A year ago I started this blog by introducing a way to quantify which players are playing better or worse than their rankings would lead us to expect, based on their results over the previous 15 weeks. Players whose resulting form score is above 5 can be expected to upset higher-ranked players and improve their own rankings; players scoring below 4 are vulnerable to disappointing losses and falling rankings.
Like most events in the real world, tennis matches are complex, and not every aspect of a player’s quality or development can be captured by a single number. Nor can any measurement of past results infallibly predict the future. But my system has proven to be a useful way of spotting trends that suggest certain unheralded players may be making a breakthrough, or indicate certain established stars may be ripe for a slump.
With qualifying for the first tournament of 2014 already underway in Brisbane, it’s time to look at which players fans should expect big things from in the new year, starting with the WTA. In the first two categories below, I’ve listed every top-70 woman with a form score over 6, along with a discussion based on my qualitative observations. At the end, I discuss some star players whose recent results should prepare their fans for further disappointment, as well as a few interesting players returning from extended injuries.
Players to Watch as the New Year Begins
Working with coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li Na has become a more confident and much more consistent player. She’s getting comfortable and increasingly effective approaching the net more frequently, which adds a new dimension to her game. Since June, she has lost only once to a player ranked outside the top 7—in Toronto to Sorana Cirstea, who was absolutely on fire that week. After reaching semifinals in Toronto, Cincinnati, and at the US Open, Li finished the year by taking Serena Williams to a third set in the final of the WTA Championships. Na has a lot of ranking points to defend in January, but missed a month and a half after spraining her ankle in last year’s Australian Open final. If she fails to match her impressive start to last season, she’ll have plenty of opportunity to make up for it in Indian Wells or February’s Middle Eastern tournaments.
After a dreadful spring and early summer, Caroline Wozniacki finished last season on a stronger note, reaching the Tokyo semifinals and winning the Luxembourg title. Playing once again with Babolat rackets as she did to achieve her early success, and facing less pressure and scrutiny now than she did when she held the #1 ranking and immediately after she lost it, Caro looks more confident on court lately. She continues, bit by bit, to add more aggressive court positioning and shotmaking to her game, which for long stretches of her career has been overly predictable. With new coach Thomas Högstedt, she has a chance to make a stronger break out of her rut and regain the creative spark and optimism she had in 2009. Even if things don’t work out that well, look for Wozniacki to avoid last year’s level of embarrassing losses and solidify her position in the top 10.
Among players who dramatically improved last season, no one can match Simona Halep. For years Halep has had most of the components of a top-level game—all-court versatility, defensive speed, and impressive capacity for aggressive shotmaking given her 5’6″ (1.68 m) frame. Beginning with a run to the Rome semifinals in May, Simona suddenly put it all together, gaining new confidence and consistency and finding an optimal balance between offense and defense. In six months she beat 15 top-20 players and won six titles on three different surfaces, including two Premier events and the Tournament of Champions. It’s a sign of how good Halep has become that some have criticized her for blowing an opportunity in a US Open loss to Flavia Pennetta, who echoed her former top-10 form there on her way to the semifinals—her best ever performance in a slam. Simona’s 2013 season will be a tough act to follow, and confidence and tactical balance can be lost as quickly as they can be found. But with the technical tools and the on-court relentlessness she’s always had, now backed by a strong record of success and the ranking and seedings to match, Halep should be a threat to nearly anyone this year.
Looking at Eugenie Bouchard’s current ranking and her victories over top-20 players Sam Stosur (by retirement), Ana Ivanovic, Sloane Stephens, and Jelena Jankovic, along with winning sets from Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, it’s easy to forget that she started 2013 ranked #147. Genie is supplementing her powerful and consistent baseline groundstrokes with improving touch and foot speed, skills she has plenty of time to develop at age 19. Having established herself as a factor at the tour level last season and showing exceptionally steady confidence on court and off, it seems inevitable that Bouchard will be an even more frequent threat to top players this year.
After starting last season well, Madison Keys had a somewhat disappointing summer. But she got back on track late in the season, upsetting Carla Suarez Navarro, Dominika Cibulkova, and Peng Shuai, and finishing with a run to the Osaka semifinals. Keys needs to add more consistency and versatility to back up her fearsome power, but that’s to be expected—she’s the youngest player on this list. With a serve already among the best on tour and able to hit through many high-quality opponents from the baseline, Keys will be a growing threat.
Since 2008, Karin Knapp had accomplished little at the WTA Tour level until her breakout run at Wimbledon last season, in which she upset 27th seed Lucie Safarova on her way to the fourth round. Knapp is a big and powerful player whose fitness and consistency have limited her in the past. But she seems to have addressed these weaknesses, and backed up her Wimbledon run with solid performances over the rest of the season, beating six top-50 opponents (most notably Elena Vesnina at the US Open), reaching the semifinals in Bad Gastein and the quarters in Luxembourg. Look for Knapp to be a consistent factor in smaller events and spring a few significant upsets in 2014.
