WTA Championships: The fifth slam

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By David Kane

The idea of the “Fifth Slam” gets thrown around a lot in tennis circles. Perhaps constricted by the feeling that only Grand Slam tournaments matter, we all seem to enjoy debating which of the second tier tournaments could infiltrate the elite four and offer its champion a heightened sense of prestige, despite lacking the illustrious history of a Wimbledon or French Open. For the first time in many years, the WTA Year-End Championships, with both its field and storylines, has the potential for a sweeping victory in such a debate.

If the worth of your Grand Slam title is measured against the number of top players you defeat, then the Year-End Championships offers the top eight players the perfect opportunity to prove themselves among their peers. Not only does the event promise to be journeywoman-free, its round robin format allows for the proverbial “bad day,” as a player can advance to the semifinals with as few as two (or even one) wins out of three. In theory, this should always be the best tournament of the year; it provides big match-ups to the fans and bragging rights for the winner. So why does this year’s Championships feel bigger than ever?

There is a certain tragic element to what many would consider the “lost years” of the WTA Championships. The tournament has struggled in the decade since it moved from its beloved home in Madison Square Garden, hitting its nadir during a prolonged (and literal) stay in the desert. On playing in the aforementioned Doha, Qatar,  Serena Williams once quipped that she would play her best, whether there were five or ten people in the crowd (paraphrased).

In the meantime, the men’s World Tour Finals found an epic home in London’s O2 arena, which only served to further dwarf the women’s equivalent by comparison. Some big changes last year, most notably a move to Istanbul, provided a much-needed boost to the beleaguered tournament. With a better stage and bigger crowds, the women came to play, and many would cite the finale between Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka as the best match of 2011. This year’s championships promises to be even bigger. Despite the fact that the semifinals appear set, with Azarenka and Serena Williams in one group and Kvitova and Maria Sharapova in the other, there is so much to look forward to from a tour of players green to the prospect of a chaos-free tournament.

Fans rejoiced at the placing of Azarenka and Williams which guaranteed at least one rematch of the US Open final, possibly two if both reach the final. But that second match is far from a sure thing, with dark horse Li Na also in their group. The Chinesewoman has hard court wins over both Azarenka and Williams, and looked in fine form during her run to the Beijing semifinals. Rounding out the Red Group is Angelique Kerber, who has proven she can win nearly all of the matches she is “supposed” to win as a top player, but lacks consistency with the biggest names; despite a surprise victory over Williams in the summer, her losing records to Azarenka and Li don’t exactly inspire confidence that the German can make a big run.

The White Group is home to Sharapova and Kvitova, who each have something to prove as the year draws to a close: the Russian Roland Garros champion that she can compete with the best in the world, and the Czech defending champion that she is still the best indoors player of her generation. Agnieszka Radwanska, though higher ranked that Kvitova, can expect to fly under the radar with poor head-to-heads against the latter and Sharapova. But with Li Na in the other group, she can expect at least one win, over Championships debutante Sara Errani, and is wily enough to perhaps upset one of the two bigger guns and sneak into the semifinals.

After a fall season rife with discord over who deserves to be considered the best in the world, this year’s WTA Championships looks to put an end to all debate, regardless of how the rankings shake out at tournament’s end. The sport’s best players are here, healthy, and to the delight of the large Istanbul crowd, ready to play for what can be undeniably thought of as the year’s “Fifth Slam.”

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