It’s time for the annual post of WTA predictions on Moo’s Tennis Blog. In case you missed it, you can read my predictions from previous years HERE and my review of how 2015 predictions fared HERE. I really struggled this year and there were two players in mind that I wanted to include in my top ten but I couldn’t fit them in (can you guess who they are?!). I’m hoping to do another post covering the players who I think will rise up the rankings in 2016. Anyway, here’s my top ten…
10. Lucie Safarova
For the second straight year, Lucie is in my countdown at number ten. While the Czech player didn’t quite match the consistency of her performances in 2014, the high points were on a whole different level. Without doubt, the highlight of Lucie’s season was a sensational run to the final of Roland Garros. By virtue of her run in Paris, Lucie cracked the top ten for the first time in her career and even more impressively, managed to stay there for the remainder of the year despite being absent from the tour through the Asian Swing due to a bacterial infection.
Lucie has continued to show marked improvements in her mental toughness. While she still has her moments where confidence does waver, Lucie has come a long way in the past few years. It is no coincidence that this ties in with her partnership with Rob Steckley, which continues to blossom. Lucie’s performances in Paris and Doha this year were world class and she showed what she is truly capable of. Beating players ranked below her was more of an issue in 2015. Staying in the top ten will be a huge challenge but I think Lucie can do it…
9. Caroline Wozniacki
There’s no skirting around the issue… 2015 was a dire year for Caroline. Considering the way she finished 2014, including reaching her second US Open final, it was a surprise that the Dane was unable to push on. Wozniacki endured a miserable second half to 2015, posting more losses than wins, and being plagued by injuries. In my opinion, the knee injury may have been a factor in why she was unable to produce the aggressive and positive tennis she displayed in 2014 with confidence clearly a factor by the end of this year.
While 2015 was pretty disastrous, the advantage is that it cuts Wozniacki some slack in 2016 with plenty of ground to make up. Furthermore, being outside of the top ten means that Wozniacki will have no restrictions on playing International events. Scheduling will be crucial for Caroline; while it seems to be in her nature to play lots of matches, it seemed that she wasn’t listening to her ailments last year, using the excuse of WTA penalties to carry on playing. While recency bias goes against Caroline, I believe she will come back much stronger in 2016. The start of the year already looks promising on the schedule front for Caroline as she’s only down to play Auckland before the Australian Open. While I don’t see a Slam win on the horizon, I do predict much better performances at the Slams generally and a couple of Premier titles.
8. Karolina Pliskova
2015 was a mammoth year for Pliskova on many levels; cracking the top ten for the first time in her career (although dropping to number 11 by the end of the year) marked a breakthrough year for the Czech player. Furthermore, it was a gruelling year that saw Pliskova play 26 tournaments, the most out of anyone in the top 15. Pliskova started the year with real gusto, beating Victoria Azarenka in a thrilling season opener in Brisbane. She went on a tear through the first four months, winning the International tournament in Prague and reaching the final of Premier tournaments in Sydney and Dubai. Pliskova’s main downfall was at the Grand Slams where she is still yet to make it past the third round. Pliskova was clearly lagging towards the end of the year but a final appearance at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai and a star show in the Fed Cup final, winning two matches with a huge amount of pressure on her shoulders, were noteworthy showings.
There are plenty of variables that could ultimately control Pliskova’s path in 2016; Grand Slams and Premier finals are two hurdles that she needs to overcome, but scheduling will also be key. It won’t be sustainable to continue at the pace she was setting in 2015. Pliskova’s performances at the end of the year have rekindled the excitement for me that surrounded her game at the very start of 2015. I think the Czech player will keep on improving and finally crack it at the Slams. I’d fancy Pliskova to reach a couple of Slam quarter-finals and becoming a regulation top ten player.
7. Agnieszka Radwanska
Optimism will be as high as it has ever been for Radwanska heading into the 2016 season. Radwanska won her biggest career title at the WTA Finals in Singapore, beating Halep, Muguruza and Kvitova back-to-back-to-back. It was a tremendous showing from Radwanska, who will have her eyes firmly fixed on the prize… a first Grand Slam title. Radwanska turned around her 2015 season in a huge way, rekindling the magic on the grass after a sub-par first half of the season where she compiled a disappointing (by Aga’s standards!) 14-10 W-L record.
Wimbledon will always be Radwanska’s best chance of winning a Grand Slam but I still have my reservations as to whether she can go all the way. It would require the Pole to reserve her energy throughout the early rounds and most probably, take out a big hitter. While it’s something that Radwanska can do on occasion, it requires a huge mental effort. Based on the game she plays, it’s hard to not see Radwanska somewhere in the top ten. As to whether she can bag the elusive Slam, I have to be honest and say that I am not so sure…
6. Simona Halep
2015 was a rollercoaster year for Halep but rankings wise, it was a career best as she finished at world number two. It wasn’t the most convincing of finishes though, failing to qualify from the round robin stage in Singapore. The semi-final loss at the US Open to the eventual champion, Flavia Pennetta, was a real blow and ended what had been a sparkling run of form. Halep would have fancied her chances in a Serena-less final but she was unable to bring her A-game with Pennetta taking full advantage of the opportunity and deservedly coming through to win the US Open.
Halep showed streaks of excellence in 2015; notably a cracking start to the year that saw her win three titles in three months and reaching back-to-back finals in Toronto and Cincy during the summer. However, early losses at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon killed the early momentum. Halep will be continuing her partnership with Darren Cahill next year which feels like a super move. I still have reservations about Halep going forward and whether she has the mettle to win a Grand Slam; a sprinkling of matches (for example, Makarova at the AO, Pennetta at the USO and Konta in Wuhan) are to blame for this. I’d expect Halep to have a much better clay court season in 2016 with expectation lower than this year, but she wouldn’t be my number one pick in the list of likely first time Slam champions next year.
