Year-end tourney field is wide open

The WTA Championships in Doha kick off on Tuesday with eight of the world’s top women facing off in a round robin competition. It’s an excellent field but by no means a complete one, as defending champion Serena Williams is missing, as is her sister, 2008 champion Venus, as well as the injured seven time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin and the struggling three-time Grand Slam champion, Maria Sharapova.

Third seed and three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters is the only former WTA Championships titlist in the field. It’s mostly a veteran group, but new No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki is only 20 years old and heads the lineup and her good friend, Victoria Azarenka, who just won the Moscow title on Sunday, is only 21.

It’s almost anyone’s guess as to who will survive Doha’s heat and wind after a long season and snag the trophy, but unless Clijsters catches fire and dominates, it’s quite possible that the tour will have a new titlist at the end of the prestigious $4,550,000 event.

“In the women’s game today, some of the elite players who some of these players might not be able to beat are injured or not playing as much," said Tennis Channel analyst Corina Morariu, who helped break down the field, "so there always an opportunity for other players who keep improving to punch through and do more."

Maroon Group

Caroline Wozniacki

If the Dane wants to add a little glitter to her top ranking, she has to win this tournament or she’ll enter 2011 as one of the weakest Slam-less No. 1’s ever, if she is not that already. She has won three notable tournaments this year at Montreal, Tokyo and Beijing, but taking out the rest of the so-called elite eight here in what is sure to be difficult conditions will be her biggest accomplishment to date. Last year, she won two marathon three-setters to begin the competition over Vera Zvonareva and Victoria Azarenka and by the time she reached the semis, she was cooked and was forced to retire against Serena.

In order to go two steps further, Wozniacki has to employ the same game plan that won her Tokyo and Beijing this fall — being more aggressive with her serve and forehand, backing it up with her more than usual dose of steely defense. She’s 13-15 against the rest of the field, not exactly a stellar mark.

“The title would somewhat validate her No. 1 ranking," Morariu said of the Dane, who has played a whopping 74 matches this year. "She’s one of the favorites as she’s been in the best form of late, but the big question will be whether she physically and mentally ready to win because she’s played so much tennis this season."

Francesca Schiavone

The French Open champion is making her debut here, and at the age of 30 is hard to see it her qualifying again, so she’ll have plenty of motivation to make a strong run. She’s not a great outdoor hard court player but she capable of playing at an extremely high level when she is consistently attacking (see her near defeat of Venus Williams at the U.S. Open). She took out Wozniacki and Stosur at the French Open so at least she’ll have some confidence when they come against each other on hardcourts.

“She’s got a great attitude and really has nothing to lose,” Morariu said. “She’s super-talented and very dangerous, but some of the matchups are tough for her. But you know that she’s going to give it her all in her first appearance and she’s actually picked up some steam over the past two months. I don’t see her winning it, but she could pull off some dramatic upsets."

Samantha Stosur

The Aussie is making her debut at this event in singles so she’s sure to be excited, but she’s had a fairly rough go of it since reaching the French Open final and it appears that her close three-set loss to Clijsters at the US Open still stings as she’s had a lousy fall. She’s going to have to have a great week serving, dictate with her forehand not get caught defending too much off her backhand side or fall into predictable patterns. Really, Stosur is still a bit of a mental question mark at the final stages of tournaments.

“Like Schiavone she’s very talented and she has a different kind of game, but she’s been playing pretty poorly as of late and needs to click pretty fast,” Morariu said. “She’s the type of player where on a great day she can beat anyone, but on a bad day can lose to anyone. She doesn’t have as much confidence as some of the truly elite players like Clijsters, but she is capable of getting on a roll.”

Elena Dementieva

It’s truly amazing that the Russian veteran is making her 10th appearance at the Championships, which shows what a quality player she’s been over the past decade. But she comes in hurt and has underperformed at the majors this year, which at the age of not-so-young 29 must be emotionally affecting her to some degree. She’s never won the WTA Championships, but if she can give herself and early kick in the pants and get churning, she could make a major statement.

