As the 2014 season approaches, Beyond The Baseline evaluates 20 top WTA players to determine which ones we’d buy, sell or hold. Click here for the ATP edition.
No. 1 Serena Williams: The top ranking, 11 titles, two Grand Slams. This was Williams’ most consistent year, and yet one could understand if she was left wanting. An untimely injury derailed her Australian Open campaign and uncharacteristically tentative play led to a three-set, fourth-round loss at Wimbledon, two results that will surely motivate the ambitious 32-year-old for 2014. Her 78-4 record required an unprecedented level of commitment, and by the time the WTA Championships rolled around in late October, the season had clearly taken its toll. Conventional wisdom says that, after an outstanding season, Williams would want to duplicate her preparation schedule. But that hasn’t been the case. Last year, Williams did her preseason training block with the Mouratoglou Academy in Mauritius. This year, she’s been training Stateside. Will the change have any effect? Will she be fresh after a grueling year? I don’t know if she can match her 2013 record, but my hunch is that Williams’ Slam performance will improve next year. Verdict: Hold.
No. 2 Victoria Azarenka: The most pressing question is whether Azarenka, 24, can remain injury-free for the season. She struggled with both illness and injury in 2013, and despite completing only 13 tournaments, she complained of exhaustion and motivation issues at the end of the season. Still, she proved to be the only player who could reliably push Williams, and her consistency has always been her hallmark. The first big test will come next month as Azarenka enters the Australian Open as the two-time defending champion. She’s 21-0 in Australia over the last two years. Verdict: Hold.
No. 3 Li Na: Li, 31, put together her most consistent season in 2013, making the semifinals or better at two Slams and the final of the WTA Championships to finish with a career-high ranking. The best news for Li and coach Carlos Rodriguez is that she was able to get results even as she experimented with her game, namely tinkering with her serve and getting to the net to finish points more. Li still possesses the hunger to improve and achieve. She still has at least one more major in her. Verdict: Buy.
No. 4 Maria Sharapova: Much like the No. 4 on the men’s side, Andy Murray, Sharapova’s fortunes will turn on her health. She was on her way to a solid season before a shoulder injury slowed her and ultimately prompted her to pull the plug after the Western & Southern Open in August. In addition to the injury, there’s a new coach in place as Sven Groeneveld takes over for Thomas Hogstedt. I think the shake-up is a good one, but it will take some time for the 26-year-old to rediscover her rhythm and match fitness. A top-five finish is no guarantee. Verdict: Sell.
No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska: Another solid season enabled Radwanska, 24, to finish in the top five for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, her year will be remembered for a squandered opportunity at Wimbledon, where a tight three-set loss to Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals prevented her from playing for the title against a player to whom she had never lost in seven meetings, Marion Bartoli. Her post-Wimbledon results weren’t bad, but the fire and enthusiasm seemed to dim. Perhaps the offseason will recharge her. I still like her overall consistency. Verdict: Hold.
No. 6 Petra Kvitova: For much of 2013, she looked poised to plummet out of the top 10. But Kvitova saved her year with a late-season push — which included a title at the Pan Pacific Open and semifinal appearances at the China Open and WTA Championships — and actually finished two spots higher than she started. That’s a pretty good effort considering she lost before the fourth round at three of the four Slams. I’m unapologetically bullish on Kvitova, 23, and nothing except major injury would change that. Her upside is just too good. After teaming up with a new trainer, Kvitova looked noticeably fitter toward the end of the season and that made all the difference. If her virus issues are a thing of the past, she’ll threaten for the big titles in 2014. Verdict: Buy.
No. 7 Sara Errani: She proved me wrong this year. I was convinced that the 2012 French Open finalist would fall out of the top 10, but the 26-year-old from Italy continued to prove that she is one of the best clay-court specialists. The pressure of living up to her ranking clearly got to her, but one thing that Errani has never been short of is heart, and she made a habit of fighting her way to victories that she probably didn’t deserve. Those battles take a toll physically, though, and once again I’m skeptical that she can produce another top-10 year. Verdict: Sell.
No. 8 Jelena Jankovic: The smiling Serb, who turns 29 in February, is back where she believes she belongs after a season of sustained consistency. She may have won only one title, a small tournament in Colombia, but she was regularly making quarterfinals and semifinals before losing to the likes of Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova. Her struggles against the top five (2-8 this season) make me hesitant to think she can ascend much higher. Verdict: Hold.
No. 9 Angelique Kerber: Much like Kvitova, Kerber salvaged a forgettable season with a late surge, winning the Generali Ladies and reaching the Pan Pacific Open final to earn a spot in the WTA Championships. The 25-year-old German split with Torben Beltz, who coached her through her breakthrough into the top 10, and is now working with Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh. Kerber said she played poorly this year as she dealt with pressure to back up her strong 2012 season. I’m not sure that pressure will dissipate much next year, and with the talent behind her such as Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep and even Caroline Wozniacki, a top-10 finish will be difficult. Verdict: Sell.
No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki: There’s a lot to like about her decision to hire Hogstedt as her coach, but the pairing will require patience. At a minimum, the former No. 1 needs to rebuild her confidence by getting back to winning the small tournaments, and then take it to the Premier tournaments and Slams. All three of her titles the last two seasons have come after the U.S. Open, as she’s been mostly a non-factor during the Slam season. Wozniacki, 23, is too good of a competitor to be skirting on the outside of the top 10, but unless she’s willing and able to make some major technical adjustments to her game, particularly in her serve and forehand, she’ll continue to stall. The fact that she’s just not a big threat on clay or grass also hurts her chances of getting more traction in the rankings. Verdict: Hold.
