|Seriously, did Sasha Vujacic dress Maria for the photo shoot?|
(1) Caroline Wozniacki, (3) Petra Kvitova, (6) Vera Zvonareva, (8) Agnieszka Radwanska
Zvonareva: 2011 was a step backward for Zvonareva. She looked much better in ESPN's Body issue than she has on a tennis court much of the year. She was thrashed in the Tokyo final by Agnieska Radwanska and won just two matches in her next two events. It wouldn't surprise me if she didn't win a match in Istanbul.
Radwanska: The pride of Poland, Radwanska is back at her high water mark, it's her second time ranked as high as 8th in the world. As much as Wozniacki's derided for her lack of power, Radwanska has even less at her disposal. That said, she's as steady as they come and if any of the bigger hitters are misfiring coming into Istanbul, Radwanska will be their worst nightmare.
Kvitova: There's a lot to like with this one. I like her power game, I like her 5-title year, I like her ability to hold her nerve winning Wimbledon, I like her shaking off that Wimbledon hangover and winning against a solid (though not world-beating) field in Linz.
Pivotal Match: Caroline Wozniacki v. Agnieszka Radwanska
Dark Horse: Agnieszka Radwanska
Semifinalists: Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki
(2) Maria Sharapova, (4) Victoria Azarenka, (5) Na Li, (7) Samantha Stosur
Sharapova: Maria's fall campaign was truncated by an ankle injury, so it's hard to say where she is right now. The last time we saw the Siberian Siren at full strength, the magic ran out in a tough 3 set loss to Flavia Pennetta at the US Open. A match marked, like most of the last two years, by ill-timed service woes, comeback attempts and a disappointing ultimate result. The World No. 2 has been up and down, she reached the Wimbledon final and the semis at Roland Garros, in both cases she was favored to win the tournament and...didn't. Maria never stops fighting, the question is will her game match her gumption this week?
Li: In the first month of the season Na Li/Li Na was 11-1 including an Australian Open final. She, of course, then won Roland Garros to cap a 14-2 run in April/May. She was 6-12 the rest of the year. It almost looks like a vintage year of Serena Williams minus bothering to play 12 other events. For all her talent, Li has been incomprehensibly lost much of the season. Now she'll have to play Sharapova, Azarenka and Stosur just to get out of her round robin group...another player who might not win a match.
Pivotal Match: Sharapova vs. Azarenka
Dark Horse: Marion Bartoli, the alternate, subbing for a player who pulls the rip cord
Semifinalists: Sharapova, Azarenka
I'm admittedly not sure of what the semifinal matchups will be, they're of course dependent on how the players rank in their round robin groups, so of the Final Four: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Sharapova and Azarenka, who's our winner?
Wozniacki: 10-1 - At this stage of the tournament, Wozniacki will be up against three players with bigger games, two of whom have won majors. It's funny though, she's 9-6 against these women. Again competitive, but not dominant. The issue has been that when the spotlight is on her, Wozniacki seems to shrink rather than perform at her highest level. While a Wozniacki win wouldn't be a shock, it would sure begin to rewrite conventional wisdom about the (almost) Great Dane.
Sharapova: 7-1 - Yes, she's got the strongest resume of the contenders. Yes, she's the dictionary definition of a fighter, but there are two big issues. One, she's not match tough, having been on the sidelines for a month with that bum ankle. Two, when the going gets tough, that serve breaks down. If you can't start the point, you can't win the point. She could be playing for the biggest title of her comeback as well as the year end No. 1 ranking, which would be a first for Maria. I think that's enough pressure to crack a serve.
Azarenka: 3-1 - In a year where four women have split the four majors, and a fifth is likely to finish year end No. 1; wouldn't it make sense that a sixth woman wins the YEC? Azarenka hasn't won a big one yet, but it's been a year of improving results for the Belarussian. We all know that she hasn't broken through at the big events and we're all pretty sure that she can. That said, given her history, it's logical to question if she's ready.
Kvitova: 2-1 - What can I say? I've been impressed by Kvitova all year. She's not the fashionable pick, that'd be Azarenka; the sentimental favorite, these days, Sharapova; nor is she the player who needs this one most, we call her Wozniacki. Kvitova hasn't played up to her potential since Wimbledon, but I see a field with no odds-on favorites, no one coming in with a head of steam and no one who just seems to be able to shut down the nerves and win, except Petra Kvitova.
Kvitova FTW: That's my pick and I'm sticking to it.
If you like what you're reading, follow for more on Twitter: @VBlacklabel or join us on Facebook