Sunday, October 16, 2011

2012 All-Intriguing Team

Hmmm, there are two ways to look at the WTA tour at this time of year. One, of course, that there's less than a month remaining in this unpredictable 2011 season. And, two, that we're also less than three months away from seeing the 2012 campaign kick off Down Under with the promise for more "clarity" to arise once again pristine and hopeful. But, as we've learned throughout this season, disappointment could soon turn to celebration, and vice versa, for any and every woman on tour... and we're not long from knowing the difference between whatever is reality, and what is fiction, when it comes to a player's future.

So, with one foot clearly in both the present, as well as the past, whose not-too-distant future would seem to be the most fitting of inclusion on the "2012 All-Intriguing Team," at least from where we stand today? Well, here are a few to consider:

THE GOOD?: Feeling as if she has something to prove once again, a fitter-than-ever Serena takes on the '12 season with never-before-seen (even from her) intensity and further cements her place in tennis history. Heading into Melbourne as the favorite, she wins her sixth AO title, kicking off a season in which she regains the #1 ranking, wins multiple slam titles (to get within shouting distance of Navratilova and Evert's total of 18 each on the all-time list) and pads her "Greatest of All Time" resume. With the Olympic tennis tournament being held at the All-England Club, Williams seizes upon likely her last opportunity (if she was still around in '16, she'd be 34 in Rio, and the Brazilian Olympic tennis event might be held on clay) to join Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi as the only players in professional tennis history to claim all six of the major singles titles in the sport -- the four slams, their tour's year-end championship event and the Olympic Gold.
THE BAD?: The (new, or old) health issues crop up again, causing Serena to take a step back from her career. Serena lets her anger get the best of her in another crucial slam situation, and the WTA finally caves in to outside pressure and suspends her.
THE GOOD?: Kvitova climbed into the Top 5, won titltes on all surfaces, led her Czech team into the Fed Cup finals and won Wimbledon in '11. Still, "Good Petra" and "Bad Petra" were often at odds, as she showed a tendency to go from world-beater to gift-giver in a matter of moments in some matches, and took many months to escape the long shadow of her SW19 heroics. But with her title in Linz pulling her out of a potential confidence-crushing tailspin, she finishes strong in 2011 and carries over her momentum into 2012. Kvitova wins another slam, rising to claim the role as the only true threat to a healthy Serena Williams in the WTA field, leading to a pair of titanic summertime match-ups with the American on the grass at Wimbledon, the last of which decides the Olympic champion.
THE BAD?: Kvitova can't escape her worse tendencies, occasionally pulling off some huge results that whet the appetite for more, only to slide back into the shadows for months on end afterward, setting the course for a good career, but one with a great deal of "what if's."
THE GOOD?: Realizing that she risks being swallowed up by the unrush of other improving players from her generation (plus a healthy and refocused Serena), Wozniacki accepts her critics' opinions as valid and voluntarily learns to insert a little more aggression into her game while not sacrificing her defensive "comfort zone." Before the end of '12, she puts everything together on the hard courts of North America and reaches her second career final at the U.S. Open. Facing off with another slam-less player with "big stage issues," the Dane manages the pressure better than her opponent and walks away with her first major title, silencing her critics, getting herself over a huge career "hump," and allowing herself to mentally relax and enter 2013 having nothing to prove to anyone. Suddenly, the #1 ranking "isn't as important as it once was" to her, though she admits "it'd be nice to get it back and not have anyone question whether I deserved it THIS time."
THE BAD?: What are the chances Wozniacki finishes yet another season at #1 in 2012 without winning a slam? If she does, but has another campaign like the one she's had in '11, will her season be able to be deemed a true "success?" Another scenario: distracted by off-court opportunities, a budding (or broken, take your pick) romance, and after becoming increasingly more upset in post-match press conferences (many more of which take place after losses to "less accomplished" players), Wozniacki's on-court smiles disappear, replaced by visible frustration and accompanied by stories bringing up the career slides of other young women's stars. 2012 ends with Wozniacki in a very bad place, and most everyone declaring her chances of ever winning an elusive slam title a "pipe dream."
THE GOOD?: Following in the footsteps of '11 slam champions from China (new winner's circle blood), Australia and the Czech Republic (old/new blood), the Germans awaken the ghost of Steffi Graf and make Deutschland the latest nation to introduce a little variety into the mix of women's major winners in '12. This season has surely shown the signs of good things to come, as Julia Goerges looked every bit the potential star while winning Stuttgart and getting two wins over world #1 Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber both reached slam SF, and Andrea Petkovic (the highest-ranked German) was the only woman on tour to reach three slam QF in '11. In fact, the only nation with more slam QF results this season than Germany's five was the always-plentiful-in-number horde of Russians (7).
THE BAD?: Goerges' inconsistency continues to bedevil her progress. Kerber's U.S. Open run turns out to have been little more than a "fluke" result. Lisicki's great comeback from her injury-riddled past turns out to be short-lived, as her body lets her down again. Petkovic's tricky knee injury history (making a unwanted cameo appearance the last few months) becomes even trickier.
THE GOOD?: After experiencing yet another career resurgence in '11 -- her second in three seasons -- and winning her first tour title since 2002, Dokic follows the previous path of Justine Henin by finding belated peace of mind off the court through the reconciliation of her broken family. For the Belgian (in '07), such a scenario helped push her toward one of the greatest-ever seasons by any woman. For Dokic, it means winning multiple tour singles titles, returning to the Top 20 for the first time since '03, and making (at least) a QF run at a slam.
THE BAD?: After having credited the support of her brother Savo (and boyfriend Tino) with helping her return to the tour winner's circle after a nine-year absence, Dokic followed through with her sibling's wishes in recent weeks and returned to the (oft-troubled) family fold back in Belgrade with her father Damir. After everyone waits for the seemingly inevitable family breakup to occur, it finally does, sending Dokic off onto another of the emotional tangents that have so often made her tennis career an incidental afterthought when compared to the tabloid merry-go-round that has been her personal life.

