WTA Progress Report

At the beginning of the year, I introduced a way to quantify how well players had played over the previous few months, relative to their rankings, and used it to help make predictions about which WTA players would make the biggest strides in 2013. Now, a third of the way through the season, it’s time to see how my predictions are panning out, and look ahead to see which players might have exceptional success as the heart of the European clay season gets underway. First, the women of the WTA.

Players I Picked to Progress in 2013

Player Starting Form Starting Rank Current Rank Change Current Form
Flipkens 13.3 54 22 +32 7.4
Robson 10.6 53 38 +15 2.4
Watson 9.2 49 39 +10 2.3
Mladenovic 8.9 96 51 +45 5.4
Petrova 8.0 12 11 +1 3.2
Williams, S 7.7 3 1 +2 6.4
Hsieh 7.1 25 36 –11 3.6

Six of the seven players I picked have improved their rankings, with the four top-rated players moving up at least ten places since the beginning of the year. Those four—plus of course current #1 Serena Williams—reached career-high rankings during the last four months.

One of the four is Heather Watson, who recently revealed that she has been suffering from mononucleosis for much of the season, and left the tour to recuperate. Despite her illness, she managed to score more points than she did in the same period last year and therefore achieve her career-high ranking, even though her results naturally didn’t meet the expectations many of her fans (myself included) had at the beginning of the year.

The one player who clearly failed to achieve the success I predicted was Hsieh Su-Wei, who struggled with a forearm injury early in the season, and hasn’t shown the confidence or tactical decisiveness that made her a top-50 singles player for the first time last year. Part of the problem may be that her opponents are now better prepared to counter her unorthodox defensive game.

With current form ratings below 4, two other players besides Watson and Hsieh seem to have reached a plateau for the time being: Laura Robson and Nadia Petrova. Robson has shown herself to be a sometime giant slayer, but is still searching for the week-to-week consistency that would cement her status as an elite player. Petrova stopped working with Ricardo Sanchez, who coached her to her remarkable success last fall, and her results this year show the same inconsistency that has plagued her career for most of the past few years.

The seven players I picked improved their rankings by an average of 13 places.

Players with Great Numbers I Took with a Grain of Salt

Player Starting Form Starting Rank Current Rank Change Current Form
Begu 13.0 52 50 +2 4.2
Hampton 10.0 70 72 –2 6.3
Chang 9.7 86 124 –38 2.7
Beck 9.3 78 60 +18 7.1
Hradecka 7.7 46 57 –11 1.0
Puchkova 7.4 106 78 +28 4.9
Vekic 7.4 108 82 +26 6.6
Wozniacki 7.2 10 10 0 6.4

I also listed eight players whose results late last year gave them form ratings comparable to my top picks, but about whom circumstances made me skeptical for various reasons. They’ve had mixed results this season, with four players moving up in the rankings, three falling, and one—Caroline Wozniacki—staying put. The standouts are resurgent veteran Olga Puchkova and teenagers Donna Vekic and Annika Beck. The player to slide furthest in the rankings is Chang Kai-Chen, who hasn’t played since February and is presumably suffering from injury or illness.

The eight players in this group improved their rankings by an average of 2.9 places.

Players with Great Numbers Based on Late-Season ITF Results

Player Starting Form Starting Rank Current Rank Change Current Form
Doi 13.9 93 88 +5 2.1
Date-Krumm 11.6 99 74 +25 5.3
Voegele 8.5 92 56 +36 11.5
Putintseva 8.2 123 96 +27 3.9

Finally, I listed four players with outstanding form ratings based almost entirely on results achieved in late-season ITF tournaments against relatively weak opposition. All four players have improved their rankings this year, by an average of 23 places.

Most impressive has been Stefanie Voegele, who upset three top-30 players—Carla Suarez Navarro, Julia Goerges, and Wozniacki—on her way to her first Premier semifinal in Charleston, and is now at a career-high ranking of #56.

Players to Watch in the Clay Season

Enough about the past. Which players are likely to score notable upsets or further improve their rankings in the season’s most important clay-court tournaments? Here are my new picks, with form ratings updated to reflect results through April 21:

Player Current Rank Current Form
Petkovic 131 11.6
Voegele 56 11.5
Jankovic 18 11.0
Mattek-Sands 104 10.4
Muguruza 79 9.1
Bouchard 92 7.9
Vinci 12 7.8
Kuznetsova 42 7.5
Davis 66 7.3
Beck 60 7.1
Soler-Espinosa 64 7.0

Playing her fourth tournament after returning from knee surgery, Andrea Petkovic lost to Ana Ivanovic in the first round of Stuttgart this week, failing to defend her second-round points from last year. As a result, her ranking will fall to around #139 next week. However, she has no more points to defend until late August. Though she has yet to regain the form and consistency that propelled her into the top-10 before she was felled by a series of injuries, Petkovic has a good game for clay courts and is a determined character. If she can stay healthy, she has nowhere to go but up.

