Is it too late for another edition of Singapore Sunday? Or perhaps too early? Looking back on last year’s WTA Finals, the eight women who took to Singapore were far and away the best of the 2014 season; half of the field was composed of current and former No. 1s, while the rest had, at the very least, reached a Grand Slam final.
But just four months later, how different would that list have looked if the Finals were to take place today? Where players like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have only looked stronger since their stay in Singapore, others – like Ana Ivanovic, Eugenie Bouchard, and Agnieszka Radwanska – are struggling to recapture the form that lifted them among that Ever-So-Elite Eight.
With the first quarter of the season nearly over, TTI takes a bold look at eight women on the Road to Singapore who look poised to work the hardest, last the longest, and qualify for the 2015 WTA Finals.
1. Serena WILLIAMS (USA)
Kicking off our list is the season’s reigning Grand Slam champion and undisputed No. 1, Serena Williams. The 2014 WTA Finals winner has shaken off the doubt that plagued her for much of last year, starting the season with an unbroken eight-match winning streak (including Fed Cup). The American plans a return to Indian Wells after more than a decade away; the California courts are well-suited to her game and promise a hefty purse of prize money and, for those paying attention to the Road to Singapore rankings, valuable points.
With little to defend at the French Open and Wimbledon Championships, Williams should feel little pressure as she hopes to get closer to Steffi Graf’s total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. For all her ups and downs, the RTS No. 1 has won the WTA Finals four of the last six years, and is a likely no-brainer when it comes to a 2015 return.
2. Maria SHARAPOVA (RUS)
Stomach virus aside, Sharapova has cemented herself as the second best player on the WTA Tour. Struggles at some of the biggest hard court tournaments stunted her progress through much of 2014, and the two-time French Open champion heavily relied on points earned during the clay court swing to qualify for Singapore. A win at last year’s China Open in Beijing reestablished her hard court prowess, and the Russian has gone from strength to strength since then, capturing another title in Brisbane and leading her country into the semifinals of Fed Cup with two singles wins in Krakow.
Oh, and she made the Australian Open final.
Sharapova had a disappointing end to her week in round robin play, failing to quickly seal Agnieszka Radwanska, thereby spurning a chance to reach the semifinals – and contest for the Year-End No. 1. Should she keep this form up, a second swing in Singapore might look very different.
3. Simona HALEP (ROU)
The next player on our list is one of last week’s Dubai finalists. Romania’s Simona Halep has had a strange start to the season, first looking strong through a title run in Shenzhen, then out of sorts in a quarterfinal loss in Melbourne. The RTS No. 3 had to fight through a cadre of difficult matches and a trio of quality opponents before winning her second tournament of the year.
Last year’s French Open runner-up has a game for all surfaces, and had a confidence-building week in the Middle East. Should she carry that momentum through Indian Wells and Miami, she will likely be able to directly challenge the two names above her for titles and Grand Slam glory come the European clay swing.
Of the women on this list, Halep perhaps gained the most from her time in Singapore; though she failed to win the title, the Romanian came away with a career-defining victory over Serena Williams. That level of determination ought to pay dividends through the year.
4. Karolina PLISKOVA (CZE)
Next up, the first surprise and second Dubai finalist. If you like your stars Rising, then Karolina Pliskova has been the player for you in 2015. The right-handed half of a Czech pair of junior prodigies, Pliskova has truly come into her own over the last eighteen months, flying under the radar to reach five finals and win two titles on the International level. The Czech continues to cut an unassuming figure on-court, preferring to let her results do the talking.
But those results are getting louder.
Beginning the year with a bang, Pliskova has wins over some of the hottest players of the season, including Garbiñe Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, and two wins over Azarenka’s conqueror in Doha, Lucie Safarova. Past results would indicate a potential for the Czech star’s booming game to translate to other surfaces – she reached the final of Nürnberg last year, beating Angelique Kerber en route – and as she edges closer to the Top 10, her draws will only become more favorable as the year progresses.
Stamina remains the biggest question; Pliskova has played a heavy schedule and is yet untested when it comes to the superhuman grind required of a top player. With everything else in doubt, the Czech’s serve and groundstrokes remain undeniable, and on a Tour book-ended by hard court tournaments, look for Pliskova to not only sneak into Singapore, but arrive as one of the leading contenders for gold.
5. Caroline WOZNIACKI (DEN)
Last year’s Singapore semifinalist might not be earning the revelatory results that took her to the top of her WTA Finals round robin group, but reports of a slump would appear to be – upon further inspection – greatly exaggerated.
Certainly, the former No. 1 would have liked to have collected a title or follow up her run to the US Open final with another Grand Slam surge by now. Yet, losses to Venus Williams, Simona Halep, and Victoria Azarenka (twice) are hardly cause for concern. Her protracted argument with Doha officials during her encounter with the latter proves that, if nothing else, her competitive fire burns as brightly as ever. With more favorable draws, she should be expected make greater strides over the next month of mini-majors.
With a game made for the hard courts, the Dane will tend benefit from a Tour schedule chock-full of events on the cement. Solid results on clay and grass could easily build the foundation for a triumphant return to the Emirates Airlines US Open Series, the site of the two-time Flushing finalist’s inspiring renaissance.
Wozniacki played one of the matches of 2014 against Williams in Singapore and, provided she stays healthy, should relish a rematch against the RTS No. 1 to kick her season into high gear.
