The 2011 season may be over, but the top 10 lingers on--at least for a while. What are the prospects for the best-ranked players in the world?
10. Andrea Petkovic
Andrea Petkovic is so witty, bright and creative, sometimes we forget to focus on her tennis. Her rise to the top 10 occurred somewhat under the radar, and her improvement has been incremental. Petkovic has talent, but her ball-striking was, for a long time, more accomplished than her mental strength. That changed in 2011, though she she's the first to say that she still has a way to go in terms of confidence. She has been called an "over-achiever" (I so dislike that term), but the fact remains that she's made it to the top 10, she works very hard to improve, and she has one of the best attitudes around. Petkovic has fun doing her job, and she's as good at injecting reality into an occasion as she is at injecting humor.
Dance Party, as the German is known on this blog, does have a bit of a knee problem, however. In 2008, she had to leave the tour for eight months because of it, and this past year, she had a knee injury. After it was treated, Petkovic said her main problem was guarding against a recurrence and thereby not moving as fully as she could have on the court.
Petkovic did win a title (her second) this year and she played in one of the best finals of the year. Agnieszka Radwanska defeated her in Beijing 7-5, 0-6, 6-4, but all was well when they did the Petko dance together for a very appreciative crowd. Petkovic also reached the quarterfinals of three majors, and that's a big accomplishment by any standard. If her knee doesn't give her any serious trouble, I look for the dance to go on.
9. Marion Bartoli
For those of us who have kept the faith with Bartoli for years, 2011 was kind of an "I told you so" moment. The Frenchwoman has never looked as deadly as she did this year, nor has she ever looked as physically healthy. With Bartoli, illness and injury are part of the package, but she fought through several bad moments this season, showing a kind of toughness that was most impressive. She reached the final in Indian Wells, losing to Caroline Wozniacki in three entertaining sets. At the French Open, where she had never before had any type of comfort level, she embraced the crowd's support and made it to the quarterfinals. Bartoli won Eastbourne, and in the Wimbledon third round, she won what may have been the match of her career against Flavia Pennetta.
Whether she's hopping up and down between points, painting landscapes, napping between Wimbledon upsets, or strapping tennis balls to her arches during a training session, Marion Bartoli is her own woman. She's been called "eccentric," but that's what we tend to call people who don't really care about how they're "supposed" to act and think. Actually, Bartoli is a charming and intelligent woman who happens to hit killer groundstrokes, and who can take the ball before you can say "Qu'est-ce que c'est?!" Can she win a major? Don't look for me to say "no" to that question. I think she has a shot until the day she retires, which I hope isn't any time soon.
8. Agnieszka Radwanska
For some time now, Radwanksa has been one of my very favorite players on the tour. I like to watch her as she dips, volleys, scurries, and finds little slices of angles near the net. Radwanska's game is always there to remind me why I started watching women's tennis in the first place. She can think, and she can think fast. But the clever and quick Radwanska has also faced significant problems in her career; specifically, a lack of aggression, a poor serve, and an abusive father/coach.
In 2011, the creative Polish player turned some of that around. She replaced her father with another coach, she developed a decent first serve, and she went eye-to-eye with opponents in big matches without blinking. Radwanska won the two big back-to-back Asian tournaments--Tokyo and Beijing--and she also won Carlsbad. And she accomplished much of her success while dealing with an injured shoulder. She still needs a useful second serve, and--unfortunately--she's already giving that only-too-familiar speech about the close tie between her and her father, despite the dramatic improvements she made when she worked with another coach.
But Radwanska doesn't seem like anyone's fool, either, and she should be entering the 2012 season with a big dose of confidence. She'll have her hands full, what with the return of the likes of Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, but that doesn't make her any different from any other big player on the tour. Can she make another big strike, or did she peak in the latter part of 2011?
7. Vera Zvonareva
Did anyone really think that Zvonareva could repeat her 2010 success? I don't mean that as put-down at all--it's just that making the finals of two majors is a huge accomplishment for someone who isn't one of the above-mentioned players who might annoy Radwanska in 2012. But even as I write this, I know that Zvonareva has the ability to surprise us and make another big run because, when's she "on" mentally, she's quite dangerous. Commentators like to say that Zvonareva doesn't do any one thing really, really well, but she does everything better than most other players. She deserves better than--pun alert!--such a backhanded compliment, however. Zvonareva's speed and stinging backhand make her a very tough opponent, and when her serve is working well, she's even tougher.