THE GOOD?: In the latter stages of '11, Radwanska smartly added just enough aggression to her game, and improved her first serve enough to be able to wield it as an important weapon on big points. The tweaks to her game made a world of difference as Radwanska, who'd previously seen enough players from her generation -- and a few vets -- pass her by to finally drop her out of the Top 10, has proven to be THE move-and-shaker of the season's final months. Back-to-back Premier wins in Tokyo and Beijing showed the always-crafty Pole to, for the first time, also be capable of delivering an occasional knock-out punch against players who are consistently more powerful than she off the ground. Entering '12 with the chance to dream of things potentially "bigger" than seemed possible in seasons past, Radwanska has a career year, threatening to climb into the Top 5 and reaching her first slam SF, with a decent shot to spring an even better result.
THE BAD?: 2011's late-season surge isn't sustainable, and Radwanska's second serve continues to be a liability. Sensing the need to overcompensate in big matches, A-Rad moves out of her comfort zone by being TOO aggressive TOO often, setting herself up for more errors than her game in capable of overcoming against top players with the ability to out-hit her in big stage matches.
THE GOOD?: With her fatigue-inducing Sjogren's Syndrome finally diagnosed and being treated, Venus -- much like Serena -- approaches her '12 season with a new lease on her tennis life. With the Olympic tennis event being held at Wimbledon, the timing couldn't be more perfect. Already a three-time Gold Medalist (one singles/two doubles), Williams arrives in London on the cusp of setting an Olympic tennis standard that may never be broken. A fourth career Gold comes, and possibly even a fifth.
THE BAD?: While battling injuries the last two years, Venus has only played in one non-slam event (and just seven overall) over the past seventeen months. Even with the diagnosis and treatment of her Sjogren's Syndrome, time might be Williams' biggest opponent. She'll be 32 by the time Wimbledon and the Olympics roll around, and the only woman to win an Open era slam at that age or older was Martina Navratilova, at age 33 at Wimbledon in 1990. The odds are against her ever enjoying such a moment in the singles spotlight again.
THE GOOD?: Finally learning to better contain her sometimes-damaging on-court anger issues, Azarenka raised the bar for her career this year, reaching a career-high rank and her first slam semifinal. In 2012, she continues her climb, reaching her first slam final... and maybe even beating good friend Wozniacki into the major winner's circle.
THE BAD?: After seeming to finally overcome her past injury questions, Azarenka's 2011 campaign has lapsed into another series of ailments and retirements in recent weeks, making it easy to wonder if the Belarusian will EVER be able to overcome the "one step forward, one and a half steps back" pattern of her career. So far, she's avoided the sort of major injury that takes her off court for months on end... but her body's seeming fragility might mean it's only a matter of time before that changes.
THE GOOD?: After years of hand-wringing over the lack of young talent, U.S. women's tennis got an injection of excitment at Flushing Meadows in '11. A series of them, actually, as a team of New Generation Bannerettes played starring roles in their nation's slam. For the first time in ages, the U.S. had as many 1st Round winners in NYC as Russia. Christina McHale emerged as the player on the leading edge of the new group of players, putting up wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki on the season. With more eyes on their development, 2012 sees the 19-year old McHale post an early-season title to become the first U.S. teen since 2006 to be crowned a WTA champion, and only the second since Serena Williams stormed to the U.S. Open title at 17 in '99. Meanwhile, both Sloane Stephens and the hard-serving Madison Keys, with the latter being the young American player with the sort of big game that most resembles that of the sort of power players one will always have to stand toe-to-toe with on the path to grand slam success, continue their progress, while the juniors produce at least one more Girls slam champion (following in the footsteps of Grace Min's surprise win at the Open in September).
THE BAD?: Once again, it was a false alarm. The promise shown by so many of the Bannerettes at the U.S. Open proves to be an adrenaline-fueled boomlet that the actual talent of the young Americans is unable to back up. Shades of the diminutive Melanie Oudin, and the overhyped Ashley Harkleroad. The new U.S. players begin to fill out the Top 50 rankings -- which is still more than be said for the previous post-Williams Sisters breakthrough generation -- but none prove to be consistent threats to the top players, and only one (McHale?) proves hearty enough to even climb into the Top 20 for any appreciable amount of time over the next few years.
THE GOOD?: Even with a relatively small sample to look back upon, it's pretty obvious that these two have great chemistry on the doubles court. With most of the top women's doubles teams -- Huber/Raymond, Peschke/Srebotnik, Dulko/Pennetta -- beginning to show some age (some more than others, at least as far as their birth certificates are concerned, even if their results might belie it), these two might have the market cornered on being THE team to beat in the big events over the course of the next three-to-five years. With two slam titles already in their column, King and Shvedova look to potentially have a long, fruitful future together on the doubles courts. In 2012, they rise to the very top of the heap, with either one or both taking their turn in the #1 ranking.
THE BAD?: Ironically, the improving singles results -- especially King's -- that might be partly attributed to this pair's doubles triumphs end up becoming a "distraction" that takes away from the even greater things that the King/Shvedova duo might be able to accomplish as a TEAM.

