By Matt Cronin
ISTANBUL – There is no title run that is inevitable before it is played, but Serena Williams comes into the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships-Istanbul perhaps as a heavier favorite than she has been at any time during her storied career. She hasn’t lost a match since the Cincinnati final when she went down No 2 Victoria Azarenka in a third set tiebreaker, but she ended up getting revenge on the Belarusian in the US Open final and then trounced the field in Beijing.
She leads the tougher Red Group, which also includes Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she owns; Petra Kvitova, who plays her tough but has yet to beat her; and Angelique Kerber, who has beaten her once. Sure No. 2 Azarenka has a chance against her should she get out of the White Group that includes Li Na, Sara Errani and Jelena Jankovic, but she is going to have to play at much higher level than she did in the third set of their US Open clash.
Radwanska has played Williams tight on occasion, but does not seem to bring the same confidence level to the court against her than she does against most of other players. In fact, the former Wimbledon finalist appears to be saying her chances against her are very slim.
“We have a couple matches, different matches, but, for example, the match in Toronto, I guess it was really, really close, and just a few points I was away from those two sets,” the Pole said. “So I think it was one of the best matches we played against each other. So against her you really have to play 100%. If not, it’s really tough. She’s dictating everything from the beginning of the match, and served very good also, return is also very powerful and always going forward. It’s very tough to stay in the game and really running, really far from the baseline. I think against her you really have to try to, play aggressive from the beginning of the match. If you start too slow it’s not good.”
Kerber is one of the few players have beaten Serena in the past 18 months, having taken her down in the 2012 Cincinnati quarters, but says she can only “hope’ to play at that level again. The strong-legged left-hander is an excellent defensive player and can also produce a fairly high level of offense, but has a tendency to get negative against top players and there is no way she can beat Serena unless her belly is full of self-belief.
Kvitova is 0-4 against Williams, but did take her to 7-5 in the third set in a defeat in Doha earlier this year. That was the first time she really thought she had a chance to beat her. She did not, but at least she matched big strokes with her and hurt her with her often wicked left-handed serve.
“It was really great match for my side, and I was very close to win the match but I didn’t,” she said. But it’s okay. I think that I can improve my game too, and, I think it was for the first time when I really knew that I can really play her and any chance to beat her. I don’t think that I’m really like mentally down for right now when I have her in the group. So I’m looking forward.”
Li Na appears to have the kind of game to be able to upend Williams: a strong first serve, bullet returns, hard groundstrokes and a load of experience. But Serena seems to beat her to the punch every time out including in the US Open semis, where she butchered her in the first set and then took a well played second set.
“Even I lose her in the US Open, I still feel if I, how you say, like I said at US Open, because the match I lose to myself; is not lose to opponent. Doesn’t matter who against me the time, the day; I already lose the match. So, yeah, at least I learn something. I still learn every day. If I have chance to play against her again, I wish I can doing [just as] well.”
Serena constantly talks about how she respects every opponent and does not under estimate them and really, you have to believe her given that she has lost only a handful of matches all season long. She realizes that she is the favorite, but does not want to deal with that tag every time out, but of course she wants to be the leading lady, too. Indoors, with her serve and in great health, she has more weaponry than any other player in the field. Clay is the only surface, which sometimes troubles her, and she did win Roland Garros this year, so at least in 2013 she’s been the most accomplished player on the soft stuff too. Outside of the absent Maria Sharapova, she knows that she will have to confront at least four of the world’s best player to win the crown.
“I’m always considered a favorite in a tournament,” she said. “ I don’t think about it. I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it. You know, it’s better to be considered a favorite. I also do well when I’m considered the underdog. I never consider myself a favorite because every opponent I play has a chance to do really well.”
Other than defending her title, Williams does not have a tremendous amount to play for. She does not need this title or positive momentum going into next year. But she is performance oriented and thinks she can better herself each time out. Perhaps that she has kept herself head and shoulder above the field.
“What I think is great about it is I’m still looking to improve, and what I learned most about this year is I have a lot of room for improvement, and talking with my coach over it, I’m so excited for next year just to take my game to a new level,” she said.
Tuesday Order of Play, starting at 5 PM Istanbul time
Azarenka vs. Errani,
Williams vs. Kerber
Radwanska vs. Kvitova
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