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tennisIlove09
Nov 4th, 2002, 12:54 AM
Women's Look Forward: Week of November 4
Posted on 11/3/2002 at 3:33 PM


**Womenís Look Forward: Los Angeles Championships, Pattaya


If the men were to adopt a motto for their year-end championships, it would probably be something like, ďAnd now, for something completely different.Ē The womenís philosophy is quite otherwise: ďThe same, only better.Ē

In theory, the year-end championships is the strongest event in the world. Injuries being what they are, it wonít quite work out that way -- but itís still true that there is no tournament where every match features so many strong players. If youíre here, youíre Top Twenty. Simple as that.

Frankly, from the standpoint of rewarding success, the WTA way makes more sense than the ATP version: Players qualify for the championships by playing single-elimination tournaments. So the championships should be a single-elimination tournament. The same logic argues that the final should be, as it has been recently, best of three: The women donít ever play best of five, so how can they practice for it? (And it hasnít really made much difference, either: From the time the Championships went to best of five in 1984 to the year they abandoned it in 1998, there was only one instance when the player who was down after three sets went on to win the match: Monica Seles took out Gabriela Sabatini 6-4 5-7 3-6 6-4 6-2 in 1990. What we did see was a lot of ugly endings: Martina Hingis cramping against Steffi Graf in 1996. Mary Pierce fading away against Jana Novotna in 1997. Lindsay Davenport obviously running out of gas in the fourth set in 1998.)

But if the WTA Championships is ďthe sameĒ as every other event on the WTA (single elimination, best of three), it really is ďthe same only better.Ē The field is the best it can possibly be. The points are bigger than any one-week event. And the prize money -- well, the eight first round losers make more than most of us make in a year.

An interesting twist on all of this is that the first singles matches wonít start until Wednesday. In a 16-draw, thatís not unreasonable -- but itís going to be a busy end-of-the week!

We also note, with surprise, that Lindsay Davenport is not being seeded according to her special rank. Weíre not sure why, since injury rankings usually last six months. That sets up one of the best early round matches, since she opens against Monica Seles! And #6 seed Seles, who has reportedly been suffering from a foot injury, hasnít played an indoor match this fall (though she went 6-2 in indoor matches last winter). Davenport has gone 7-3 this year, but of course has no titles. And while Davenport has a huge head-to-head lead, they havenít faced each other in a year and a half. And there is one small twist here: As best we can tell, every one of their meetings has been won by the higher-ranked player -- and right now, thatís Seles.

There are a couple of fairly routine first rounders on the schedule: #1 Serena Williams opens against Anna Smashnova. Smashnova is among the lowest-ranked players here, and she doesnít like indoors much; even in this, the best year of her career (and certainly her best indoor year), sheís only 4-4, though she has some pretty good scalps in those four wins: Patty Schnyder, Chanda Rubin, Meghann Shaughnessy, and Elena Dementieva.

Also likely to be routine is the match between Venus Williams and Patty Schnyder. True, Venus is said to be tired (donít ask us how anyone can still be tired after playing only one match since the U. S. Open), and Schnyder won Zurich -- but overall, Venus likes indoors much better.

The other first round matches all have interesting aspects, though. #8 seed Jelena Dokic opens against Anastasia Myskina in a contest pitting the two most absurdly over-playing women in the Top Fifteen. Dokic, who has been suffering emotional distractions, has also shown clear signs of running out of gas. She beat Myskina at Hamburg and Birmingham and San Diego -- but Myskina had the last laugh at Bahia, and also won at Rome. Though Myskina also seems to be running out of gas -- since reaching the Leipzig final, sheís gone 2-4, and three of her four losses have been to non-Top 20 players.

#3 Jennifer Capriati ought to be able to wipe the floor with Silvia Farina Elia, especially since Farina Elia will be still adjusting after Fed Cup. But Capriati has never had much success indoors in her career -- and this year, sheís 1-3, with her only win being over clay-loving Paola Suarez and all three of her losses being to non-Top 20 players (though two of them were to Alexandra Stevenson, and those two wins put Stevenson in the Top 20). Farina isnít all that happy indoors, either (apart from her Fed Cup losses, she was 5-6 indoors this fall) -- but she did make the Pan Pacific semifinal.

