The Master List: Power 50
For the past five seasons, I've looked at the Backspin "Grand Slam Master List" rankings as something of a "viability chart" when it came to the process of figuring out which players might have the best chance to succeed -- at least as far as reaching the "money rounds" of the quarterfinals or Round of 16 -- in the upcoming season's four very biggest events.
As it's turned out, of the 317 players included on the 2012-16 lists (54, 53, 69, 81 & 50 entries -- with an additional 10 "off-book" selections in '16 -- to start each the last five seasons), eighteen of the twenty slam winners were listed in that season's Top 8 (excluding only Marion Bartoli, #11 before her 2013 Wimbledon win, and Flavia Pennetta, #17 before winning the 2015 U.S. Open). In all, only five champions (w/ #8 Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon in '14, and #8 Angelique Kerber with her two wins last year) were listed outside the Top 6 on the ML. 39 of the 40 total slam singles finalists since 2012 were included on the preseason list, with only Sara Errani ('12 Roland Garros) reaching a final two from "way" off the Master List. 27 finalists had been listed in the preseason Top 8.
Last season's run of first-time slam semifinalists shot a few minor holes in the ML, as neither Kiki Bertens (RG) nor a coming-off-a-poor-2015-season Elena Vesnina (WI) had been listed last December. While Johanna Konta (only #41, but at least I had sense enough to include her) popped up in the AO final four, as well.
So far, 143 of the 160 slam quarterfinalists during the last five years were included somewhere on the ML heading into the season, including 30, 30 and 31, respectively, filling each year's thirty-two QF slots from 2013-15, before the total slipped to 24 in '16 with the shortened list. Since 2012, the Master List has included an average of 51.8 of each season's 64 players who reached each year's slam Round of 16's.
A few more specific ML numbers/results from 2016:
#1, #3, #8, #8
#1, #1, #8, #7
#1, #9, #12, #21, #33, #41, unlisted (Bertens), unlisted (Vesnina)
#2, #4, #4, #10, #13, #20, #26, #27, #40, #45, unlisted (Pironkova), unlisted (Putintseva), unlisted (Rogers), unlisted (Sevastova), unlisted (Shvedova), unlisted (Sh.Zhang)
=Unlisted Round of 16 results=
Beck (AO), Doi (WI), Friedsam (AO), Shvedova (US), Strycova (off/AO)
So, here goes the attempt to do this again a few revolutions of the earth away from the first ball being struck with intent in official 2017 competition. As always, it's an inexact "science." An of-the-moment, "most likely to seriously contend (or star)," anything-but-objective ranking, of course.
Perhaps last year's best ML placement was Karolina Pliskova, who entered 2016 without a slam Round of 16 to her credit, but I still had her at a very high #7 despite her previous history. Come U.S. Open time, she made the prediction look pretty good, as she cleared several big hurdles (including BOTH Williams Sisters) en route to her maiden appearance in a slam singles final. Meanwhile, 2016 ML #18 Dasha Gavrilova made her fairly high standing (she'd only been #36 in the actual season-ending '15 tour rankings, after all) count right out of the gate, reaching the Round of 16 in Melbourne.
While Pliskova and Gavrilova were good choices a year ago, I also had Maria Sharapova at #2 (but who saw THAT coming?), Belinda Bencic at #6 (after a good start, injuries brought her down), and Kristina Mladenovic at #16 (perhaps I should have a "Fed Cup Master List?"), while Anna Karolina Schmiedlova was a high #17. Oh, Schmiedy... hopefully, 2016 was for you nothing but a nightmare that will finally pass come January.
But, thankfully, I also had Margarita Gasparyan at #38 (she reached the AO 4th Round before being injured), and Ana Konjuh (U.S. Open QF as a teenager) at #45. Nothing spectacular, but good, solid picks, I think, since at some point the actual positions become somewhat interchangeable, and just having a newly-achieving player listed at all is the goal.
