Tuesday, October 19, 2010

2010-11 All-Intriguing Team

Hmmm, there're two ways to look at the WTA tour at this time of year. One, there's less than a month remaining in the 2010 season. But, two, we're also less than three months away from seeing the 2011 campaign kick off Down Under. Disappointment could soon turn to celebration, and vice versa, for any and every player on tour... and we're not long from knowing the difference between reality and fiction.

So, with one foot clearly in both the present, as well as the past, whose not-too-distant future would seem to be the most intriguing from where we stand today? Well, here are a few to consider:

Justine Henin, BEL: LPT 1.0 was spectacular. 2.0 ... well, not so much. Oh, it had it's moments, but Henin seemed to lack a natural affinity and/or know-how for her "new" game. It just never became second nature, and at times one could almost see her hesitation as she searched for a non-existent muscle memory to reflexively guide her. As a result, her level of play was often a hit-and-miss proposition. Then an elbow injury at Wimbledon ended her season. As it turns out, the unscheduled break might offer her a rare opportunity to "start over." Again. Knowing what worked and what didn't in '10, she'll return in '11 after having either fully absorbed the style of play that was more forward-moving than the one that won her seven slams, or maybe having decided that she should never have tried something new at all and go back to her previous game. Oh, and hopefully, maybe most importantly, she'll have sured up the serving mechanics that so often broke down after she altered her motion in order to preserve her previously-injured shoulder. The opportunity was there to make 2010 the site of a grand return (Henin's actually continued to progressively move up the rankings even while not playing since late June, highlighting the general flatness of the results of the tour's non-Wozniacki Top 20 players), but maybe '11 is when the Belgian will eliminate any lingering notion that a comeback might have been so hot of an idea.
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Victoria Azarenka, BLR: Will Azarenka learn anything from her seven retirements in twenty-one events in 2010? After all, one would have thought that she'd have learned something after succumbing to the harsh Australian Open conditions in early '09, or from managing to out-cramp a certain physically exhausted Dane in the Doha heat in late '09. But she didn't. Instead, in '10 she continued to resemble a player who doesn't adequately physically prepare herself for the grind of a WTA season. She tried to play at the U.S. Open hours after suffering a concussion, and literally collapsed on the court, and pulled up lame with far more muscle pulls, strains and heat-induced nosedives than a well-conditioned athlete should if her time between tourmaments was being fully utilized to maintain levels of strength, fitness and cardiovascular health. As a result, even though she's always a threat to win any tournament she plays, she can just as easily turn out to be a far more user-friendly opponent than she should be. Azarenka need only look to her friend, Wozniacki, to see an example of a player who's shown the commitment necessary to become a champion. The Dane showed that a player can reach the Top 5 and a slam final but still not be prepared as she could (and should) be. As C-Woz has become better conditioned, she's continued to rise up the rankings to #1, and often is at her best deep into the 3rd sets of marathon matches. Azarenka says all the right things about wanting to be a champion, and her on-court anger makes it appear as if her desire is endless. But she'll never fulfill those goals unless she shows the same commitment in her training off the court. If she didn't learn that lesson this season, then maybe she never will.
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Kaia Kanepi, EST: Kanepi reached the quarters at the final two slams of 2010, and was a match point (five, actually) from finding herself in the Wimbledon semifinals. She won her first career tour singles title, too, as her fitness noticably improved with each passing month. Such a situation surely shines a light on this hard-hitting Estonian as a player just scratching the surface of what she's capable of achieving at age 25. Late bloomers can still accomplish big things if they work hard enough (just ask Ms. Schiavone). If Kanepi can continue to improve just a tab more in '11, she might just find a way to grab something big along the way.
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Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: C-Woz's career is moving along right on schedule. She's been taking steps forward at a regular, honest pace for years. The Junior champion became a WTA titlist, then a Top 20, then Top 10, player. Soon afterward, she was a slam finalist, and this month she became the world's #1-ranked player. Up until she missed out on her first slam title at the Open this summer, she'd never gotten ahead of herself. As the fifth woman to rise to #1 without a slam title to her credit, she now has a singular goal to focus on. She's surely capable of accomplishing it in '11, and has shown a willingness that many of the players in her generation to do what it takes to improve, both off it and on (where she'll still need to increase her aggressiveness in order to consistently compete with the likes of the Williamses and Belgians). Still, this offseason will be tricky. All the pressure that comes with the top ranking has served to help scuttle the results of the last three women to assume the spot for the first time in their careers. But while those players were saddled with newly-high expectations and/or sooner-than-expected fame, Wozniacki has been gradually working toward the place she now finds herself and seems fairly comfortable with it. But she IS just 20, and has expressed a desire to emulate Anna Kournikova as an off-the-court personality... so hopefully her own cheerful nature and grounded family situation will prevent another AnaIvo-esque disappearing act from developing on the court as Wozniacki deals with all the new off-court opportunities that being #1 -- and photogenic -- produces. The Dane got to the top spot by working hard, but she'll have to work twice as hard to stay there. And even if she can it doesn't assure her of winning that elusive slam title in '11. But, no matter what happens next, the quest should prove to be intriguing.
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The Bannerettes, USA: Come on, did you REALLY think that the Williams Sisters would actually play in the Fed Cup final after they committed to being there a few months ago? Oh, well. Regardless of whether the American Bannerettes can pull an upset again the defending champion Italian team in San Diego next month, the long-awaited next generation of admirable U.S. women's players seems to have finally arrived. For the first time since the Sisters arrived on the scene, there appears to be a group of young American players who could populate and win on the WTA scene. One year after Melanie Oudin became a star at the '09 U.S. Open, '10 saw major gains and moments from the likes of Coco Vandeweghe, Christina McHale, Beatrice Capra, Alison Riske, Sloane Stephens and others. Vania King (in 2006) is the only American teen to win a singles title on tour since Serena did it in '99. That could change sometime in 2011.
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Maria Sharapova, RUS: Is 2011 the year when the course of the rest of Sharapova's career will be determined? Over the past six months, some have seen the Russian as being on an extended course toward reclaiming her old spot in the Top 5 and as a consistent slam contender by next summer, but her lack of consistent results, continued post-shoulder surgery service problems, and -- worst of all -- a seeming case of the "yips" when it comes to closing out matches and rising to the occasion in tight situations, the jury is very much still out and the verdict on whether she'll EVER be "Supernovic" again hardly pre-determined. Monica Seles was never the same poke-out-your-eye competitor after her stabbing, and one has to wonder if Sharapova will ever be able to be the hard-bitten opponent she once was now that she's got that nagging notion in the back of her mind that she can't really FULLY trust that her one-time biggest weapons -- her serve and her heart -- will be there when she needs them in a match's crunchtime. Could it be that the hard truth about the Russian's career arc has been hiding in plain sight all along? When I first gave Sharapova that "Supernova" nickname back in 2004, I played off only a portion of the dictionary definition of the word. "A rare celestial phenomenon in which a star explodes" seemed an apt description of her meteoric rise, but I chose to mostly ignore the "resulting in an extremely bright, short-lived object" part of the equation. Maybe it's time to take the blinders off?
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Rebecca Marino, CAN: The big-hitter made quite an impression on Venus Williams when the two played at the U.S. Open this season, but the most important person she proved something to may have been herself. She's been on something of a tear since Flushing Meadows, winning three straight ITF titles and stringing together a fifteen-match winning streak. She's surpassed the tailing-off Aleksandra Wozniak as the top-ranked Canadian female, and could be the most promising Canuck since Carling Bassett. She's still somewhat under-the-radar, but that status might not last much longer.
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Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova, USA/KAZ: Even with only ten events as a team, King/Shvedova is still the #5-ranked doubles team for the season, thanks mostly to their back-to-back slam titles in London and New York. With the Sisters only a part-time force, and with the former Black/Huber top ranking hegemony now a thing of the past, what might this pair do if they commit to a full season as a team in '11?
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These players might not have made the "official" All-Intriguing Team, but their immediate futures certainly can't go overlooked or unanalyzed:

