The WTA season finale, the WTA Championships, which features the tour's top eight women and top four doubles teams, takes place next week in Istanbul, Turkey. Here are five things to pay attention to...
The crowning of Serena Williams
The American has not played at the WTA Championships since 2009, for a variety of reasons, but her presence at this year’s season-ending event is crucial for she will be intent on showing that she is the best player in the world, whatever the rankings say. Having won Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open, you might have thought there was little doubt but having played fewer tournaments than others, she still trails Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova going into the Championships. If Serena is there, she is the favourite and she will be keen to win it for a third time, having tasted victory on her debut in 2001 and again on her most recent appearance in 2009.
The rise of Victoria Azarenka
Of all the players who were swept aside by Serena Williams in the second half of 2012, the one who came closest to upsetting the odds was Azarenka, who won her first Grand Slam title in Australia in January and who has produced a superb, consistent year. The Belarussian moves better than Maria Sharapova, the world No.2, and pushed Williams hard in the US Open final. What is equally impressive is that she has won back to back tournaments in Beijing and Linz since and having reached the final last year, she will be out to go one better and claim another big title. Unlike some, she is not intimidated by Williams and has had the beating of Sharapova lately.
The return of the indoor queen
Last year’s champion has had an up and down year, not helped by picking up a series of niggling injuries and then an illness or two along the way. After such a stunning 2011, when she won Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, a slight dip was perhaps inevitable but she still managed to win two titles in August, so it’s not like her form has disappeared. More importantly, she is absolutely at her best indoors, where she is free to go for her shots without worrying about bad bounces, wind or sun, and as she has shown over the past couple of years, she is the best player in the world indoors. If she is fully fit, she has the big-match mentality to win again.
The underdogs: Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber
Few people would have picked out the Italian and the German as potential members of the eight-woman event when the year began. But both have been absolute revelations; the left-handed Kerber grinding her way into the top 10 with consistency, guts and plenty of power; Errani reaching her first Grand Slam final at the French Open with guile and sheer skill to make up her for lack of natural physical might. Indoors might not be Errani’s best surface but Kerber should enjoy it and no one enjoys playing her. It would be a surprise if either won but it’s superb for the women’s game that variety and “tennis smarts” can still get you a long way.
The impressive crowds
When the WTA Championships went to Istanbul for the first time in 2011, there were fears that the crowds would just not be there, that tennis would not draw the crowds that football does in Turkey. But the capital city is sports-mad and a piece of intelligent thinking from the Turkish Tennis Federation, who lowered the prices of the tickets to much more manageable and realistic levels, ensured that the seats were filled for most of the week. And they were not just filled, but they were filled with young people, who got into the occasion and behind the players, ensuring that the atmosphere inside the stadium was never less than exciting.