Saturday, October 11, 2008

2008 I.A.'s, Pt.1 (The Top 20)

The 2008 party is nearly over. Many of the questions posed and opinions held when everyone was arriving unfashionably early have been answered, proven correct or tossed out the back door for being completely wrong-headed... which will only lead to a whole new batch of queries and predictions for 2009 a few months from now, I highly suspect. Ah, we never learn.

In the first of two editions of "Intriguing Answers," let's take a look at the thirty players who've spent time in the singles Top 20 during the first forty weeks of this season. At the start, all players were theoretically equally intriguing, but some turned out to be more intriguing than others.

=40/40 weeks in Top 20=
Jelena Jankovic, SRB: (#3 at start of '08, now #1) She's only moved up two spots, but she might be the most improved player on tour this season, from head to toe. Better scheduling (after a reckless start), smart gameplans, an still-improving serve and a developing champion's heart has helped Queen Chaos thrive in the post-Henin WTA landscape. She still needs to win a grand slam to prove that all her surface improvements aren't a mirage, though.
Serena Williams, USA: (#7 at start of '08, now #2) Williams was able to play her most complete season in ages, and has now played in nine straight slams (the longest streak of her career). If healthy, she's the best player in the world. When determined, she does not lose. But her ability to stay on the court, especially at the end of a long season, is just as important as winning when it comes to the rankings. Of course, Serena would surely sacrifice season-ending #1 for another slam title no matter the year on the calendar.
Dinara Safina, RUS: (#15 at start of '08, now #3) It's been a pretty hectic back half of the season for Safina, as she's done everything BUT win a slam and rise to #1 (she'll be #2 on Monday) since spring, including becoming the first player in WTA history to defeat three different reigning top-ranked women in a single season. In 2009, Safina will face an entirely new opponent -- incredible expectations.
Elena Dementieva, RUS: (#11 at start of '08, now #4) An improved serve helped the good-at-everything-else Punch-Sober reach a career-high ranking at nearly 27 years of age. 2008 might have seen her cede (or appear nearly ready to do so) her role as "the best player without a slam title" to Jankovic and Safina, but she's proven this season that she can never be counted out of anything -- and maybe that Olympic Gold could still have a grand sibling before Dementieva's time on the tour is past.
Ana Ivanovic, SRB: (#4 at start of '08, now #5) AnaIvo rose to the #1 spot and won Roland Garros in the spring, then saw the bottom fall out when she either realized what she'd done, or injured her thumb (take your pick, but it's hard not to think the majority of her current problems rest above her shoulders). After losing six times in her first thirty-five matches, she's lost six more times in her last nine matches. She'll have to learn how to handle success in '09, or risk transforming into something resembling the talented-but-unable-to-close-the-deal Svetlana Kuznetsova we've seen the last two years.
Maria Sharapova, RUS: (#5 at start of '08, now #6) The Supernova was the hottest player on tour at the start of '08, winning eighteen straight matches and her first Australian Open crown. Then shoulder problems made her serve iffy, and ultimately ended her season in August. All eyes will be on Sharapova's right arm in '09, looking to see if the recurring difficulties precipitate mechanical alterations in order to prevent future chunks of seasons to be wiped out (or worse).
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS: (#2 at start of '08, now #7) There was a time when it seemed that Kuznetsova might be the most talented of the Russians. Actually, that STILL might be the case, but you wouldn't know it by the 0-5 record in singles finals the Contessova has thus far put up in '08, or the 1-10 mark she's cobbled together over the last twenty-four months (the single win came when her opponent retired after leading in the match before being injured). Olga Morozova, who once helped Dementieva forge a new identity years ago, will have her work cut out for her rediscovering the Kuznetsova who won the U.S. Open in '04... but she'll have a great deal of talent to work with.
Venus Williams, USA: (#8 at start of '08, now #8) Venus is still the best women's grass court player in the world, and it appears she might be for quite a while, too (and that's no "What If" scenario, either). Her most recent Wimbledon title won't likely be her last, as she's been talking about playing long enough to participate in the 2012 (tennis will be played at the All-England Club) and maybe even 2016 Olympics. Sure, she only made two semifinals outside of SW19, and no finals. But as long as Williams rules the courts for two weeks in London, the rest of the season is simply incomprehensible chatter when it comes to all things Venus.
Patty Schnyder, SUI: (#16 at start of '08, now #11) Like a White Mile, Patty simply never seems to find an end point. Just when you think she might be ready to drift away, she wins her first singles title since 2005 and nearly returns to the Top 10. 2008 should be her sixth season in the year-end Top 16 in the last seven years, and writing her off in 2009, even at age 30, probably won't be a safe bet, either.
Anna Chakvetadze, RUS: (#6 at start of '08, now #12) I suppose that after the traumatic home invasion incident last December in the Chakvetadze residence, we should have known 2008 would eventually get the best of Anna. Has it ever. Aside from an early indoor win in Paris and a few minor blips during the season, this has been a year that can't end quickly enough.
Daniela Hantuchova, SVK: (#9 at start of '08, now #13) A promising start (a slam SF in Melbourne) turned into an injury-doomed near-disaster for Wonder (no longer a Girl, not after all her troubles) Gal. But she's battled back before, and a comeback in '09 won't have to be pulled off from nearly as far behind as she once found herself.
Marion Bartoli, FRA: (#10 at start of '08, now #15) Bartoli did a Reverse Hantuchova, opening slowly and then finally righting herself as she got healthier during the hard court season. Everyone knew she wasn't likely to reach the heights of her '07 Wimbledon final again, but credit her for finding a nice middle ground over the course of '08.

