With the WTA season in the books, SI.com reviews 2011 and looks ahead to next year.
Jon Wertheim: Petra Kvitova is, at once, the WTA's present and future. She deployed her game to devastating effect at Wimbledon and at the year-ending WTA Championships to finish the season ranked No. 2. She also led her country to Fed Cup glory (such as it exists). In these strange times, those qualifications alone are enough to be named season MVP. But it is Kvitova's un-Czeched (sorry) potential that also draws excitement. Go through the prerequisites for success, and she meets them all. She is a 6-foot lefty, age 21, able to clobber the ball, move well, serve concussively and dictate points. She even possesses some feel inside the baseline. While there are still some consistency issues to work through, she is the leading candidate to fill the WTA leadership vacuum.
Bruce Jenkins: Kvitova. I seldom put much stock in the year-end championships, but this year's tournament carried some weight -- and Kvitova made it clear that she's the best and most forceful player in the world. Add that to her Wimbledon title and she had the best year, no questions asked. What's strangely irrelevant now is the No. 1 ranking, and that's been the case since it became largely the province of Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki. It's a matter of who steps up when it really counts, and although Kvitova was hardly dominant (note that first-round loss to Alexandra Dulgheru at the U.S. Open), she plays the kind of aggressive, attacking tennis we'll never see from Wozniacki. Kvitova's forehand is a rally-ender when it's on. She has that big lefty serve, always a weapon because it's seen so infrequently on Tour. And while she has occasional difficulty with her approach shots, she has become a confident and capable player at the net.
Richard Deitsch: Kvitova. She won six titles, including her first major and a victory in her WTA Championships debut, and capped a marvelous year by leading the Czech Republic to a dramatic win over Russia in the Fed Cup finals. Kvitova finished with a 60-13 record and went undefeated indoors (21-0). She could overtake Wozniacki by the end of January.
Bryan Armen Graham: Kvitova. Wozniacki and Kvitova finished 1-2 in the year-end rankings, each bagging a Tour-best six titles. But Wozniacki didn't even make it to a major final, while Kvitova broke through for a Grand Slam title and went unbeaten in Fed Cup and the WTA Championships. The big-serving 21-year-old is a star-in-waiting no longer.
Courtney Nguyen: Kvitova. "Del Petra" is her nickname in the blogosphere, and if you follow the WTA, the buzz surrounding the Czech isn't that different from how ATP fans felt about the emergence of Juan Martin del Potro. Coming into 2011, Kvitova was ranked 34th and had one career title. She now has seven career titles, a Fed Cup championship and a No. 2 ranking, only 115 points behind Wozniacki. Had Kvitova not completely gone on walkabout during the North American hardcourt swing (either in the spring or the summer), she could have finished No. 1. (In fact, had Agnieszka Radwanska beaten Wozniacki in their three-set duel at the WTA Championships, Kvitova would have ended the year in the top spot.) In addition, while Wozniacki's defensive style doesn't keep people engaged and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka still lacks firepower, Kvitova has unleashed an exciting game. If she can learn to control her radical mid-match, midseason inconsistency, we're looking at a multiple Grand Slam champion and possible Olympic champion in 2012.
Wertheim: With top players aging, injured or retiring (in the case of Justine Henin), there was a tremendous opportunity for others to step up into the top role. And yet, so many of the likely candidates retreated. Ana Ivanonvic, a former Slam winner, continued to flounder. Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time major winner, did virtually nothing. Same for Jelena Jankovic. The list goes on.
Jenkins: Maria Sharapova. Wozniacki wasn't a consideration because I've never expected anything truly significant from her, at any venue. It's an embarrassment that the world No. 1 is known mostly for defense and "hanging in there," and her game, strictly addressed, is dime-a-dozen stuff. Sharapova, on the other hand, should have claimed at least one major this year. She has a titanic edge in mental strength over 95 percent of her opponents, and she knows what it takes to handle the two-week grind. But Sharapova has refused to expand her game, settling for the one-note tedium of baseline blasting, and her serving problems are now mental, not physical. This was her year to win that fourth Slam, and she couldn't get it done.
Deitsch: Outside of Serena Williams' behavior at the U.S. Open? I thought this would be the year Wozniacki would win a major, especially given the lack of giants at the top of the rankings. Though she finished No. 1 for the second straight year, it was a big disappointment that the Dane did not bring home one of the big prizes in a winnable year. It was also disappointing that Kim Clijsters could not stay healthy after winning the Australian Open. The game is better when she's around.