Kaia Kanepi, EST: She opened the season behind the eight ball. Coming off a year in which she finished in the Top 25 for the first time, won her maiden tour title and reached two slam QF, Kanepi was forced to play through a broken bone in her left forearm. Although she grabbed a few "signature" wins -- over Petkovic, Pennetta and Wozniacki -- '11 has surely been a disappointment after so many breakthroughs in '10. With a better start in '12, maybe she'll be able to finally pick up where she left off a year ago. Or maybe 2010 was just her "career year."

The Romanians: The Swarmettes have sparked at big events in '11, upsetting Li Na and Petra Kvitova in the opening days of the U.S. Open, and Monica Niculescu reaching the 4th Round in New York and SF in Beijing in recent outings. Three different young Romanians reached at least the tour singles semifinal stage this season, but none won titles. The foundation for widespread Romanian success seems to be strengthening, but it's been thirty-three years since a Romanian won a slam title, and thirty-one since one reached a slam final. Heck, it's even already been fourteen years (!!!) since Irina Spirlea's controvery-heavy run to the U.S. Open final four back in '97.

Kim Clijsters, BEL: Will 2012 be her swan song? Will she even make it to 2012, or all the way through it? A defense attempt of her '11 AO title, as well as the Olympics (KC's never been an Olympian, choosing to skip the event in '04, and in retirement in '08), remain as possibilities to tempt her to hang on for a bit longer after pretty much a "lost" season dominated by injury since February.

