2017 WTA Preview: The Blowout
Within the week, we'll be crowning the first WTA champions of 2017, a year which begins with quite a few big names sidelined for various reasons, some for just a few weeks, but others until (at least) the spring. It's a situation that will open the door for some players to solidify their positions at the top of the game, as well as for others to continue to make their own steady progress toward the same goal.
We'll know how all that goes in due time. But, of course, now is when we can pretend that we have all the answers as we make our predictions about who'll succeed (or not) when it comes to all things women's tennis.
The opening section of this year's Blowout will tackle the candidates for this season's Top 10, which this season will consist of a "Backspin Dozen" of thirteen players. So, it's probably good to get a quick rundown of what's happened there of late. In 2016, we got a new #1 (as Angelique Kerber supplanted Serena Williams in the top spot), while twenty different women went spent time in the Top 10 over the course of the season, the third straight annual increase in "citizenship" after we saw eleven, fourteen and nineteen players move in and out in each of the previous three seasons from 2013-15. Over the last twelve months, four woman (Belinda Bencic, Roberta Vinci, Madison Keys & Johanna Konta) made their Top 10 debuts, four (Keys, Konta, Karolina Pliskova & Dominika Cibulkova) completed the first Top 10 seasons of their careers, and Svetlana Kuznetsova finished there for the first time since 2009.
The run of three straight years in which a reigning slam champ announced her retirement finally came to an end (though '15 U.S. Open winner Flavia Pennetta remained in the rankings until the spring), but two active members of 2015's Top 10 failed to return there at the close of '16 for reasons other than inconsistent results on the court: the suspended Maria Sharapova (who'll return in April '17), and Lucie Safarova, who won a singles title but often labored while returning from illness and injury. Meanwhile, Venus Williams reached the Wimbledon semifinals, but still couldn't post her first consecutive Top 10 seasons since her four-year run from 2007-10. Petra Kvitova slipped to #11, suffered a stress fracture injury during the offseason, then (just when you didn't think the year 2016 could be any more offensive than it'd already been) had to survive an intruder's knife attack in her own home and was forced to undergo a 3:45 surgery on tendon (four fingers) and nerve (2) injuries on her racket hand that (hopefully) has managed to save her career. She'll be out of action at least six months.
In all, five players maintained their Top 10 rankings in '16, including four of the current Top 5: Kerber, S.Williams, Aga Radwanska and Simona Halep. Garbine Muguruza, despite winning her first slam title, slipped four spots but still maintained her Top 10 standing, as well. Women from nine nations made up the Top 10, with only the U.S. (Serena & Keys, the latter the first non-Williams Bannerette to finish there since '05) with more than a single member, though the Czech Republic (w/ #11 Kvitova) did manage to make it two straight years in which those same two countries were the only nations with more than one representative in the Top 11.
Ah, but who will be the Top 10 "cookie monsters" in the forthcoming season?
Well, let's see if we can guess. Once again, ATP Backspin's Galileo West joins me in a Volley discussion about our '17 Top 10+ picks, then we'll throw in more than a few handful of other predictions to close out this post...
TODD SPIKER: So, here we are, back for another edition of the Backspin Volley. We didn't do too badly with our picks last year, so let's see if we have ANY of the keys that will open 2017's many complicated locks.
And, of course, I say that mostly because it allows me to use that neat-o gif for about the hundredth time in the past year. I swear, I get a little mesmerized just watching it.
GALILEO WEST: Is that really how a key works? Amazing!
TS: Hey, Backspin strives to be nothing if not educational, right?
Just like last year, we're going to do this in sections, from the players who we think are most likely to finish up 2017 in the Top 10 (or, umm, 13) down to those that will have some work to do to get there (or hold their spot). Let's kick this off by getting the "easy" stuff out of the way. Who are the players we both think are "locked in" (or as close to it as can be expected on the WTA tour, and to keep the whole key metaphor going a little bit longer) for a season-ending Top 10 ranking position eleven months from now?
TS: Hmmm, not surprisingly, we've got some agreement here at the very top of the heap. As is the case every year, Serena Williams' Top 10 finish can be carved in stone, barring unforeseen difficulties. After all, she's finished there all but three seasons since 1999 (and in two of those years she just missed out at #11 and #12). The question with her is how many slams she'll win. I'll give her at least one to move past Steffi Graf with #23, and it's probably even money that she ties Margaret Court's all-time mark with #24 by the end of 2017. If not this year, then it'll happen in 2018 (well, assuming civilization survives the first year of the Trump administration, I guess).
GW: At this stage what do I need to say about Serena? This is New England making the AFC Championship, this is the Chicago Blackhawks having a winning season. She is my lock. Barring injury (all picks are barring injury). She will win a slam, but not at Wimbledon. That's my bold pick. She has the greatest serve ever. Only Steffi's forehand has changed the sport more than Serena's serve. Those two shots are far and away the greatest ever, though putting Navratilova's serve and volley up there as a smooth "play" is fair, too. She will win five titles and stay in the top two. But I think her time as a consistent number one is over.
GW: The recent trend for number one players is "staying around" - see Ivanovic, Safina, Wozniacki, Azarenka and Sharapova. None of them had a total collapse. Serena goes without saying. Even Ivanovic took a while to crumple. She had 18 months of success at the top. Just like to take a moment to acknowledge Ana's career. She and Djokovic lit up our world in 2008. Her run in Melbourne that year is what I really remember, honestly. She was like a shooting star - no staying power in the end, but stunning while she lasted. But yes, like I said above, it is not like in the big four sports - the best stay there for a while. This will not be like Baltimore in 2013 or the Mets last year. Kerber will be fine.
TS: Kerber matching her 2016 slam results of two titles and another final might be asking a bit much, though. In 2015 she had a great "regular season," but performed poorly in the majors. Last year, she was incredible in the majors, but only "very good" on the regular circuit (going 1-4 in non-slam finals, including the Olympics and WTA Finals). Still, it was enough to finish at #1, even without her Olympic final run garnering any ranking points. I think she'll settle in somewhere in the middle in '17, claiming "only" one major, but winning a few more non-slam tour titles (4 or 5 overall?) than she did in '16.
