WTA Finals: Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens well-placed to make impact; Caroline Wozniacki back at old hunting ground

It's become something of a fashion in recent times to berate the WTA tour and lament how it compares so unfavourably to the ATP tour. The lower marketability, the inconsistency among the top players, the general chaos that most draws invariably find themselves in — the picture hasn't been all that bright lately.

But most would agree there's one thing the women do decidedly better than the men: the fall schedule. The WTA season ends much earlier than the ATP one because the women's fall swing is far more compact than the men's. That means a longer off-season and consequently a lower chance of burnout.

So here we are, barely midway through October, and the women's year-ending championship is already upon us. The WTA Finals, as the showpiece event has been christened, marks the culmination of the season-long battle to finish among the top 8. With Singapore hosting the tournament for the last time this year, the 2018 edition has a little added oomph.

 WTA Finals: Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens well-placed to make impact; Caroline Wozniacki back at old hunting ground

Karolina Pliskova, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens pose during the draw ceremony. AFP/Roslan Rahman

Two big names – Serena Williams and Simona Halep – are conspicuous by their absence. However, with so many exciting youngsters making the cut this time and so many of the veterans finding their form in the nick of time, this year's event promises to be thoroughly competitive and captivating.

How have the eight women been grouped and who has the best chance of progressing deep into the tournament? Here's a breakdown of the draw:

Red group: Can the experience of Kerber hold off the youthfulness of the debutants?

Players: Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Kiki Bertens

At first glance, this seems to be a bit of a sheep-thrown-to-the-wolf kind of situation. Osaka, Stephens and Bertens are all making their Finals debut and are completely new to the unique pressures of the tournament – which means the experienced Kerber has a distinct advantage even before stepping on the court.

Moreover, the 2016 runner-up has winning head-to-head records against Bertens (2-1) and Osaka (3-1), which is offset only slightly by her losing record against Stephens (1-4).

But all has not been well in Kerber-world lately. She lost early in both Wuhan and Beijing, and has been struggling to maintain her consistency from one set to the next. In fact, she hasn't reached a quarter-final since her stirring Wimbledon win. Considering how much of a rhythm player she is, that is not a good omen.

At the other end of the spectrum is Osaka who, while making her debut at the tournament, is riding a huge wave of momentum. She has reached at least the semi-finals in her last three tournaments, going 15-2 in this stretch. She also has the added boost of knowing that if she can beat Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final, she can do just about anything.

Osaka has a losing record to Stephens (0-1) in addition to Kerber (1-3), but has won the only match she has played against Bertens.

And what of Bertens? The plucky Dutchwoman has also been a little lucky lately. She got into the Finals only after Halep announced her withdrawal. But there was nothing lucky about Bertens' consistency all through the season; she is the only player in her group to have won three titles this year and also the only one to have won one after the US Open (in Seoul).

Bertens has losing records against all the players in the group: 0-1 against both Osaka and Stephens, and 1-2 against Kerber. But if her tenacious performances this year are anything to go by, she's going to be a tough out.

That leaves us with Stephens, who as always comes in as a bit of a mystery. The American has blown either blazing hot or freezing cold this year. Some weeks she looks unbeatable and nonchalantly wins Premier Mandatory tournaments, and other weeks she loses in the first round to rank outsiders.

The good news for Stephens is that she's NOT a rhythm player, so her lousy fall so far (she lost in the first round at both Tokyo and Wuhan, and the third round at Beijing) should mean little for her chances in Singapore. Even better, she has winning records against all the players in the group, so we know she doesn't usually struggle against these specific types of players.

The courts in Singapore have traditionally been slow and low-bouncing, which should help Stephens and Kerber in particular. Bertens, on the other hand, loves a bit of extra bounce. Even though she has shed her claycourt specialist tag this year by doing incredibly well on hardcourts as well, she might struggle to get her heavy groundstrokes clicking in Singapore.