Voegele failed to win a match last weekend in a high-pressure situation leading her Swiss team in a rain-delayed home Fed Cup tie against Australia. But, as I discussed above and in my Fed Cup preview, Voegele has grown into a more formidable player this year, and her game is well-suited to clay. She’ll continue to take advantage of some higher-ranked opponents’ weaknesses and off-days.

I don’t expect Jelena Jankovic to become a top-5 player again—her talents are more physical than mental, and she can unravel in certain matchups, or when her shot timing or fitness is off. But she has put together an impressive run over the last two months, winning Bogotá, reaching the Miami semifinals and the Charleston final, and today upsetting a tired Sam Stosur in Stuttgart. Many of her best results in the last few years have come on clay, and the real test for her resurgence will be how she fares against fellow top-20 players when the tour returns to faster surfaces this summer.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands has had most of her past success on fast surfaces, and I almost didn’t include her in this category. But her dominant victories over Sloane Stephens in Charleston and Yanina Wickmayer today in Stuttgart changed my mind. She lost only five games in the two matches combined, and seems to have found a way to adapt her aggressive all-court game to clay. After struggling last year with injuries and food allergies, she has few points to defend.

Garbiñe Muguruza’s powerful, aggressive game bears little resemblance to the stereotypical Spanish clay-court-specialist approach. But in a season of mixed results last year, she held her own remarkably well on the surface, scoring victories over quality clay-court players Begu and Alizé Cornet. So far on clay this year, Muguruza has suffered early losses to other promising young players Jessica Pegula and Nastassja Burnett, but she has few points to defend and I expect her to make another splash before the clay season is done.

Eugenie Bouchard is another big-hitting baseliner whose style seems less than optimal for clay. But the brief track record the 19-year-old has on the surface is encouraging. She won four straight matches this year to qualify and reach the second round in Acapulco. This month she topped that by winning five more matches to qualify and reach the quarterfinals in Charleston, comprehensively outplaying (injured) former Roland Garros finalist Sam Stosur along the way.

Roberta Vinci has always been a good player on clay, and proved it again two weeks ago by beating Petra Kvitova in the Katowice final. Then she beat Lucie Safarova and Kvitova again in Fed Cup last weekend, becoming the hero for her Italian squad and sending them to the final for the first time in three years. Vinci has added more power, depth, and aggression to her game in the last two years, and interestingly had her best results after the clay court season last year, so she has relatively few points to defend before Wimbledon. The only potential problem is a shoulder injury that caused her to withdraw from doubles in Stuttgart today after losing her first-round singles match to Yaroslava Shvedova. Hopefully she recovers quickly.

This year Svetlana Kuznetsova hasn’t quite reached the form with which she won Roland Garros in 2009, but after a six-month absence for knee surgery last year she has consistently played above her current ranking.

Quick, versatile, and tenacious, Lauren Davis has all the tools to be successful on clay, and proved it last year, reaching two ITF $50k semifinals and dominating 30th seed Mona Barthel, 6-1 6-1 in the first round of Roland Garros.

Annika Beck had a successful year last year on the ITF circuit as a consistent counterpuncher, and is working hard to add more aggression to her game to compete with the better players in the WTA. The work showed in her run to the semifinals in Katowice, as did her growing sense of confidence and charisma on the court. She took Petra Kvitova to a third set today in Stuttgart.

Over the past three years, clay-court specialist Soler-Espinosa has gradually but steadily improved her ability to beat quality players and make her way into the later stages of WTA tournaments. She’s unlikely to threaten many top-30 players, but she’s a consistent performer with growing confidence.

One more player worth keeping an eye on is Varvara Lepchenko, whose form score of 2.6 shows she has started the season poorly—her record on hard courts this year is 2–7. But her record on clay over the same period is 4–1, with victories over Errani and Vinci in Fed Cup and her only loss to Venus Williams. Lepchenko’s topspin-heavy baseline game is well-suited to clay, and setting foot on the surface seems to make her visibly more comfortable. Last year she reached the quarterfinals of Madrid as a qualifier, backed that up with a run to the fourth round at Roland Garros, and used the resulting confidence to tally solid results for the rest of the year.

Players Doing Well Now Who Might Struggle on Clay

Player Current Rank Current Form
Williams, V 21 9.4
Pliskova, Ka 76 9.4
Babos 114 9.0
Niculescu 46 8.7
Burdette 87 8.4
Flipkens 22 7.4
Kanepi 40 7.1
Tsurenko 71 7.1
Vekic 82 6.6
Rybarikova 45 6.7
Keys 63 6.6
Wozniacki 10 6.4
Erakovic 69 6.5
Pavlyuchenkova 19 6.5
Kirilenko 13 6.4
Williams, S 1 6.4

Playing a limited schedule to manage her Sjögren’s Syndrome, Venus Williams has had strong results this year and is back in the top-20. But she has never been at her best on clay, and is more likely to focus on Wimbledon and the biggest American tournaments late in the summer.