GW: Kerber's rivalry with Azarenka is my favorite. Or rather it was in 2015. The German also played in my match of the year and won it - the Australian Open final vs. Williams. I have never seen such defense. It reminded me of those Roger/Rafa clashes where Roger took the net on every point only to see the ball whiz past him. Kerber was awesome and she defends in a way that's exciting. I do agree about the only one slam, though. I see five titles, a big one, a slam and three others. I can see her making ten finals. I think she'll stay in the Top 2 throughout the year.
I dallied between Muguruza and Halep for my last "lock," but Halep will always give you a fourth round-to-semi performance. Muguruza could blow up or win it all. And I do like a gamble. One player took a set off Muguruza at last year's French Open. Without using Google, like I just did, can you name that player?
TS: Not off the top of my head, but I'm guessing it's not someone we'd expect. I'm thinking it was maybe in the 1st Round (maybe even the opening set). Hmmm, Ostapenko maybe?
Ahh. Well, I was "half-right." It WAS the first set of her 1st Round match, but it was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. Oh, Schmiedy.
GW: Yeah, she didn't look good early on but then when she got warm she just took off. And neither of us have the knack of picking her yet.
TS: True. She's the new AnaIvo. But, hopefully, that ends soon.
GW: I do believe Muguruza will have another superb slam result and improve down the back stretch. I think she's the most talented player offensively in the top ten. I like Pliskova, but Muguruza just... sparkles.
TS: I have Muguruza in my Top 10, but I just can't put her at the "lock" level. For one, she'll have to defend her Roland Garros title, and without that one great result she wouldn't have finished in the Top 10 in '16. She didn't reach another final all year. Of course, that means there are points opportunities out there for her if she can't win her second major, but I'd have to see a complete FULL year of consistent results (or close to it) before I'd go quite so strong on her, no matter talented she is.
GW: You won't see a year of consistent results. This is not Arantxa Sanchez. I actually see Muguruza having a career similar to Pierce. Almost as if she has too much talent and too much power to control it. Like trying to drive a twelve horse carriage. If she can reign it in, if she can harness it we could see the next Steffi Graf. Or the next Majoli. Muguruza will win several slams during her career and Roland Garros will always have a special place in her heart, but I just like her upside so much. It's rare for someone with those groundstrokes to move that well. Imagine if Davenport had been able to do that. I think the clay swing again will give her most of the points she’ll make on the year.
TS: Of course, not surprisingly, I list Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska higher in my Top 10 tiers than yourself. It's not that I think either will win a slam this coming season -- though I COULD see Halep maybe pulling something off, with a little good fortune -- but I think they're both amongst the most consistent performers on tour and can be counted on to win a few titles, do well in some high-level Premier events (even winning one or two) and reach a couple of slam QF, and possibly one or more major SF. The Romanian, especially, has become something of "The Heart of Backspin," as the constant watch of the push/pull of her career (and those fabled "Cliffs of Simona"), issues with self-belief and finding just the right combination to get the very most out of her game (i.e. put herself in position to win a slam) is starting to remind me of the ages-ago struggles of various Czechs as they tried to "get over the hump." And there's nothing I like more in this sport than to stick with a player through thick and thin, THEN one day see her reach the promised land (shades of Novotna). It makes the moment all that much better. Plus, she's had three straight Top 5 seasons, so thinking she's pretty secure in the Top TEN feels more than right.
GW: I like Halep a lot. She is Henin's successor to the crown for the small women who win big. She'll win a slam, but may have to wait until Serena retires. This year I think we see three wins at Wimbledon, at least, and two slam semi-finals. And I'll say four titles. I still say not yet on Halep. I described her last year as a jigsaw missing a single piece. I'm still looking for that piece. I think had she managed to beat Sharapova at all she'd be a much better player now. Being in so many [so, so ,so, so many] winning positions against Maria...
TS: Oh, the Cliffs of Simona... they're quite scenic, but they're a death trap.
GW: ...and blowing all of them has really knocked her. She will win a slam -- and probably next year -- but she has to find confidence. She is a Top 5 lock. She is the Davydenko of the WTA right now. She needs confidence, but she is a player you can set your watch by. I cannot remember many truly disappointing losses this year. At the Australian Open was one, but if not for injuries she very rarely has a flop. What I want to see her do is play out of her comfort zone. She has to go a bit bigger sometimes, maybe come to net.
TS: I think, slowly but surely, Darren Cahill is really having a positive effect on her outlook. She just needs to relax. R-E-L-A-X. She's surely been pictured smiling a lot more over the past year than she was in the past. It's a good first step, to allow herself to loosen up. At some point, it (hopefully) carries over onto the court. There were positive signs of it in' 16, though she had a few bumpy hikes, too. I think another very good season in '17 could be the stepping stone to cementing the confidence that would lead to her finally making the "big leap" in '18.
Of course, it might take a bit more doing for Radwanska to win a slam. She probably missed out on her best-ever chances at Wimbledon in 2012-13 (though I guess one can never overlook a possible thirtysomething run down the line, ala so many recent champions). But, turning just 28 this March, she's still got a few more seasons before the race against time gets truly desperate. I have her this high because it's a Top 10 prediction Volley, and Radwanska has been Top 5 in five of the last six seasons, and was #6 in the sixth year. Her motor runs at a pretty consistent speed all season long, allowing her to win titles in January AND and in the fall, without all the rollercoaster up's and down's in between, unlike so many other players.
GW: Radwanska's slam window has passed. It's too late. I'm sure she'll win a few big titles in Asia, and make some big points in March but, really, expect another very identical year from the Pole. Decent for the first four months, mediocre through the clay season and then good for a bit before doing well in Asia and at the YEC. I don't dislike her, I just wish she would work on her weaknesses. She never actually improved on her weaknesses. And the fact the drop shot is still her biggest weapon says it all, really. Great fun to watch but a slam final may be the best she can do. She will make two slam semi-finals this year. And of course she will feature heavily on the top ten flashiest shots montage come next December. That's what Aga does. I don't dislike Aga per se, I dislike that she blew her window to win a slam. She could have had one, but she never learned how to serve properly. Or developed a weapon. A weapon she can use to break down her opponents. If she had had Ivanovic's forehand in addition to the craft that would have been fine.
