We discuss the state of the WTA going into Doha in this week’s episode of the Changeover Chat, a quick back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Lindsay: As we all know, the WTA went through a period for a few years where the players at the top of the rankings were not consistently winning Grand Slams, and they were heavily criticized for it. In the last year, that has stabilized. The last five majors have all been won by the top three players in the rankings: Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams. They all come into Doha with a shot at the No. 1 ranking. Are we seeing a new era — one marked by consistency and domination in the WTA?
Amy: It’s a good question. It’s hard to imagine this new Big Three of the WTA dominating like the Big Four on the men’s side, but I could see this lasting for at least a couple more years, especially while Serena’s still around. Azarenka and Sharapova still have a lot of years in front of them, and one of the things that has set them apart from the rest of the WTA is their consistent results, so I could see them continuing to win Slams for years to come.
Juan José: I agree – the X-factor is how long can Serena stay around, and who will join Azarenka and Sharapova at the top. Can Radwanska make it to that level? I sure want her to.
Lindsay: Yeah, Serena is a huge factor in all of this of course, but she seems really motivated these days. I also think it’s worth noting the consistency of Sharapova and Azarenka, and the fact that they are a threat on all surfaces.
Juan José: Kerber is also someone else who is nearby in terms of rankings, but we’ve yet to see her in a Slam final. Li Na? She’s not exactly young, and even when you consider her recent Australian Open run – who knows how long she’ll be around.
Lindsay: Kerber and Li Na are both certainly capable of being factors, though I have more faith in Li Na than Kerber in the short-term. Radwanska is an interesting prospect – she is certainly a worthy No. 4 right now, but needs to keep improving and not stay stagnant. With her game, it’s so crucial that she’s fresh and fit at the end of majors. She over-schedules, and that needs to change. I was glad that she didn’t play Paris, though she played about a million days in a row in Fed Cup, so we’ll see how she handles Doha.
Juan José: I agree, Lindsay — Radwanska’s over-scheduling does not help — she’s very Ferrer-esque in that aspect. Can Kvitova make it there? She’s got the tools, but right now a giant “Work in Progress” sign hangs over her.
Amy: I don’t see Kvitova developing any kind of consistency like Sharapova and Azarenka.
Lindsay: I agree. Between her asthma and her mental issues, I see her always being a dangerous floater but nothing consistent. I feel like she has already gotten as close to No. 1 as she ever will be. The WTA is only getting tougher and more consistent. She’s so similar to Delpo it’s scary.
Amy: I’d have to disagree with the comparison. Delpo is more consistent. Petra has higher highs and lower lows, whereas Delpo might play a few flat matches, but his level is mostly constant.
Lindsay: Eh, I don’t think Delpo is drastically more consistent than Petra. Slightly, but they’re still similar. Petra is known as being so flaky — and she certainly can be — but she did make the semis of the Australian Open and French Open, lost in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Serena in a great match, and then in her worst major she lost to an on-fire Bartoli in the fourth round in third sets at the US Open. Not terrible. Of course, then there was the Australian Open this year, but it’s not like Delpo did much better.
Juan José: I’d actually like to see Del Potro play with the continual aggression of Kvitova. Much better than watching a 6’5 guy run around and push the ball like he’s 5’11. Also, one Slam for each, and Kvitova has actually won better titles than DelPo outside of that lone Slam.
Amy: She’s won more big titles, but Delpo doesn’t lose to complete randoms week in week out or choke random matches like Kvitova’s done during some of her low points. He may come out flat occasionally, but he’s rarely a train wreck.
Juan José: Hey, remember that just last year Kvitova was very good in the US summer hard court swing. She flamed out at the US Open, but she did really well up to that point, in a place where she always had trouble due to her asthma. So there’s a small sliver of hope. And, as we know, Del Potro just lost to Chardy at the Australian Open, and is yet to make his second ever Masters 1000 final.
Amy: The competition to win a Masters 1000 title is harder to win a Premier Mandatory WTA event. The Big Four are virtually always there. So it’s hard to compare.
Lindsay: I think Petra will always be a factor, I just don’t know if she’ll ever be No. 1 like it seemed she was poised to be. The people above her are too consistent.
Speaking of No. 1, here are are the No. 1 scenarios for Doha, via SI:
• Azarenka must make the final to have a chance to remain at No. 1.
• Williams can become No. 1 for the first time since 2010 by advancing to the semifinals.
