James Peeling earmarks the top five WTA players to watch in 2014.
1. Simona Halep
It is the most obvious choice of my five, but you have to sit up and take note of the tremendous improvements that Simona Halep has made in the last year. In 2013, Halep won 6 titles and even more remarkable was that she managed to win them on a range of surfaces; she conquered clay in Nürnberg and Budapest, grass in s’Hertogenbosch, hard courts in New Haven and indoor hard courts in Moscow and Sofia. Halep had four top 10 wins in 2013 with Agnieszka Radwanska her biggest scalp to date. It won’t be long till Halep is in the top 10 because the Romanian won just 8 matches through the first 4 months of the 2013 season and therefore, with few points to defend, is only going to go up.
Halep’s strengths are her ability to construct the points and her consistency from the baseline. I always thought she was a defensive counter puncher, much like Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani, but she has demonstrated this year the ability to take the ball on and hit plenty of winners. The one area Halep is yet to conquer is the Grand Slams and it will be imperative for her to improve on a career best 4th round showing at the US Open. Currently ranked at number 11 in the world, the Australian Open will be a great opportunity for Halep to use that new ranking and make a big impact at a big tournament.
Prediction – Halep to break top 5 by the end of 2014
2. Eugenie Bouchard
It wasn’t until the end of 2013 when people really sat up and took note of Eugenie Bouchard. She emerged from the shadows of her BFF, Laura Robson with a stellar Asian swing which saw her reach a first WTA tour final in Osaka. By virtue of her results, she ended the season as the highest ranked teenager at number 32 and was crowned as the WTA newcomer of the year.
Throughout the year, Bouchard was constantly improving her results and recorded wins over Jelena Jankovic, Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic. Most impressive was the victory over Ivanovic at Wimbledon. Bouchard, originally scheduled out on court 12, was suddenly given top billing after Victoria Azarenka withdrew from the Championships. Bouchard was given barely any notice before stepping out on to the hallowed turf of Centre Court, but never looked overawed as she produced a fine performance to defeat the former French Open champion in straight sets.
Bouchard has progressed steadily, but meaningfully throughout the last couple of years. It was only last year that she won the Wimbledon juniors title and she has made her leap on to the WTA tour appear seamless. The one worry I have is whether she possesses that killer weapon in her locker, but there is no doubt with her striking good looks that Nike have no worries about their future replacement for Maria Sharapova.
Prediction – Bouchard to break top 10 by the end of 2014
3. Madison Keys
While men’s tennis in America continues to slump, the scene on the women’s front could not be brighter. There are now 11 American women in the top 100 rankings and the most promising of the up-and-coming talent is the number 38 in the world, Madison Keys. Equipped with a big serve and a booming forehand, Keys started 2012 in style down under in Sydney. After winning 2 qualifying matches, she went on to beat Lucie Safarova (6-0 6-1!) and Zheng Jie before giving Li Na a real run for her money in the quarter-finals. She would gain revenge later in the year over Li to claim her biggest win to date at the clay court event in Madrid.
Highlights in 2012 included quarter-final showings in Charleston and Birmingham, and a semi-final appearance in Osaka. I thought Keys was destined to have her big breakthrough during the summer hard court season, but a shoulder injury stopped her gaining any momentum. I like Madison’s attitude and her down-to-earth personality, and the mental side of her game is what looks to be the most promising aspect to her game. After she beat Li in Madrid, there was a barely a celebration as if it wasn’t a surprise and she should be challenging and beating top 10 players on a weekly basis. Keys currently has only one top 10 win to her name, but I expect that number to multiply over the next year.
Prediction – Keys to break top 15 by the end of 2014
4. Andrea Petkovic
One of the most engaging personalities on the tour, Andrea Petkovic has suffered a string of injury woes over the last couple of years, but appears to be fighting fit for 2014. In 2011, Petkovic cracked the top 10 for the first time in her career with quarter-final showings at three of the four Grand Slams. However 2012 would see a string of unfortunate injuries including a double stress fracture to the spine, torn ankle ligaments and a ruptured medial meniscus of the right knee.
Petkovic was back on tour in March of this year where she faced an uphill struggle with a reliance on wild cards and having to qualify for big events. She admitted considering retirement after failing to qualify for the main draw of the French Open. However her hard work and dedication started to pay off just a week later when she won the ITF event in Marseille and then made the final of a WTA International event in Nürnberg.
In the second half of the season, Petkovic showed some promising form with a final appearance in Washington and a last 16 showing in Beijing where she beat the world number 2, Victoria Azarenka, who was admittedly labouring. Petkovic’s game is not the prettiest on tour, but she gets the job done and her passion for the game can never be questioned. Petkovic has had so many knocks in her career, but with a world ranking of 44, she will be able to get direct entry into all the big tournaments by right next year. If she can stay injury free and it is a big if, then I think she is going to have a great season.
Prediction – Petkovic to break top 25 by the end of 2014
5. Belinda Bencic
A name to watch out for in the upcoming years is Belinda Bencic. At just 16 years old, the Swiss youngster made a name for herself this year by winning the juniors title at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, an impressive feat to triumph on two completely different surfaces. Bencic, who has worked heavily with Melanie Molitor (Martina Hingis’s mother) during her career, has been learning her trade on the ITF tour where she has won 2 titles both in 2012.
Bencic has made a few appearances on the WTA tour this year including two outings in the fall season where she showed a great deal of promise. Bencic won her first main draw match in Beijing against Daria Gavrilova and won four matches in Osaka including three qualifying wins and a first round win over Lauren Davis, before falling to Sam Stosur. Just this week, Bencic made the semi-finals of an $75K ITF event in Toyota.
Bencic’s biggest strength, like her idol Martina Hingis, is her thought process on the court and she looks to be a great tactician. The Wimbledon junior’s final against Taylor Townsend, which was an absorbing contest, featured a great deal of variety and Bencic was solid both physically and mentally. Tennis is such a mental game these days and Bencic finished the match off with real conviction. I cannot stress enough that Bencic has a long, long way to go, but the early signs are good and she is definitely a player to keep on your radar going into 2014 and beyond.
Prediction – Bencic to break top 100 by the end of 2014
James Peeling. Pundit Arena.