6. Samantha Stosur
The continuing rise of Sam Stosur is one of the most peculiar phenomena in pro tennis. I mean that in a good way. She is the only player besides Jana Novotna (however, the Czech player's transition was less dramatic in terms of singles titles won and transitonal timeline) to go from being a huge doubles star to being a big singles star. She doesn't win many tournaments (she has only three titles) because she tends to lose finals. And just when it looked as though the 2010 French Open finalist had already seen her greatest singles moment, she went and won the 2011 U.S. Open--by beating Serena Williams in straight sets in the final. Who saw that coming?
Considering the fact that--unless you're Ana Ivanovic--lifting a huge, very shiny trophy gives you a whole lot of confidence, Stosur has a load of momentum going into the new season. You could also flip that idea around and ask: How is she going to handle being Australia's great hope when the 100th Australian Open is played in a few weeks? That's a lot of pressure, to be sure, and we have only to look at the U.S. Open results of both Li Na and Petra Kvitova to know what could happen.
But so what if it does? I don't think Stosur would be crushed if she went out early in Australia. I say that because she's already been crushed--twice--and she survived to talk about it. In other words, the Australian is tougher than she looks. While Stosur was in her post-French Open slump, coach David Taylor tried to tell us that she was very close to regaining her form, and he was right. Will she always be streaky? Probably. There are worse things.
5. Li Na
Here's the player who defines the word "streaky," but on her good days, watch out. She got to the final of this year's Australian Open, then surprised probably almost everybody by winning the French. She then went "poof" into thin air, going out in the first round of the U.S. Open, and sputtering and muttering her way to the end of the season. This has pretty much been the story of Li's career, but again--so what? When her head is on right, she can use that mighty forehand to wear down the best of them. Li, probably the rightful (though not actual) winner of this year's Diamond Aces award, is the ultimate tour ambassador. She has taken her breakthrough role very seriously, and it's hard not to cheer for the sharp-witted, sometimes hilarious Chinese star who always tells it just like it is. At the end of the season, she was publicly upset with herself, and I think we'll see more of the winning Li in 2012. Whether she can win another major is another matter, but I wouldn't count her completely out.
4. Maria Sharapova
Sharapova is a brave public figure, but one can't help but believe that losing the 2011 Wimbledon final had to have cut pretty deeply. After all, it had been seven years since the Russian's huge, breakthrough win over Serena Williams, and she had finally played her way into another Wimbledon final. Though it may have seemed that Sharapova was "supposed" to win Wimbledon this year, she was unable to handle the assault on her game made by Petra Kvitova. Actually, the "old" 'Pova would have had a big fight on her hands with Kvitova. The current not-quite-sure-of-herself Sharapova gave the Czech star the bit of space she needed to move in and take over.
Would things be different if Sharapova had never had to deal with a badly injured shoulder and an incompetent doctor? Undoubtedly. But there were always vulnerabilities present, as there are with all players; now, those vulnerabilities are easier to exploit. Sharapova is one tough cookie, though, and I don't think we should write her off. Her 2011 season was actually a very good one. She won titles in Rome and Cincinnati, made it to the semifinals of the French Open, and achieved her highest year-end ranking since 2007.
The bad news is that Sharapova is still dealing with an ankle injury, and will therefore make a late start in 2012. She has canceled her appearance in Brisbane, but says she'll play in the Australian Open. Four years ago, she won in Melbourne. How far will she go this time?
3, Victoria Azarenka
Finally, in 2011, Azarenka reached the semifinals of a major. Seeded 4th at Wimbledon, she lost to eventual champion Petra Kvitova, but was one of the last four women standing. Actually, in Azarenka's case, the "standing" part is good in and of itself. The talented Azarenka has hobbled, staggered and literally passed out of so many matches, her physical fragility (perhaps even greater than Marion Bartoli's?) has become as well-known as her tennis.
Azarenka hasn't had an easy time of it. She's fun to have at the top, though, because she's bright and candid and interesting--and she's a really good tennis player. This year, she made her nemesis, Kvitova, work harder for the victories, though the Czech now holds a 4-2 record against her, with all four wins achieved in the last two years. It's not a real rivalry yet, but it could become one.
Of all the players in the top 10, save Kvitova, Azarenka probably has the most potential to keep advancing. I do think it's all about her physical health. If she can just stay upright, the woman whose very name makes her a winner might do some big winning next year.