TS: One thing I'll add here is that the only reason I don't have Vika Azarenka (spoiler alert) at all in my Top 10 picks, let alone this high, is the uncertainty about when she'll return. Plus, it's probably not likely (though I guess she COULD try, having already given birth to her son Leo in December, rather than early in '17) she'll be trying to defend her "Sunshine Double" titles in Indian Wells and Miami, so when she does get back on tour she'll have a lot of ground to make up. She surely would have been in the Top 10 had she played a full season in 2016. Just getting her back will be a big deal (the WTA season is going to have so many "welcome back" moments along the '17 route), and anything significant results-wise in the summer/fall would be a big bonus.
Today I had my hardest fight and my very best victory! Our son was born healthy and happy! So thankful and blessed! Thank you ????? pic.twitter.com/zsoFRivnvQ— victoria azarenka (@vika7) December 20, 2016
GW: It would be nice to see a Clijsters-esque run in New York. Vika will drop a lot of points but is a lock to stay in the top forty, I think. And it also means she could mount a run to the top spot. She still has time. In fact, there's a unique window - the next generation is still getting it together, Serena is looking vulnerable and Vika has had a break from tennis. So why not another stint at the top? I think she'll target the summer U.S. swing as her focus.
TS: It'd be a G-R-E-A-T way to end the summer... and maybe Maria and Petra could put up good results, too!
TS: All right, first we should touch on where we agree here, as we've both placed Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova in our second tiers one year after their first Top 10 seasons. Of course, Keys, like so many top players this year, will miss the Australian Open after having offseason wrist surgery. Not exactly the best way to start what SHOULD be a big year for her, not being able to compete at the slam where she had her best career major result ('15 SF). We were at slightly different places when it it came to Keys a year ago when we did the preseason Volley, as I saw '17 as her potential BIG breakout year rather than '16. As it turned out, we were both sort of correct -- she reached the Top 10, but she's still got another big step to take. So, it looks like we're closer to being on the same page with her this time around.
GW: I do recall you being disappointed that she left Lindsay Davenport. Or at least wary of change.
TS: It sort of reeked of AnaIvo-like tendencies at the time, which is never a good thing.
GW: As I have said previously, why does she not play a couple of doubles tournaments with the former world number one? Can you imagine them on Arthur Ashe at night? The crowd would go mental. I liked how she went into the WTA Finals in Serena's shadow with so much on the line and put in a good performance. She handled Cibulkova and wasn't awful in the following matches, just outclassed. She outhit Cibulkova by 20 winners. The problem for me is her slam losses. Halep at Wimbledon is forgivable - if not for injury she had the Romanian. But the losses to Zhang and Bertens, while also affected by injury, were poor. I'm fine with her losing to Wozniacki in New York. A few places she can make points but the Keys has to unlock the secret of defending points. Your turn to make a Keys pun Todd.
TS: Hmmm, well, maybe Davenport will turn out to be the "skeleton key" that will allow Madison to unlock the doors that were previously closed.
Oddly enough, though, part of me almost wants to pull Keys back a level in this prediction after she also recently announced that she was going back to her coaching set-up with Davenport. Largely because I actually felt Keys was better in almost every way on the court (mostly under Thomas Hogstedt) last year -- more consistent, less prone to those "walkabout"/choking moments that plagued her in the past, etc. -- than she had been under Davenport. Well, that and that I tend to have "issues" when it comes to Lindsay in commentating situations, so the prospect of her being able to crow about helping Keys isn't exactly palatable. But I'm going to try to not "punish" Keys for the personality ills of her coach, and maintain the optimistic tone that 2017 is the season in which she'll make another significant move. Translation: winning multiple titles in a season for the first time, including a big Premier event, and possibly putting another slam semifinal appearance on her career resume (though missing out on Melbourne will hurt, as it might have been her best chance... though she'd probably say it's Wimbledon).
GW: I would agree with her about Wimbledon.
TS: Except that SW19 is still a place where the Williams roam. As last year showed with BOTH Venus and Serena reaching the final four.
GW: If not for some unlucky injury issues Keys would have had a very good year indeed. I love her touch, particularly on the backhand and her sneakily good movement. She needs to win titles. And find a way to deal with the fact she is going to be stepping into some big shoes soon as America's top player. On either side. That's in the pipeline - Serena is not going to be around forever. Four fourth rounds is fine, but this year the big matches have to be won. She'll have a slam before the next Olympics. In fact, she'll win a slam before Denver win another Super Bowl.
TS: I was very high on Pliskova a year ago, and continue to be (maybe even more so) in the coming season after she came through -- big time -- with another banner Fed Cup campaign and U.S. Open final appearance, putting to rest her history of slam struggles. Part of her blueprint for her NYC success was to (finally) get her (over)scheduling tendencies straightened out, and avoid playing TOO much and being too tired to be at her best when the majors rolled around. Unlike most Czechs, Pliskova's on-court demeanor is calm and collected, and it proved to be a key asset in the Open, as she didn't blink in the face of pressure. Not against Venus. NOr Serena. Or even Kerber, though the German's fitness ultimately did her in. THAT'S the next level Pliskova must conquer. She's already made big strides in improving her fitness and court movement, but she can still improve more. At the very least, I think she'll make another major final -- maybe even again in New York -- and if we have a maiden slam winner in '17 I think it'll be Pliskova.
GW: I could not pick out loads of examples, but I remember a few occasions where she would be like Bjorn Borg throughout the match and then struggle to close it out. Against Kuznetsova in the WTA Finals and a few other times, she just couldn't put matches away. Against Venus in New York she should have been off the court much sooner than she was. I like her game, I like her serve. I even like her tattoos.
TS: Haha! She DOES pull them off quite well. And Kristyna, as well. Plus, it's the one full-proof way to tell them apart!