Sabine Lisicki, GER: Just whether or not she can physically make it through a tournament is intriguing enough, but if she's ever physically sound she's ALSO a threat to win. Her career pretty resembles a human flip of the coin at this point. Take heads, and hope for the best.
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Dinara Safina, RUS, Ana Ivanovic, SRB & Jelena Jankovic, SRB: Before Wozniacki rose to #1 this month, these three other women assumed the #1 ranking for the first time over the previous two seasons. None have managed to win a slam title since they found themselves atop the rankings. AnaIvo, though, was at least fortunate enough to win in Paris in '08 two days before she officially became the #1-ranked woman in the world. Only JJ has avoided a steep decline after taking her place on the women's throne, but she still hasn't been able to match what she did to get there in the first place, largely because of faulty offseason training regimens or a stream of nagging, but not debilitating, injuries that have sapped much of the joy out of the smiling Serb's antics. Safina's back issues are becoming more and more troubling. Ivanovic just won a title in Linz, has climbed back into the Top 30 and is currently showing some upward mobility. Whether or not her recent mini-resurgence is a mirage is one of the leading questions on tour as the '10 season concludes.
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Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS: She won a title and reached the top 20. But it's the leap into the Top 10 that is often the toughest, and it rarely comes without a period of trial-and-error.
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Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ: She won two slam Doubles titles, was a two-time Mixed Doubles slam runner-up and slam singles quarterfinalist in '10. Her confidence should be at an all-time time going into next season. Here's my first 2011 prediction: Shvedova will become the first player representing Kazakhstan to win a tour singles title (it'd be Shvedova's second, though, as she was still playing for Russia when she won her sole tour crown in Bangalore in '07).
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The Aussies: Jarmila Groth's results haven't been great since she won in Guangzhou, but she's more than proved that her recent slam flashes weren't illusions. In 2011, she'll have to re-prove herself all over again. Might Commonwealth Games champ Anastasia Rodionova join Groth next season as the latest naturalized Australian to win a tour title? Speaking of naturalized Aussies, does Jelena Dokic have one more slam run in her? Meanwhile, Brisbane-born Samantha Stosur's results since she reached the Roland Garros final have raised far more questions than her Paris run seemed to answered. Could 2010 have been the "career" year -- a Top 10 ranking, slam final and win over then-#1 Serena -- that she'll never duplicate?
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Nicole Vaidisova, CZE: She's only 21, and it's still hard to believe that we won't be seeing one of those "guess who's back" stories about the Czech at some point in the near future.
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The 2010 "Regional Honors" (w/ "2011 Market Tips") arrive next on the scene.

All for now.

4 Comments:

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Wed Nov 17, 02:14:00 AM EST  
Blogger The Fan Child said...

Seems like wishful thinking on Vaidisova. Marino is definitely one to watch, and I love the Alison Riske story -- she had a great run in challenger play late in the year and now sits at 115. Needs more signature wins though, but who doesn't?

Tue Dec 07, 06:09:00 PM EST  
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