There are currently 13 players with a decent chance to make the season ending WTA Championships in Istanbul, October 22-27. Two players have already made it, No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka. Third ranked Maria Sharapova, who has been contending with bursitis in her right shoulder, is as of this point doubtful to recover in time. No. 7 Marion Bartoli has retired.
Assuming Sharapova does not play, at least for this week that leaves nine players with decent shots for the final six spots. No. 11 Sloane Stephens is just one spot out if Sharapova and Bartoli don’t play, while Nos. 12-15 Angie Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep have a lot of ground to catch up but have outside shots if they put up great results during the next three weeks.
Three big tournaments begin next week, with Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow ahead.
1. Serena Williams: The world’s best player was both heartened and relieved when she won the US Open by racing past Azarenka in the third set. Now the rest of her year is all gravy as she managed to win two Slams this season. When Serena is playing loose, she is super dangerous, as it’s been when she has been tight this season that she has suffered losses. She says she’s planning on playing Beijing (she rarely plays in Asia so the proof will be in the pudding), but she will no doubt be motivated to defend her title in Istanbul and show the rest of the elite players that the 32 year old plans on ruling the tour until she finally puts her rackets down.
2. Victoria Azarenka: Despite a few injuries this year, the Belarussian’s fitness has improved overall: she is much stronger and faster specimen than she was say even three years ago. But the drop in her level after she stole the second set from Serena in New York was troubling. While she has shown that she has the game to best Williams, she has yet to beat her at major. Two wins over her older rival in Beijing and Istanbul would serve her very well heading into 2014.
3. Maria Sharapova: She was told to take two to three months off to cure her shoulder after Wimbledon, but she didn’t, played Cincinnati and practiced all the way up until he US Open, so it’s hard to see her injury fully healing by the time the first ball is tossed up in Istanbul. But…she is stubborn and misses competing so if she doesn’t feel like she’s putting her 2014 at risk, she may show up and play. It’s doubtful, but she can’t be totally ruled out just yet.
4. Agnieszka Radwanska: Even if she wins Korea on Sunday, is that enough reason to think that she can go on another brilliant fall run like she did in 2011 when he won Tokyo and Beijing back to back? No it isn’t. At this point, her 2013 is a disappointment: as good as Ekaterina Makarova can be there is no reason the Pole should have lost to her at the US Open, much less going down to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. If she doesn’t start to schedule more smartly and learn to peak at the big events, she’ll never win a major.
5. Li Na: Sure, she played Serena very tough in the second set of her 6-0, 6-3 loss to her in the US Open semis. But to have a bagel hung on her by a player whom she has pushed so far before in a Slam semifinal? That shows just how mentally fragile she is. Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez must fully realize by now that he does not have another super mentally tough player in his stable like he did with Justine Henin.
6. Sara Errani: She admitted at the US Open that she is having massive trouble contending with the expectations that are put on top players, hence her 6-3, 6-1 loss to her countrywoman Flavia Pennetta. In some ways she was already overachieving, so what chance does Errani have to keep up a top-10 level without her legendary fight? A very slim to none one.
7. Petra Kvitova: For whatever reason, I keep expecting the tall and powerful Czech to make a push at No. 1 and then she gets sick again and lets down at another major, like she did in her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Alison Riske in New York. [And that’s not a typo, the 6-0, 6-3 score seems to be popular figure coming out of New York]. If Kvitova continues to contract a virus every few months, she’ll never win another big title. If she can get healthy for an extended period, then she’ll be a threat again. But I am taking a full-on wait- and-see approach when it comes to her now.
8. Marion Bartoli: She has retired, at least for now, but the real stunner would be if she never attempts a comeback after all the attention on her dies down.
9. Jelena Jankovic: “JJ” will surely go to the ends of the earth to gain what she believes is to be a deserved spot in the final eight club. She has shown flashes of her former No. 1 play at times this season, but she evaporated quickly in her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Li at the US Open. She may no longer be a considered to be a consistent threat to the super elite, but she will be occasionally based on pride alone.
10. Roberta Vinci: The Italian is a very decent, but not a great hard court player who may have the Fed Cup final more on her mind than reaching the Championships in singles. She and Errani are a lock for the doubles, so perhaps she’ll focus on helping boost her friend’s confidence level during the Asian swing. However, Sharapova and Bartoli won’t play she is sitting at No. 8, so for her to completely fall out, the likes of Stephens, Kerber, Lisicki and Wozniacki are going to have to make substantial pushes.
11. Sloane Stephens: The youngest player in the top 15, the 20-year-old Stephens finds herself only 104 points behind Vinci for the final spot assuming that both Sharapova and Bartoli don’t play. Even if Sharapova does, she is only 99 points behind Vinci, which gives her a clear shot.
Stephens played Serena close in the first set of her 6-4, 6-1 loss to her rival in New York, but let down in the final game of the set and then lost focus in the second. She almost has enough game to play with anyone, but she does go on mental walkabouts, which is a no-no against the veterans.
She is seeded No. 9 in Tokyo, opening against Voegele, possibly facing junior rivals Genie Bouchard or Monica Puig in round two, and maybe Jankovic (should she get past Laura Robson) in the third round. Should she face and best JJ, she will pick up 100 points on the Serbian. Then she may have to play Azarenka in quarters in a rematch of their Aussie Open semifinal. Sloane’s week ahead sounds very challenging, and very fun.
12. Angelique Kerber: Does anyone recall that the German lost a third set tiebreaker to Suarez in New York, who then went on to be double bageled by Serena? Angie looks tough on the outside, but hasn’t shown much elite resiliency this season. She needs to loosen up and start playing more aggressive.
13. Sabine Lisicki: The ace-bombing German has done little since her Wimbledon heroics as she is struggling to stay in lengthy points on hard courts. She is capable of making a push, but she needs to be more patient and not get so anxious in big matches.
14. Caroline Wozniacki: The Dane is currently ranked No. 8, but she is defending 835 points from her fine fall play in 2012, so she is going to have to play just as well or better to make it. However, the most important thing for the Dane is to keep working on finding her elite level again, which she did not show in the third set of her loss to Camilla Giorgi in New York.
15. Simona Halep: The young Romanian caught fire this summer, but may have overplayed. She’s a terrific ball striker, but still needs to mature. She is 535 points behind Vinci so she is going to have to really catch fire again.
COMING MONDAY: ATP POST US OPEN/DAVIS CUP REVIEW AND THE RACE TO THE WORLD FINALS IN LONDON