Filled with beguiling sequences such as Ivanovic scampering through the Pantheon, the WTA’s “Looking for a Hero” commercial promoted the 2008 edition of the opulent but often maligned year-end championships.  Ironically, though, the advertising campaign underscored the Tour’s most glaring weakness, the power vacuum atop its rankings that has produced seven different #1s in the last two and a half years.  As 2010 lurches to a conclusion, the search for a hero continues…

Maroon Group:

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Wozniacki:  Having won four of her last five tournaments and 23 of her last 24 matches, the world #1 enters Doha with maximum momentum.  But will fatigue settle into her game as it did when she last attempted to win three consecutive titles, at the US Open?  Wozniacki finds herself in the more comfortable section and theoretically should defeat all of her round-robin opponents, thus assuring herself the year-end #1 ranking.  Not until the semifinals can she encounter Clijsters, Jankovic, or Zvonareva, the three players here with relatively recent success against her at key events.  In last year’s edition, Wozniacki outlasted Azarenka in an epic duel and heroically battled through leg cramps to defeat Zvonareva before retiring in the semifinals against Serena.  Unless she faces Clijsters in that round this year, she’ll probably improve upon her 2009 performance.

Schiavone:  A member of the “elite eight” for the first time in her career, the Roland Garros champion certainly can threaten away from clay.  She defeated all of her round-robin opponents en route to that improbable major title, but she hasn’t defeated any of them anywhere else and has lost to both Wozniacki and Dementieva during the second half.  On the other hand, Schiavone enters Doha healthier than many of her rivals, while she rises to the occasion more confidently than the Aussie and the Russian in her group.  Moreover, she avoids the two players here who have completely baffled her in the past, Clijsters (0-11) and Zvonareva (0-10).  A key intangible in her situation, the Fed Cup final looms just a week after this event concludes.  At the core of that inspired Italian team, Schiavone may let her thoughts drift towards a competition that means more to her than it does to most WTA stars.  Yet she remains one of the most opportunistic players on the Tour, and opportunity knocks loudly in this group.

Stosur:  During the first half, the Aussie looked likely to establish herself in the top 5 with a serve-forehand combination among the best in the WTA.  After losing a Roland Garros final that she probably should have won, though, diffident play and a mysterious arm injury undermined her second half.  Although she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open with a tense, thrilling victory over group-mate Dementieva, one wonders how she will respond to meeting Schiavone for the first time since Paris.  Despite that US Open achievement, Stosur exited prematurely from all of her Asian tournaments and has not reached a semifinal since Stanford.  Unless the Aussie rediscovers the confidence that recently has eluded her, it’s hard to see her snapping that streak in her debut appearance at the singles event here.  After collecting herself during the offseason, Stosur should return with renewed purpose in 2011.

Dementieva:  Since the WTA instituted the eight-player draw in 2003, the star-crossed Russian has reached the semifinals just once in six appearances, compiling a 3-12 record in round-robin play.  Somewhat understandably, Dementieva hasn’t voiced much enthusiasm lately for the event, and she withdrew from last week’s tournament in Luxembourg with a foot inflammation.  But her balanced groundstroke game should suit the medium-speed hard courts in Doha; in fact, she defeated 2008 champion and 2009 finalist Venus there last year.  In 2010, Dementieva has engaged in tightly contested encounters with everyone in this group, suggesting that she will have a chance to win each of her round-robin battles.  Less promising for the Russian’s fans is her recent trend of falling painfully short in those encounters, including losses in third-set tiebreaks to both Wozniacki and Stosur.  Nevertheless, she defeated Schiavone in both of their hard-court meetings this year and has enjoyed a far stronger fall than Stosur, including an outstanding run to the Tokyo final.

Semifinalists:  Wozniacki, Dementieva

White Group:

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Zvonareva: The blue-eyed, ever-brooding #2 achieved the improbable feat of reaching two finals in Doha during the same year (2008), which witnessed the last edition of the regular-season event and the first edition of the year-end championships.  Vera being Vera, she lost both of those finals in angst-ridden fashion, a trend that has dogged her in 2010.  During last year’s edition of this event, moreover, Zvonareva watched with a mixture of shock and pity as Wozniacki hobbled helplessly around the court…and still managed to overcome the Russian.  Having won the first nine sets that she played against Azarenka, she surrendered the momentum in that mini-rivalry at the Australian Open but may have recaptured it at the Rogers Cup.  Most significantly, Zvonareva remains the only player to defeat Clijsters on a hard court since March and demonstrated at Wimbledon that she could conquer the Belgian on the grandest stage of all, as long as it isn’t a final.  But will the possibility of becoming the year-end #1 weigh heavily on her shoulders?

Clijsters:  The only hard-court Slam champion in Doha, Clijsters has lost just one match on this surface since Indian Wells.  Seemingly recovered from her own foot troubles, she entered no tournaments during the post-US Open season and thus arrives at the year-end championships fresh albeit perhaps a bit rusty.  The round-robin format will allow Kim to rid herself of rust without dire consequences, although she finds herself in the distinctly thornier group.  Dominant against Zvonareva before her comeback, she has dropped two of three meetings this year with the world #2, while she split her two clashes with Azarenka.  After winning the season finale in 2003, Clijsters performed reasonably well but not brilliantly in her last two appearances there.  Outside the US Open, her level at top tournaments has veered from the fantastic (Miami, Cincinnati) to the feckless (Australian Open, Indian Wells).  Will the absence of her family affect the Belgian, who appeared to draw emotional support from their presence at previous tournaments?

Jankovic: An apparent clay pigeon in a section with three avid sharpshooters, the Serb has won just eight matches since the clay season.  Jankovic owes her appearance here to sterling performances in Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, but she has struggled with a characteristic concatenation of injuries and illnesses during the second half.  While she can be most dangerous when most discounted, JJ has vanquished just two top-10 players this year (Kuznetsova, Wozniacki) and probably will need to double that total within three matches in order to advance.  In her last two appearances at the year-end championships, Jankovic did reach the semifinals before falling to Venus on both occasions.  Note that the Serb lost to Zvonareva here in 2008 and Azarenka here in 2009, however.

Azarenka: Having captured her second title of 2010 on Sunday, Vika seeks to finish an sporadically dazzling but generally disappointing season.  When she has gained momentum in recent months, Azarenka has almost invariably fallen flat on her face in the next tournament (sometimes literally).  In 2009, she edged within a few games of a semifinal berth after dismantling Jankovic and dominating the first half of her match against Wozniacki, but she let the opportunity slip away and then retired against Radwanska a match later.  Faced with a more daunting challenge this time, Azarenka must defeat one of the top three players in the world in order to emerge from her group.  Yet it’s not an impossible mission for a swaggering competitor who has conquered every Slam champion that she has played except Venus and seems perpetually poised for a breakthrough.

Semifinalists:  Zvonareva, Clijsters


Eight aspiring empresses, one set of imperial robes.  Can anyone wear them as regally as Ana?

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