|Underperformers in 2012 – With the promising talent emerging in 2012, there have been several disappointments as well. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who I tipped for the top 10 at the start of the year has really stalled and become a wasted talent. I really wish that she would get a permanent coach and rigid structure behind her… plus a 2nd serve! Francesca Schiavone has won just one of her last seven matches and looks to be heading towards the end of her career. I am not sure if a return to her beloved clay at Roland Garros will even be able to resurrect her form.
Vera Zvonareva looks a shadow of herself from a year or two ago and has struggled for any consistency in her game as she has battled numerous injuries this year. Peng Shuai has also been struggling with serious injuries and looks unlikely to remain in the top 30 for long. Jelena Jankovic has picked up some useful results here and there, but seems to be well past her best and is seemingly unable to maintain a solid standard throughout the entirety of a tournament.
Comeback queens – Miami this year was a particularly special tournament as it saw the returns of Venus Williams and Alisa Kleybanova. Venus made a superb run to the quarter-finals in Miami, beating both Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic, and then backed it up with another solid showing in Charleston, reaching the quarter-finals there too. Kleybanova displayed her gritty determination to win her opening match against Johanna Larsson before succumbing to Maria Kirilenko in a tight two-setter. I am looking forward to seeing both continue to improve and build their stamina on the clay…
Venus was excellent in beating Ana Ivanovic in the 4th round, but was even more impressive in the untelevised 2nd round match with Petra Kvitova, which she won 6-4 4-6 6-0.
Notable mentions – Serena Williams was simply stunning on her way to the title in Charleston where she conceded the fewest games of any champions so far this year. The American suffered a stop-start beginning to 2012, which was hampered by an ankle injury she picked up in Brisbane. A surprising 4th round loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Melbourne and a first ever loss to Caroline Wozniacki in Miami showed she was not back to her best yet; however that all changed in Charleston as she produced two scarily good performances to beat Sam Stosur and Lucie Safarova for the combined loss of just three games.
It was a great week for Serena but I still think there is a long way to go before she can be labelled as the favourite for Roland Garros. Many are now over-hyping her performance in Charleston; Eurosport commentator, Simon Reed is just one of them! I don’t think she can be “the favourite” until we see how the Premier tournaments in Madrid and Rome shape out with all the top players in action. It should also be noted that the green clay of Charleston plays quite a bit differently to the red clay.
Looking ahead to Roland Garros – Azarenka and Serena are the most obvious picks, but my tips to shine on the clay would be Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova. Both players have had relatively quiet starts to 2012, but remain dangerous and threatening on the clay. Kvitova started the season well with semi-final appearances in Sydney and Melbourne and looked much more consistent, as she managed to grind out wins when playing below her best. However disappointing early exits in Indian Wells and Miami have left many wondering where the Czech’s game will go from here.
She hasn’t played that many matches in 2012 so far and I still believe the best is yet to come. The losses in America were not a surprise to me as she has stated on numerous occasions how she dislikes the humidity and she was suffering from illness at the same time too. Kvitova has been on a intensive training schedule in Turkey and I fully believe she will improve her form on clay before dominating on the grass where she was simply unstoppable last year…
Sam Stosur has the perfect game for clay as she proved in 2010 when she beat Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic before an agonising loss to Francesca Schiavone in the final. As the US Open title sits proudly within her trophy cabinet, the new-found belief she has acquitted, suggested she was ready to dominate the women’s game; however 2012 has been largely disappointing for the Aussie as she simply crumbled in front of her home crowd in Australia, losing in the first round of the Australian Open to Sorana Cirstea.
She has since recovered her form, reaching the final in Doha and the semi-finals in Charleston, but has shown only sparks of the fight that took her so far in New York last year. I remain confident that Stosur will come alive in the next few months, winning one of the big clay court tournaments before mounting a fierce assault on the Roland Garros crown… watch out for Sam!
Another name to look out for over the upcoming clay season is Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has made a very solid start to 2012 and has now overtaken Jelena Jankovic as the highest ranked Serbian player at number 14. I think she will continue to impress over the clay court season and progress deep into at least one of the Premier events in Madrid and Rome. I also predict that Lucie Safarova, Sara Errani, Simona Halep, Irina-Camelia Begu, Aleksandra Wozniak and Carla Suarez Navarro will all do well on the clay…
Summary: the WTA is looking at it most promising for several years. For quite a while now, the game has been going through a transition period and has lacked a dominant figure, but Victoria Azarenka has shone through in 2012 and become the one to beat. The challengers are now all queueing up with Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska leading the chasing pack and a number of new faces too, who look like challenging for years to come…
However what I feel has been lacking in 2012 so far are any truly stand-out matches. The 4th round match between Kim Clijsters and Li Na provided terrific drama and both Australian Open semi-finals were impressive and refreshingly competitive, but there has still been a lack of high quality matches. The tour is also missing exciting rivalries; Azarenka vs. Radwanska and Azarenka vs. Sharapova have shown promise, but both have been too one-sided this year. I am hoping a major rivalry will emerge over the clay and grass court season… of all the potential match-ups, I would love to see Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams fight it out on the grass.
The most dramatic match of the year saw Li Na waste 4 match points against an injured Kim Clijsters in a 4-6 7-6 6-4 4th round loss.
The Australian Open semi-final between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova was a good match, but could have been a great match if Kvitova could have held her nerve at the end of a 6-2 3-6 6-4 loss.
The clay court season is always the most unpredictable stage of the season so lets see what happens and how the chapter of 2012 continues to unfold…