=37 weeks=
Agnes Szavay, HUN: (#20 at start of '08, now #27) Szavay had a classic Szophomore Szlump in '08, spooling out a string of one-and-out losses at events to players she would have been expected to (and would have expected herself) to beat. We'll see if the experience ultimately makes her stronger, and that headstrong player from '07 wasn't an impostor.

=34 weeks=
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL: (#26 at start of '08, now #10) A-Rad has won titles on three surfaces in '08, but has seemed to tire down the stretch. She successfully made the huge leap from being outside the Top 25 to the Top 10, but she'll need to continue to increase her on-court aggression if she's to climb much higher.

=29 weeks=
Nadia Petrova, RUS: (#14 at start of '08, now #14) 2008 has produced quite a weaving snail trail for Petrova, as she's fallen out of and returned to the Top 20 on three different occasions during the season. A coaching change led to improved results and a renewed sense of purpose and energy, so it might be "game on" time in 2009 once again.

=27 weeks=
Vera Zvonareva, RUS: (#23 at start of '08, now #9) Though she hasn't had a Safina-like breakthrough year, Zvonareva has most definitely found herself this season. The Top 10. A Bronze Medal. The chance to play for her hometown tournament's title in Moscow this weekend. She's THIS CLOSE to the tears being ones of joy.

=25 weeks=
Nicole Vaidisova, CZE: (#12 at start of '08, now #22) First, Vaidisova will have to decide whether or not she even wants to be on the court at all. After that, she can worry about finally adding a little nuance and forethought to her power game. A player who'd won six tour titles by the time she was just a month past her seventeenth birthday now hasn't won one in almost two and a half years. She might never live up to her early hype, but she shouldn't be HERE.

=22 weeks=
Victoria Azarenka, BLR: (#30 at start of '08, now #17) We're still waiting for Azarenka to explode (in a good way), but there's nothing wrong with her gradually climbing the ladder at her own deliberate pace. She's managed to reach the Top 20 without winning a title, and finds herself just one spot behind the triple-title winning Caroline Wozniacki. Imagine how far she can climb once she learns how to win.
Shahar Peer, ISR: (#17 at start of '08, now #38) Boy, I know I didn't see Peer's season coming at all. Rather than rising up, she's tumbled more than twenty spots in the rankings. But where there's a will there's a way, and the ever-willful Peer should be able to rebound.

=21 weeks=
Alize Cornet, FRA: (#57 at start of '08, now #19) Alize has displayed her clay court abilities and fighting spirit. Next up: hard courts.

=19 weeks=
Justine Henin, BEL: (#1 at start of '08, now retired) How different would this season have been had La Petit Taureau not walked away, or felt the need to do so? It's mind-boggling.

=15 weeks=
Tatiana Golovin, FRA: (#13 at start of '08, now #82) Good Tatiana. Bad Tatiana. Unfortunately, for most of 2008 there's been NO Tatiana, which has been such a crushing disappointment coming on the heels of her career year in 2007. Thankfully, she's only 20.

=12 weeks=
Francesca Schiavone, ITA: (#25 at start of '08, now #23) She didn't follow up her first-ever title-winning season in '07 with a second in '08, but her win over Henin in Dubai was certainly a high point.

=11 weeks=
Flavia Pennetta, ITA: (#40 at start of '08, now #18) Pennetta entered 2008 at #40, having seen her year-end ranking drop three straight seasons. All she did in response was knock off Venus twice, win two titles and bear down on a career-best ranking (#16 in '06).
Sybille Bammer, AUT: (#21 at start of '08, now #24) Bammer's results haven't been as eye-opening as they were when she had her career-year a season ago, but her ranking has held fairly steady.

=9 weeks=
Dominika Cibulkova, SVK: (#52 at start of '08, now #20) At 5'3", the Slovak may have inherited Henin's tour-best big win/small stature ratio this season, notching six Top 10 wins (including defeats of Jankovic, Ivanovic, Dementieva and Venus) and showing the ability to shine in big moments. On tap in 2009: a first title and better slam results.

=7 weeks=
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: (#64 at start of '08, now #16) No player has come from as far away to reach the Top 20 as C-Woz has in 2008, and her three titles over the last two months means she'll be the focus of many "Player to Watch" profiles before the start of next season.
Maria Kirilenko, RUS: (#31 at start of '08, now #32) The amazing thing about Kirilenko is that she won one title in '07, but has actually seen her ranking DROP despite winning three crowns in '08. Unlike the other Russian Maria, Kirilenko has more often shined in small events, having not advanced to a SF in anything other than a Tier III or IV this season.
Amelie Mauresmo, FRA: (#18 at start of '08, now #25) At times in 2008, Amelie has appeared to possibly be on her last legs. But recent signs point to her having something left, after all. Now it'll come down to how much longer she wants to work as her two-slam winning '06 campaign gets farther and farther away in her rear-view mirror. Hopefully, her stylishly beautiful game will stick around for a while.

=3 weeks=
Alona Bondarenko, UKR: (#22 at start of '08, now #33) A-Bond has had more commercial exposure this season, and some great doubles success with sister Kateryna. But her own singles results have been scattershot. She reached a career high of #19 in April, but has since fallen fourteen spots.

NEXT TIME: Intriguing Answers, Pt. 2 -- I.Q.'s review, How Smart We Were/How Dumb We Were and a "2009 All-Intriguing Team" preview

All for now.

...Revolving Doors - WTA '09 Guide Preview
...Intriguing Answers, Pt.1 (The Top 20)
...Intriguing Answers, Pt.2 (Questions & more) (coming soon)
...Backspin Awards (coming soon)
...Ms. Backspin (coming soon)
...WTA Yearbook (coming soon)


Post a Comment

<< Home