GW: I’d put three dollars on her being ranked world number two at some point and $5 on her leading the aces count. I like Karolina's demeanor, as you pointed out. But the fitness needs to be worked on and so do the final elements of her net game. I am nitpicking because, really, we are looking at our next superstar here. But then I thought that about Garcia.
TS: Well, Garcia DID have her best-ever season in 2016, and she's still moving up.
GW: Well, I followed her last season in a manner of speaking in ATP Backspin's weekly "Kiki's Korner." She and Mladenovic are the WTA answer to the Olsen twins. Or something more, you know, modern.
TS: Hmmm, the Kardashians? Umm, yeah, maybe not (thankfully).
GW: Under Mauresmo's guidance Garcia & Kiki have really began to play super doubles. But I want to see them both fly the nest. I think Garcia cracks the top twenty. Mladenovic is on a much slower "simmer," but maybe the end product is more delicious. If they’re French I get to reference food. It's a rule. If they're Canadian, uh, snow?
TS: Molson? Or maybe Poutine?
While you had Muguruza in your highest level, I've got her here. I'm really not expecting her to win her second slam in '17, or even reach a major final for her third straight year. But I'm thinking she'll be generally consistent in the slams. Not in the "bad" way, but in that I think she'll avoid an early round upset and reach the Round of 16 at all four majors, and advance even deeper than that in the draw at at least two of them.
GW: I trust her to surprise us.
TS: And test Sam Sumyk's patience on a few occasions, as well.
GW: I find her hard to pick. But she will make a third final in a row at a slam. I would not rule out a return to the Roland Garros final. These things often repeat - Schiavone, Henin, Nadal, Federer, Kuerten, Serena, Sharapova, et al. Borg, Graf and Vicario, if you want to go further back, all repeated, most of them went to back-to-back finals at least once. So why not Muguruza?
TS: If she could ever gather it all together, she's capable of a Kerber '16 sort of season. But turning ability into results is always a neverending issue.
Meanwhile, I've got Elina Svitolina making a big jump in '17. She's been steadily moving up for a few seasons now, never experiencing the sort of slide that many young players have. She's gone from #40 to #29 to #19 to #14 the last four years, since reaching junior #1 in 2010, and playing in the Wimbledon girls final (losing to Bouchard) in her last junior event in '12. She's won one singles title in each of the last four years, and reached two additional finals last season. All those numbers will improve greatly this year.
GW: I remember the first time I saw her name. She upset Kuznetsova in Melbourne, if you can call it an upset. I've never seen a match not involving Serena which wasn't on Kuznetsova's racket. I thought, here's something, and she's had the best kind of rise - a slow one. Rise too quickly and you can fall just as rapidly. Where's Bouchard now? Anyway, Svitolina's win over Williams this past year was the highlight. She gets along well with Dolgopolov. They played Hopman Cup last year and lost to one of the Australian teams. This year she needs a big result. And it is going to come at the French Open. She can ride her seeding to the fourth Round, and then she has the ability to upset a big seed. The key is to avoid Williams, who spanked her there last year. If she can land in Aga's or Kerber's section she has a great shot to make a deep run. I believe we'll see her in a final before January 2019.
TS: A year of consulting with Justine Henin seemed to get Svitolina's thinking in a "championship line," setting her up perfectly to take the next step. In 2016, she had her best season yet, reaching her two biggest finals, and getting wins over TWO different #1's (Serena and Kerber). She's still looking for her slam breakout, with a QF in Paris in '15 her best result so far. I think she'll have her first great slam run this season, become the first woman representing Ukraine to ever reach the Top 10, lift a big Premier-level trophy and qualify for Singapore. Like so many other players -- Pliskova, Keys, Konta -- Svitolina has made a coaching change following a career year. She's signed up with Gabriel Urpi (ex-C.Martinez/Sanchez Vicario/Pennetta), with Thierry Ascione consulting (with Henin's pregnancy, she won't be involved like she was last year, but maybe she'll offer some advice if Elina "asks nicely?"). While I naturally raise an eyebrow about the Keys move (again), I think Svitolina knows what she's doing, and what she needs.
At some point in 2017, she'll be the Ukrainian version of Pliskova-in-New-York and ride a wave into her first major final. The unhappy bonus "prize": the "duh-who's-that?" crew on ESPN "let their slip show" by acting stunned and shocked when Svitolina puts up her big slam result, acting as she just walked in off the street no matter how obviously she's been building up to it in recent seasons, and how many big time wins (five Top 10, nine Top 20) she put up in '16. Sigh... we get the tennis coverage we have, not the tennis coverage we want.
TS: Rounding out our "official" dozen players for Top 10 consideration (and necessary, but subtle, gloating, if need be, come next fall's prediction recap, of course), some different names bubble up. Well, except for one who's waiting (im)patiently in the wings.
USA Today's recent sports predictions for the new year had Sharapova winning a slam in '17, but receiving a "harsh" reception from fans upon her return. I'd flip that, as I think she'll generally (at worst) be received quite well upon her return. She already has been, in fact, in the Puerto Rico exhibition with Monica Puig, and by the time she returns in the spring the tour will be starving for a little additional star power with so many big names out at the beginning of the season. Of course, you'll have the spare donkeys (like the ones who'll still jeer Azarenka), but by the time she returns her case should be closed, as she'll have already served more time that was warranted in a situation with many obtuse angles, from top to bottom. That said, I'm not sure I'd have her winning a major in '17, as her best chance is probably Roland Garros, and that'll take place a month into her return. After that, any big run will likely find (as it so often has) Serena in her path, and she won't have the benefit of a high seed, either. That said, Sharapova is going to be even more motivated, and likely in great shape since you know she's going to want to stick some results in places where the sun doesn't shine. I could see a major semi in New York, though, and possibly even a final if things fall just right.
GW: Cilic used his ‘holiday’ to get fit and contend. If Sharapova uses her time away constructively and comes back rested, with no niggles and motivation, she could rise pretty swiftly. I could see her make two slam semi-finals somehow, someway, and scrape up to about #15. Serena is a huge factor, obviously. Sharapova has the attitude of a New England Patriots fan - "you hate us cuz you ain't us."