Dinara Safina, RUS: Will she? Won't she? Was Marat simply spilling the "retirement beans" a little early? If the star-crossed Russian does indeed "eventually" return from her back injury sabbatical, how long will it take... or her comeback attempt last?

Caroline Garcia, FRA: If you're looking for the next teenager to make her mark, the Pastry might be the first to cast a hopeful glance toward as '12 begins. Along with being the only player to reach the Girls SF at all four junior slams (reaching the final at Flushing Meadows), Garcia nearly captured lightning in a bottle in Paris when she led Maria Sharapova 6-3/4-1 at Roland Garros before her youth finally caught up to her. Of course, the tour hasn't exactly been a terribly hospitable place for teenagers of late. Tour titles won by teens have gone from eleven to four to one the last three seasons, and the last non-Russian teenager to win a slam crown was Serena Williams in 1999.

Lauren Embree, USA (Univ. of Florida): The Gator led the University of Florida's comeback -- escaping her own 4-0 3rd set hole in UF's 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven match final -- against Stanford in the NCAA team final (ending the Cardinal's 184-match home winning streak), and then reached the SF in women's singles. Is she (or teammate Allie Will) the early pick for 2012 NCAA champion? No Gator woman has been crowned champion since Jill Craybas in 1996, and Lisa Raymond (1992-93) not long before her.

[Have Won All 6 Major Singles Crowns in Careers]
Andre Agassi - 3 AO, 1 RG, 1 WI, 2 US, 1 ATP, 1 Olympic singles Gold
Steffi Graf - 4 AO, 6 RG, 7 WI, 5 US, 5 WTA, 1 Olympic singles Gold
[Need Only Olympic Gold]
Roger Federer - 4 AO, 1 RG, 6 WI, 5 US, 5 ATP, 0 Olympic singles Gold (has 1 Doubles)
Serena Williams - 5 AO, 1 RG, 4 WI, 3 US, 2 WA, 0 Olympic singles Gold (has 2 Doubles)
[Close to Winning All 6 Titles]
Novak Djokovic - 2 AO, 0 RG, 1 WI, 1 US, 1 ATP, 0 Olympic singles Gold (needs RG/Olympics)
Rafael Nadal - 1 AO, 6 RG, 2 WI,1 US, 0 ATP, 1 Olympic singles Gold (needs ATP Finals)
Maria Sharapova - 1 AO, 0 RG, 1 WI, 1 US, 1 WTA, 0 Olympic singles Gold (needs RG/Olympics)

The 2011 "Regional Honors" (w/ "2012 Market Tips") arrive next on the season review scene.

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

A lot to think about, and we've been thinking about some of the same things. A few things that have been on my mind along these lines:

I think Kvitova, because of her asthma, is going to continue to have U.S. hard court-swing issues. I would like to see her find a way to work that out, medically, but unless she does (and let's face it, good medical advice doesn't correlate that much with high earnings), that part of the season may not go her way. I do think, however, that the rest of the season is more likely to fall into the "good" cateogry for her. She's streaky, yes, but she also learns from her mistakes and appears to have a great attitude. I think 2012 is going to be very good for her.

My main fear for Radwanska is that she returns to being coached by her father. It could happen. If she continues with other coaching, though, I like her for staying in the top 10.

I don't know why, but I have an instinct that Goerges is going to be more consistent next year. A bit of maturity, perhaps? Petkovic seems to be content to work it out over time, and while I thought she had gone about as far as she could go, I'm now open to maybe seeing an even more improved Petko in 2012. Again, I like the attitude.

It could be a good year for Pavlyuchenkova. She seems on the verge of something.

With the Williams sisters, it really does seem to be about getting older and physical issues. I never rule Serena out of anything, though.

I consider Wozniacki and Sharapova to be the two big mysteries. Both look so strong and so fragile at the same time. Really, I have no idea what 2012 holds for either of them. Kvitova, Petkovic, Pavlyuchenkova, etc. have momentum. Even Azarenka has developed some momentum (though she's a bit of a mystery, too). The Sharapova "fear factor" is down, and the Wozniacki fear factor is probably decreasing, too.

