1s for the first time in their careers, but didn't play after Wimbledon. Out of the blue, Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova triumphed at the All England Club… and then proved it was no fluke by winning the US Open as well; can they win an ordinary tour event? Indeed, it was Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta who proved most constant: The popular Argentine-Italian duo won seven titles, including the WTA Championships; like Wozniacki, the next step is to add Grand Slam shimmer to their status as the best team in the world. With redoutable Rennae Stubbs talking retirement, Lisa Raymond - who finished 2010 with the Australian as the third-ranked team - will be a hot property in 2011 too.
Who's Due A Title Breakthrough?
In 2010, nine first-time titlists joined the WTA winners' circle, with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Kleybanova both bagging two trophies. Others who went close in their first tour finals included Simona Halep (Fès), Angelique Kerber (Bogotá), Polona Hercog (Acapulco), Arantxa Parra Santonja (Estoril), Kristina Barrois (Strasbourg), Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (Prague) and Johanna Larsson (Portoroz). At No.31, Dominika Cibulkova is the highest ranked player yet to win a WTA title, but has two finals under her belt (Amelia Island and Montréal in 2008). Watch out for two-time Marbella runner-up Carla Suárez Navarro on clay, and spare a thought too for No.52-ranked Russian Elena Vesnina, who has been to four finals in the past two seasons but is yet to taste triumph.
Who Will Be The Next Teen Queen?
Last year Pavlyuchenkova assumed the mantel of highest-ranked teen when Wozniacki celebrated her 20th birthday in July. But the Russian, who won her first WTA titles at Monterrey and Istanbul in 2010, reached a career-high ranking of No.19 in October and finished the season at No.21, will in turn leave the teenaged ranks this coming July. The next highest ranked teen right now is Hercog (No.47) but the Slovene turns 20 during the Australian Open, so watch out for Melanie Oudin, who has until September; although down at No.61, the American showed signs of her 'old' self when she beat Schiavone in the recent Fed Cup final. Also keep an eye on Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski (No.80) and Romania's Halep (No.84), both of whom don't become twentysomethings until after the US Open.
Side Note; 14 Days 11 Hours 25 Minutes till The Australian Open