By David Kane
Weeks like the one the WTA Tour had at its Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria are a blatant mockery to the act of making predictions before they even begin.
First of all, who predicted that Caroline Wozniacki, who started 2012 at No. 1, would find herself at a Year-End Championships for the Tour’s B-squad? The Dane, who now has more singles than Slam titles (a charity song “Oxygen” and a campy music video to go with it) has endured a fall from grace that felt oddly symmetrical as she played her semifinal against hometown favorite Tsvetana Pironkova. After all, Wozniacki played the Bulgarian floater at the first tournament of the year, the usually star-studded Hopman Cup in Perth. Ten months that feel like an eternity later, Wozniacki is the one looking decidedly out of place.
Subtext aside, it would have then appeared easy to predict a rebound victory for the Dane. Playing a tournament comprised of players that the former No. 1 had beat handily during her rise to the game’s elite, “Karolina” could not have felt too intimidated to take on names like Su-Wei Hsieh or Roberta Vinci. Furthermore, she had recently won tournaments in Seoul and Moscow, taking out tough opponents like Kaia Kanepi and Sam Stosur en route. The Dane was not a celebrity wildcard; she had earned her place into this event with her first titles since August of last year.
Who, then, would have predicted that No. 2 seed Nadia Petrova would turn the tables on Wozniacki and decisively beat her in a 6-2, 6-1 final?
Yes, the Russian is a dangerous opponent, and with a title in Tokyo that saw her claim the scalps of top ten stalwarts Sara Errani, Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska, she has obviously played well of late. But for a player for whom much must be perfect, a tournament full of tricky opponents a mere days after winning the Istanbul Championships doubles title sounded like a big ask. Indeed, she played the role of the tired veteran, trudging through three tight matches on her way to the final. Combine that with Petrova’s pitiful 1-4 head-to-head against Wozniacki (one win coming when the Dane retired in 2008), who wasn’t predicting victory for the woman who had clinched a year-end top 10 ranking just by reaching the final?
Seemingly out of nowhere, Petrova recalled the game plan that saw her take out Radwanska in Tokyo, but unlike that three-set final, there was no lapse from the Russian. For about 90 minutes, Wozniacki had no answer to Petrova’s laser-like groundstrokes, flawless serving and inspiring net prowess, and was forced into her fair share of uncharacteristic errors as a result.
During the Russian’s extended slump, her formerly reliable serve was often the cause of her worse losses; her first serve percentage would drop, and she would get broken too often for a perennial Tour ace leader. That she didn’t lose serve in either match played this weekend speaks volumes to explain her recent success, and spells bad news for future rivals should she maintain this form. When her serve is working, the rest of her game loosens up, and even the most expert retrievers and returners are driven to fits under the pressure of the Russian’s powerful game.
Beyond that, not enough can be said about her newfound positivity on the court. After being fired by Wozniacki herself, Ricardo Sanchez began working with Petrova and has been a great influence on her on-court demeanor, striking an encouraging figure from the stands. There will be no Serena-esque shrieks or Sharapova-style fist pumps from Petrova, but quietly celebrating a well-struck ball illustrates her marked emotional growth.
Petrova mentioned that the promise of a rapidly approaching off-season got her through these tough matches, so the question remains as to whether she will be able to dig as deep when the 2013 season begins, and she will have to figuratively start over again.
At the risk of making any wild predictions, it might be best to end this article sooner rather than later.