Graham: Wozniacki is the obvious choice here -- happiness on the relationship front notwithstanding -- but spare a thought for Safina. The 25-year-old was the No. 1 player in the world two years ago this month, but chronic back problems led her to announce an ominous-sounding indefinite hiatus in May.
Nguyen: Does anyone remember that Vera Zvonareva was ranked No. 2 for most of 2011? The Russian had a tremendous chance to capitalize on the vacuum at the top and challenge not just for Tour titles but for Slams. Instead, she regressed. In April, she fired coach Sergey Demekhine, who helped her reach No. 2. She then partnered with a revolving door of coaches who couldn't help her find her game. The 27-year-old Zvonareva won only two titles in 2011 and may have missed her best shot to break through at the majors.
Wertheim: Sports swing between eras of dominance and eras of parity. Tiger Woods rules the PGA Tour. Then he departs and the last 13 majors have been won by 13 different golfers. Still, the WTA's "volatility index" in 2011 was astonishing. Players won and then disappeared. They disappeared and then won. Sometimes because of injury, sometimes because of indifference, Serena played in six tournaments -- low even by her standards. Clijsters won the Australian Open, injured herself in April and played only three matches after the French Open. The endearing Li Na won the French Open -- triggering, one hopes, a tennis boom in the world's most populous country -- and then struggled to win matches for the next six months. Three of the top four in the rankings (Wozniacki, Sharapova and Azarenka) not only failed to win a major among them but also produced only one Grand Slam final appearance (Sharapova at Wimbledon).
Jenkins: Samantha Stosur summoning the will power to defeat Williams at the U.S. Open. This was a done deal going in: Serena in a runaway. Stosur had admitted her mental frailty in key moments, and even her punishing forehand was going to be overcome by Serena's. Instead, Stosur hammered out a very convincing win -- and she admirably retained her edge after Serena, in that unfortunate exchange with chair umpire Eva Asderaki, got a surge of support from the crowd. Also in this category: Kvitova's Wimbledon win and the emergence of Julia Goerges, suddenly in the company of Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki among the up-and-coming Germans.
Deitsch: Stosur's run at the U.S. Open. Yes, the field was watered down, but no one expected the ninth-seeded Stosur to make her way through the draw, and her destruction of Serena in the final, an exhibition of flawless, attacking tennis, was the most surprising big-event result of 2011. It was only her third career singles title and she took out arguably the greatest big-match player ever.
Graham: Few gave Stosur much of a chance at the U.S. Open after an ignominious first-round exit at Wimbledon. Even fewer thought the 27-year-old Aussie could derail the Serena express in the final -- with the American favorite buoyed by a New York crowd on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But just when Serena's 14th Grand Slam title seemed all but a foregone conclusion, Stosur played the match of her life and beat back the overwhelming favorite in straight sets.
Nguyen: Li's French Open title. It was surprising enough that Li made the Australian Open final, where she acquitted herself well in a three-set loss to Clijsters. She wouldn't win a match again until April, but pairing with coach Michael Mortensen right before Roland Garros seemed to change everything. She had back-to-back semifinal appearances in Madrid and Rome, and then dropped only two sets on her way to the title in Paris. Li was as surprised as anyone. She hates clay. She hates running, she famously told the media. But how's this for an impressive and shocking run: Li beat Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. If anyone predicted this, I would like to talk to you about some lottery numbers.
Wertheim: Four years ago, Anna Chakvetadze turned 20, reached the U.S. Open semis, infiltrated the top five and looked like a future Slam contender, if not champion. Then it all went bad. That winter six thugs broke into her Moscow apartment, beat her father and made off with $300,000 in cash and jewelry. Reports that Chakvetadze was "uninjured" took a narrow definition, pertaining to her physical well-being. Emotionally, she was, understandably, damaged. So much so that she was through as a factor in tennis. With injuries and a strange case of vertigo conspiring against her as well, she tumbled out of the top 10, top 50 and eventually top 100. She currently clocks in at No. 231 and hasn't played since Wimbledon. She made news recently, though, when she announced her candidacy in the "Right Cause Party" of Russia's lower parliament. (Marat Safin is also seeking one of the 450 seats.)
