WTA Finals: Breaking down the elite eight
Originally published on 24/10/15
After nigh on ten months of scrambling and sliding across courts of various substances and speeds, the elite eight of women’s tennis – disappointingly but understandably without a somewhat heartbroken Serena Williams – converge in Singapore for a year-end blockbuster.
World No. 1 Serena’s loss at the US Open to Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, and the subsequent shutting down of her season, has presented all eight women with a golden opportunity to claim their sport’s most prestigious trophy after the four Grand Slams. Just like with Flushing Meadows, the American had won the WTA Finals for three years on the bounce.
Leading the way in Singapore, though, will be top seed Simona Halep, who sandwiched an excellent beginning and conclusion to 2015 with a clay and grass court slump. The Romanian won three titles early on in Shenzhen, Dubai and Indian Wells but was only victorious in one match at Roland Garros and Wimbledon combined, as she struggled with the weight of expectation.
However, she returned to form over the North American summer hardcourt swing, reaching finals in Toronto and Cincinnati, before surprisingly losing to eventual champion Flavia Pennetta after a decent run to the US Open semi-finals. She has wound down significantly through the tournaments in Asia, preparing for the grand spectacle in Singapore, where she leads the Red Group.
Joining her at the round-robin stage will be 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta. Sharapova boasts a 5-0 head-to-head record over Halep, including that barnstormer of a French Open final in 2014. Yet, the Russian has played just a solitary match since the grass of SW19 due to persistent injury troubles. She was forced to retire in that match too in Wuhan, so now is certainly the time for Halep to get a win on the board over the five-time major winner.
Last year, Sharapova only scraped one victory in the event, while the Romanian advanced all the way to the final before being thrashed by Serena. That victory for the world No.3 did come against Agnieszka Radwanska though, against whom she holds a 12-2 edge and will play again this year. The 26-year-old Pole last downed Sharapova way back in 2012 in Miami.
The Wimbledon 2012 finalist endured a testing opening to 2015 but a return to her favoured surface of grass, where her variety works so effectively, ignited her year. After reaching the final at gusty Eastbourne and the last four at the All England Club, she racked up the ranking points over the Asian Swing – winning Tokyo without dropping a set and making the semi-finals at the China Open in Beijing.
She is seemingly back to her consistent best and could frustrate the more powerful Sharapova and Halep in her group with her court guile and outstanding retrieval skills.
Flavia Pennetta completes our first quartet – surely still consumed with confidence from her stunning and totally unexpected US Open triumph. Although she won the doubles title with Gisela Dulko in 2010, Pennetta is making her debut in the singles competition, but it will also be a chance for the Italian to say goodbye to the sport in her final tournament as a professional.
Her 6-1 6-3 drubbing of highest-ranked group opponent Halep in the US Open semis, where she won a remarkable 60% of receiving points, should encourage her that progress in Singapore is within her grasp. Halep only won 42% of points on her first serve and 36% on her second in that match, so the Italian will look to feast on both of the Romanian’s deliveries once again.
Pennetta has beaten Sharapova three straight times (most recently in Indian Wells this year) but trails Radwanska 5-3. The 33-year-old will be hoping to prove that her triumph in the Big Apple was not just a flash in the pan, and stamp another exclamation point on her CV before calling time on her tennis career.
Over in the White Group, there’s a common theme in three of the four players: explosive, powerful, first-strike tennis.
Garbine Muguruza heads up the pool on her maiden appearance at the event in Singapore. If 2014 was the year that she made a name for herself in beating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, 2015 has shown she is a genuine contender at the top of the women’s game.
She made her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon, defeating a plethora of quality opponents along the way in Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Timea Bacsinszky and Radwanska, before losing to Serena in a close title-decider. Then, she won her first Premier mandatory title in Beijing and now sits at a career high of No.4. The 22-year-old Spaniard will undoubtedly believe she can win the whole event in Singapore if she brings her top gear to each contest.
She’s joined by a pair of left-handed Czechs, who can both fire winners from anywhere on the court. Fed Cup teammates Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova have both suffered from illness of late though, so questions remain as to what level of play they will bring to the year-ending competition. Kvitova was diagnosed with mononucleosis, while Safarova was hospitalised with a bacterial infection in September.
The latter has enjoyed her most successful year, reaching the French Open final in June and surging to world No.5. Her serve has been a potent weapon, as she is third in both the percentage of service points and service games won on the tour this year.
Rounding out the White Group is another left-hander, Angelique Kerber, who had a superb last couple of months to surge to a WTA Finals berth for the third time in four years. She has won four titles in 2014 and made two quarter-finals, a semi-final and a final over her four Asian Swing events.
World No.7 Kerber doesn’t boast the same power off her serve or groundstrokes that the other three in the group do, but she is a first-class mover and fighter on the court. With the two Czech women struggling with health and subsequently any consistency in form, the German has a strong chance of advancing to the last four for the first time.
With Serena absent and questions lingering over the level of the two former champions Sharapova and Kvitova, the way is potentially paved for a new winner in the 45th edition of the WTA Finals.