Thursday, December 29, 2011

Prediction Blowout '12

The world #1 was still without a slam title at the end of the 2011 season, but the goal of securing the foundation upon which the tour can thrive in a post-Williams/Belgians world made quite a few strides over the last twelve months.

As Justine Henin walked away for good, and the Sisters and Kim Clijsters missed much of the season with injuries and/or health issues, the Next Generation finally stepped into the fray after seeing the late-twentysomething crowd claim eight straight slams, and eleven of twelve following Ana Ivanovic's win in Paris in '08. Two of the three first-time slam champs from '11 were in their late twenties, but 21-year old Petra Kvitova (the first slam champ born in the 1990's) won at Wimbledon and may have set the tour on a different course for the rest of this decade. Two of the Czech's fellow semifinalists in London were also 21 and, by the end of the year, the top of the rankings had a decidedly younger look, as well.

For the first time since 2003, the women's year-ending Top 3 were all 22 years of age or younger. Eight years ago, the combination of Justine Henin (21), Kim Clijsters (20) and Serena Williams (22) finished 1-2-3, bringing together arguably the top three players of their generation (though Venus might slip in there on some lists) at the top of a single season's rankings for the first and only time in their Hall of Fame careers. The '11 finish of #1 Caroline Wozniacki, #2 Kvitova and #3 Victoria Azarenka could prove to be another era-defining moment when the three best players of THEIR generation all were at or near the top of their form, as well.

But don't think the previous era is COMPLETELY a thing of the past.

Serena is back. Kim, too. Both will come to Australia having last left Melbourne with some pretty impressive hardware in tow, and could end up elbowing out the younger set Down Under in a head-to-head battle royale for slam supremacy. Ditto come late summertime in London, as both are angling for a singles Gold in what will likely be their last chance to savor an Olympic experience. Throw in the continued attempt by Maria Sharapova to regain her Supernovic slam form, along with the rise of still more members of the twentysomething set and, in something of a blessing (maybe for ALL involved, even the Dane in question), the ongoing (droning on?) story of Wozniacki's search for her first slam title might actually be put on the backburner, if not shunted aside altogether by the end of the year.

Just holding onto her #1 ranking will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Opening with just a 115-point lead in the rankings over Kvitova, Wozniacki could lose her position atop the WTA heap in 2012's early-going. And the Czech isn't the only player within striking distance. Azarenka and Sharapova aren't far behind, and the dual threat of Williams and Clijsters could pose a serious threat by mid-season. If any of those players make their expected climbs, conversations about what the Dane is lacking on her career resume will soon be replaced by the tour's current events. Ultimately, it would all put even more pressure on Wozniacki to finally succeed in a slam (or in the Olympics), but she'd likely be able to toil in a little less-accusatory environment if there are enough "good" WTA stories for everyone to focus on. Not that oddly, if Wozniacki can't win a slam this season, it'll be a better thing for the tour (and maybe for her, in the short term) if she ISN'T #1. And, at some point this season, she probably won't be.

Now, when it comes to trying to predict 2012's season-ending Top 10, I've officially done away with any tempting of Backspin's old "Kuznetsova Curse" being brought on by actually attemping to rank the tour's best players from #1 through #10. Not that determining the Top 10, even just as a group, one year from now isn't a potentially-twisted tale. After all, only four of 2010's Top 10 managed to maintain their standing last season. Three year-end Top 10 newcomers (including Li Na) rose to new heights, including two (#32 Andrea Petkovic & #34 Kvitova) who climbed the rankings mountain from base camps that were quite a distance away. Three other woman reclaimed Top 10 ranks after absences of varied length, including Marion Bartoli (last in '07), Sharapova ('08) and Agnieszka Radwanska ('09). As 2012 begins, the likes of Serena (with no ranking points to defend until June) and Clijsters are positioned OUTSIDE the Top 10, so the current roster will surely have to up their games to avoid exchanging views with the vets.

