Sunday, 15 April 2012

WTA 2012: Review of the season so far - Part 1

It now seems a good time with no WTA tournaments next week to take stock and review the progress of how the women are faring in 2012 so far.  We are now into the clay court season with all systems go for the second Grand Slam at Roland Garros at the end of the May.  This is the most hectic part of the year (and my favourite part too!), which is packed even more so this year with the Olympics nestled in between Wimbledon and the US Open, at the end of July.  Here is my take on 2012 so far...

Victoria Azarenka
Star performer - At the beginning of the year, most people (including myself) picked out Petra Kvitova as the most likely woman to succeed Caroline Wozniacki at the top of the rankings; however it was the Belarusian, Victoria Azarenka, who would be the big talking point at the start of 2012.  Azarenka came racing out the blocks as she compiled a sensational 26 match winning streak, taking the titles in Sydney, Melbourne, Doha and Indian Wells.  Her consistent, yet attacking play, has been coupled with a heavily improved mental attitude on court and a new found desire to win.

Finally we have a world number one that will not be criticised for not having won a Grand Slam and even more impressive, was her response to winning that elusive major.  The last three newly crowned Grand Slam champions (Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur) all suffered alarming slumps in form, but Azarenka has had no such problems as she completely dominated the field in both Doha and Indian Wells, waltzing to the titles for the loss of just one set combined.  However, on the downside she is not as popular as previous world number one, Caroline Wozniacki and has not endeared herself to the public with her on-court antics. The whole grunting debate could start another essay so I will steer clear of that one for now...

As we move onto the clay, it will be interesting to see how Azarenka responds to having lost her first match of the year to an inspired, Marion Bartoli in the quarter-finals of Miami.  I think she will post some strong results on the clay although at this time of writing, she is not my top pick to win at Roland Garros.

After a shaky start, Victoria Azarenka produced a terrific performance to overwhelm Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final, 6-3 6-0

Consistency is the key - The world number two, Maria Sharapova has enjoyed an excellent start to 2012 having reached the finals of the three biggest tournaments of the year to date in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami; however she has been unable to take any of the crowns losing to Victoria Azarenka twice and Agnieszka Radwanska once.  In general, her serve has looked more steady this year and she has retained her raw fighting spirit; however she has surprisingly faltered in all three finals, which is not something you would expect from Maria.  

Agnieskza Radwanska
Although she has the ability to turn match arounds, I think she lacks a plan B when her game is not firing on all cylinders, and particularly in Miami, she failed to execute a consistent gameplan against Radwanska.  A big title in the upcoming weeks could give her the confidence that she can go all the way on a surface she previously described herself as being like a "cow on ice", but has been growing in confidence on in the past couple of years.

The most consistent player so far this year apart from Azarenka, has been Agnieszka Radwanska who has built an impressive 26 wins including superb title runs in Miami and Dubai.  Her three losses have come at the hands of Azarenka, who she has since fallen out with after a semi-final loss in Doha.  Radwanska has done superbly well to build on her rejuvunated form at the end of 2011 and her consistent and thoughtful approach has been just too solid for the majority on tour.  

The criticism of Radwanska has always been the lack of power, and in particular the lack of a second serve.  I still feel it is an issue, but no-one can doubt she has done remarkably well, despite still struggling with key aspects of her game.  She has now moved up to world number three and with few points to defend over the coming months, she could easily find herself moving further up the rankings.  I do not see her dominating on the clay courts, but I think Wimbledon offers an amazing opportunity to build up ranking points having lost in the second round last year.

Agnieszka Radwanska played an excellent match to defeat Maria Sharapova, 7-5 6-4 in the Miami final.  She also beat Venus Williams and Marion Bartoli on her way to winning the title.

Breakthrough stars and emerging talent of 2012 - 2012 has seen a number of players shine through, but I have been most impressed with Angelique Kerber and Mona Barthel I tipped Barthel to reach the top 30 in my series of prediction threads for 2012, but even I am surprised at how quickly she has taken to the main tour.  She has already had a meteoric rise up the rankings from number 69 at the start of 2012 to number 37 and already looks set to break my prediction by the halfway stage of the season.

The superb form has been spearheaded by winning the title in Hobart as she came through three rounds of qualifying, before beating four top 50 players in the main draw.  She has yet to have that elusive big win although she came close to it in Indian Wells and being the first one to stop Victoria Azarenka's winning streak.  In the last couple of weeks, her form has dipped ever so slightly and she has shown fragility in finishing tight matches; however she continues to wrack up wins against opponents she should be beating... my new prediction for the end of the year - top 15.

Angelique Kerber showed glimpses of what she can do by reaching the US Open semi-finals last year, but has grown stronger and stronger throughout 2012.  She now appears rock solid mentally having won four matches this year from match point down.  She won her first title in a richly entertaining tournament in Paris and backed it up with a superb run in Copenhagen this week.  She was also tough as boots to get to the semi-finals in Miami.  Her defensive game is superb, but I do wonder when the wins do not come as easily and there is an inevitable dip in confidence, whether she can keep this form going... I think she will peak just on the outskirts of the top 10 as like Barthel, she has few points to defend over the coming months.

Angelique Kerber showed nerves of steel to defeat another fighter, Marion Bartoli in an entertaining final in Paris, 7-6 5-7 6-3.  She also beat Maria Sharapova in what was a terrific week for the German player.

Kaia Kanepi
Barthel and Kerber have not been the only players to flourish in 2012; Sara Errani has started the year in fine form having reached her first ever Grand Slam quarter-final in Australia and building a 10-0 record on clay, courtesy of titles in Acapulco and Barcelona.  Kaia Kanepi and Zheng Jie both started the season in sparkling form, winning the titles in Brisbane and Auckland respectively, but have sinced struggled to recapture that form.  The likes of Iveta Benesova, Sorana Cirstea, Aleksandra Wozniak, Simona Halep and Christina McHale have all enjoyed consistent starts to 2012 and will look to push on through the clay court season.  

Several unexpected names to break through have included Jamie Hampton, Garbine Muguruza Blanco and Timea Babos.  Hampton suffered a thumping defeat to Maria Sharapova in the second round of the Australian Open, but has since shown her mettle on tour with a run to the 4th round of Miami where she had Agnieszka Radwanska on the ropes before sadly having to retire with cramp in the third set.  Muguruza Blanco was a name I had not heard off before she received a wild card into Miami.  She took full advantage of that opportunity beating Flavia Pennetta and Vera Zvonareva on her way to the 4th round.  Babos is another youngster who has impressed with her big serving as she won her first ever title in Monterrey, beating two top 50 players along the way.

Kaia Kanepi served up a masterclass performance in Brisbane beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Andrea Petkovic, Francesca Schiavone and Daniela Hantuchova on her way to the title.

Coming Soon - Part 2 includes other highlights from 2012 and my early tips for the French Open.

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