Zhang Shuai got her aggressive game firing on all cylinders at the end of the year, compiling a 19–4 match record in September and October, winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, and adding a $125K title in Nanjing. Along the way she beat Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie, Hsieh Su-Wei, and Yanina Wickmayer. In an unusual choice, especially for an East Asian player, Zhang chose to skip the Australian swing last season, instead playing clay-court ITF tournaments in the United States. This choice paid off when she made a solid run to the second round in Brussels as a qualifier, and it also means she has very few points to defend until May. If she comes anywhere near maintaining her form, Zhang will keep ascending the rankings.
Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand started last season by breaking into the top 200 with notable upsets of Keys, Sofia Arvidsson, and Casey Dellacqua. She finished the year even more dramatically, upsetting Ayumi Morita, Vania King, and Yaroslava Shvedova, and breaking into the top 100 by winning a $75K ITF title in Toyota, by far the biggest of her career. Based on her results and youth, I expect Kumkhum to be the next player to graduate from the ITF level and become a full-time WTA-Tour player.
Players Whose High Scores Don’t Tell the Whole Story
Petra Kvitova ended the year on a high note, winning the Tokyo title, scoring good wins over Sara Errani and Li in Beijing, and reaching the WTA Championships semifinals by beating Agnieszka Radwanska and Kerber. But she did it without convincing me that she’s put the past two years’ questions about her consistency and fitness behind her. Three of the four match victories I just mentioned were in close third sets, and the other came on Petra’s best surface against a very burned-out-looking Radwanska.
Since overcoming some injuries in April, Sam Stosur has actually had pretty solid results on the whole. She only had five losses in the last seven months to players ranked outside the top 25, and three of those were to her left-handed nemesis Safarova, against whom she has a career record of 2–8. But there’s far more cause for concern in the other two losses, to the technically and mentally erratic #83 Olga Govortsova at Stanford and to 18-year-old counterpuncher Victoria Duval, then ranked #296, in the first round of the US Open. It’s hard to pick Stosur to start any season well until she proves she can overcome the pressure and perform well in front of her home crowd in Australia.
After a dismal first 8 months of the year in which she earned more points winning an ITF title in Prague than she did in any WTA event, Safarova had a sudden run of success in September, winning the Quebec City title and scoring three top-20 victories (two against Stosur) on her way to quarterfinals in Tokyo and Beijing. Then she proved she’s still the talented but chronically inconsistent player she’s always been, ending her season with a loss to counterpuncher Annika Beck in the second round of Luxembourg.
Bojana Jovanovski is a streaky player, but when her timing is on she can rifle returns and down-the-line groundstrokes that can hurt nearly any opponent in baseline rallies. But although she’s made some progress in other aspects of her game, clever opponents can still expose significant weaknesses in her fore-and-aft movement and volleying skills by forcing her off the baseline. Until Jovanovski can add more week-to-week consistency or more tactical options to her game, I expect her current career-high ranking to be about her limit.
With Venus Williams’ still-exceptional power, reach, and big-match experience, she’ll continue to be a threat to star players as long as she stays in the game. But as the oldest player on this list, and with her energy and recovery ability limited by chronic Sjögren’s Syndrome, she won’t be able to play a full schedule and will seldom last long enough to reach the late rounds of big tournaments.
At the end of a mostly awful season, Yanina Wickmayer boosted her form score with runs to the semifinals of a $125K event in Nanjing and to the final of another in Taipei. But her final three losses of the season can’t be seen as positive signs for the former #12, who fell to Zhang in Nanjing, #129 Alison Van Uytvanck in Taipei, and #144 Katarzyna Piter in Luxembourg. With an apparently chronic back problem that hinders her serve and movement, and a still one-dimensional game, Wickmayer’s prospects for a major resurgence are limited.
The talented but inconsistent and frequently injured Polona Hercog finished last season well, reaching quarterfinals in Quebec City and Osaka and the third round in Tokyo, and upsetting Ana Ivanovic and Kirsten Flipkens. But sitting out the warmup events before the Australian Open to recover from a suspected stress fracture to her ribs is not a promising way for her to start 2014.
Top Players In Danger of Losing Ground
Victoria Azarenka’s run to the title in Cincinnati, where she beat Serena Williams in the final, looks now like the lone interruption of an extended slump since Wimbledon, rather than the birth of a new rivalry that it seemed at the time. Vika reached the US Open final (where she lost to Serena, 6-1 in the third set), but the only top-40 players she faced on her way there were Alizé Cornet and Ivanovic. Since the US Open she has compiled a 1–4 match record, most disappointingly losing to Andrea Petkovic in Beijing. To maintain her #2 ranking, let alone defend her Australian Open title, Azarenka will have to play with more motivation and initiative than she did in the second half of 2013.