It isn't like Azarenka hasn't earned her boos. Remember her performance against Bartoli at the YEC a few years ago? A dead rubber Azarenka was utterly unmotivated. Sometimes she just has...bad judgement. She should take lessons from Monfils. On how to get the crowd on side.
TS: [ Dear readers... Galileo just uttered the magic word/name there, and as much as I might want to I won't comment and let us get sidetracked by some wild tangent after I've unloaded for the hundredth time about what I really feel about a certain Frenchman. That's what a few days at every slam are invariably for, right? Anyway, let's get back to what he was saying, and we'll agree to just keep this little conversation between us, all right? ]
GW: Do you remember the 2009 edition of Roland Garros? 'Pova beat Petrova something like 6-2, 1-6, 8-6 in an epic. She edged Li Na 6-4, 0-6, 6-4 on her way to the quarters. It was inspirational despite her inevitable blowout loss, coming at the hands of Domi. I don't know how she did it. Witchcraft?
You know who definitely remembers that RG? Sveta.
I reckon she scrapes into the top twelve and retires in the next few years, after a late career renaissance. With slams more open now, a bit of luck in the draw and some seeding protection, could she win a third slam? Look to Roland Garros. She lost to the eventual champion at two slams, and the eventual semi-finalist at another this year.
TS: With history in mind, I just can't place expectation on Sveta, so I don't have her in my group of thirteen. But she's just a '17 campaign where she's a tick below her '16 results, but with a better slam season, from sticking in the Top 10. MY second Russian in this mix is Daria Kasatkina. I might be a year too early on her as a Top 10er, considering she's yet to reach her first pro singles final. But she's nestled into the Top 25 without one to this point, so once she starts adding those to her list of accomplishments she'll climb up very quickly. I've been all-in on Kasatkina since her U.S. Open debut TWO seasons ago in '15, and she's done nothing to dissuade me on that count. She's been working hard on her fitness this offseason, and she WILL win her first title in '17, and WILL make her presence known in Fed Cup, too. So, I AM going to take a stab and say she'll be a surprise slam semifinalist, too. Her Dashas doubles pairing with Gavrilova will be worth watching, as well.
GW: I do like Kasatkina, but I've fallen so hard for the endearingly erratic veteran Russian my judgement is going to be askew. I'll one-up you there and say she goes 2-2 in finals, and makes two slam quarters.
Last year she lost to Serena Williams in Melbourne. She lost to Bertens 10-8 in the third at Roland Garros, and for Bertens that was incredible because Dutch tennis players can only go to the Olympics if they make a fourth round at a slam that season. And I watched her [on the TV] lose 10-8 AGAIN to Venus this time in London. I like her approach to the game. I like how she just keeps going. That match at Wimbledon was an instant classic for me. Kasatkina did something amazing - she bought out vintage Venus. I hadn't seen true Venus for a long time, but flashes of her emerged. The Russian will win twelve slam matches this year.
I've got her doubles partner Gavrilova here. We shall be seeing a lot of her on Backspin, as she'll be the WTA star I focus on in my weeky ATP Backsin recaps. That way I get a bit of Kasatkina, too. Seeing her and Kyrgios play together really confirmed what I'd been thinking. She has game.
TS: It's always nice to get as much of the Dashas -- alone, or together -- as possible.
Gavrilova is one of the most exciting players going when she's in top form, and can give anyone trouble with her emotion and visceral desire to succeed. That said, she may still be a TAD too emotional to have the season-long consistency to put together a Top 10 run. I hope she can do it, though. Dasha started fast, and ended fast, in '16. The new year will be about maintaining her level of play in "the middle." She should reach the Top 20, and maybe 15, but might need another big slam run to get any higher. She'll have a lot of pressure to back up her Round of 16 result from last year in Melbourne, too.
Meanwhile, Dominika Cibulkova was my final additional to this list (and, psssst, was part of the reason why I increased this list of a dozen players to a "Backspin Dozen" of thirteen). Thing is, even knowing where she finished in 2016, and that she IS one of the more gritty and exciting players to watch (if somewhat able to touch a nerve a times), I just can't view Cibulkova as a legitimate Top FIVE player. And I'm not even sure she'll stay in the Top 10 one year from now, though she'll be highly ranked all season since so many of her big points were garnered late in the year. She IS a former slam finalist, though, and a streaking confidence player. So I just HAD to include her here.
GW: The AO is her best slam. And I know this means nothing, but there are question marks above Serena's head. Congratulations on her engagement while I'm here. If Cibulkova can keep hold of a top eight seeding I see no reason [read: if she lands in Aga's section] for her not to make a final maybe. She is a top five player in the same way Jankovic was a number one. If you get my meaning...
TS: I think Domi's still got a decent chance to win a slam, though. Even if I'm not predicting it.
As far as the rest, we both returned to "the past," in a way, in going with Belinda Bencic and Caroline Wozniacki to round out our lists. Bencic was primed and ready to be a full-fledged Top 10 player at the end of '15. She climbed into the group in '16, but couldn't stay there due to a string of nagging injuries. I'm betting she gets healthy in '17 and picks up where she left off. I think she'll be a first-time slam semifinalist, too.
GW: I like your Bencic slam pick and I'll back you there. I would go as far as to say she is more likely than Sharapova to win a slam. I also think she wins multiple titles. I like what I've seen so far, but you'd like my game if I played doubles with the greatest guy to ever pick up a racket, too. Still this season her backhand, which is similar to Zverev's, will be one of those shots nobody will want to go to. Like the German's, it is so malleable - it can do so many different things and sometimes you can actually see it fizz.
TS: My/our other pick is Wozniacki, who also got sidetracked by injury last season, falling all the way down into the #70's before her U.S. Open final run and late 4Q surge once she finally got healthy. Amazingly, it got her back into the Top 20. She's never had injury problems in her career, as she's been one of the fittest on tour for quite a while, so I think '16 will be an anomaly and she'll return to her consistently-performing self, which will translate into a return to the Top 10. The big question is whether she'll finally take that big slam step. If she's in form come the late summer, another big Flushing Meadows run can probably be expected, with something like another semifinal result.