6. Petra KVITOVA (CZE)
The second Czech on the list is noted for her inconsistencies. But rather paradoxically, the two-time Wimbledon winner has never failed to qualify for the WTA Finals since her 2011 breakthrough. Kvitova looked poised for a strong season with a title in Sydney over Pliskova, but an early loss to Madison Keys in Melbourne derailed her rise. Spectators saw the best (but ultimately worst) of the former No. 2 in Doha en route to a thudding three-set loss to Carla Suarez Navarro, leaving many to question where she goes from here.
But Kvitova is one whose form can turn on a match – nay, a forehand. She might not catch fire with the same frequency as in years past, but her very best is more than capable of competing with the Top 8 – and thrashing a fair few of them, at that. Perhaps most impressive of all: the Czech has proven she can make it to Singapore with subpar Slam results, making the quarterfinals or better of just two majors in the last two years. A few strings of that jaw-dropping form throughout the season might be all she needs for a fifth consecutive WTA Finals appearance.
7.Victoria AZARENKA (BLR)
Injuries conspired to keep this former No. 1 away from Singapore a year ago, snapping a streak of five straight years contesting among the WTA’s Elite Eight. A clean bill of health and a new attitude are behind the Belorussian’s slow and steady rise to start the season, already reaching the second week of the Australian Open and the finals of Doha – and beating Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams along the way.
The two-time Grand Slam champion has often been a polarizing character in the women’s game; her abrasive demeanor, numerous faux pas, and high-profile relationship with LMFAO’s RedFoo have hardly endeared her to the the staid traditionalists who make up the majority of mainstream tennis fans. After years of being – rather unapologetically – herself, Azarenka has become more conscious of public opinion, and even played through obvious pain during several matches last year, seemingly for fear of what others might think.
This season has seen Azarenka attempt to balance those warring sides to a net positive, but perhaps lacking the same ferocity that took her through a 26-match winning streak in 2012. Without the pressure of having to defend a season’s worth of points, the RTS No. 18 will certainly rise – how fast and how high remains to be seen.
8. Timea BACSINSZKY (SUI)
The first seven are all reasonable bets to contest for spots at this year’s WTA Finals.
Timea Bacsinszky is my Crazy (No.) Eight.
While most have been spellbound by the more headline-grabbing performances of the Pliskovas and Muguruzas, Switzerland’s No. 1 has had a quietly excellent season thus far. Believe it or not: this time last year, Bacsinszky was ranked just inside the World’s Top 200. Injuries and apathy had prompted an indefinite hiatus, but after a serendipitous appearance in French Open qualifying, the former Top 40 stalwart rediscovered her love of the game, and has been steadily improving ever since. Hard work paid off last fall when Bacsinszky out-gutted Maria Sharapova to reach the quarterfinals of Wuhan, falling to Wozniacki in a thrilling three-set affair.
That form foreshadowed an even sharper start to 2015. Seeded No. 8 in Shenzhen, she toppled Kvitova in straight sets en route to the final. She was equally ruthless against No. 15 Jelena Jankovic to reach the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2008. She led Switzerland into the World Group I Play-off with two wins over Sweden. And just days ago, she thrashed Caroline Garcia to win the title in Acapulco. Already at a career-high of No. 31 on the WTA rankings, Bacsinzsky is earning even more recognition on the RTS rankings, where she cracked the Top 15 Monday morning.
With wins over the best – and a proven ability to dominate the rest – Bacsinzky may have a few more surprises in store.
On the Bubble…
Check out the three most likely to play spoiler to the above eight on the Road to Singapore:
Venus WILLIAMS (USA)
The elder Williams has shown vintage form for much of 2015 – winning a title in Auckland and reaching her first major quarterfinal since 2010. But can she keep this up long enough to ensure a place in Singapore? The American looked like a lock to reach the Doha final after winning her ninth straight set off Azarenka, only to drop the last two in a first-ever loss to the Belorussian. One thing is clear: an appearance in Singapore would be a crowning achievement in Williams’ arduous comeback from the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome.
Garbiñe MUGURUZA (ESP)
The Spaniard could have easily taken Pliskova’s place on the list, but given the opportunity to unseat the Czech – and Serena Williams at the Australian Open, for that matter – she couldn’t seal the deal. Much has been made of Muguruza’s relentlessly big hitting, typically down the middle of the court. As the season unfolds, look for more players to find ways of checking that strategy, which might force the RTS No. 12 to retool while others continue to rise.
Lucie SAFAROVA (CZE)
Could this edition of the WTA Finals see three Czech women make up its Elite Eight? If not for a pair of losses to Karolina Pliskova, Safarova’s resumé might have looked even brighter heading into this part of the season. Taking out three Top 15 players and a former No. 1 to win her first title since 2013, last year’s Wimbledon finalist has always been a known talent. It’s the apparent mental improvements that have been infinitely more impressive; the Safarova of a few years ago might have faltered at the finish line against Azarenka, but the Czech powerhouse held her nerve to close out the match in straight sets. With a clean, all-court game, the Australian Open women’s doubles champion – and latest addition to the RTS Top 10 – may be more in this than anyone thinks come Singapore.
Who do you think has the best chance of reaching the WTA Finals in Singapore? Sound off in the comments!