Since she reached the peak of her on-court “ninja” powers (with either her 2011 Tokyo title or her run to the 2012 Wimbledon final, take your pick), I’ve defended Agnieszka Radwanska against criticism of her slam record and the seeming futility of her matchups against Serena Williams (0–8), Azarenka (3–12), and Maria Sharapova (2–8). She’s struggled the last two years with recurring shoulder pain, but largely managed to play her best when she needs to in big events. But the way she finished last season, losing to Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets in the fourth round of the US Open and listlessly failing to win a set in three round-robin matches at the WTA Championships, is cause for concern. Perhaps the strain she put on her body to achieve her success over the last two years is a bit more than it can sustain.
A year ago I was not among those predicting that Sara Errani’s breakthrough would prove to be a fluke, or that she would promptly lose her place in the top 10. As it turned out, she finished 2013 at exactly the same ranking she started it with. But in 2012, she used her newly aggressive game to tally impressive results on hard courts as well as clay, beating five top-20 players after July and reaching the US Open semifinals. Since July 2013, she has beaten only two top-20 players and reached only one quarterfinal, in Toronto. That’s partly due to matchup issues (particularly her losses to Flavia Pennetta at the US Open and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Tokyo). But there are growing reasons to question Sarita’s belief that she can compete with top players on faster surfaces. With her fighting qualities and all-court skills, she’ll continue to win a lot of matches, but she may become more dependent on clay-court events and struggle to stay in the top 10 in 2014.
Maria Kirilenko started last season in the best form of her career, in Pattaya City winning her first singles title since 2008, and breaking into the top 10 for the first time after reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals. A former top-10 doubles player, she played doubles in only three events in 2013, saying the extra recovery time would help her stay healthy and concentrate on her singles career. It didn’t work though, as she never regained her form after a recurring knee injury flared up at Wimbledon. She retired after playing five games in her last event of the year in Sofia, saying she had re-injured her knee, and has now withdrawn from all of January’s tournaments with what most reports say is an ankle injury.
Kirsten Flipkens also started last season well, combining patient backhand slices with more frequent and aggressive charges to the net to take better advantage of her all-court skills. She peaked at the perfect time, vaulting to a career-high ranking of #13 after runs to the final of ’s-Hertogenbosch and to the semifinals of Wimbledon. After the grass-court season though, she lost that form precipitously, finishing the season with a 3–7 match record after Toronto.
Pegged early in her career as a talented future star, and then over the past few years as a reckless and inconsistent occasional giant-slayer, in the middle of last summer Sorana Cirstea started to look like she might become a true star of the sport after all. She followed solid results at Stanford and in Washington, DC with a scintillating run to the final in Toronto, where she upset four top-20 players in a row. But two weeks later she retired from her first-round match in New Haven with an abdominal injury. After that she compiled a 3–5 match record to end her season, suffering particularly disappointing losses to #109 Kurumi Nara at the US Open and #107 Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in Linz.
Dominika Cibulkova had a year of ups and downs. But the ups (reaching the Sydney final, winning the Stanford title by avenging her 6-0 6-0 loss to Radwanska in Sydney, and upsetting Kerber and Roberta Vinci in Toronto) were much more fleeting than the downs, which consisted of long stretches of disappointing early round losses. Domi has become a more frequent threat to top players over the last few years by going for riskier, more aggressive shots, but playing that kind of game depends on confidence. Unfortunately, Cibulkova’s confidence is easily shaken.
Interesting Players Whose Form is Anyone’s Guess
These three players have all been inactive long enough that they will need to reestablish their form as they start the new season.
Maria Sharapova has played only one official match since Wimbledon, a three-set loss to Sloane Stephens in Cincinnati in August. Since then she has been resting an inflamed right shoulder. She has also hired Sven Groeneveld as her new coach. Many regard Groeneveld as one of the sport’s best coaches, but I’m not sure he’s well suited to boosting Sharapova’s game at this stage of her career. After briefly coaching Monica Seles in 1992 when she was already a dominant player, Groeneveld went on to work with Mary Pierce, Ivanovic, and Wozniacki as each made her meteoric early splash on the WTA Tour. Groeneveld undoubtedly helped each of these players maximize her natural physical gifts, but arguably failed to help any of them address her technical weaknesses or tactical limitations enough to back up her early success. If Sharapova wants to find a way to challenge Serena Williams’ dominance while limiting the strain on her injury-prone shoulder, she’ll have to hope Groeneveld can do a better job adding such versatility to her game than he did with his previous charges.
Garbiñe Muguruza returns to the tour after undergoing surgery to correct a painful ankle disorder in July. Judging by her Twitter updates, she’s been training enthusiastically and at full speed, most recently with no ankle brace. Movement was her major weakness before the surgery, and if the procedure allows her to add more leg strength and speed to her powerful baseline game, she could become a consistent threat to top-30 players.
Former #2 Vera Zvonareva has missed a year and a half with a series of injuries and illnesses. Barring further calamities, she’s too skilled and smart a player not to make a significant impact at some point this season. But more than some other players, her game depends on fitness, and she may start the season at a significant disadvantage in that department.