2. Petra Kvitova
A few years ago, I would watch Kvitova and wonder "Will she ever, ever think before she hits?" She seemed so close to doing something big, but the talent was just too raw, too out of control. And then she took control of it, and I saw the Kvitova I knew was always in there--the one who knows she's a champion and acts like it. Rather than throwing her off her course, losing that 2010 Wimbledon semifinal match to "the Serena" (a nervous Kvitova couldn't quite get "the semifinal against Serena" to come out of her mouth during a Wimbledon interview, and she wound up delivering what has become my favorite name for the younger Williams sister) obviously made Kvitova think about what she wanted to become.
She had the serve. She had the groundstrokes. What she needed was better movement, more variety and a steadier mind. Her movement can still improve and her mind could be steadier, though her 2011 trips to the net certainly gave her a big advantage in the "variety" department. Kvitova still "goes off," but she comes back. After her shocking first-round loss at the U.S. Open, she did something to pull herself together, and went on to win Linz and the WTA Championships, and to lead her team to the Fed Cup championship.
Kvitova's childhood idol was the great Martina Navratilova, who also suffered from over-thinking and -feeling on the court. Until she didn't. With her tricky left-handed serve and her sometimes scary returns, Kvitova--for all her fumbles and brief trips to space--is breathtakingly good. Behold The Rock.
1. Caroline Wozniacki
Wozniacki, who has comfortably ended the last two seasons with the top ranking, now faces a gap of only 115 points between her and Petra Kvitova. The Dane probably won't hold onto her ranking too much longer, and that should work to her advantage, since it removes the (according to her, nonexistent) pressure that's on her for being number 1 and not winning a major.
Does that mean Wozniacki will finally win a major? Her two best chances are at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. She reached the semifinals of both of those events this year, and lost to Li Na and Serena Williams, respectively. Wozniacki lost her French Open third round match to Daniela Hantuchova, and her round of 16 Wimbledon match to Dominika Cibulkova.
On the "up" side, Wozniacki won six titles in 2011, tying Kvitova in quantity.
But I digress. Can the player known as Sunshine, the Great Dane and the Golden Retriever win a major in 2012? I don't consider her a big favorite to do so, but neither can I eliminate her from the field. We sometimes get so caught up in talking about Wozniacki's failing, we forget how truly good she is. She does almost everything very well, and is an athlete of enviable stamina and strength. Her shot-making accuracy is unsurpassed. But at big moments, she can't seem to will herself to bring the aggression that's needed.
Wozniacki, coached for years by her father, Piotr, has hired a new coach, Ricardo Sanchez, who was twice (once, just recently) the coach of Jelena Jankovic (and yes, it hurts that she's not on this list). I can't shake the feeling, however, that Sanchez is going to be more of a cardboard cut-out, propped up to make us believe that Wozniacki has made a big change. I say that because it's hard for me to imagine Piotr Wozniacki stepping back and allowing anyone--much less the contentious Sanchez--to take over. For all their bickering, Sanchez and Jankovic seemed like a natural pairing. Sanchez and Wozniacki--not so much.
Wozniacki hasn't appeared too comfortable in her own skin for a long time. And while she's hardly the first tennis pro to drag observers of the sport through an awkward self-identity-seeking mission, she's the one who most needs to keep her head down and focus on her tennis.
That does it for the top 10, but no discussion of this particular top 10 would be complete without mentioning numbers 13 and 12.
Kim Clijsters is ranked number 13 in the world, and is the defending Australian Open champion. Clijsters was struck down by multiple injuries in 2011, and 2012 will probably be her last year to play on the tour. She won't want to go quietly, though, and we can expect her to compete enthusiastically for a gold medal at the Olympic Games. We can also expect her to put up a fight to defend her Melbourne title, and to get one final U.S. Open championship. And of course, this isn't to say she won't be a contender at the French and at Wimbledon. Her body is fragile, though, and she plans to limit her tour appearances. But if she can stay reasonably healthy, Aussie Kim is still in the mix to take home at least one big trophy.
That brings us to world number 12, one Serena Williams, who has practically no points to defend for some time. Williams has won the Australian Open five times, Wimbledon four times, and the U.S. Open three times. She won the French Open once, in 2002. Williams returned to the tour late this year, after undergoing multiple health problems, and--though she lost the U.S. Open final--she managed to win two hard court titles. She has a couple of Olympic gold medals in doubles, but none in singles, so we can expect her to be highly competitive during the Games in London next summer.
Again, it's all about health. If both Clijsters and Williams can stay free of major injuries and/or illnesses, they will be looking to escort two of the aforementioned players out of the top 10 sooner than later. Both of them will focus on the majors and the Olympic Games, and neither of them is anyone a player wants to see opposite her name in a draw.