Last year, I decided to cut the ML WAY back, reducing the 2016 list to a smallest-ever, official (but slightly squishy) "Power 50," four fewer than the number of players who appeared on the original version of the Master List for 2012, though I still included a list of ten "off-book" names, only one of which (Barbora Strycova at the AO) made good on the "honorable mention" position to reach a slam Round of 16 last year. So, for 2017, the list will be set at a FIRM "Power 50."
Who'll be "2017's Pliskova," and who'll get the unfortunate fate of being AKS? We shall see, but I'm sure someone will fill the bill on both accounts over the next eleven months. They always do.
So, let's begin the 2017 Master List, in descending order of viability (with last year's # in parenthesis):
1. Serena Williams, USA (1)
2. Angelique Kerber, GER (8)
3. Karolina Pliskova, CZE (7)
...once again, green is for "go." At least three, and maybe all four, of the '17 slam winners might just be in this trio, and they'll produce at least two of the four major runners-up, too.
Williams has been listed at the top of all five previous Master Lists, so it's become something of a December tradition that won't change in the sixth edition. Not only that, but she SHOULD be here. After all, even in what would be considered a "less than great" year from her she won career major #22 (tying Steffi Graf), reached another slam final and still nearly completed her third consecutive full season in the #1 ranking. Barring unforeseen circumstances, there's no reason to think she won't be a slam force again at age 35, winning at least one and moving Margaret Court (24 major titles) within striking distance. Meanwhile, Kerber is coming off a brilliant slam season which included three finals and two -- count 'em, TWO! -- titles. The world #1 has a great deal to live up to in '17. But even if she doesn't have quite as much success in the majors, she's not going away, and her belief in herself and knowledge that there's no reason to think she CAN'T win any of the four slams means she'll be a real-deal factor when it comes to title contention at no less than two of them this year. A year ago, regarding Pliskova, I said, "You sort of get the feeling that if she can finally make her first second week run at a slam she might just take the momentum deep, all the way to the semis or better." The Czech did just that, reaching the U.S. Open final. With that experience locked away, she's moved into the "on deck" circle when it comes to whichever player is the next first-time slam champ. She WILL be the next to do it, though it may not be this year. While she might not become a champion in '17, she'll come close (SF or better) at at least one major this season.
4. Maria Sharapova, RUS (2)
5. Simona Halep, ROU (4)
6. Madison Keys, USA (15)
7. Aga Radwanska, POL (9)
8. Elina Svitolina, UKR (14)
9. Ana Konjuh, CRO (45)
10. Belinda Bencic, SUI (6)
11. Garbine Muguruza, ESP (3)
12. Venus Williams, USA (12)
13. Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (20)
...this level is a bit more crowded this year than usual, which speaks a great deal to the "high second tier" depth of the WTA tour at the moment. While the potential slam champions are likely going to be pulled from a smallish group, the number of players capable of -- and expected to make -- deep runs is quite large. These are "the women most likely" to do that, even if choosing any to win a slam in '17 might be an act of going out on a proverbial prediction limb at bit TOO far.
It's difficult to imagine that Sharapova won't return to the tour with a vengeance and (setting the bar very low) is a virtual lock to at least make ONE slam Round of 16, right? Halep might be a season away from truly being ready to win her first slam, but (unlike many top players this year) she enters '17 healthy and should be able to put away at three Round of 16 results at majors, with two or more QF+ finishes. Keys, back with Lindsay Davenport as coach, will miss the Australian Open after left wrist surgery. Expectations will be high for her when she hits the courts soon afterward, and she seems a safe bet to go deep into the second week of one or more one slam in the new year. As usual, Radwanska will slip into the second week more than once, but likely not "seriously" challenge for a title. Svitolina, though, could end up playing the "Pliskova role" in a slam this year, making her first real star turn (though she HAS reached one major QF, in Paris in '15) into a brush with near-greatness (or grand-ness, if you will). Konjuh was on the verge of upsetting Aga at SW19 when that ball got in the way, then even more impressively responded in her next slam by reaching the QF at Flushing Meadows. She could be THE slam revelation of 2017. Bencic is an easy choice for second week slam action, as long as she can stay healthy. I actually predicted that Muguruza would win her first slam title at this time last year, and her run in Paris last spring bailed out what was an otherwise disappointing season (she didn't reach another final). I think she'll be more consistent in '17, including at the slams... but she won't fly quite as high, nor as spectacularly, in any of them as she did at Roland Garros. Even at 36 (and 37 in June), Venus can be counted on for a Round of 16 run this year, at the very least. And while I'm likely undervaluing Cibulkova here after a blazing finish that saw her win the WTA Finals and finish in the Top 5, I actually lifted her up from the third tier at the last moment, so I'm fine with where I have her now.