• Sharapova can secure No. 1 if she wins the title and Williams does not reach the semifinals.
• Williams can still clinch the No. 1 ranking if Azarenka doesn’t make the final or Sharapova doesn’t win the title.
Juan José: That’s fascinating.
Lindsay: Also fascinating that Sharapova is 10-0 in Doha!
Amy: This could be a pretty important event. It will set the tone for the rest of the year.
Juan José: I think it’s kind of cool to see three elite players fight it out for the top ranking almost every tournament. Makes it fun.
Amy: I do think Serena will emerge as No. 1, which she will deserve if she makes it, given the way she ended last year.
Juan José: It’s nice to see that all three have done plenty to justify the ranking. Best possible scenario, I think. Do we know how healthy Serena is this week? Her ankle (as we saw from her own Twitter picture) did not look good after Australia.
Amy: This is the most recent report I’ve heard on Serena’s health:
When I asked Serena if she was feeling injury free and 100%, she answered she “felt a little better”. So far no no back or ankle pain.
— Matthieu Barbarin (@MattBarbarin) February 11, 2013
Amy: I’ve been thinking about the Australian Open, and one of the reasons I thought Vika’s win in Melbourne was so impressive is because I didn’t think she looked her best at all. In a way, it was more impressive that way. But I also wonder how she’ll handle defending her gazillion points from last year’s 23 match winning streak.
Lindsay: She’s proven that she can win whether she’s playing her best or not, and that she’s not afraid of the big stage. And she’s only 23! It will be interesting to see what happens when she does lose the No. 1 ranking – how will she handle it?
Juan José: Do we think Sloane Stephens is going to be in the mix at the top this year? As in, make it to the top 10? I ask because as I go through the WTA rankings, all the way down to the top 30, she’s the only one who stands out as someone who has a huge upside rankings-wise. Apart from her, I see a lot of people who are “appropriately” ranked.
Amy: Maybe borderline top 10. She’s ranked 17th right now. I do see her as someone who should be a top 10 mainstay in the near future, whether it’s this year or next.
Lindsay: I think if Ivanovic can be No. 13 then Sloane can certainly be around there. It was good to see her get an easy win yesterday and get her Doha campaign off to a great start. And then today she lost in a third set tiebreak despite having a match point over Zakopalova. Those are the matches that she has to find her way out of if she’s going to be top 10.
Amy: It depends what happens above her, too. If you look at the top 10, there are a few players who could drop out: Kerber, Errani, Kvitova, Stosur, Wozniacki. So there’s some room.
Lindsay: Errani certainly has a lot to defend in the next few months. Wozniacki is showing no signs of turning things around, and Stosur is likely never going to get more consistent.
Juan José: Can Kirilenko keep climbing?
Amy: I don’t see Kirilenko going any higher than what she is right now for more than a brief period of time. I admire what she’s done lately, but I just don’t see how she’s anything but a top 13, 14 player, kind of like Nadal’s awesome assessment of John Isner. She beats who she’s supposed to, but she’s invisible in matches against the top women.
Juan José: The interesting thing about Kirilenko is that she’s just turned 26. She’s entering that prime years sort of stage.
Lindsay: Kirilenko doesn’t have enough weapons to go much higher. But she could crack the top 10 with a couple of decent results, and if the draw breaks the right way for her in a big event she could go higher. She was a few points from beating Radwanska at Wimbledon last year to make the semis. But I don’t see her ever being a consistent top 10 player. I think she’s actually done a great job of maximizing her talent.
Juan José: I agree in part with what you guys say, but I do think there’s a spot in the top 10 for a super consistent player without much in the way of weapons. The question for Kirilenko is if she’s going to be able to maintain that consistency in terms of results week in and week out. We gonna see, no?
Amy: I worry about her knee problems. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see her crack the top 10 this year briefly. But I still don’t see her staying there for long.
Lindsay: One person who’s missing from Doha is Li Na. It’s good she’s not taking chances on her ankle, but I am very curious to see how she backs up her start to the Year of Li Na. If she and Radwanska are both playing well, that can be a great round-off of the top 5, since Kerber seems to be floundering.
What do you guys think about Bartoli? She certainly made a huge step separating from Pops.
Amy: That’ll be interesting. I can’t believe she actually ditched her dad. No more crazy practices. Or maybe crazy practices, but without her dad.
Juan José: I think that’s an awesome step for Bartoli, but she’s going to turn 29 this year. I would have loved her to make this change three years ago. Might be too late to have a meaningful impact at this point of her career.
