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Monday October 24th, 2011

Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters

Current top seed Caroline Wozniacki (left) lost to Kim Clijsters at the 2010 WTA Championships in Doha. (Xinhua/Landov)

The Watch List spotlights the must-know storylines for the upcoming week in tennis. This week the focus is on the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

The WTA Championships feature a consistent but Slam-less No. 1, three first-time major winners and a handful of players who have had streaks of brilliance mixed with fits of disappointment. With Agnieszka Radwanska grabbing the eighth and final spot for the year-end championships, the field is set: Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, Vera Zvonareva, Samantha Stosur and Radwanska.

The players have been drawn into two groups, the Red Group and White Group (coordinating colors with the Turkish flag, no doubt), and they'll start in a round-robin format on Tuesday, with the top two players from each group advancing to a single-elimination semifinals.

Red Group: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Zvonareva, Radwanska

White Group: Sharapova, Azarenka, Li, Stosur

Here's how the groups break down:

Tough luck, Sam: The U.S. Open champion draws the short straw as she's grouped with two players against whom she's 0-13: Sharapova (0-9) and Azarenka (0-4). With Li's form being virtually nonexistent these days, this group is Sharapova's and Azarenka's to take, assuming that Sharapova's ankle has fully healed.

If Sharapova is still hampered, Stosur might have a shot to get out of the group, as she's 5-0 against Li. But it's hard to argue with an 0-13 record. Stosur admits she struggles against aggressive, flat hitters, and she's never even come close against Sharapova or Azarenka. She hasn't taken a set off either of them in nine matches since 2005.

Seeing Red: The Red Group is much tougher to handicap. Kvitova seems to be on the way to rediscovering the form that earned her the Wimbledon crown. She showed glimpses of brilliance in Tokyo before self-destructing against Zvonareva in the semifinal, but then rebounded to capture the title in Linz.

Similarly, Radwanska was Murray-esque this fall, winning back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing and dropping only one match since the U.S. Open. Those two, along with Azarenka, seem to be the best-tuned players, but Wozniacki is rested and leads the head-to-head against Kvitova (3-1) and Radwanska (4-1) and is tied with Zvonareva (4-4).

I suspect the time off since Beijing was what Wozniacki needed, to step away and refocus herself after a summer of slump talk, coaching controversy and getting schooled by Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals. I tap Wozniacki and Radwanska to come out of this group, with Kvitova showing the volatility of her big game against three players who will make her to hit the extra ball, likely forcing her to rack up errors. She has a losing head-to-head record against both Wozniacki and Zvonareva.

Round-Robin Predictions

White Group: Sharapova, Azarenka

Red Group: Wozniacki, Radwanska And the winner is ... Maria Sharapova, if she's able to stay stable on that ankle.

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