No. 11 Simona Halep: Boy, if you bought Halep stock at the beginning of this season, I’d love to hire you to manage my meager portfolio. Halep, 22, won the first six titles of her career, on a variety of surfaces, and surged from No. 47 to No. 11. I wouldn’t bet on her winning another six titles in 2014, but I do think she’ll continue to climb in the rankings. All she has to do is play to her level at the majors, where she floundered this year, and it’s just a matter of time before she becomes the third Romanian woman to crack the top 10. Verdict: Buy.
No. 12 Sloane Stephens: The upside is undeniable. It’s easy to be disappointed in her week-to-week results — she’s the highest-ranked player to never make a tour-level final — but her steadiness at the majors and raw athleticism and talent can’t be ignored. Stephens, 20, spent 2013 playing with house money and now comes the tough task of going into every major with significant points to defend. That starts immediately at the Australian Open, where she was a semifinalist last season. An early loss there and the doubts begin to creep in about whether her Slam success was just a result of favorable draws and a bit of good fortune. That’s where Stephens’ futility at non-majors comes into play. She can alleviate a lot of pressure at the Slams by collecting more points at tour-level tournaments. Verdict: Buy.
No. 15 Sabine Lisicki: The Wimbledon finalist showed again in 2013 that she has trouble recreating her All England Club success at other tournaments, even though she possesses the weapons to win on all surfaces. The most concerning thing for Lisicki is that her body just doesn’t seem capable of withstanding a full season. If the 24-year-old German could hold up, then she would be an excellent pick for the top 10. Verdict: Hold.
No. 16 Ana Ivanovic: Gone are the high-profile coaches and lingering cloud of doubt and anguish that seemed to follow Ivanovic wherever she went over the last five years. She settled in with a team of lesser-known Serbian coaches and trainers and seems to be enjoying life again. That’s not to say the ambition and belief are gone, but Ivanovic, 26, appears more at peace with her place in the game now than she did a year ago. That said, she continues to struggle against top-10 players, a huge impediment to rising in the rankings and winning titles. Verdict: Hold.
No. 18 Samantha Stosur: Can Stosur rebound from a disappointing season in which she slipped out of the top 15 for the first time since 2008? The Aussie hired coach Miles Maclagan to help get her back on track, and she went into the offseason on a positive note after winning once (the Japan Open) and finishing runner-up twice in her last three tournaments. Stosur will turn 30 in March and her body let her down this season, and mental lapses also contributed to early-round losses at all four Slams. Verdict: Sell.
No. 28 Jamie Hampton: She looked poised to break into the top 20 before an Achilles injury ended her season after the U.S. Open. Still, Hampton climbed 43 spots, from No. 71, after advancing to one final and three semifinals and achieving career-best results at the Australian Open (third round), French Open (fourth round) and U.S. Open (third round). Because of the injury and Hampton’s chronic back problems, which she’s learned to manage better, 2014 is a bit of a wait-and-see year for the 23-year-old American. Verdict: Hold.
No. 32 Eugenie Bouchard: By grinding, the 19-year-old Canadian jumped from No. 144 to No. 32 to become the highest-ranked teenager. Unlike some of her young counterparts, Bouchard rarely recorded any headline-grabbing wins, but she minimized the bad losses and improved at a remarkable rate. She’s probably the best competitor right now among the group of precocious standouts that includes Stephens, Madison Keys and Laura Robson. Bouchard is a tough out — her last seven losses of the season went the full three sets — which makes up for her lack of obvious weapons. But that lack of weapons still concerns me. The serve is OK, she hits solidly but not big off both sides, and though she relies on her scrambling ability, she’s not the fastest one out there. Players will be getting a second look at her game in 2014 and adjustments will be made. Verdict: Buy.
No. 38 Madison Keys: With Bouchard and Robson turning 20 next year, it won’t be long until the 18-year-old Keys has the distinction of being the highest-ranked teenager. In her first full season on tour, Keys got the locker room chatting about her easy power and strength, even if it is all a bit raw at the moment. She is for real. Verdict: Buy.
No. 44 Laura Robson: Notwithstanding her fourth-round run at Wimbledon, 2013 felt like a lost year for Robson, who started the season as the Queen Bee of the WTA teens and finished ranked behind Bouchard and Keys. And yet, she continued to show a flair for the dramatic, getting big victories over Kvitova at the Australian Open and Radwanska at the Madrid Open and overcoming the nerves of playing at home to beat Maria Kirilenko, then a top-10 player, in the first round of Wimbledon. Her serve and in-match focus need work, but she’s still a future star. Verdict: Buy.
No. 47 Venus Williams: Evaluating Venus’ stock depends on your expectations. Chances are she won’t be a consistent performer, but she can still play some great tennis — as she showed in beating Mona Barthel, Azarenka, Halep and Bouchard and narrowly losing to Kvitova at the Pan Pacific Open in September — and her competitive fire continues to burn, as evidenced by spirited three-set battles with Zheng Jie at the U.S. Open and Urszula Radwanska at the French Open. If she can figure out her scheduling and peak for the majors, I still think she’s a top-30 player when healthy. Verdict: Buy.