Perhaps the best first round contest will be between #7 Daniela Hantuchova and Magdalena Maleeva. Hantuchova has had solid indoor results, but sheís definitely tired and she will be just in from Fed Cup. Maleeva once again showed her indoor prowess at Moscow. Hantuchova is the better all-around player, but Maleeva has been here before.

#5 Kim Clijsters is probably at her best indoors, and has two titles this year. Chanda Rubin got off to a very slow indoor start but eventually made the Linz semifinal. This may come down to who is feeling better.

The final first-rounder is a big contrast in style: #4 Justine Henin versus Elena Dementieva. Dementievaís game is clearly more attuned to indoors, and she has made the semifinal here (Heninís best result is a quarterfinal last year, and that was against Anke Huber, who was the lowest-ranked player in the draw and who was nervous about retirement). But Henin is improving, at least slightly, this year, and Dementieva has regressed. And Henin probably feels more confident. And sheís the sort of opponent Dementieva hates. Their head-to-head doesnít tell us much -- Henin was won both meetings, but they were on Rebound Ace and grass, both Henin surfaces. Still, Dementieva has yet to take a set off Henin.

In the quarterfinal, barring major upsets, we would see

(1) Serena vs. (8) Dokic or Myskina
(3) Capriati vs. (7) Hantuchova or Maleeva
(5) Clijsters vs. (4) Henin
(6) Seles or Davenport vs. (2) Venus

Serena seems pretty well set. Venus -- who, after all, lost in Moscow to Maleeva -- seems less secure. Clijsters and Henin have never met indoors, and Henin won their meeting this year at Rome -- but overall, Clijsters leads 4-2 over the past three years, and Heninís two wins were on clay and grass. Clijsters seems pretty secure. The big contest of the quarterfinal is really the Capriati match: Indoors, both Hantuchova and Maleeva are better than the Australian Open winner. But itís Hantuchovaís first Championships, and Maleeva has never won a match here. Can Capriati exploit?

By the time we get to the semifinals, our crystal ball just doesnít have the juice to give us even a guess as to what will happen....

The doubles is unusually wide-open. Last yearís winners, Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs, are playing their last event together, and havenít been doing at all well of late. Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez, the top team of this year, doesnít like indoors. The teams of Hingis/Kournikova (who have two titles and no losses at this event) and Williams/Williams arenít here -- the former because of injury, the latter because they donít play enough. Daniela Hantuchova and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario were playing last week when everyone else had the week off, and Hantuchova looked tired even before Fed Cup. Janette Husarova, who plays with Elena Dementieva, was also active in the Fed Cup final. The rest of the teams here just havenít been in the same league; even Cara Black and Elena Likhovtseva, last yearís finalists, have looked weak, and Arendt/Huber and Lee/Prakusya really donít have any big results. Fujiwara and Sugiyama have been steady, but again, no really big wins. Itís the most wide-open doubles event in years -- and one with an unusual number of doubles specialists. Only Hantuchova and Dementieva are in both singles and doubles, and Hingis should have been. Last year, there were three players in both (Coetzer, Tauziat, Testud), and Hingis probably would have been in both also. The year before that, five players were in both (Hingis, Halard-Decugis, Tauziat, Likhovtseva, Kournikova), and Rubin and Testud should have been. This is starting to look ATP-like in the separation into singles and doubles specialists.

In the shadow of that, Pattaya isnít much. This is axiomatic: If the Top 20 are all in the Championships, or wishing they were, then they arenít in the far east. And with the Asian hardcourt season shortened this year, a lot of players didnít stick around in Asia for the last event of the year. It showed. When the qualifying draw came out, the top four seeds all had first round byes, and one first round match had both players taken from the draw (one promoted and the other withdrawn and not replaced), and of the 28 players in the draw, the author (who examines every singles draw at $50K and larger Challengers) could recognize only 13 of the names, and 10 of the 28 players were ranked below #400. Most of the main draw names were familiar, but they arenít the sorts to get much TV coverage: Only two players (#1 seed Tatiana Panova and #2 Tamarine Tanasugarn) are Top Fifty, and ten uninjured players made it into the main draw despite being ranked below #100.

