On Their Toes

By Jane Voigt

October 22, 2013 -- You don’t need tea leaves to figure out who will win the year-ending WTA Championships. Serena Williams.

The elite crop of the eight highest-performing women from 2013 is on hand this week in Istanbul, each with her own performance record, each with a story to tell. They have earned their spots. Nonetheless, Williams holds the key to the kingdom and the cash.

She is 73-4 for the year, and has earned 10 titles that include her 16th and 17th Majors. She won Roland Garros for the first time since 2002 and defended her title at the U. S. Open, winning it for the fifth time. She is also the defending champion in Turkey, and has won the event 3 times (2001, 2009, 2012). She will end the year at No. 1, no matter the results at the WTA BNP Paribas champions. 

This is Serena's glory for 2013; and, she turned 32 in late September, the oldest number one player in the Open Era. 

No matter the distinction afforded Williams, as we review the year, she started with a bit of a fizzle. She lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to American Sloane Stephens. It became fuel for Serena's fire. 

She went on to tally the longest winning streak of her career -- 34 matches. It began in Miami where it should not have, had Maria Sharapova continued on the trajectory she firmly established in the first set and a half. But as fans know, Williams storied career is driven by a lock-tight mental presence that few can penetrate. 

She flew out of Miami and landed in Charleston, where she defended her title by defeating Jelena Jankovic. Williams then embarked for the clay-court season in Europe with one goal in mind ... to win Roland Garros. To reach that pinnacle she had to refine her form and put to rest her devastating first-round loss to Virginnie Razzano from 2012. Williams did just that. She won four titles on red clay, plus her second Roland Garros.

Wimbledon would not prove as welcoming, although, and again, she was the probable winner. During two weeks of ugly upsets, multiple falls, and weird weather, Williams lost to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round. Journalists tried to raise Serena's mood, during her post-match press conference; but, she quickly reminded them that they were not paying attention … 'you guys better wake up, she's really good.' 

Her summer was bright on the hard courts until Cincinnati. Victoria Azarenka gave Williams her best in a 3-set blockbuster. But it would be Serena who lifted the U. S. Open trophy against Azarenka a couple weeks later. 

Many contend 2013 has been her best year since way back in 2002. The comparison has merit, and other factors have parted the waters for the California native, too. She has been healthy. No cuts, pulmonary problems, and when her French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, speaks she listens. 

Williams was the first to qualify for the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships with a total of 12,040 points. She told the WTA, "The support we received from the fans at last year's Championships was overwhelming and it's going to be a very special feeling returning to Turkey and playing in that incredible atmosphere again."

The atmosphere today in her debut match of the round-robin phase was delightful for the star. She defeated Angelique Kerber 63 61. 

For the first couple days of the event she will play the three women in her group, which is unimaginably named the Red Group as is the other named the White Group. In addition to Kerber is Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova. In the White Group are Victoria Azarenka, Na Li, Sara Errani, Jelena Jankovic. 

Although Kerber had scored a win over Williams in 2011, she obviously found no footing today. Radwanska is tricky, but cannot consistently withstand the power from Williams. Kvitova, though, most likely will pose the biggest challenge. She is a lefty, meaning her ball has odd spins that can throw off any player -- even Serena Williams. Kvitova is a power player, too, able to hang with Serena. Finally, Kvitova won this event in 2011 and is familiar with the experience of battling at this level day in and day out. Each match is like a quarterfinal or better of a slam.

Here is a look at the two groups and the progression players will make by the finale. 

One person missing this week is Maria Sharapova. She qualified early, but withdrew almost immediately. She continues to have trouble with her right shoulder, the one that sidelined her for 18 months in 2008. 

Sharapova, though, started to fade at Wimbledon. She lost in the third round to Qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito. The spill Sharapova took on the baseline during that loss forced her to retire from future tournaments. 

The early exit and injury were followed by a misstep in management. In mid-August she fired Thomas Hogstedt to then hire Jimmy Connors. The relationship lasted a New York minute, when Sharapova lost their debut match. She posted on her website that, "'It's not the right fit at this time,'" but other sparks could have ignited the separation. Connors, in his flip cavalier manner, told the press after the loss that things like that happen. Players lose. We will probably never know the truth. But, rest assured, Sharapova is on the lookout for a new coach. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013