14. Daria Kasatkina, RUS (37)
15. Naomi Osaka, JPN (off book)
16. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (21)
17. Johanna Konta, GBR (41)
18. Timea Bacsinszky, SUI (13)
19. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (34)
20. Caroline Garcia, FRA (--)
21. Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP (26)
...all the "pinkies" have experienced grand slam "moments," but only one has ever won a major, while another has reached a final, and two more the semifinals. Last year, I had Kerber in this third ML tier, though I'd picked her to reach her first slam final in 2016. She turned out to do just that, and quite more. So, needless to say, being "this far down" is by no means a knock on any player's potential for slam success in the coming season. In fact, several may be poised to become tour singles stars despite having never reached the second week of a major heading into 2017.
Kasatkina and Osaka are on the cusp of something really, really good. Hopefully their new futures begin to roll out before the 19-year olds this season. Wozniacki needs to carry over her 4th Quarter momentum from '16, while I wonder if Konta might be carrying just a bit too much expectation into 2017 after a Top 10 season that saw her become the rare Brit in the Top 10. But she's a threat to knock off anyone on hard court, so a run in Melbourne or New York (or both) is likely. Bacsinszky's follow-up '16 wasn't nearly as great as her breakout/comeback '15 campaign, but she's still a solid 4th Round slam performer. Who knows with Sveta? I don't like to anticipate much, hence her low-ish spot, but not TOO low. While she had a Top 10 season in '16, she "only" reached two 4th Rounds in majors. One would think she might have at least one QF in '17, but I wouldn't dare predict such a thing, since it might breathe new life into the old "Kuznetsova Curse." Garcia is so talented, and is becoming more and more confident and consistent. She has to have a breakthrough slam performance soon, right? She's still looking for her first Round of 16, which she'll finally get in '17. CSN was one of four players (w/ Serena, Aga and Keys) to reach the Round of 16 at all four slams last year, but she's never reached a major SF, and while her three QF in the last thirteen slams seems "all right," it feels a bit disappointing when you remember she reached the quarters in two of her first four slam MD in 2008-09.
22. Victoria Azarenka, BLR (10)
23. Lucie Safarova, CZE (25)
24. Sloane Stephens, USA (30)
25. Daria Gavrilova, AUS (18)
26. Barbora Strycova, CZE (off book)
27. Katerina Siniakova, CZE (off book)
28. Peng Shuai, CHN (off book)
29. Elena Vesnina, RUS (--)
30. Kristina Mladenovic, FRA (16)
31. CoCo Vandeweghe, USA (44)
32. Ekaterina Makarova, RUS (11)
...as usual, it's a zesty (as in orange zest... get it?), intriguing mix at this level of the list, with any of the group capable of second week runs, but also early slam exits. For a few, health (or preparedness) issues make them question marks.