Since I think there's a decent chance that the aforementioned Belgian might have a Top 10-worthy season, but retire before it's over and be immediately removed from the rankings, I'll slightly amend my picks for this year. So, here's an early prediction for the ELEVEN top-ranked players of 2012 ('11 ranks in parenthesis), with Top 10 Repeats & Top 10 Climbers highlighted accordingly:

Victoria Azarenka, BLR (3): The Belarusian is getting there. Her good Danish friend saw HER career surge ahead of Vika's own in their opening stages, but Azarenka still might just play the role of the tortoise to Wozniacki's hare when all is said and done. The world's #3-ranked player made quite a few strides in '11 -- reaching her first slam SF, and closing her season with back-to-back finals, including in Istanbul at the WTA Championships -- but she's still got enough room to improve that she can dream about slipping through the cracks and edging out BOTH Wozniacki and Kvitova to claim the #1 ranking. She had a shot in last season's final week, and enters '12 less than 1000 ranking points from overtaking them. Over the past two years, Azarenka has learned to better manage her emotions, and her anger issues don't pull her down as they used to. Her goal to get her body -- or maybe her willingness to play with niggling ailments? -- into the sort of condition that will prevent the sort of injuries and/or heat illness problems that continue to dog her is an ongoing one, though. She cut down her retirement/walkover numbers to five premature exits in twenty-one tournaments last year (hey, the 24% attrition rate was still better than in '10), but that's still too many for a player with a shot to win slams and reach #1, if not in that particular chronological order.
Marion Bartoli, FRA (9): might Bartoli, who'll turn 28 this season, be the next woman in line to have her greatest slam success in her late twenties? Evidence of such a surge was there in '11. She climbed back into the Top 10, ending the season there for the first time since '07, and reached the semifinals at Roland Garros. Unlike with some father/daughter coach/player relationships, the unorthodox -- in training techniques, as well as in-match dynamics, as we saw when Marion ordered her parents to leave their courtside seats during a particularly tense match at Wimbledon last season -- setup the Bartolis have seems to work. The one thing that probably needs to be worked out for Bartoli to avoid being ground down to dust in the back half of her career, though, is for her to reassess her schedule, especially when you consider her (tiring) almost-constant movement during her matches. She's often battling some sort of injury (and was struck by a viral illness at the end of her season), and how could cutting back her schedule at least a bit (her 29 tour level events last year were more than any other player in the Top 100) NOT serve to alleviate that issue at least a little? As things stand, Bartoli enters '12 not being talked about all that much. But she might, much as the likes of late-blooming slam champs Schiavone and Li were the past two seasons, turn out to be one of the upcoming season's biggest stories that will suddenly pop up "out of nowhere" (but not really).
Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (18): I HAVE to pick one slightly surprising Top 11 woman, so Cibulkova is it. The Slovak is a tenacious little (5'3") fighter with a bigger shot than anyone has the right to expect. She's always had the ability to pull off upsets (she's reached a slam SF) and get on a nice run. Until late last year, though, she's never been able to win her first tour singles title. That changed when she ended her '11 season with a win at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Other than Kvitova (and maybe Stosur), no one could have gone into their offseason feeling better about how she's set herself up for an even more successful '12. It's been ten years since a woman from her country (Hantuchova in '02) rose into the Top 10 for the first time. Cibulkova might not do it. But I'll go with her as this coming season's "confidence player" and take a chance that she will.
Kim Clijsters, BEL (13): Not that I've done much of it the last few seasons (at least not like I USED to), but this Backspinner might not have Clijsters to kick around for much longer. Even with the "disaster" her season devolved into in '11, she made it more than worthwhile by rumbling to a fairly routine fourth (third post-retirement) career slam title, her first in Melbourne. She even reclaimed the #1 ranking for a single week before injuries -- one of the reasons for her previous WTA exit -- came fast and hard and took her season down to Chinatown (well, that is, if she'd take the risk of going there... sorry, I have to have a little fun, right?). Clijsters won just one slam match, and played in just two, after winning the Australian Open last January. She's opening the season in good health, so she might be the favorite to defend her title Down Under, and she's more than focused on playing (and winning?) the Olympics in London. But will Clijsters' body allow her to last that long? It's a real question. If she DOES get there, finally donning the Belgian Olympic regalia that she declared wasn't for her the last time (2004) she was an active player in an Olympic year, will her possible "farewell" season -- and career -- come to an immediate end without her attempting to win her fourth straight (spread out over eight years) U.S. Open? With anyone else it'd be an unthinkable occurrence, but not with Clijsters. She operates in her own reality, balancing things in her life in ways that other top athletes would likely shy away from. In the end, it's worked out pretty well for her, though. So it's kind of hard to argue against it.
