Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season. Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters. Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.
First quarter: In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open. The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week. Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City. When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes. Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone. But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay. Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round. The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets. Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka. That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.
Second quarter: A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets. Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event. Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open. Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well. Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng. Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments. (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.) Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week. After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki. That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.
Third quarter: The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships. This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood. As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year. Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur. Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie. Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements. Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots. In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight. Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova. In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist. Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce. Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.
Fourth quarter: Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year. Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue? Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes. Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface. In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago. Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her. When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011. Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking. Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva. Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her. Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane would shoulder considerable pressure.
Final: Radwanska vs. Lisicki
Champion: Agnieszka Radwanska