Azarenka would be listed higher, of course, but we don't really know when (or, if, really) the new mother will be back in 2017. If she can be in form by the summer hard court season, though, one would think she'd put up a Round of 16 run in New York. Safarova is a former slam finalist, and was a Top 10er in 2015. And, even in an up and down season, the Czech DID have a 4th Round result at Wimbledon last summer. Stephens finally got over the "regular season" hump with three titles in '16, but she's only reached the second week of one of her last nine slams after reeling off six straight in 2013-14. Gavrilova had a star-making 4th Round rush in Melbourne last year, but then was hit-or-miss until the final weeks of the season. Strycova put up her second career slam Round of 16 result in Australia last year, revving her up for a season which saw her reach the Top 20 in singles and become a true Fed Cup star. Siniakova looks to be the NEXT Czech to watch. Peng put on a post-back surgery surge late in '16 and heads into '17 a dangerous foe who was good enough to reach a slam semi ('14 U.S. Open) the last time she was really healthy. Vesnina had a career year in '16, reaching the final four in London. Meanwhile, Mladenovic is here despite consistently underperforming in slams. Really, a player as talented and exciting as the Pastry should have more than a single Round of 16 (U.S. QF '15) result in twenty-four career MD at majors. But the hope STILL springs eternal. Apparently, since I've still got her this high. Vandeweghe makes it here because, well, there's always Wimbledon to consider. And Makarova is always lurking. The Russian has had multiple Round of 16 or better results in each of the last four seasons, and at least one every year since 2011.
33. Roberta Vinci, ITA (27)
34. Kiki Bertens, NED (--)
35. Zhang Shuai, CHN (--)
36. Kristyna Pliskova, CZE (--)
37. Petra Kvitova, CZE (5)
...questions, questions, questions. That's what rules the day in the feast-or-famine "red zone." All are capable of very good things, but they're facing entirely new situations in 2017.
Vinci wasn't even sure she was going to play in '17, so how much can be expected of her at age 34 (come February)? Bertens, a slam semifinalist last spring in Paris, is no longer an underdog. Zhang rode a wave of rediscovery of a tennis life she was almost sure she was ready to put behind her at this time last year, so what will she do with all that now that she's worked her way back into the Top 25? Will Pliskova continue to feed off the success of her twin sister? Kristyna followed up Karolina's NYC run by soon after becoming a first-time tour singles champion herself. Is a second week slam run of her own next? She's got the serve to do it. And, of course, Petra. She's taking an optimistic attitude into '17 after undergoing career-saving tendon/nerve surgery on the fingers of her racket hand after a robbery attempt and knife attack in her own home in December. She'll be out at least six months, and who knows how long it might take for her to be back to anything resembling her "old self." But I'm loathe to drop her off this list, so I'm sticking with her right here and hoping that she'll at least be able to end the slam season with an optimistic effort in New York that will leave everyone with a smile on their face.
38. Misaki Doi, JPN (--)
39. Yulia Putintseva, KAZ (--)
40. Jelena Ostapenko, LAT (36)
41. Monica Puig, PUR (--)
42. Margarita Gasparyan, RUS (38)
43. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, SVK (17)
44. Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ (--)
45. Samantha Stosur, AUS (33)
...here's where the ML starts to roll the ol' dice. There's a lot of "hope" surrounding many of these names, but it's uneasily placed on the head of most of them.
Doi probably counts as a bit of a "hunch," considering she has to come back in '17 more determined after her failure to secure a match point vs. Kerber in the 1st Round of last year's Australian Open pretty much set a far different course for the entire WTA season than might have occurred had Doi been able to win one more point against the German. Putintseva ('16 RG QF) and Ostapenko ('14 Wimb. girls champ) are talented, but maybe sometimes too emotional, players. Puig showed what she was capable of in Rio, and before her Olympic run had reached two '16 slam 3rd Rounds, but playing with the pressure of all her summer success might hold her back a bit for a little while. Gasparyan is loaded with promise, but when she'll be back from knee surgery is a question, let alone how long it might take for her to fully return to form. Crossing fingers. AKS looked ready to break into the Top 20 at this time last year, but started poorly, saw her terrible results get ever worse, and then had to slog through a one step forward, one step back pattern all season long. In all, she dropped from #26 to #226 over the course of a year and didn't win back-to-back matches in an event all season (dropping fifteen straight tournament matches at one point, though she was at least 2-1 in Fed Cup competition). I'm not going to give up on her, though. I include Shvedova here this year, but the way this list usually goes is that when I list her she has no slam success, then when I drop her off the next year she has quite a bit. So, she'll probably be a ghost in '17. I considered dropping Stosur off this list entirely, but her surprise semifinal in Paris last year is enough to allow her to hang on a little bit longer. For now.
