2014 Preview: WTA storylines to watch
With the new season only days (!) away, a panel of tennis writers — Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand, Amy Fetherolf of The Changeover, Erik Gudris of Tennis Now and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times -- joined me to preview the WTA Tour in 2014. Click here for our discussion of the ATP Tour.
Looking out for No. 1
Courtney Nguyen: It seems like yesterday that many people were lamenting the lack of dominance on the WTA Tour -- that any Johnette Come Lately could waltz into a Grand Slam tournament and lift the trophy. Those days are over. This year was all about Serena Williams, who went 78-4 and counted the French Open and U.S. Open among her 11 titles. Will 2014 be all about Williams, too?
Erik Gudris: The WTA will be all about Williams in 2014. As long as she stays healthy, it's hard to see anyone stopping her. She might lose a few more matches than she did this year, but unless someone else has a transformative season, Williams likely will reign supreme again.
Ben Rothenberg: Yep, it's still Williams vs. the field in 2014. Popcorn matches against Sloane Stephens are still to be desired, and matches against Maria Sharapova still seem like foregone conclusions. Sigh.
Nguyen: So then where's the fun? Or is the fun in watching her lawnmower the field?
Gudris: That seems to be the debate. On the one hand, it's a marvel to watch one of the greatest players of all time. On the other hand, is it worth paying attention if you already know the outcome?
Rothenberg: The fun is in the supporting characters. There's a lot to enjoy on the WTA Tour, even knowing who is going to win. Stephens, Genie Bouchard, Madison Keys and Laura Robson all should be a lot of fun to track in 2014.
Ricky Dimon: WTA fun isn't just performance-based. The coaching carousel was extremely entertaining in 2013 and could be even more awesome in 2014. Isn't Redfoo a tennis coach? Zeljko Krajan, Jimmy Connors, etc. Heck, even JESSE WITTEN is a WTA coach now.
Gudris: How many majors will Serena win next year? I say two.
Amy Fetherolf: Two seems right to me. I wouldn't be shocked if she wins three or even four.
Rothenberg: I would put the over-under at two. Which is absurdly unfair to her, but she's set the bar at a ridiculous level and no one seems near challenging her.
Dimon: I'll go with two, but I'm a lot closer to picking one than three. No matter how many times she proves otherwise, I always question her ability to stay motivated throughout an entire season -- even at Slams.
Nguyen: I agree with you, Ricky, about still doubting her motivation. But one thing that really struck me this past season was how cognizant Williams -- who has 17 major titles -- suddenly became (at least openly) about chasing records. Catching Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (who have 18 apiece) and possibly breaking Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 are goals, after which Margaret Court's all-time mark of 24 would be in reach. In other words, her motivation is less "I want to win and beat people and stuff" and more "I want to win and get one step closer to unseating legends." Makes a difference.
Gudris: Ben mentioned four promising young players in Stephens, Bouchard, Keys and Robson. Which one reaches a Slam semifinal or final in 2014?
Rothenberg: Of those four? Stephens. She really hasn't had letdowns in big tournaments, which is going to get her very far in life.
Gudris: That's true, Ben. But I wouldn't be surprised if Stephens crashes out of Melbourne early due to the expectations there after her semifinal run in 2013. She could recover at another major, though. I can see Keys making the final four of a Slam if she gets her serve going.
Fetherolf: I'd take Bouchard or Robson. I'm totally unconvinced on Stephens. Her reputation as a big-match player is highly overrated, and she's certainly not a small-match player. She seems to get no great joy out of the day-to-day WTA Tour, which is concerning for her age.
Dimon: Unlike Bouchard and Robson, who are the fun queens.
Rothenberg: Stephens is much better at winning ugly than Robson or Keys; I'm not sure the latter two have gained that skill yet. I need more big-stage data on Bouchard.
Nguyen: Despite Stephens' success at the majors, I'm pretty reluctant to anoint any of those four as Slam semifinalists next year. They're all perfectly capable of breaking a bracket or two, which three of the four did this year. But there's still a lot of work to be done. I'm not sure I believe all of the Bouchard hype quite yet, though I did make her a "buy" for 2014.