Karolina Pliskova reached the quarterfinals of Katowice, upsetting 6th seed Kanepi. But her results on clay last season were underwhelming, and it remains to be seen whether she can translate her serve-dependent, first-strike game into success on the surface against other kinds of opponents and in slower conditions than those indoors in Katowice.

It may seem strange to minimize expectations for Timea Babos on clay, given that she had the second-best result of her career on the surface, reaching the semifinals of Bogotá last year. But that result is more attributable to the high altitude and weak opposition than the surface. Since then, Babos has a 3-8 record on clay.

Monica Niculescu has taken her unorthodox game to new levels over the past two seasons. But the high bounces on clay make her slices less effective, and she has little track record of success on the surface.

In Charleston, Mallory Burdette scored impressive victories over Mladenovic and Sabine Lisicki. But that was only her second professional tournament on clay, and it remains to be seen how her first-strike-dependent game will translate to the slower conditions in Europe.

Flipkens was injured through most of the clay-court season last year. With essentially no ranking points to defend, her ranking can only continue to improve. However, her game relies heavily on attacking and taking control of the net, and is not likely to produce impressive clay-court results at the WTA tour level.

Kaia Kanepi looks fit and in the last two weeks has shown flashes of the form that made her a top-20 player before foot injuries took her off of the tour for most of the past year. However, she has also shown patches of rust, and must defend 77% of the points currently supporting her ranking during the clay-court season. I expect her to be a threat to elite players by Roland Garros, but it might take longer than that for her to once again achieve consistent elite results.

I haven’t fully wrapped my head around Lesia Tsurenko’s sudden breakout performances early this season, and I’m not sure what to conclude from her record on clay last year either. She had some good wins, beating Carla Suarez Navarro and Greta Arn (three times in one month!). She also lost in straight sets to Tsvetana Pironkova and was double-bageled by Sania Mirza—two players hardly renowned for their clay-court prowess. Tsurenko’s counterpunching style could work well on clay, but I remain unconvinced.

The highest-level tournaments Donna Vekic has played on clay are ITF $25k’s. She has played three of them, lost to a qualifier every time, and never made it beyond the second round. This week while the WTA holds two tournaments on red clay, she’s playing an ITF 50k on hard court in Istanbul. She trains in the United Kingdom, a country not known for its clay-court facilities. Don’t expect an epiphany for Vekic on the surface any time soon.

Magdalena Rybarikova is a talented and versatile (though extremely inconsistent) player. But like Niculescu, the tactics she likes to use are less effective on slow surfaces.

Madison Keys did well to reach the quarterfinals in Charleston last week, in part taking advantage of a draw that opened up for her. Just by doing so, she played more matches on clay than she did in the whole year in 2012, where she compiled a 1-2 match record in two ITF $50k’s. Her lack of experience on the surface and her aggressive game style are likely to limit her results on the slower red clay in Europe.

Every year tennis commentators casually suggest that Caroline Wozniacki might be due for a breakout performance on clay, and every year they are wrong. Not every fundamentally defensive player is good on clay. Wozniacki isn’t particularly good at changing direction on the surface, and the unpredictable bounces it yields make her struggle to hit with the precision she needs to stay in control of long rallies.

Like Flipkens, Marina Erakovic’s all-court game isn’t well-suited to slow conditions. The Memphis champion has struggled to string results together on outdoor hard courts this season, and is unlikely to reverse that trend on clay.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has a good form score at the moment due to her title in Monterrey early this month and her run to the Brisbane final at the beginning of the year. Both of these successes arguably came when the circumstances of the draws favored her, and the only matches she won in between were against opponents ranked outside the top-100 in Kuala Lumpur. Pavlyuchenkova is capable of good results on clay, as she proved most recently by reaching the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2011. But it’s more likely her occasional successes will continue to be separated by extended periods of disappointment.

Maria Kirilenko has had good results on clay in the past, but as she has transformed herself over the last two years into a more aggressive player, her results on the slow surface have suffered. Besides, her recent tweets suggest she may have higher hopes for her fiance’s hockey playoffs than her clay-court season. She’ll pick up some points advancing through early rounds, but don’t expect her to knock off bigger names until the tour arrives on grass.

Serena Williams has started the year well enough to comfortably seize the #1 ranking, but has not been the invincible force she was in the second half of last year. It’s possible she’ll put together another undefeated run through the WTA’s clay-court tournaments like she did last year, but I have a feeling she’d rather save some mental and physical energy in an effort to peak at Roland Garros—where she was embarrassed last year by Virginie Razzano in the first round.

Players Struggling Now

Many of the players with the lowest form scores are those who have had extended absences from the tour due to injuries or illness. I’m leaving them out of the list below. These are the players who have played full schedules and produced the most disappointing results so far this year:

Player Current Rank Current Form
Hradecka 57 1.0
Hlavackova 77 1.0
Parmentier 80 0.9
Paszek 31 0.5
Rus 85 0.5
Oudin 86 0.4
Tatishvili 68 0.4
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