Jenkins: Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open. There wasn't much buzz around any of the young American players at the start of the tournament, and people were especially cautious after the utter collapse of 2009 heroine Melanie Oudin. These two players didn't just score impressive wins; they showed a ton of resolve and athleticism. Worth mentioning: Agnieszka Radwanska, who pulled off an extremely difficult task -- breaking away from her oppressive father -- to become an infinitely more consistent player; and Chakvetadze, who found energy and motivation in Russia's political arena after a career scarred by that horrible off-court incident and a series of dizzy spells.
Deitsch: We come in praise of Patty Schnyder, the workmanlike lefty who retired (quietly) from the Tour after 17 years. Sure, she never won majors the way her fellow Swiss Martina Hingis did, but she was embedded in the top 10 for 94 weeks (reaching a high of No. 7) and won 11 titles. She'll be missed.
Graham: The steady ascent of Stephens, the 18-year-old from Plantation, Fla., who became the youngest member of the top 100 with a pair of hard-fought victories at the U.S. Open. Stephens brings an effervescent energy and wry humor to the often droll Tour. She simply kills it on a Twitter feed with an absorbing blend of Confucian profundity, junior-year poetry and fortune-cookie wisdom.
Nguyen: Alisa Kleybanova's cancer diagnosis. I was disappointed by how little attention the 21-year-old Russian received upon being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in July. Kleybanova, who reached a career-high No. 20 in February, announced the news on her 22nd birthday and has been in Italy undergoing chemotherapy and rehabilitation. I was blown away by her positive attitude about the situation. All you had to do was log on to her official site and see her match schedule: "Next Match: Alisa vs. Hodgkins lymphoma, Perugia, Italy." There's no doubting her character and resolve.
Wertheim: For six weeks or so last summer, we were treated to a representation of Serena's inimitable career. She won two events on hardcourts, simply blasting away the field, slugging winners and competing with deathly intensity. (She permitted Sharapova only four games; Azarenka six; Stosur six.) She withdrew from the third event, Cincinnati, officially with an injury, unofficially with a case of I-wanna-go-to-the-Kardashian-wedding, and then everything went to hell in the U.S. Open final. But if Serena has a singular ability to polarize fans, she also has unique talent for bouncing back. It says here she is not done winning majors. She may be 30 years old. She may be out of the top 10. She may be prone to both injury and indifference. But she is still Serena Williams. And no one else is. Watch for her next year. At least sometimes.
Jenkins: The arrival of Caroline Garcia and Bojana Jovanovski. Maybe I'm too harsh on Wozniacki, but I'm drawn toward real power, the type of weapon that made Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova and the Williams sisters such great champions. Garcia was nothing short of a revelation at the French Open as a 17-year-old, nearly taking down Sharapova and drawing raves from both men and women on Tour. Her huge, stylish forehand is to die for, and she'll reach the fourth round of a major next year. As for Jovanovski, you have to question the future of anyone who boards a plane for the Carlsbad tournament and winds up in Carlsbad, N.M. But the 19-year-old Serb has massive power, just waiting to be harnessed. She'll make a big splash at some point.
Deitsch: Wozniacki will win a major. Finally.
Graham: Venus Williams retires ... but not before winning Olympic gold at the All England Club.
Nguyen: What constitutes a bold prediction for the WTA? Wozniacki winning/not winning a Slam? Sharapova/Serena winning/not winning a Slam? No pick seems sure and every pick seems foolish. So my story to watch in 2012 isn't so much a prediction as a question: Are the Germans for real? Petkovic had a fantastic year to finish in the top 10. Lisicki rose from No. 218 in April to close the year at No. 15. Angelique Kerber made a surprise run to the U.S. semifinals. And Goerges rounded out the bunch with a title in Stuttgart to end right outside the top 20. They'll make a formidable Fed Cup team, for sure, but are we seeing a German resurgence or was 2011 just a blip? Lisicki has the game to win Slams, particularly at Wimbledon, but she's struggled to stay injury-free. All credit to Petkovic, who has built herself into the best player she can be, but has she topped out? As for Kerber and Goerges, I'm more inclined to "sell" than "hold." CEO Stacey Allaster didn't hide the fact that the WTA needed these women to do well in order to regain traction in the German market, something the Tour hasn't had since the days of Steffi Graf. The Germans are powerful and fun to watch with personality to spare. No doubt that continued German success would be good for the game.
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