5. Petra Kvitova
2015 was a rocky year for Petra, battling fatigue, a lack of motivation and mononucleosis. Despite all her challenges, Petra did remarkably well to finish the year as the world number six. Kvitova’s year featured a couple of standout performances, blazing her way to the titles in Madrid and New Haven. It was clear that Petra was still struggling towards the end of the year but she kept going and in the end, finished the year on a really encouraging note, reaching the final of the WTA Finals in Singapore and helping the Czech Republic win the Fed Cup.
Motivation is obviously key for Petra. It was fascinating to hear the insight of Petra’s long-term coach, David Kotyza in an interview and on the WTA Insider podcast. David encouraged Petra to take some time away from the tour at the start of 2015 after playing “without joy and without passion”. Kvitova faced so many challenges this year but she appeared to overcome them. Petra’s A-game beats almost everyone on tour but her consistency and ability to get through the opening rounds of tournaments is the obvious sticking point. After suffering her toughest loss of the year at Wimbledon in the third round to Jelena Jankovic, I believe that Petra’s strength of character will shine through once again at SW19.
4. Belinda Bencic
New player alert… Belinda Bencic! I’ve been on the Belinda bandwagon for quite some time. While 2014 didn’t start in the most convincing fashion, Bencic transformed her fortunes from the grass court season, producing a brilliant 31-9 W-L record and securing six top ten wins including a fabulous victory over Serena Williams in Toronto. It was one of the best runs of the year with Bencic beating Bouchard, Wozniacki, Lisicki, Ivanovic, Serena and Halep to win the biggest title of her career.
It is Belinda’s mental application and ability to learn and adapt quickly that in my opinion, sets her apart from the rest of the “rising stars”. She managed to turn around previous losses against numerous opponents to actually secure wins. In the case of Wozniacki, Bencic was dealt a double bagel loss in Istanbul but just eight months later, Bencic beat Wozniacki in straight sets at Indian Wells. Bencic now holds a 4-1 leads in their head-to-head. Her attitude on court is still a concern although it’s hard to pick out any matches where she has lost because of it. If anything, it shows how much she cares. Also, it’s impressive how she can snap out of it too! In keeping with what I said in my last set of predictions, I think this will be Belinda’s big breakthrough year on tour. I’d fancy the 18-year-old to reach her first Grand Slam final and cement her place in the world’s top five.
3. Serena Williams
For the first time since 2013, Serena is not my number one. The American player had a remarkable 2015 year; while it ended on her lowest point of the year, it should not distract from her astounding achievements. Serena took her tally of Grand Slams to a magnificent 21 with victories in Melbourne, Paris and Wimbledon. In particular, the way that Serena battled through her draw at Roland Garros was exceptional; fighting off illness and overcoming some determined opponents, Serena came from a set down in four of her seven matches.
One of the most engaging storylines in Australia will be how Serena fares considering she will have been absent from the tour since the match against Roberta Vinci at Flushing Meadows. While I think Serena will find her mojo again and win at least one Slam (i’m thinking the US Open), the reason I’ve gone for Serena at number three is that I question whether she will fully commit to the tour like she has done in the past couple of years. 2015 saw Serena give walkovers at four tournaments and I think that the Slams and the Olympics will become an even higher priority.
I’ve been swapping between the top two but i’ve gone for Muguruza to rise one spot in 2016. The Spaniard had a breakthrough season in 2015 with a first Grand Slam final appearance catapulting her into the world’s top three. While Muguruza managed to peak for the events that really counted, there were still large spells of the year where she didn’t play particularly well; notably between Dubai and Roland Garros, and the entire US Open series.
While comparisons have been drawn between Muguruza and Bouchard, I think Muguruza proved her credentials with the way that she closed out her 2015 season. She played her first ever WTA Finals in Singapore, winning all three of her group matches, before finally running out of steam in a superb semifinal against Agnieszka Radwanska. Most impressive was her run to the title in Beijing, not at her physical best but finding a way to win… It was the mark of a champion. Still of some concern is that Muguruza has only won two WTA titles and she is prone to patches of inconsistency with her big hitting game. Despite some big wins, nerves still play a part in closing out matches (against Kerber in Wuhan springs to mind). However, in a wide-open WTA field, the opportunity is there for Muguruza and I believe that she is ready for the next step. I’m backing the Spaniard to win her first Grand Slam title in 2016 at Roland Garros.
1. Maria Sharapova
This was a tough choice… i’ve gone for Sharapova to finish 2016 as the world number one. Considering she was out of action for three full months, Sharapova did remarkably well to finish 2015 at number four in the rankings. Victories in Brisbane and Rome, and another Grand Slam final in Melbourne saw Sharapova keep on track in a whirlwind WTA year that saw many players struggle for consistency. The way that Sharapova ended her 2015 season was particularly encouraging, beating five top 11 players in Singapore and at the Fed Cup final. While Sharapova has always proven her experience and competitive spirit, it was an impressive effort considering how little tennis she had played prior to those tournaments. It was an almost perfect preparation for Sharapova to win a couple of high calibre matches and set herself up for the off-season and 2016.
Sharapova has plenty of room to make up ground during the clay court season, which is now generally regarded as one of her strongest stretches of the year. The US hard court season is also a big fat zero. I really like Sharapova’s chances of going all the way at the Australian Open and at the time of writing, she’s my pick for the first Grand Slam of the year. This feels slightly wild to me considering she hasn’t won a Slam other than the French Open since 2008 but it’s what my brain is thinking right now. Health will be a factor but with the allure of the Olympics and her desire and fighting spirit always shining bright, I think it will be a super year for Maria.