46. Viktorija Golubic, SUI (--)
47. Oceane Dodin, FRA (--)
48. CiCi Bellis, USA (--)
49. Louisa Chirico, USA (--)
50. Dalma Galfi, HUN (50)
...here's where the "Power 50" limit starts to pinch a little. Because I wanted to get a few new, young names onto the list I'm forced to leave off the likes of some vets (Jankovic, Lisicki, Errani) who might still have a little slam "meat on the bones," some perpetual slam wild cards (Pironkova, Giorgi, Niculescu, Pavlyuchenkova), one player coming off a career year (Sevastova), at least one player who I WANT to be wrong about (Petkovic), and one (Goerges) that I know I'll be wrong about, since she always zigs when I pick her to zag (and vice versa) when I do this list each December.
As for Ana Ivanovic... well, I never had any intention of continuing to include AnaIvo here, so the limit of fifty had no bearing where she's concerned. As I've said before, once I correctly predicted a slam semifinal for her (after a seven-year drought) in 2015, I knew I'd never do any better with the Serb than that, so I pretty much clocked out of the prediction game where she's concerned. NOTE: And I said this before she announced her retirement on the day of this post, by the way, though her exit DOES mean that I was correct about her one final time, as I noted last season that I pretty much expected her to walk out the door in fairly short order following her wedding, no matter how much she denied it at the time.
Meanwhile, previous slam achievers weren't only ones who just missed the cut. In the upcoming Prediction Blowout, I'm taking a stab at predicting quite a few players to reach career-first slam Round of 16's that I didn't have room for on this list. They include: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS, Jana Fett/CRO, Danka Kovinic/MNE, Viktoria Kuzmova/SVK and Evgeniya Rodina/RUS.
And, no, that doesn't count as part of the list... but you know I'll remember it if they DO reach the second week of a slam in 2017. I plead guilty.
PLAYERS REMOVED FROM THE LIST SINCE LAST YEAR: #19 Sara Errani/ITA, #22 Jelena Jankovic/SRB, #23 Sabine Lisicki/GER, #24 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (now retired), #28 Andrea Petkovic/GER, #29 Genie Bouchard/CAN, #31 Francesca Schiavone/ITA, #32 Camila Giorgi/ITA, #35 Danka Kovinic/MNE, #39 Julia Goerges/GER, #40 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS, #42 Alize Cornet/FRA, #43 Yanina Wickmayer/BEL, #46 Anett Kontaveit/EST, #47 Irina-Camelia Begu/ROU, #48 Alison Van Uytvanck/BEL, #49 Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
2016 "OFF BOOK" NOT ON 2017 LIST: Timea Babos/HUN, Petra Cetkovska/CZE, Zarina Diyas/KAZ, Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA, Monica Niculescu/ROU, Heather Watson/GBR
So, the sixth official Grand Slam Master List will now be filed away in a cabinet somewhere deep in the bowels of the Navratilova Library of Records on the grounds of Backspin Academy, along with 2012's now-even-more-rare, fading and tattered copy of the original list. Naturally, this little "gem" will be pulled out on at least four occasions over the course of the next year, just to see who is exceeding their offseason expectations, or failing to come close to living up to them. Next December, the names will be taken down and reshuffled once more, as the cycle begins anew.
I'm already dizzy just thinking about it.
All for now.