Sun Oct 16, 08:27:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree we have two mysteries and i hope for both that they find a solution for the next season. I'm not in doubt that Caroline is intelligent enough to find a way but Maria can she find inspiration for another year - well we'll se. Radwanska will not go back to her father and that is because her second half has turned out so well - I think that she maybe will inspire Caroline to do the same.
Another thing it's nice to see a championship WITHOUT part time players only the workforce of the WTA tour - brilliant.

Mon Oct 17, 04:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Steen said...

My take on it:
The veterans
Serena will win one or more slams, but I doubt she'll be consistently no. 1. The days when you could be that by playing only 3 or 4 tournaments seriously are over (thankfully), and I doubt Serena is willing to drop her habit of extreme cherry-picking. Clijsters will have retired before the end of 2012 – probably after the Olympics or at the latest after the USO. Indeed, if the year starts out as badly as this year finished, she may retire before the Olympics. Venus may still post some good results, but I do think her slam- and gold-winning days are over. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if she retired at the end of the year. As to Dokic: It's beyond my powers to predict the outcome of the family reunion (though one may fear the worst, remembering Damir's past). If it doesn't go all astray, I believe she can have another good year, although I think the top 20 out of reach.
The youngsters
Caro: I still think you're wrong in implying that she is unwilling to change – indeed, it seems obvious to me that her travails over the last months have been due to attempting to change, but not having found the right formula yet. So her 2012 is dependent on, whether she finds it over the next few months. If she does, the maiden slam will almost certainly come – if not, she'll probably end up with a season much like this year (I think she is much to stable, mentally and gamewise, for your 'very bad' scenario to happen). Kvitova, meanwhile, needs changes in the opposite direction, that is, to get something more than pure power into her game – otherwise she'll continue to be as streaky as now. In the one match of hers I saw from Linz she did in fact seem to be trying for something like that, but I can't judge how far she has got. Even if she does work it out I find your good scenario overoptimistic (but then I'll admit to not being a great fan of hers). As to Vika, I'm even more uncertain of her than of her fellow young guns. She is a more complete player than Kvitova, but even when healthy she has some strange lapses – and then there is the health issue. Aga is the one youngster I'm consistently optimistic about – I think she has turned a corner and will at least stay top 10 throughout the year, with a chance at top 5.
The collectives
Germans: I think Petkovic will do well (knee willing), though hardly to the point of a slam win, but am sceptical of the others. Görges' inconsistency seems endemic, Kerber's USO, in my opinion, WAS a fluke (although I also think her better than the level she has been at for most of the season), and Lisicki has neither the game nor the health to stay at her present level (OK, I'll admit I'm definitely not one of her fans).
Americans: While I think many of them talented, I don't see any future top 10'ers among them (sorry). McHale can probably make it into top 20, though hardly in 2012 (not do I think her ready for winning titles yet). Of the others I think Stephens, Falconi and possibly Riske will make it into top 50, while I'm sceptical of Keys (but then, as should be evident by now, I'm NOT a fan of her type of game).
Romanians: More optimistic about them, especially Niculescu and Dulgheru. The latter has admittedly fallen back in the rankings, but this is largely due to largely choosing hard court tournaments over clay this season, trying to learn to play that surface. And she has indeed made clear strides forward, while Niculescu has amply proved herself on HC – the other Swarmettes are still to dependent on having clay under their feet.
I'll pass on the rest – I don't really have an opinion on them, and this comment is plenty long enough already.

Tue Oct 18, 05:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Steen, Kvitova has already added quite a bit to her game. She's hardly the player she was a year ago in that respect (she's actually become quite clever and versatile), but I believe that sometimes she still thinks like that player. The losses, in my opinion, have nothing to do with one-dimensionality.

I don't think Lisicki is going to stay at a really high level, either. And I think Clijsters will find a way to make it through the Olympics.

Tue Oct 18, 06:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Steen said...

Yeah, I may have been unfair to Petra - by coincidence, all but one of the matches I've seen her in this year were matches she lost, and that's probably not a quite fair sample to judge her by.

Tue Oct 18, 07:10:00 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home