Petra Kvitova, CZE (2): even with a few of her hit-herself-out-of-a-match moments sprinkled throughout, Kvitova more than played like a champion in 2011. Rising to the occasion on several handfuls of key moments, she tied Caroline Wozniacki for the tour lead in titles, winning crowns on all surfaces, including at Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. Finishing off a 21-0 record indoors for the season, she ended her year by leading the Czech Republic to its first Fed Cup title as an independent nation. About the only thing she didn't manage to pull off was taking over the #1 ranking, coming up just 115 points short of world #1 Wozniacki. Okay, so other than rectify that situation, what can she do to ensure an appropriate encore? Well, it's not as if she has to rearrange her game and/or completely scuttle her approach. Basically, she just needs to keep her success in perspective (that doesn't seem to be a problem for the soft-spoken 21-year old), polish up a few things in her game and continue to improve her fitness. She was already coming to net more often as '11 ended, as well as trying to pull back on her desire to "go for the winners" on occasion in order to cut down her errors, and just went through a training period in the mountains this offseason in order to continue to make her court movement less of an aspect of her game that opponents might try to exploit. In other words, she's not content with being a slam winner, the world #2 and the object of fawning admiration by so many past champions (from one named Amelie, to another who was her childhood idol... a fellow Czech named Martina). Less enamored with the off-court trappings of success than some other past highly-ranked players her age, she seems content to focus on her tennis and making herself the best champion she can be. Geez, should it really have taken this long for such an elemental idea to take root? No matter what's happened in recent years, Kvitova surely has the looks of the sort of big match, big game champion who could become the "unassailable" #1 that the tour has been looking for for years. Ah, but one never TOTALLY knows how a player will handle the sort of pressure of expectation that Kvitova takes into '12. She seems well-equipped to triumph over it, though. So far, she's managed to stand out in many ways from the other players of her generation. Here's to hoping that the trend continues.
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL (8): Was Radwanska's back-half surge a mirage, or the start of a career with new possibilities for the Pole? After breaking away from the verbally (and publicly) abusive, life-long coaching relationship with her father, A-Rad flourished with a new set of coaching eyes. Her first serve improved big-time, and her career-long combo of on-court cleverness and defense was made even more dangerous by the addition of a mindset that allowed her to go for more winners over the course of the match. The result? Three singles titles, each one progressively bigger than the last, in the second half of the season after having gone three years without winning anything. I'd always been frustrated watching A-Rad over the years, seeing the many in-point openings her game presented her with being passed up on nearly every occasion, and her almost always being shut down in big matches against players with a more aggressive approach that made the Pole's small moments of brilliance even smaller than usual, and ultimately irrelevant when it came to winning the match. In the closing months of '11, though, I actually enjoyed watching her play more than almost any other player (the "Most Favored Player" honor having been officially passed on from LPT, a certain Czech has to be the one exception) on tour. Radwanska has never been a true slam threat in her career, but the game she sported at the end of '11 might be good enough to give her a shot to reach her first slam semi. If she can get there (and avoid having her father's influence creep back into the equation), who's to say what might be within her grasp?
Maria Sharapova, RUS (4): The tour needs Sharapova to be a major figure on the WTA landscape. Maybe not as much as some people (such as ESPN or any other major North American media outlets that don't bother to pay attention to any players who aren't either fair-haired Russians, smiling Belgians or a Williams) might lead everyone to believe, but one can't argue the sport is helped by the presence of the woman that has probably the most recognizable face in the world of all the active players. She's won at least one WTA title every season for NINE straight years now. One title in '12 will place her alone in sixth place for the longest such streak in tour history, behind only such luminaries as Martina Navratilova (21 years... geez Louise), Chris Evert (18), Steffi Graf (14), Evonne Goolagong (11) and Virginia Wade (11). Still looking for that elusive fourth slam (she'll have gone four full years without a major if she doesn't win in Melbourne), though, it's no longer a case of when Sharapova will get it, but if she gets it at all. She's admirably climbed back near the top of the rankings after battling past shoulder surgery, but the confidence she used to possess (mostly in her serve) isn't always around in the abundance that it once was. The Russian's game, going back to when she first stunned Serena at Wimbledon in '04, has always emanated outward from the strength of her serve. She's managed to get enough of the old verve back to make herself a slam contender again, but her lack of consistency has made it impossible to avoid having one bad service day -- and it always comes -- dash her hopes of closing out one of seven potential opponents on her way to a slam crown. So many people have worried (myself included) that not being able to win slams might drive her from the sport, but her long-time (underrated) competitiveness has shown through and maybe made such fears a bit unfounded. Still, Sharapova's career, even at 24, has already been a long one, and she's not likely to have a Navratilova-esque career when it comes to length. She can't afford to squander slam opportunities anymore, as she can never tell just how many real shots she has left to win one. She looked great at Roland Garros last year, but topped out in the semis. At Wimbledon, she was run over by Kvitova. Now, her late-season ankle injury is making her preparation a question going into Melbourne. If she can't win another slam in '12, it's just going to get progressively harder to do so every time out.