“I think she’s still motivated and is still super solid, but her serve can still get her into trouble,” Morariu said. “But she’s coming up against a younger and fresher field and it’s not going to be easy to hit through them.”

White Group

Vera Zvonareva

The Russian veteran has been super consistent this year, winning a small tournament in Pattaya City and reaching the finals of five sizeable events: Charleston, Wimbledon, Montreal, the U.S. Open and Beijing. She was the runner up at the 2008 Championships, falling to Venus Williams and should she manage to win the tournament, she could end the year at No. 1 depending on what happens with Wozniacki.

For the first time in her career, she squeezed every last ounce of talent out of herself this year. A win here would put a cherry on the top of her year, but she has to remain calm in tight spots, and must be willing to take some risks when called upon. At times in both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, the temperamental Zvonareva played scared and impatiently.

“She’s really tightened up her game has no glaring weaknesses in her game, except mentally at times,” Morariu said. “Her serve is better and she’s moving as well as she ever have. But in the big moments like Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals her demons caught up to her. If you’ve battled those demons throughout your career and can keep them under control you’ll be successful, but it’s the big moments where they can haunt you and she was clearly a mess at the U.S. Open against Clijsters.”

Kim Clijsters

It’s hard to say whether Clijsters really wants to be in Doha because she hasn’t played since winning her third U.S. Open in September and she must have thought long and hard about staying home with her family. Nonetheless, in great form she’s still the best outdoor hard court player in the field, owning 31 titles on cement, fourth on the all-time list.

Whether she can shake off the rust and win her third WTA Championships is debatable, but she has the experience and firepower to do so and owns an amazing 41-7 record against the rest of the field

“She’s one of the favorites because of her experience and she has the biggest game," Morariu said. "If anyone can win a tournament like this despite not having played since the U.S. Open, it’s someone like Kim, she knows how to peak for the big tournaments. The good news for Kim is that she can have that one bad match in the round robin and lose and still win the tournament. If she plays her best, she’ll win the tournament.”

Jelena Jankovic

The Serbian has had an atrocious second half of the year after her sorry defeat to Stosur in the French Open semis. She’s been complaining of being sick and hurt and says she is exhausted from a long year. That doesn’t sound like a player who going to make a strong run. The former No. 1 really needs a new coach or at least someone who can tell her to stop whining and be the player she’s capable of.

“She had a horrible second half of the year,” Morariu said. “Since Wimbledon she’s only 6-8. There were a few moments this year where I thought she could get back to where she was a couple of years ago but she hasn’t. She’s sort of like Wozniacki style-wise, but she’s older, doesn’t have as good of an attitude and is getting overpowered. She’s lost some of her consistency and movement and is just getting outplayed. I can’t give her a legitimate shot to win the tournament.”

Victoria Azarenka

The Belarussian has been quite adept at putting up a big result and then going away, like after she won Stanford and then suffered a bizarre concussion in the gym at the U.S. Open. This year, she’s gotten in better shape and she’s done a good job of rounding out the rough edges of her game, improving her forehand, first serve and court coverage a great deal.

If she was more committed week-to-week it might be Azarenka holding the top spot and not Wozniacki. As she showed in winning Moscow behind a blazing attack, she’s hard to knock off the mark when she’s in a good headspace. But she has yet to reach a Slam semi, so a win here would signal that she’s maturing and ready to be a legitimate Grand Slam contender.

“She’s one of the most talented in the bunch. She’s a total confidence player so coming off the win in Moscow should make her feel good about her chances,” Morariu said. “The key will be for her to keep it together mentally because last year at the Championships, she let down at the end of her match against Wozniacki, who is tough for her to play because they are from the same generation and she feels more pressure against those girls. She’s much better off to be playing in this group of veterans.”