Everything said and done, it's hard to look past the form player in this group. Osaka has proven with her recent exploits that she's got the power and the consistency to dominate on a regular basis. In a year when she won her first Premier Mandatory and first Slam, doing well on her WTA Finals debut shouldn't be a Herculean task.

Predicted semi-finalists: Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens

White group: Can Pliskova and Svitolina prove that they are more than just making up the numbers, or will it be a two-woman show?

Players: Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina

This can be called the veterans' corner, even though none of the women here is above 30. Three out of the four players in this group have made multiple appearances at the WTA Finals and two have even lifted the trophy.

It seems like a generation ago that Kvitova was slashing her way to glory, winning every single match on her Finals debut. She reached the summit once more after that, losing in the 2015 final to Agnieszka Radwanska, but has been absent the last two years – and gone through a horrifying knife attack during that time.

The Czech returned to the tour in mid-2017 but got back to her best only in 2018, winning as many as five titles this year – including the Premier Mandatory in Madrid and the Premier 5 in Doha. Whether she does well at the Finals or suffers an early exit is almost immaterial at this point. Through her resounding comeback, she has already put together a feel-good story to beat all feel-good stories.

But this is the supremely competitive Petra Kvitova we are talking about, so we can be sure she is itching to stamp her trademark power tennis on the Singapore courts one last time. She loves playing indoors too and although she has had an unusually quiet fall so far, the conditions here should suit her first-strike game.

What should help even more is her head-to-head record against the other three players in the group. She is 8-5 against Wozniacki, 3-0 against Pliskova and a whopping 7-1 against Svitolina.

Speaking of Svitolina, she seems to be a bit of an oddity here. The Ukrainian hasn't done much of note since winning the Italian Open in May and lost early in both Wuhan and Beijing. Indoor hardcourt is not really her surface either, so it will be interesting to see whether she changes anything about her game to make a splash in Singapore.

She has lopsided records against both Kvitova (1-7) and Pliskova (2-5), which would make her job even tougher. The only solace? She has won three out of four matches against defending champion Wozniacki.

Defending champion at the WTA Finals, reigning Australian Open champion, winner of a significant grasscourt tournament – this has been a year of breaking new ground for Wozniacki. At Singapore 2017, she played some of the most attacking tennis of her career to win her biggest title up to that point and two months later went a step further and conquered Melbourne. Although she fell off the map after that for a while, she has regained her form at just the right time, winning in Beijing two weeks ago.

For much of her career, the Dane had been a week-to-week grinder. She was the kind of player who would enter a bunch of tournaments and hope that she notched up enough wins to maintain a decent ranking but sometime last year, she seems to have learned that the big titles are all that history cares about. She knows how to peak for the important events now and that bodes well for her chances in Singapore.

Wozniacki has a winning record (6-3) against Pliskova but trails both Kvitova and Svitolina in the head-to-head. That's something she will want to start correcting soon.

Rounding off the group is Pliskova, who like Wozniacki has found her form in the fall. She won in Tokyo and reached the final in Tianjin, confirming her Singapore berth at the very last minute. She had still entered the Moscow tournament last week just to make sure of her qualification, so her strange 6-1, 6-2 loss to Vera Zvonareva in the second round there is perhaps understandable.

This is the third consecutive year that Pliskova is playing at the Finals. Considering the fact that she has made steady progress so far – she reached the semi-final in 2017 after being knocked out at the group stage in 2016 – she would be hoping to take one more step forward in 2018.

Pliskova has losing records against Kvitova and Wozniacki (5-8 and 3-6 respectively) but has won five out of seven matches against Svitolina. It's not all dark clouds for the woman sometimes called the Ace Machine. If she finds her game every day of the week, she could well pull a Kvitova 2011. It is not likely, but it is certainly possible.

Predicted semi-finalists: Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova

Predicted finalists: Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki

Predicted champion: Naomi Osaka

Updated Date: Oct 20, 2018 17:20:49 IST