After a rather arid week in tennis news, the sport springs back to life with the first of its year-end championship tournaments, held in the unfamiliar setting of the Istanbul Dome.  We profile each of the WTA’s Elite Eight before they fire the first shots in their marquee collisions.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark receives the WTA Year- End No 1 Trophy on during day four of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 29, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Red Group:

Wozniacki:  A finalist at the 2010 edition of the year-end championships, the face of Turkish Airlines also battled out of her round-robin group two years ago.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki also reached finals in both of her appearances in the Middle East, including a Premier Five title in Dubai.  Less auspicious are the omens from her Asian fall campaign, which concluded with pre-semifinal losses at both Tokyo and Beijing in stark contrast to her consecutive victories there last year.  On the slick indoor surface, her defensive skills may not withstand the firepower of Kvitova, who crushed her in their only fast-court meeting at Wimbledon last year.  Not since April has Wozniacki defeated a top-eight opponent other than Schiavone, whose underperforming second half forestalled her attendance.  All the same, the Great Dane owns a winning or even record against everyone in her group despite having accomplished less than all of them this fall.

Kvitova:  Amidst three natural counterpunchers, the Czech must feel sanguine about her chances as the principal offensive threat on an offense-oriented surface.  Although she appeared to Czech out of competition for a few months after winning Wimbledon, a title on the fast indoor courts of Linz may have signaled the onset of a resurgence.  That trophy came at the expense of noted defensive artists Jankovic and Cibulkova, proving that Kvitova lately has deployed her weapons with greater wisdom and consistency than during her long second-half skid.  But she fell resoundingly to Zvonareva in a Tokyo semifinal after squandering a massive lead, her second hard-court loss to the Russian this year.  The only first-time participant in her group, Kvitova may need a match or so to adjust to the unique format and rhythms of the tournament.  Moreover, as with the other first-time Slam champions, she will have to overcome the urge to complacently accept her accomplishments thus far as sufficient for a season.  Beneath that shy veneer, though, Kvitova has shown herself capable of surprising resolve throughout a year in which she surpassed Wozniacki as the pathbreaker of her generation by winning Wimbledon.  A title here, which the Dane does not own, would cement the Czech’s ascendancy in that role.

Zvonareva:  Recalling Wozniacki’s success in the Middle East, Zvonareva has enjoyed such visits to the region as the Doha title this year, another Doha final three years ago, and the 2008 final of the year-end championships in Doha.  (On second thought, maybe she just has a special affection for the Qatari capital.)  After a modest first half, the second-ranked Russian raised her performance several notches in the second half by surging into three finals and acquitting herself creditably in a quarterfinal run at the US Open.  The round-robin format may benefit Zvonareva by removing some of the pressure associated with single-elimination draws; if she falters in one match, she can reassure herself that she will survive to another day.  Winning her last meeting against both Wozniacki and Kvitova, she generally prefers a more modestly paced hard court but demonstrated her ability to adapt to faster surfaces by reaching finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.  Likely grateful to see her inevitable nemesis Stosur elsewhere in the draw, Zvonareva now may have to defuse new nemesis Radwanska, who collected all three of their meetings since Wimbledon without dropping a set.  As noted above, however, she doesn’t need to win every match.

Radwanska:  Slipping unobtrusively into the draws at previous editions of this event, the Pole positively thundered into the 2011 year-end championships by becoming the second straight player to record the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing.  The last player to accomplish that feat, Wozniacki built upon it by marching within a set of the 2010 title at this tournament.  Can Radwanska follow in her footsteps?  In theory, the fast indoor surface should undermine her affinity for finesse and carefully calculated gambits.  In practice, it also will add an additional jolt of pace to her strokes, which she had struck with greater conviction and acceptance of risk this fall.  Outside her losing records against Wozniacki and Kvitova, fatigue may pose the most serious concern for Radwanska, who fell immediately at the Kremlin Cup and has had little experience in her career with plowing deep into consecutive tournaments.  Beyond the physical dimension, her style demands a high degree of mental focus that may have faded slightly in the aftermath of her Asian accomplishments.

