Thursday September 6th, 2012

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The WTA has confirmed that Australian Open champion and current world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and French Open champion Maria Sharapova, who will sit atop the WTA rankings at No. 1 and No. 2 when the new rankings are released on Monday, have qualified for the WTA Tour Championships in Istanbul. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci are the first doubles team to qualify for the event. The WTA Championships, a round-robin tournament held at the end of the year in Istanbul, features the top eight singles players and top four doubles teams competing for $4.9 million in prize money.

“Maria and Victoria have had outstanding seasons with each earning Grand Slam titles, the WTA World No.1 ranking and Olympic medals, highlighted by Maria achieving her career Grand Slam," said Stacey Allaster, Chariman and CEO of the WTA. "Sara and Roberta have been the stand-out doubles pair this year, winning seven titles including their first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.”

For Azarenka and Sharapova, their roads to Istanbul have effectively been paved by surface. While the U.S. Open has yet to conclude, there's an argument to be made that Azarenka has been the best hardcourt player of the year. She began the year with her maiden Slam title at the Australian Open, and won Premier-level titles in Sydney, Doha and Indian Wells, where she ran up a 26-0 winning streak before losing in Miami. Though she didn't win any titles during the clay and grass season, her results remained consistent, making the finals of Stuttgart and Madrid, the semifinals of Wimbledon, and winning gold (mixed doubles) and bronze (singles) medals in the Olympics.

It continues to seem weird to say this, but Sharapova will head to Istanbul by virtue of being the Queen of Clay. While she made the finals of the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami, Sharapova is titleless on the two surfaces that were supposed to be her best: hardcourts and grass. Yet when the tour turned to clay -- historically her worst surface -- she was unstoppable. Over the course of four clay tournaments Sharapova compiled a 19-1 record, winning Stuttgart, Rome, and of course the French Open to complete her career Slam.

Based on current U.S. Open results, if the Race to Istanbul ended today the singles field in Istanbul would include Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, defending champion Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani and Li Na, with Samantha Stosur and Marion Bartoli serving as alternates. With Premier-level tournaments in Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow in the fall, there's still time to jockey for position, though given the women who have dominated the season so far -- Azarenka, Sharapova, and Serena -- it's possible that this will be the first time since 2007 that the No. 1 seed at the Championships is a reigning Slam champion. Talk about a change toward stability.

Here's a video of Maria Sharapova talking about her qualification.

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