Doha Day One
October 27, 2009 -- Although the men's side of professional tennis doesn't finish up for another four to six weeks, the women are poised to take a break after the WTA Sony Ericsson Championships come to a close on Sunday in Doha, Qatar. The men might play harder and faster, and draw capacity crowds. However, leave it to the women player representatives working in conjunction with the WTA to develop an effective road map -- plan for success -- that satisfies fans with dandy entertainment and satisfies players with income and down time. Happy faces all around, for the most part.
No doubt, these women are entitled to and have earned their well-deserved vacations, as do all major sports' figures. Most tennis players have labored diligently since December 2008, when they began to train for tournaments in Australia, for example, Auckland, Sydney, and Brisbane, which precede The Australian Open. From summer Down Under to stops spread worldwide, the women travel full time to compete for ranking points. After The U. S. Open has drained players' tanks and the air here turns distinctively fall, the eight women at the top of the ranking heap land in the emirate of Qatar, which resembles a tiny thumb extending off Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf. The Qatar Tennis Federation has hosted the year-ending championships for three years now. This year is its last chance to host the event. Next year... Istanbul, Turkey.
Seems almost mysterious and delightful to consider the combination of culture and sport along the road map of the WTA Tour. However, when all you know about a city is the hotel you're registered in and the practice schedule times, the magic dims. Yes, these women check out the cities. However, their job is winning tennis matches. The day-in and day-out demand burns physically and mentally. As economists say, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Work hard, play hard. Rest peacefully when you can.
Here are the eight women competing at the 2009 WTA Sony Ericsson Championships, in order of ranking: Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Elena Dementieva, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams, and Jelena Jankovic. Two women are on standby, in case of injury or an unforeseen mishap forces one of the eight to retire from the tournament: Vera Zvonareva and Agnieszka Radwanska. The defending champion is Venus Williams.
Interestingly, this tournament will decide who is number one in the world. Will it be Safina? Or, will it be Serena? These women have been on each other's trail, and at each other's throats with catty comments, over the course of the year. Fittingly the top spot comes down to this tournament. One hundred fifty ranking points separate Safina and Williams. It's a small margin for such heavy hitters.
The women have been divided into The Maroon Group and The White Group, the colors representing those of Qatar. Players for each group were drawn at random, but a keen eye must see that the Maroon Group is laden with the stronger stars: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva, and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
In the White Group are Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, and Victoria Azarenka. These aren't 'weak' players, but let's face it Serena Williams is 45-12 for the year and has 11 major titles. Big sister Venus has 7 majors and is 36-13 for 2009 (not her best year). Kuznetsova has 2 major titles and is 42-14. Dementieva is 54-16 for the year with no Grand Slam titles, but is appearing in her ninth year-end competition -- more than any player here. Compare that to the White Group and the discussion pretty much comes to an abrupt halt.
However, no one really can predict an outcome of a tennis match let alone a tournament. Last year Venus Williams surprised the field with her victory, as did Vera Zvonareva with her runner-up finish. Serena Williams traditionally has not done well at the year-ending championships. However, several tennis pundits and the majority of tennis fans from around the world agree that she will dominate in Doha, walking away with the title, the number one's crown, and $1,550,000.
The first part of the week is a round-robin format, where each player meets each women of their group once. Match wins and losses, plus game scores are tallied along the way. The top two from the White and Maroon Groups then advance to the semifinals, where the number one from Maroon plays the number-two finisher from the White Group and vice versa for the corresponding first and second-place players. The finals are set for Sunday, November 1.
In today's first round-robin match Victoria Azarenka defeated Jelena Jankovic 62 63. The nineteen-year-old Azarenka blasted into 2009, but slowed as the season dragged on. She won three titles, the one from Miami the most coveted for the teen from Belarus. Jankovic qualified for Doha last week, which made the Serb happy but left her somewhat tired-looking on court today. Azarenka wasn't in the mood to play Jankovic's extended rally strategy, but hanged tough when JJ moved her opponent to every nook and cranny of the hard court. Azarenka might be the surprise of the week, if her stamina stays steady. She looked mighty winded a couple times today, which has undermined many a match for her this year.
Venus Williams was going to make it a short afternoon against Elena Dementieva and could have, had she converted one of two match points held in the second set. But the tables turned ever so slowly for the elder Williams as her footwork, timing and serve went off enough and opened the door for Dementieva to come from a set and a break behind to win 36 76 (6) 62. Dementieva is one of the fittest women on tour. When she closed the second in a tiebreak, smart minds visualized a 'W' by the Russian's name.
Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova battled. Their groundstrokes were forceful and carried a message. Williams wasn't going to let up. Neither was Kuznetsova. Serena wanted revenge for her loss to the Russian in the semifinals at The French Open. Svetlana wanted to drive home the fact the she won that major. In the end, Williams' will won out. Kuznetsova had the first set on her racquet in the tiebreak, but unforced errors foiled her attempt to take the lead -- always a better position when playing Serena. Again unforced errors hobbled Kuznetsova in the second set, and Williams serve filled in when absolutely necessary. She won 76 (6) 75.
Tomorrow from Doha, The White Group makes its move.