And yet, there are interesting aspects to this draw. Not many, but some. Lina Krasnoroutskaya, who was Gold Exempt this year but injured almost the whole time, is in as a wildcard. #3 seed Henrieta Nagyova is a past champion, and she and countrywoman Martina Sucha are just in from the Fed Cup final. Shinobu Asagoe showed in 2000-2001 that she is better than her ranking. Angelique Widjaja is a significant prospect.

And the draw did an amazing job of putting the seeds under pressure. #1 Panova is pretty safe; she opens against a qualifier, then Tatiana Poutchek of Zsofia Gubacsi, both slumping. But #2 seed Tanasugarn, who has never done well at her national tournament, opens against the top unseeded player, Rossana Neffa-de los Rios. #3 seed Nagyova hits Krasnoroutskaya -- who, based on her 2001 results, looks like the best player here -- in the opener. #4 seed Anca Barna doesnít have it too bad in the first round, but could face Asagoe in the second. #5 seed Sucha, who like Nagyova is sure to be jet lagged, will start against Widjaja. #7 seed Denisa Chladkova opens against Alicia Molik, who last year was Top 50. With Los Angeles overshadowing the field, there probably wonít be many stories from Pattaya. But itís probably better than you think it is.

The Rankings. This yearís championships is a bit different from past years, since the points from last year are already off. That cost Lindsay Davenport, dropping her to #12, and even Serena Williams saw her margin over sister Venus get chopped in half. There will be no defending points this time. They just add. (At least for the top contenders: Davenport and the Sisters, as well as Capriati and Seles. Players with a lot of events, like Jelena Dokiva and Anastasia Myskina, will see points come out of their Best 17.)

The Championships is listed as having three-quarters the points of a Slam. It doesnít, actually -- it has three quarters of the round points, but quality points are not multiplied as they are at a Slam. The net result is more on the order of two-thirds of a Slam. Itís still the biggest non-Slam on the Tour. The winner here, even if she plays only the lowest-ranked opponents, should pick up at least 625 points. And itís more likely to be in the 650-750 point range.

In theory, that meant the #1 ranking could be on the line, because Serena Williams leads sister Venus by 752. But in reality, it wonít come up. For one thing, Serena gets 67 points just for showing up. And in the actual draw, Venus canít get maximum points anyway. So our Top Two are set: Serena and Venus. There is an actual contest for #3, though, with Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters and Monica Seles and Daniela Hantuchova all theoretically capable of making it. In practice, itís unlikely that any of them will. But the #4 ranking, currently held by Justine Henin, is legitimately in play, as is everything else down to #9, currently held by Jelena Dokic. Dokic canít really hope for #4, but she could certainly move ahead of Seles or Hantuchova or even Clijsters.

Martina Hingis is currently #10, and she has a chance to hold that spot. She leads new #11 Anastasia Myskina by 474 points -- and Myskina has seventeenth tournament points, so Myskina must actually earn 507 points to top Hingis. That means, to hit the Top Ten, Myskina must either reach the final, beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinal, or she must win Los Angeles.

Uh-huh.

#12 Lindsay Davenport comes in 620 points behind Hingis. That means her only hope is to win Los Angeles. She has done it before, so itís possible (weíd certainly rate her chances above Myskinaís, even though she has to do more), but it seems a pretty poor bet.

Theoretically, Patty Schnyder and Chanda Rubin could also grab the #10 spot by winning Los Angeles and beating lots of top players. But what are the odds?

The doubles rankings are about as much up in the air -- i.e. not very. Paola Suarez and Virginia Ruano Pascual have clinched the top spots. Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs are the defending champions, and the loss of those points means that Janette Husarova, under ideal circumstances, might be able to reach #3 -- but she has to win the thing. Raymond and Stubbs have clinched #4 and #5. (Itís going to be interesting to see what happens next year, with this team splitting; Raymond is supposed to play with Lindsay Davenport, but Davenport doesnít play doubles as much as Raymond.) Below that, the #6-#12 spots are all in play. There are good chances here for Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Daniela Hantuchova, assuming they can survive their troubles from Fed Cup. Also watch out for Ai Sugiyama. Weíll offer more details as the week progresses.

It does not appear that Pattaya can affect the Top 20 in any way; even if Tatiana Panova wins the thing, the points arenít there.