Samantha Stosur, AUS (6): Through eight of the season's nearly eleven months, 2011 hadn't been a great year for the Aussie. But then she went to New York and won the U.S. Open, and everything changed as all the lingering doubts about her big match mettle were swept away with one win over Serena. Suddenly, the potential for her to win a slam back home in Melbourne seem great, and Stosur is even talking like a confident, she-believes-she-can-do-it-now multiple slam champion. I want to believe she CAN be. And I sort of do. As long as SHE continues to believe it... but that mindset could easily be upset by an untimely early exit in Oz. With a slam in hand, quite the opposite of a player like Wozniacki, what Stosur really needs to do is become more consistent and win a few titles on the regular tour so that she can keep her ranking up and get better draws throughout the course of the season. She's won just one title in each of the past three years, and had lost five straight finals before she won in Flushing Meadows (shades of the 0-5 record in finals that began her career before she finally won her first in '09 at age 25). If the Aussie can begin her season in good form, earning multiple titles (whether one comes in the AO or not) early on, the player who's reached the finals of two different slams over the last two seasons could be in line for a fabulous season.
Serena Williams, USA (12): Serena is Serena. And until evidence proves otherwise, she'll always be Serena. And that means she'll contend for (at least) her 14th career slam win in 2012. After what happened (again) around Williams' exit from a U.S. Open last September, it's easy to let her 18-0 mark in North American hard court matches BEFORE she lost the final to Stosur slip your mind. And that run came after she'd missed nearly a full year's worth of action. She's got something to prove once again, and has taken on a famous trainer of boxers in order to get herself into the best condition of her athletic life. But, of course, Mother Time eventually gets to all the very best players before they're fully ready (well, maybe everyone except Ms. Navratilova, that is), and Serena is now THIRTYsomething. Only six women have ever won a slam after their 30th birthday, and it's been nearly twenty-two years (Martina at SW19 in '90) since it happened. '12 has the potential to be a career legacy-capping year for Serena. An Olympic women's Gold would put her in elite company when it comes to grabbing the most prestigious singles titles the sport has to offer (only Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi have won all four slams, a season-ending championship and Olympic singles Gold). With Wimbledon essentially being held twice this season, it'd have to be considered a major disappointment for her, assuming she's healthy enough to compete twice at the All-England Club, if she didn't win there at least once. So, it's "game on." But, as usual with Williams, we can never be TOTALLY sure what we're going to get.
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (1): she's a Top 10 lock. Probably a Top 5 lock, too. There's a better-than-even chance she'll lead the tour in titles, as well. But, truthfully, she could have a '12 season much like Clijsters had a year ago -- missing most of it with injury and finishing at #13 -- and have it be cause for rejoicing and optimism if she, like the Belgian, had a slam title thrown into the mix. As far as everyone outside the Wozniacki inner circle is concerned, the Dane will be playing in just four tournaments (five, if you count the Olympics) this season. How that inner circle -- now with new co-coach Ricardo Sanchez serving as the "prize?" at the bottom of the cereal box -- prepares Wozniacki for those events will tell the tale if her 2012 is a transformative "success," or just "the usual." Of course, if the "usual" means six or seven titles and a third straight season-ending #1 ranking, it would be hard to argue that she's not doing SOMETHING right... but, make no mistake, the argument would have to be made if at least one slam final hasn't been added to her career resume by the time '13 arrives.
Vera Zvonareva, RUS (7): I must admit, I had to think a while about whether or not I wanted to even include Zvonareva in this Top 10 group this year. Going with eleven players, though, she ended up making the cut. She's finished in the Top 10 four years in a row, but the onslaught of younger players like Kvitova and Azarenka might be about to regularly push her out of the SF mix at the slams. And since the Russian, unlike the Dane, doesn't exactly win on a constant basis in the tour's "regular season" she'll probably need those big point grabs to stay in the Top 10. Zvonareva has been in on the late-twenties success that has become common on the tour. In her first twenty-four slams, she had zero SF-or-better slam results. Beginning in 2009, she reached that stage or better four times in eight slams. She's gone the last three without doing so (her accompanying ranking fell from #2 to #7), though, just as she's set to turn 28 during the upcoming season. Zvonareva is at the stage where lingering injuries might hold her back (or put her off-tour entirely), or a typical late-career slide might be about to begin. That is, unless that slide has already started.