The fact that we can even have this conversation about future stars is fun and distinguishes the WTA from the ATP. We're still waiting for some younger names to make an impact on the men's side.
Fetherolf: I agree, Courtney. The WTA youngsters are fun to watch, while the ATP crop of young talent is a bit of a wasteland at the moment.
Rothenberg: Seriously. Not only are the WTA kids all right, but they're also relevant. I can't say that about the ATP now or in the last five years, really. Which is sad.
Dimon: Not sure about you folks, but I very much enjoy watching Ernests Gulbis, Benoit Paire and Jerzy Janowicz -- albeit for extenuating circumstances most of the time.
Nguyen: Fair point, Ricky.
Gudris: Frankly, Gulbis, Janowicz and Paire are their own tour.
Nguyen: How much shakeup in the top five -- which consists of Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska -- do you expect in 2014? I see a lot of potential for movement.
Fetherolf: Williams and Azarenka are the only two who seem certain to remain near the top.
Rothenberg: I see Williams, Azarenka and Li staying roughly put. Sharapova might slip if she has to miss more time. No. 6 Petra Kvitova, as always, is the wild card.
Nguyen: Petra. Petra, Petra, Petra. It's amazing how much the "Del Petra" name just ... works. She's such a game-changer.
What's more likely to happen next season: Williams wins the French Open or Kvitova wins a Slam?
Rothenberg: Williams at the French. But if I had to pick her to win three Slams or Kvitova to win one, I might go with Kvitova.
Fetherolf: I can't bet on Kvitova. That's seldom a good idea.
Gudris: I just don't trust Kvitova's consistency over seven matches at a Slam. A Williams repeat in Paris might be the safer pick.
Dimon: Williams, definitely. Ben's question is a tough one, though. I'd give Williams the slight edge to win three, mainly because of the Radek Stepanek factor with Kvitova.
Dimon: As far as the rankings: Williams has 13,260 points, for crying out loud. There isn't much else to go around, so it's not that hard to get into the top five. There are a lot of women who have Slam-final potential if they land on the opposite side of a draw from Williams, though that is mainly because the rest of the field is far from dominant. So I agree that the result should be some movement in and around the top five.
Gudris: I'll be interested to see how Azarenka bounces back after the season-ending WTA Championships. She just seemed fried mentally and physically. Not a good sign a few months before trying to win her third consecutive Australian Open.
Rothenberg: I don't see another title for Azarenka in Melbourne next month without a LOT of help. Which, arguably, she also got in 2013.
Nguyen: And 2012. But, hey, everyone needs a little luck to win a Slam.
Gudris: If Williams can stay on her feet Down Under, literally, it is hard to see anyone beating her there.
Rothenberg: Who finishes 2014 higher: Jelena Jankovic (who is eighth) or Simona Halep (11th)?
Nguyen: Are you guys really not buying Halep as a top-10 player? I am.
Fetherolf: I buy Halep to some extent. She could be a fringe top-10 player, but I don't think she's anything more than that.
Dimon: Working with Ben's buy-low, sell-high method, I am definitely selling Halep. She took advantage of a lot of favorable draws and vulnerable opponents in 2013, when she won six titles. I need to see a bigger sample size before I push my chips into the center of the table on Halep.
Rothenberg: I'll take Halep to qualify for the WTA Championships and finish (barely) above JJ. Big things will happen for her in the first half of 2014.
Nguyen: Yeah, I'm pretty high on Halep. She has virtually no points to defend before Rome and she has lots of room to pick up points at the Slams. She'll be seeded regularly next year. That's huge for her.
Gudris: Not to take anything away from her success, but Halep has yet to prove that she can challenge the elite in the final stages of a Slam.
On another note: I can see a top-10 finish for 14th-ranked Roberta Vinci next year, but not one for Italian Fed Cup teammate Sara Errani, who is ranked seventh. The pressure, man. The pressure.
