Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams headline the WTA Championships in Istanbul. (Tolga Bozoglu/EPA)
ISTANBUL -- The WTA produced some big-time results this year: the triumphant return of Serena Williams, a dominant Slam-winning No. 1 in Victoria Azarenka and the completion of a career Grand Slam for Maria Sharapova with her victory at the French Open.
With the tour long knocked for its unpredictability and one-and-done champions, the WTA's elite not only won a flurry of matches but also reliably progressed to the late rounds of tournaments to solidify some long-standing rivalries -- or non-rivalries, as it were -- and plant the seeds for some new ones. All in all it's been a great year for the WTA, and it all culminates here this week at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships at the Sinan Erdem Arena.
Here's what you need to know about the year-end Championships.
The format: The tournament features round-robin play with the eight players drawn into two groups of four. Each player will meet the other three in their group over the first four days of the competition, with the top two women from each group advancing to the semifinals. The first-place player from each group will play the second-place player from the other group in single-elimination semis, with the winners moving on to the championship match. The winner stands to make $1.75 million if she goes undefeated. (For a full breakdown of prize money, click here.)
The draw: The biggest question heading into the draw ceremony was whether Williams would be drawn into Azarenka's Red Group -- giving us a guaranteed U.S. Open final rematch -- or Sharapova's White Group. The draw is out: U.S. Open rematch it is.
• No. 1 Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
• No. 3 Serena Williams (USA)
• No. 5 Angelique Kerber (GER)
• No. 8 Li Na (CHN)
• No. 2 Maria Sharapova (RUS)
• No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska (POL)
• No. 6 Petra Kvitova (CZE)
• No. 7 Sara Errani (ITA)
Williams vs. Azarenka, the match we want to see: With Williams drawn into Azarenka's group, it's entirely possible that the two could play twice this week, once in the round-robin stage and again in the final. Their U.S. Open final rematch should be a good one. Azarenka knows how to play these courts, having made the final last year, and she's on one of those undefeated streaks again, winning back-to-back titles in Beijing and Linz. A win over Williams in Istanbul and her 2012 coronation is complete.
No. 1 up for grabs (barely): The only player with a chance to take the No. 1 ranking from Azarenka is Sharapova, but it's a longshot. She has to win the title and hope for a complete collapse from Vika. Azarenka can clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking if she wins two round-robin matches. If Sharapova loses a round-robin match, then Vika just has to win one match in group play. In other words, barring catastrophe or injury, Vika's top spot is safe.
Serena will have to shake off the rust ... quickly: The Championships' unique format is unforgiving. Players don't really have the luxury of playing into form, which Williams is great at during the Slams because she often gets her feet on the ground against lower-ranked opponents in the early rounds. Here, every opponent is a top-eight player. While Azarenka hasn't lost a complete match -- or even set -- since the U.S. Open, Serena hasn't played since beating her in New York in September, a layoff that's lasted for more than a month.
The common refrain from the players during their pre-tournament press responsibilities is that Williams is the one to beat. "Serena is tough, really," Li said. "I always say if she 100 percent on court, nobody can beat her." The question is whether Williams will be 100 percent. The fast indoor courts feed right into her dominant serve, but it also means she'll have to get her footwork firing in the rallies. The ball will get on her quickly. She'll open the tournament against Kerber on Tuesday.
Petra Kvitova took down Victoria Azarenka in the 2011 WTA Championships. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Kvitova needs to tap her indoor dominance: Since the start of 2011, Kvitova has run a 27-1 indoor record, with her only loss coming this year to Sharapova on Stuttgart's indoor clay. That record will get tested this week as Kvitova tries to become the first woman to defend a WTA Championships title since Justine Henin in 2007. As for what to expect from the Czech, your guess is as good as mine. She found some momentum on the North American hard courts -- amassing a 15-2 record with titles in Montreal and New Haven -- only to leave it all behind in New York to put in a dismal 1-2 showing through Asia. She'll benefit from her group placement, though, as she's never lost to either Errani or Radwanska. Another possible advantage for Kvitova? This isn't a wind-down tournament for her. She's still trying to get her game right for the Fed Cup final in Prague next week.
Kerber and Li can spoil the Red Group: The only way this group could have been tougher is if Kvitova, the defending champion and queen of the indoors, landed here instead of Kerber. Then again, Kerber's remarkable consistency over the year is just one factor that makes her a bit of a wild card. The German is the only player at the Championships to have beaten Williams this year, in straight sets in Cincinnati. In fact, Kerber is the only player in the field who doesn't have a losing record against Williams, with their head-to-head tied at 1-1. Li is 1-5 against Williams, but unlike Kerber, she's had success against Azarenka, splitting eight matches. Aside from the surprise loss to Laura Robson at the U.S. Open, Li has been playing solid tennis since the Olympics, winning Cincinnati and making the finals of Montreal and semifinals of Beijing.
Semifinal predictions: Williams vs. Sharapova; Azarenka vs. Kvitova.
Winner pick: Azarenka def. Williams.
ATP tournaments on tap
Basel: Roger Federer's quest to hold on to the No. 1 ranking got a little bit easier when Andy Murray withdrew from Federer's hometown tournament with a back injury, leaving a fairly weak draw. Look for Fed to pick up his tour-leading seventh title of the year here.
: David Ferrer returns after picking up a stomach virus in Beijing, leading the field with Stockholm finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But the big news in Valencia this week surrounds Juan Carlos Ferrero, who will be playing his last tournament. The 2003 French Open champ and former world No. 1 will retire after the event.