GW: I think her time to win a slam is gone, but a solid Top 15 career is certain. In 2011 everybody was asking the question "could the world number one beat Serena Williams on the big stage?" They stuck Kerber and Stosur on the Grandstand because they couldn't organize a drinking competition in a brewery and put Woz on Ashe during the night session. Serena won 6-2, 6-4. That scoreline was generous. Since then she just hasn't ever looked like winning a slam. Not even during her 2014 run. She will win three titles and make two slam quarterfinals. How's that?
TS: Not bad. Although, if she faced, say, a Muguruza in a slam final, I could see her working the ball around the court and bringing out the frustration that sometimes takes down the Spaniard. As always, it's often about the match-up, and Wozniacki has reached two slam finals and had to face Serena and Clijsters. Not a good deal for her.
Though I still always wonder what she might be able to do if she'd dedicate herself to being more like Kerber and maintain a level of aggressiveness in her game that would complement her defensive skills. When she's done it in spurts, she's proven capable of so much more. Of course, all that is another discussion for Wozniology-101 class, I guess.
All right, that should do it for this "first phase" of our '17 predictions. Here's a quick look at all our "Dozen" picks:
Of course, a little overkill will never hurt anyone, right?
Here's a visual look at our "circles of influence" heading into 2017, with a few comments about the players on the outskirts of possible Top 10 contention if they'd post career years, or maybe one amazing major result -- ala Muguruza in '16 -- that props up their entire season.
(1) clockwise from upper left: Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, Aga Radwanska
(2) top to bottom: Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina
(3) top to bottom: Belinda Bencic, Caroline Wozniacki, Daria Kasatkina, Maria Sharapova, Dominika Cibulkova
(4) top to bottom: Johanna Konta, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Timea Bacsinszky, Dasha Gavrilova, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Garcia
(5) top to bottom: Lucie Safarova, Peng Shuai, Monica Puig, Jelena Ostapenko, Ana Konjuh
(Outside Circles) top corner to bottom: Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka
="FOURTH RING OF INFLUENCE"=
TS: Sort of a catch-all of (mostly) current Top 10ers or players who spent time there in 2016. The few newcomers include Sloane Stephens, who made a big leap by winning three early titles last year, but didn't put up great slam results, then was injured in the summer. She seems to finally be on the right track, even if Keys has summarily passed her by on many levels. It'll be interesting to see how they compare by the end of 2017. Also, Naomi Osaka was consistent in the majors (three 3rd Rounds) and reached a tour singles final. She'll start '17 at around #40, and her climb up the ladder will begin almost immediately. How far she goes will depend on her avoiding the sort of "going haywire" moments that kept her from even better things this past season. Johanna Konta is a good bet for some very, very good hard court results. Caroline Garcia is coming off a career year in singles, doubles and Fed Cup. With belief on her side, combined with the usual French athletic style, she's got a Top 10 sort of game. It's just a matter of whether she can keep the emotional component in her favor. Pssst... Caro, act as if Amelie is watching from the sidelines. It might help.
="ON THE EDGE OF ORBIT"=
TS: All of these players have risen high, or shown the promise of being able to do so. If Lucie Safarova's health is up to snuff, she'll likely become a consistent factor again. Remember, she ended 2015 in the Top 10. Peng Shuai overcame surgery on her back to surge up the rankings in the final months of 2016, and even won her first tour singles title at age 30 to get back into the Top 100. A former slam semifinalist (2014), she might be the looming threat no one will see coming in '17. In contrast, everyone will see Rio Gold medalist Monica Puig coming, which makes you wonder if she might have one of those "year after" seasons in which higher expectations lead to a temporary setback when it comes to results. Jelena Ostapenko is a fun, sometimes edgy, presence on tour who is probably a year or two away from REALLY making a move. But that doesn't mean she won't put a few "name" pelts on her trophy wall in '16. Meanwhile, Ana Konjuh was SO close to making a big move last season. A bad step on a ball likely cost her an upset of Radwanska at Wimbledon, but then she pulled it together and turned around and reached the QF at the U.S. Open a few months later. She could be the Most Improved Player on tour in 2017.
="INCOMPLETE/TOO MANY QUESTIONS"=
TS: When Victoria Azarenka returns, it'll be as "changed" person in the eyes of some. A new mother, and suddenly (at least at the start) an underdog, she might have the sort of uncommon crowd support that has sometimes eluded her during her career. We can't expect a great deal from her in '17, especially since we really have no idea when, or if, she'll be back in action in the calendar year. It'd be nice to have her back for summer hard courts and the U.S. Open, just to get her set for 2018. Ah, Petra. Thankfully, Kvitova didn't become a tragic offseason story this winter. But she's hardly out of the woods. She's sounding optimistic about her return to the sport, but aside from the tendon/nerve injuries on her racket hand that were (hopefully) adequately surgically repaired, the mental aspect of a quick return from such a traumatic incident (see Monica Seles, whose on-court attack was "less scary," if one would choose to "equate" such things) looms quite possibly larger than in the short/long term than even the physical rehabilitation which won't even begin for three months, with a six-month absence being the "best case" for her return in '17. For now, we're just glad Petra is going to be okay. Hopefully, she'll see fit to take care of herself in order to be better off in ways other than how her fingers heal.
(1) clockwise from upper left: Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza
(2) top to bottom: Aga Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Madison Keys
(3) top to bottom: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic, Dasha Gavrilova
(4) top to bottom: Samantha Stosur, Venus Williams, Lucie Safarova, Daria Kasatkina, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Kiki Bertens, Johanna Konta, Katerina Siniakova, Timea Bacsinszky
(5) top to bottom: Genie Bouchard, Anastasija Sevastova, CoCo Vandeweghe, Caroline Garcia, Kristina Mladenovic
(Outside Circles) top corner to bottom: Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka
="FOURTH RING OF INFLUENCE"=
GW: I'm really using this section differently forom Todd: it's for players I like who maybe fly under the radar, usually with a disgusting amount of talent.