Rothenberg: I think Errani helped herself by getting all of that stuff off her chest at the U.S. Open, where she talked about the pressure of being a high seed. I actually thought she played really well at the WTA Championships, and I can see her being a top-10 cockroach for the foreseeable future.
Dimon: Ben, I just hope you aren't comparing Sara Errani to a cockroach. target="_blank">DO YOU?
Rothenberg: In only the best ways. When all is said and done on this planet, only Keith Richards, Sara Errani and cockroaches will remain.
Dimon: And Lleyton Hewitt.
Gudris: And Cher. Don't forget Cher.
Nguyen: Who's going to make the big move next season? Which lesser-known names excite you?
Gudris: Can't forget about No. 55 Monica Puig, who boasted that none of the players like facing her.
Rothenberg: Puig, 20, is definitely a buy. I'm curious to see what 18-year-old Yulia Putintseva can do if she stays healthy for a full season. And obviously CAMILA GIORGI.
Dimon: Giorgi's dad is definitely one to watch in 2014. Not sure how I left him out of my initial comment about coaches.
Fetherolf: Garbine Muguruza, a 20-year-old from Spain, is an intriguing prospect.
Nguyen: These aren't necessarily lesser-known names, but I want some of the tour's veterans to get back to where they belong in the rankings. Namely, I hope Svetlana Kuznetsova, Andrea Petkovic, Samantha Stosur and Venus Williams can return to spots of relevance.
Dimon: The tour would do well to see that quartet get back somewhere near the top. All four are good for the game.
Nguyen: I have always been big on the Caroline Garcia hype. The 20-year-old is up to No. 73, and I'd love to see her get into the top 50 or 40. Donna Vekic, 17, a two-time finalist already who is ranked 96th, is definitely one to watch as well.
Dimon: Since you all sound like you're ready for Andy Murray to retire, perhaps he should call it quits and start coaching Garcia, his self-appointed future world No. 1?
Nguyen: Also, Ajla Tomljanovic is a name we're going to need to be able to spell without Googling soon. The 20-year-old from Croatia, ranked No. 77, is a good talent. She's now working with David Taylor. I like that player-coach pairing a lot.
Nguyen: What's your biggest question going into the 2014 WTA season?
Dimon: Definitely Sharapova, whose situation is similar to Roger Federer's on the ATP Tour. How will she fare physically? How will the coaching change (Sven Groeneveld was hired last month) work out? Will she be able to seriously challenge the top two?
Rothenberg: The biggest question is Sharapova's shoulder. That's it and that's all.
Gudris: I think 2014 will be a turbulent year for her, at least during the first half of the season as she gets back into the swing of things. Roland Garros may be her best result at a major again.
Fetherolf: Sharapova's form has to be the biggest question. Per Christopher Clarey's piece in The New York Times, this shoulder issue predates the French Open.
Nguyen: The big question I have is whether Serena can win the calendar-year Grand Slam. That would be one heck of a story. I know that's not a fair question or expectation for Serena, but she's set such a high standard.
Rothenberg: I say it every year: My main hope is that somebody, anybody, pulls an Australian-French double. The sport could really use calendar-Slam intrigue. It's been an absurdly long time without it.
Gudris: The real question for Serena and the calendar Slam is the brief respite between Roland Garros and Wimbledon. If she can figure out a way to win in Paris, rest and then switch to grass with ease, she just might do it. If Rafael Nadal or Serena wins Melbourne, it's definitely on.
Nguyen: One sure bet for the 2014 WTA season?
Gudris: Serena will win a major title.
Fetherolf: There will be an overhyped Sloane-Serena showdown or three that will not live up to expectations.
Nguyen: Azarenka will withdraw from at least two tournaments but will not retire from a match.
Rothenberg: Jankovic will stay ahead of Ana Ivanovic. (Is that rivalry still a thing? No?)
Gudris: And ... and ... an active former Grand Slam champion will retire. Dimon: Marion Bartoli will come back and defend her Wimbledon crown. Then she'll retire again, announce a second unretirement at the Western & Southern Open and win the U.S. Open.