Maria Sharapova - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 4

White Group:

Sharapova:  Four years ago, her most recent appearance at the year-end championships culminated with that season’s most memorable match, a three-set final against Henin that lasted nearly three and a half hours.  More than anyone except perhaps Kvitova, Sharapova should thrive on an indoor surface where the wind can disrupt neither her ball toss nor her pinpoint groundstrokes and the WTA’s best return of serve.  Her fall season ended prematurely with an ankle injury, though, and she has practiced this week with that joint tightly wrapped amidst hints that she will not compete at full strength.  Perhaps more concerning, the Russian had endured a wildly erratic stretch on the summer hard-courts during which she averaged over 40 unforced errors per match.  But Sharapova looked crisper when she arrived in Tokyo, and a lack of pre-tournament matches with her 2007 shoulder injury did not prevent her from carving her way to the final past four talented opponents.  While she has struggled against Azarenka, she has maintained the same uncanny dominance over Stosur that the Australian has inflicted upon Zvonareva.  With a probable loss and probable win in those two matches, her encounter with the perplexing Li Na may decide whether she emerges from the group.

Azarenka:  A diluted or updated version of Sharapova, depending on one’s perspective, Vika has emulated her successes against Stosur by relying upon her more balanced baseline style.  After a minor injury in Beijing, she cruised to the Luxembourg title last week against overmatched adversaries.  While that accomplishment would seem to provide her with momentum, Azarenka has developed a disquieting habit of alternating between the remarkable and, well, the retiring.  During this spring alone, consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella followed an Indian Wells retirement and preceded a Stuttgart retirement, which in turn preceded a Madrid final and then a Rome retirement.  A repeated guest at this event in the last few years, Azarenka collaborated with Wozniacki, Radwanska, and Clijsters on some of its most entertaining matches.  But she ultimately lost all of them in three sets as the magnitude of the occasion and the concomitant tension unnerved her.  Unless she suffers an injury as she has here before, however, she should not only advance from this group but win every round-robin match to arrange a meeting with the Red Group runner-up on Saturday.

Li:  Theoretically the third-ranked player in this group, the reigning Roland Garros champion has fizzled in spectacular fashion at nearly every significant event since then, from a second-round Wimbledon loss to a first-round exit from the US Open to another opening-round defeat at her home tournament in Bejing.  Meanwhile, she squandered multiple match points before losing to a player outside the top 30 (New Haven), split with the coach who led her to the aforementioned Roland Garros title (Michael Mortensen), signed sponsorship deals projected to earn her more endorsement money than any player except Sharapova, and announced the upcoming release of what should prove a fascinating autobiography.  As the events chronicled above indicate, the success of Li’s off-court attempts to capitalize upon her major breakthrough have contrasted starkly with her on-court fecklessness, the product of a complacency that she openly has admitted.  The last set that she played before Istanbul, a bagel at the hands of the underpowered Niculescu, exposed a competitor who strangely lacked confidence in any of her most familiar shots.  In her debut appearance at the year-end championships, Li can remind herself that she has nothing to lose but the match—or rather three of them.  On paper, though, her 2011 Slam triumphs over Azarenka (twice) and Sharapova would have positioned her to exploit this draw.  Thus, an opening awaits if she can awake.

Stosur:  In a story familiar from her predecessors this year, the WTA’s third first-time Slam champion of 2011 took a virtual vacation from competition in her ensuing tournaments.  Perhaps a testament to her greater maturity and steadiness was Stosur’s swifter revival when she reached the Osaka final, an important confidence boost despite a lopsided loss to Bartoli at that stage.  A semifinalist at the year-end championships in 2010, the Aussie showed no debutante nerves while comfortably defeating Wozniacki and extending Clijsters to a third-set tiebreak.  Arguably the best server of the eight participants, she should win more free points and hold serve more comfortably on the fast surface than most.  But her winless record against both Sharapova and Azarenka looms large in what usually functions as a double-elimination format.  Will Stosur’s Slam breakthrough, defeating the normally impenetrable Serena, embolden her to overcome those who relentlessly have preyed upon her?

Semifinals:  Kvitova vs. Sharapova, Zvonareva vs. Azarenka

Final:  Kvitova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Petra Kvitova, who would repeat Sharapova’s 2004 feat of winning her first major at Wimbledon and then winning the year-end championships in her first appearance there

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Ignited by this preview is a daily series of articles that will discuss each singles match during the week in Istanbul as Turkey hosts a significant tennis event for the first time in its history.

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