Istanbul Day 1- A Sketchy Vika, a Fairly Focused Petra and the Usual Serena Emerge with Victories
With WTA Championships Day 1 play having begun in Istanbul for the final year (the event shifts to Singapore in '14), thus begins Backspin's daily recap of the scheduled matches.
On Tuesday, the top two players in the world kicked off play in the round robin portion of this tournament. The Red Group is headed by #1 Serena Williams, who has more career wins in this event than a combination of six (minus Victoria Azarenka) of the other seven qualifying players in the field. Her group seems to be the toughest of the two, as it consists of Serena along with Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. #2 Azarenka's White Group, made up of four players who all sported losing career records in these Championships heading into this week, includes Li Na, Sara Errani and Jelena Jankovic.
Williams and Azarenka would seem to be safe bets to finish in the top two in their respective groups and advance to the semifinals, but the competition for the other two spots should lead to some interesting and potentially tension-filled matches later this week when it could come down to tie-breakers such as "sets lost" when it comes to determining the second place finishers in the groups.
Here's a recap of Day 1's matches:
(2) Azarenka/BLR d. (6) Errani/ITA 7-6(4)/6-2
...in a tightly-contested match (at least for a while), Azarenka battled against the diminutive Italian as well as her own slow start and poor serving. Again. Just like she did all the way to the final at Flushing Meadows, the last place Vika actually won a match before arriving in Istanbul on an uncharacteristic three-match hard court losing streak. In the 1:27 1st set, Errani jumped to an early two-break lead before the world #2 noticeably picked up her game. Errani served for the set at 5-2, 5-4 and 6-5 before Azarenka pushed things to a tie-break. There, the Belarusian again fell behind (3-1) before taking command down the stretch to win 7-4, taking the set despite a 59% 1st serve percentage and six double-faults. Vika is now 9-1 in tie-breaks this season. Errani suffered a calf injury in the 2nd set and was treated on multiple occasions by a trainer. Her movement suffered, as it was apparent she wasn't willing to put much pressure on her leg. And an Errani without her wheels isn't much of an obstacle. Azarenka won the set 6-2 to push her record in the last 100 matches in which she won the 1st set to 99-1 (36-1 in '13), but her difficulty in holding serve once again looks like it will make this tournament a nail-biting affair on her part. As for Errani (now 1-31 vs. Top 5 players), one wonders if she'll be back in the singles round robin (it'd mean Caroline Wozniacki would step in), especially if she wants to maintain her availability in the doubles competition, where she and Roberta Vinci are the #1 seeds. Errani is the only player in the WTA Championships who qualified in both singles and doubles (though Vinci is the third singles alternate).
(1) S.Williams/USA d. (8) Kerber/GER 6-3/6-1
...most of Serena's matches in Istanbul are to be expected to be somewhat routine, at least until the semifinals (unless Kvitova turns her game up yet another notch later this week), and this one followed that script. After ducking under fences and reading the fine print of the WTA rules to find a way to sneak into the Championships field in the closing weeks of the season, Kerber's opening match was over in just 1:03. In her second trip to the year-end event, she's still looking for her first match win.
(5) Kvitova/CZE d. (3) A.Radwanska/POL 6-4/6-4
...what looked to be the best match-up of Day 1 closed out the session as the '11 Wimbledon champ faced off with the '12 Wimbledon runner-up. Kvitova has had a fine 4Q, winning in Tokyo and reaching the Beijing semis, and is the only player other than three-time champ Serena who has a WTA Championships title (2011). Radwanska, too, won an Asian swing crown in Seoul, ending a title drought that went all the way back to Week 2 of this season when she won her second of back-to-back events to open 2013. Here, Kvitova opened the match with a break of A-Rad's serve and held that advantage for the rest of the 1st set, winning 6-4 and never facing another break point after saving three in Game #2. Kvitova leads the tour in three-set wins, but that's not really because of her great mental strength, and instead is because of the Swiss cheese-sized mental holes in her game that cause her to so often throw away sets by 6-1 (or worse) scores due to an overabundance of errors, forcing things to a deciding set. One more three-setter in Istanbul and Kvitova will break her tie with Patty Schnyder (36 in 2005) for the most such matches in a single season. After Kvitova followed up her 2nd set opening break by dropping her own serve one game later with a double-fault on break point it looked as if history might be about to be made. But no. Don't worry... I'm sure #37 will come at some point this week. Despite all of Radwanska's cleverness, sometimes when she goes up against a highly-ranked power player she stations herself behind the baseline and allows her opponent to control all the points and simply hit her off the court. It eventually leads to her "trying too hard" on some points, losing her cool focus and committing uncharacteristic errors that are simply deadly to her game. That's what happened here. Kvitova broke in Game #3 and, notwithstanding a few sprayed shots that presented a potentially open door for Aga to stroll through and make a match of things, never really looked back. Well, check that... serving at 5-4, Kvitova fell down 15/40, faced four break points and double-faulted on her first of three match points (the last converted after Petra stopped play to successfully challenge a Radwanska ball that had been called in on the baseline) before winning the 2nd at 6-4. The win extends to 30-3 her record in her last thirty-three indoor hard court matches.
By the way, kudos to Brett Haber and Lindsay Davenport's match prep for their roles in Tennis Channel's coverage today. Of course,, maybe the nod should go to whomever it was that put together all the stats that they pulled out of their back pockets throughout the day... many of which I used in this recap.
The Tournament of "Champions" draw for Sofia, Bulgaria is out, and it includes:
Simona Halep (#14)
Ana Ivanovic (#16)
Maria Kirilenko (#18)
Samantha Stosur (#19)
Elena Vesnina (#25)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (#26)
Alize Cornet (#27)
Tsvetana Pironkova (#118)
Of course, two of those players -- Ivanovic and Pironkova -- weren't champions at all in 2013. Never-a-champion Pironkova, from Bulgaria, was added as a wild card after Wozniacki decided against heading to Sofia. I suspect wild card AnaIvo is there because she won this tournament twice (2010-11) when it was held in Bali, but she hasn't won a tour title since that TOC run in '11. So, contrary to what Haber said on TC today, inclusion in this field -- as it never really has been in actual practice, to be truthful -- doesn't always require a player to be among the eight highest-ranked players not in the Championships field who have also won a title during the current season.
Hmmm, so maybe I should retract that kudos from earlier? Well, I'll still give a nod to Davenport. Plus, it gives me a chance to note that the next Backspin post will be a rundown of the Hall of Fame prospects of today's top players, as well as some recently retired ones who are still on queue for Newport. A list which includes... Davenport. Ta-da!!
(Yeah, I know... that was a little bit of a "sneaky" promotion. Where's Patty Schnyder -- also mentioned here! -- when you need her? Has she reached the end of The White Mile yet? Just wondering.)
Meanwhile, on Day 2 in Istanbul, Li Na and Jelena Jankovic will play their first matches... and, quite possibly, Wozniacki will, as well. Also, The Serena faces The Rad.
*CAREER WTA CHAMPIONSHIP RECORDS - 2013 field*
21-5...Serena Williams (1-0)
8-8...Victoria Azarenka (1-0)
6-1...Petra Kvitova (1-0)
5-5...Agnieszka Radwanska (0-1)
4-10...Jelena Jankovic (-)
2-4...Li Na (-)
0-2...Sara Errani (0-1)
0-4...Angelique Kerber (0-1)
All for now.