Count out Stosur at your peril. The only player not named Williams to have won a slam in all three disciplines amongst active (singles) players, Sam will always provide four sensational and eight abysmal results a year. And why is another slam run so far fetched? If she can get her forehand and serve working who can't she beat? I do expect her to step back and focus on doubles soon. But, for me, most of these players have one last slam run in them. It's got to be at Roland Garros for Sam. Suarez-Navarro is always giving Kuznetsova a run in the, "no, I’m more unpredictable" game. But as a connoisseur of the one-handed backhand I can't leave out the best user of it. As for Kiki Bertens, why not? Her smile and ability to fly under the radar make for an interesting combo. I think she goes to another slam quarter and stays in the Top 15.
“The first time you win, nobody picks you,” Venus said this past season. “The last time you win, nobody picks you. You’ve got to pick yourself.” My quote of the year. It applies to the younger generation coming through, and also to the players such as Kvitova, Stosur and even Jankovic. Those who may just have one more run left.
Siniakova doesn't belong here this year, but I want you guys to mark the name. I saw her play live with Vesely and she was the impressive one. She moves alright but, mainly, she hits the ball hard and has a lot of variety. I'm calling her rise this season, but she will be the fashionable pick in 2018. Bacsinszky will give us more of the same, especially when we're not looking. Another slam quarter probably in Paris beckons and another Top 15 year. Same for Konta. She may regress a little, but I want to see if she can back up an excellent ‘freshman’ year.
="ON THE EDGE OF ORBIT"=
GW: I flew with Garcia last year and I’ll hold, not sell. I think CoCo is really a terrific doubles player, but only ever a dark horse in singles. I hope I'm proved wrong, but we'll see. Bouchard is such an unknown quantity. With her, all is not right in Whoville. If she can sort out everything that's going on, find her serve and forehand again, she could make a slam final. Or she could implode and fade into oblivion. I think she'll have a mixed season that leans towards the positive. And she will win three matches at one of the slams. Why not Wimbledon? As for Sevastosa, I want a season where she proves it. I think she wins two titles and sits between 25-30 throughout the season with a big drop in September, of course.
="INCOMPLETE/TOO MANY QUESTIONS"=
GW: What more is there to be said about either? Let's wait and see when they're back. I reiterate, for the umpteenth time, Kvitova will win five Wimbledon titles in her career. I refuse to take back that prediction. I also believe Azarenka has, and watch the deliberate plural here, slams left in her.
TS: Well, that should do it. (Though you'll be back with a little more at the end of this post.) Another Volley in the books. Good luck!
GW: Yes, I'm happy. You have your reasoned arguments and careful watching, and I have my stable full of talented, if a bit eccentric, horsies. We're both happy. I've always thought that we work well because you know what will happen and I know which players will be exciting. And we agree on lots. Let the new season begin. Ooh, is that Nadal with a new haircut I see over there?
TS: Oh, I hope so. I mean, let's be honest...such a thing IS a tad overdue. Maybe it'll have a "reverse Samson" effect and he'll be back to being the old Rafa again, at least for a little while.
Hey, we've surely seen stranger things on the tennis tours, right?
All right, I'm back with my additional two cents (well, along with a piggy bank full of change, I suppose), i.e. the usual truck-load of preseason predictions that I can look back on eleven months from now with a smile, or an unholy eye roll.
*2017 DOUBLES TOP 11*
[alphabetical, w/ '16 ranks in parenthesis]
Caroline Garcia, FRA (2t)
Martina Hingis, SUI (4)
Andrea Hlavackova, CZE (9)
Ekaterina Makarova, RUS (8)
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (5)
Sania Mirza, IND (1)
Kristina Mladenovic, FRA (2t)
Peng Shuai, CHN (43)
Lucie Safarova, CZE (7)
Barbora Strycova, CZE (17)
Elena Vesnina, RUS (6)
NEWCOMERS OF THE YEAR: CiCi Bellis/USA, Oceane Dodin/FRA, Jana Fett/CRO, Dalma Galfi/HUN, Margarita Gasparyan/RUS, Irina Khromacheva/RUS, Viktoria Kuzmova/SVK, Rebeka Masarova/SUI, Katerina Siniakova/CZE
MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS, Xenia Knoll/SUI (doubles), Ana Konjuh/CRO, Jelena Ostapenko/LAT, Kristyna Pliskova/CZE, Maria Sakkari/GRE, Ipek Soylu/TUR, Carina Witthoeft/GER, Yang Zhaoxuan/CHN (doubles)
SURPRISE PLAYERS: Ana Bogdan/ROU, Katharina Hobgarski/GER, Miyu Kato/JPN (doubles), Tamara Korpatsch/GER, Tereza Martincova/CZE, Asia Muhammad/USA, Marina Zanevska/BEL
COMEBACKS: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (doubles), Camila Giorgi/ITA, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova/SVK, Maria Sharapova/RUS, Anna Tatishvili/USA, Ajla Tomljanovic/AUS, U.S. Fed Cup Team
ITF ACHIEVERS: Ayla Aksu/TUR, Anna Blinkova/RUS, Tereza Mihalikova/SVK, Gabriela Pantuckova/CZE, Sofya Zhuk/RUS, Tamara Zidansek/UKR
FIRST-TIME WTA FINALISTS: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS, Ana Bogdan/ROU, Louisa Chirico/USA, Jana Fett/CRO, Dalma Galfi/HUN, Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Rebeka Masarova/SUI, Andreea Mitu/ROU, Carina Witthoeft/GER, Zheng Saisai/CHN
NCAA CHAMPION: Francesca Di Lorenzo, Ohio State
NAMES TO WATCH IN THE JUNIOR SLAMS: Bianca Andreescu/CAN, Amanda Anisimova/USA, Amina Anshba/RUS, Kaja Juvan/SLO, Claire Liu/USA, Olesya Pervushina/RUS, Elena Rybakina/RUS, Iga Swiatek/POL, Dayana Yastremska/UKR
FIRST-TIME SLAM FINALIST: Elina Svitolina/UKR
FIRST-TIME SLAM SEMIFINALISTS: Belinda Bencic/SUI, Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Elina Svitolina/UKR