Lindsay: I agree with that, Juan José. But she has a few years left in her I’m sure. She’s funny like that.
Juan José: How far can Barthel go? She’s ranked No. 32 right now.
Lindsay: Barthel is a great prospect. I think she has top 10 weapons for sure, but I think she’s a few years away from enough consistency to get there. She reminds me a bit of Makarova, who has never been able to get it together week in, week out. But like Bartoli (well, not exactly like Bartoli, of course), Barthel has stepped away from the family and started working with a coach that’s not her mother at tournaments. Big step.
Juan José: Lisicki is another one with huge upside, provided she stays healthy and doesn’t lose her mind. She will turn 24 later this year, so it’s a great time for her to get it together. She’s ranked 40th right now.
Amy: I think of Lisicki as a less successful version of Kvitova. though. I don’t see either one of them developing the consistency.
Juan José: Do we think the Pavs can rise? Or will she remain the Pavs that we know by now?
Lindsay: I think she’s just Pavs, honestly. Which is great.
Amy: I like Pavlyuchenkova’s chances. She’s only 21, and I think she’s improving every day.
Lindsay: I do forget how young she is. Speaking of Russians, what about Kuznetsova? Can she get back to the top 10?
Juan José: On talent alone, Kuznetsova could make it back to the top 10. But we have to see how much punishment that reconstructed knee of hers can take before making any predictions. It’d be fantastic to have her in the mix, though.
What should we expect to see from Robson this year? She had what I think is a disappointing loss to Hantuchova yesterday.
Lindsay: I’m still “holding” the Robson stock. She seems to have the -itis that a lot of players with home slams have: she plays great on show courts, but not as great when the spotlight isn’t on her.
Amy: I feel like she could have some growing pains this year. She’s gotten a lot of attention for some big wins, but being able to translate that into week-to-week success is the really challenging part.
Lindsay: She and Tomic seem to be on similar timelines.
Juan José: That’s the toughest part of the grind of transitioning from top junior to top pro: the ups and downs in terms of playing on a big show court one day and then Court 19 the next.
Lindsay: Okay, time to ask the sad questions: Are Jankovic and Schiavone done?
Juan José: Yes … And yes.
Juan José: They’ve had good runs – it’s a pity Jankovic couldn’t get that elusive Slam, but such is life.
You know, looking at these rankings, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Big Three of the WTA dominate the Slams for the next few years. There really doesn’t seem to be a group of eager challengers behind them: more like a group of players who overachieved in years past and are struggling to cope with the new expectations. Li Na is the only wildcard, it seems.
Lindsay: That’s interesting. I think Li Na, Kvitova (for Slams, not the top ranking), and maybe Radwanska will challenge. Kerber and Kuznetsova if they’re healthy. Stosur will always be a threat at the French, at least for the next couple of years. But I agree that we’re going to see some consistency at the top for the next couple of years as long as everyone stays healthy, which is a great thing.
Juan José: In that sense, the WTA is starting to resemble the ATP – only a small group of players can actually hoist the big trophies, while a non-threatening middle class stays behind. You can sub in Del Potro for Li Na and Berdych, Ferrer and Tsonga for Kerber, Kuznetsova and Stosur.
Amy: In a sense right now, yes. But the ATP domination of the Big Four is ridiculous. I don’t think the WTA will be anywhere close to that kind of thing. That said, it’s nice to see some consistency at the top, after listening to everyone lament the state of women’s tennis for years. (Which I did totally disagree with at the time, and still do.)
Juan José: These are the first years of this apparent dominance: of the past five Slam finals, only Li Na, Errani and Radwanska have been able to even make it there, apart from the Big Three.
Lindsay: And of those three, Errani is the most random, but she was able to make it to the top 8 and make the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the semis of the US Open, so she was hardly a one slam factor. I was researching a Rafa piece and was reminded of the time Verkerk made the finals of the French Open for the men, just a decade ago! Now that’s upheaval.
Amy: Final thoughts?
Lindsay: I’m really excited to see how Doha plays out. It’s so fun that so many of the top players showed up. Especially Serena. The tour can of course survive without her, and there are plenty of great players and stars, but it’s better when she’s around.
Juan José: I wonder if Doha will set the tone for this theme of the Big Three’s domination being consolidated, or if we’re in store for some nice wackiness.
Amy: I guess we’ll find out soon enough!