* - Li Na, CHN (5): encores are a you-know-what, especially for a nearly-30 year old player with consistency-of-results issues
* - Sabine Lisicki, GER (15): I want to think that Sabine will stay healthy and continue to thrive, but I'm very much afraid to do it
* - Andrea Petkovic, GER (10): she'd probably have to dance into her first slam SF to keep a Top 10 spot in the wake of Serena and Kim's returns
* - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS (16): her time will come, but it might have to wait until 2013

* - Julia Goerges, GER (21): consistency is the hobgoblin of mortal Germans
* -Francesca Schiavone, ITA (11): at nearly 32, her Top 10 days are probably over, but so what?
* -Yanina Wickmayer, BEL (26): Belgium's "forgotten" woman
* - Venus Williams, USA (103): sure, it's mostly out of respect for her overall career at this point. But did I mention that Wimbledon is being held TWICE?

FIVE POSSIBLE FIRST-TIME CHAMPIONS: Irina-Camelia Begu/ROU, Petra Cetkovska/CZE, Simona Halep/ROU, Monica Niculescu/ROU & Galina Voskoboeva/KAZ
FIVE POSSIBLE FIRST-TIME FINALISTS: Irina Falconi/USA, Petra Martic/CRO, Christina McHale/USA, Evgeniya Rodina/RUS & Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
THREE FIRST-TIME ITF CHAMPIONS: Caroline Garcia/FRA, Madison Keys/USA & Francoise Abanda/CAN
NCAA CHAMPION: Lauren Embree, University of Florida
JUNIOR SLAM CHAMPIONS: Two Hordettes (Irina Khromacheva, Yulia Putintseva or Victoria Kan?), a Bannerette (Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend or Alexandra Kiick?) and someone else (Anett Kontaveit/EST, Alison van Uytvanck/BEL or Indy De Vroome/NED?)
DOUBLES SLAM WINNERS: Flavia Pennetta/Francesca Schiavone, ITA/ITA