FIRST-TIME SLAM QUARTERFINALISTS: Oceane Dodin/FRA, Jana Fett/CRO, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Naomi Osaka/JPN, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova/SVK, Katerina Siniakova/CZE
FIRST-TIME SLAM ROUND OF 16's: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS, CiCi Bellis/USA, Louisa Chirico/USA, Oceane Dodin/FRA, Jana Fett/CRO, Dalma Galfi/HUN, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Danka Kovinic/MNE, Viktoria Kuzmova/SVK, Naomi Osaka/JPN, Jelena Ostapenko/LAT, Kristyna Pliskova/CZE, Evgeniya Rodina/RUS, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova/SVK, Katerina Siniakova/CZE
#1-RANKED SINGLES PLAYER DURING SEASON: Angelique Kerber and Serena Williams
#1 RANKED DOUBLES PLAYERS DURING SEASON: Sania Mirza, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic (co)
-SELECTED SEASON-END #1's-
ARG: Catalina Pella
AUS: Dasha Gavrilova
CHN: Peng Shuai
CRO: Ana Konjuh
CZE: Karolina Pliskova
FRA: Caroline Garcia
ITA: Sara Errani
JPN: Naomi Osaka
LAT: Jelena Ostapenko
MEX: Victoria Rodriguez
RUS: Daria Kasatkina
SRB: Jelena Jankovic
SUI: Belinda Bencic
South America: Veronica Cepede Royg, PAR
FIRST-TIME IN-SEASON TOP 10 JUMPS (i.e. not necessarily season-ending): Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Elina Svitolina/UKR, Elena Vesnina/RUS
FIRST-TIME IN-SEASON TOP 20 JUMPS: Timea Babos/HUN, Irina-Camelia Begu/ROU, Kiki Bertens/NED, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Dasha Gavrilova/AUS, Daria Kasatkina/RUS, Ana Konjuh/CRO, Kristina Mladenovic/FRA, Naomi Osaka/JPN, Jelena Ostapenko/LAT, Monica Puig/PUR, Yulia Putintseva/KAZ, Laura Siegemund/GER, Katerina Siniakova/CZE, Zhang Shuai/CHN
FIRST-TIME IN-SEASON TOP 50 JUMPS: Denisa Allertova/CZE, Annika Beck/GER, CiCi Bellis/USA, Louisa Chirico/USA, Oceane Dodin/FRA, Jana Fett/CRO, Dalma Galfi/HUN, Viktorija Golubic/SUI, Danka Kovinic/MNE, Viktoria Kuzmova/SVK, Kristyna Pliskova/CZE, Evgeniya Rodina/RUS, Katerina Siniakova/CZE, Catarina Witthoeft/GER
FIRST-TIME IN-SEASON TOP 100 JUMPS: Ekaterina Alexandrova/RUS, Anna Blinkova/RUS, Jennifer Brady/USA, Jana Fett/CRO, Barbara Haas/AUT, Tamara Korpatsch/GER, Rebeka Masarova/SUI, Aliaksandra Sasnovich/BLR, Isabella Shinikova/BUL, Sara Sorribes Tormo/ESP, Wang Yafan/CHN, Marina Zanevska/BEL
HIGHEST-RANKED PLAYERS WITHOUT A TOUR SINGLES TITLE IN CAREER: Katerina Siniakova/CZE, Zheng Saisai/CHN
*MISCELLANEOUS TOP 20+1*
Serena Williams wins two slams to tie Margaret Court's all-time career mark of 24
Angelique Kerber picks up career slam win #3
2017 slam singles finalists: Serena Williams (2), Angelique Kerber (2), Karolina Pliskova (1), Elina Svitolina (1), Simona Halep or Aga Radwanska (1), someone not ranked in the 2016 Top 10 (1)
Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka both win '17 tour titles upon their return, with Sharapova claiming two or more
Caroline Garcia, Kristina Mladenovic and Bethanie Mattek-Sands all spend time as the doubles #1, but Sania Mirza ends the year in the top spot for a third straight season
Slam doubles champions include Sania Mirza (w/ someone), Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova, Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina and Andrea Hlavackova/Peng Shuai, but not Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic, though the all-Pastry pair will reach at least two slam finals and collect more total titles in '17 than any other duo
Martina Hingis picks up two more Mixed doubles slam wins, while Sania Mirza claims one of her own.
Casey Dellacqua & Ash Barty win their first tour-level doubles title as duo since 2014
Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki tie for the tour lead in overall singles titles
Simona Halep wins a title in each of the schedule's four quarters
Sloane Stephens returns to the Top 15
Garbine Muguruza reaches at least the 4th Round of every major in the same season for the first time in her career
The Czechs win yet another Fed Cup title, but only have to go the deciding doubles once in three ties this time around (vs. Switzerland in the final)
The year-end #1 junior is from the United States
A Mexican woman plays a slam main draw singles match
Serena Williams falls to #3 in the rankings... but only briefly
The WTA Finals qualifying field of eight: Belinda Bencic, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Aga Radwanska, Elina Svitolina, Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki (w/ Garbine Muguruza and/or Daria Kasatkina playing as alternates added to the round robin field)
Dutch 20-year old Diede de Groot becomes a wheelchair slam singles champion
Of course, I could be waaaaaay off.
Here's Galileo's take on the upcoming ATP season, and here are some additional 2017 WTA thoughts:
Kerber reaches three slam finals again, but not the same three.
Muguruza makes it two slams. She also exits another slam before the third round.
My usual retirement call here. Hantuchova? Ivanovic? Jankovic? Outside bet: Makarova in singles.
NOTE: Galileo made this pick before AnaIvo retired on December 28, so he's already one-up in the correct prediction race
The heir to the French throne is made apparent. In recent years Mauresmo and Pierce have laid the tennis world at their feet, won two slams and become the top ranked player in the world. Between them they completed the Career Slam. Pierce is the most talented player of the last quarter century. It’s your turn, Caroline Garcia.
Serena has a disappointing year by her standards.
Keys finishes as the top ranked American.
Sharapova wins three titles.
Kuznetsova somehow stays in the top 10.
The French doubles team wins another slam, takes number one.
At some point Azarenka takes to the court and plays a competitive match.
Happy New Year everyone!
All for now.