#1-RANKED SINGLES PLAYERS DURING SEASON: Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova & Serena Williams
KAZAKHS IN YEAR-ENDING SINGLES: two in Top 30, three in Top 50
YOUNGEST IN TOP 100: Laura Robson/GBR
OLDEST IN TOP 100: Venus Williams/USA
TOP 20 JUMPS: Irina-Camelia Begu/ROU, Kaia Kanepi/EST, Monica Niculescu/ROU, Ksenia Pervak/KAZ, Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP 30 JUMPS: Jelena Dokic/AUS, Simona Halep/ROU, Christina McHale/USA, Galina Voskoboeva/KAZ
TOP 50 JUMPS: Irina Falconi/USA, Rebecca Marino/CAN, Aravane Rezai/FRA, Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK, Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
TOP 75 JUMPS: Misaki Doi/JPN, Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP, Sloane Stephens/USA, Lesia Tsurenko/UKR, Heather Watson/GBR
TOP 100 JUMPS: Casey Dellacqua/AUS, Cristina Dinu/ROU, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Reka-Luca Jani/HUN, Alison Riske/USA, Laura Robson/GBR
TOP 125 JUMPS: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR, Karolina Pliskova/CZE
TOP 150 JUMPS: Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA, Kristyna Pliskova/CZE

Caroline Wozniacki wins an Olympic medal
Kim Clijsters retires
After one more short-lived comeback attempt, Dinara Safina retires
The two highest-ranked players without a title: Christina McHale/USA & Peng Shuai/CHN
The Russians win no Olympic medals or grand slam singles titles
Comeback Player: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
Most Improved Player: Monica Niculescu/ROU
Surprise Player: Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
Nicole Vaidisova plays... somewhere (maybe in an exhibition), raising questions about a possible return to the WTA in '13

AO: S.Williams d. Clijsters
RG: Stosur d. Bartoli
WI: Kvitova d. Azarenka
OL: S.Williams d. Kvitova
US: Clijsters d. Sharapova
WTA: Kvitova d. Wozniacki

Of course, I could be waaaaaay off.

All for now.

* - Grand Slam Master List
* - 'Twas the Backspin Before Christmas: The Search for Caroline's Roo
* - The Intriguing 100
* - Prediction Blowout (you are here)
* - 2012 Week 1 Picks & AO Power Rankings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First I wish you a happy 2012 with many fine stories fromn the tennis world as you have brought in 2011. Then I agree in your top 11 except for Clijsters and Serena - I simply don't believe in either of them. I saw Clijsters play in Antwerp against Caroline and yes she played ok but you could see it was an exhibition and Caroline was predicted to lose. Serena you saw play the game of her life in the semi in USopen against Carloine and fall through in the final not worthy for a champ if she wants to return as a champ. We will see them fail in AO (my prediction) and then they'll fade untill the next grand slam and in that way they won't be in the top 10. Then I'm a bit surprised about you faith in Christina McHale - I think she'll have her breakthrough in 2012 and pass on to near the top 10 - well we'll see won't we.

Fri Dec 30, 01:52:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, it's hard to determine much about players from preseason exhibitions (remember, Wozniacki was nearly double-bageled by Zvonareva before last season, then had a pretty good 1Q).

Considering Serena's history, I don't know if I'd characterize a SF win in NY as the "game of her life," but I get your point. But, remember, the last time she went of the Open in ugly fashion, she came back and won in Melbourne (and two of three slams). :)

I'm thinking you meant to say my LACK of faith in McHale. I DO agree, at least, that I was a little conservative as far as my predictions for her. She's sort in that hard-to-gauge place when she's possibly heading to being ranked between #20-#30, and one big result could push her up a nice bit. After having such encouraging results last year, though, the "year after" doesn't always go as well. That's why I kept my picks for her at "first-time finalist." The ranking predictions are for year-end, so it's not leaving out the chance, say, that she gets into the Top 20 for a bit, even if she doesn't end the year there. Truthfully, I do hope she outdistances my picks for her.

Hey, at least give me credit for picking Wozniacki to win an Olympic medal. :D

Sat Dec 31, 05:24:00 PM EST  

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