Tennis queens set for ‘final set’ in Istanbul

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Women’s tennis’ top names will take the stage in Turkey this week as Istanbul will host the WTA Championships for the third and the last time. Serena Williams is stepping to the Sinan Erdem Dome to defend her title but seven other stars will give the US superstar a run for her money

 It’s that time of the year again: the world’s top eight women’s tennis players are in Istanbul in a bid to cap their year with the WTA Championships title, and Istanbul is bidding to cap its three-year hosting with another success.

The game’s brightest stars will take the stage for the third and final time at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships today. When the winner will be holding her trophy after the final on Oct. 27, Istanbul will go down in the history books of the WTA, which oversees women’s tennis, as a “record-breaking” host.

WTA Chairwoman Stacey Allaster said yesterday: “Mixed emotions on our final set in Istanbul. We couldn’t have asked for better partners.”

Having witnessed the first two editions, the packed houses and the excitement both on and off the basketball arena-turned-tennis court of Sinan Erdem Dome, you know that Allaster is not being polite.

Of all international sports events Istanbul has hosted in the last decade, very few have created the buzz that WTA Championships have achieved.

The level of competition and fan excitement were matched with the numbers as well: Around 70,000 people attended the six-day tournaments in the past two years, 54 television partners will broadcast to 170 countries this year – figures that are dubbed as “records” by Allaster, who hopes to have another 70,000 audience to surpass the 200k mark of three years.

The WTA has definitely enjoyed Istanbul, so as the players. The draw ceremony on Oct. 20 became an unforgettable night where Allaster danced to disco classic “I Will Survive,” Jelena Jankovic enlightened the dancefloor with some Turkish tunes and even Serena Williams attempted to render a few lines to Turkey’s very own Sezen Aksu’s grim classic “Istanbul Istanbul Olalı.”

Not that she has any reasons to be sad here. Last year, a sellout crowd witnessed Serena sweeping Maria Sharapova to claim the title. On her way to trophy, the she did not drop a single set.

Serena came to Istanbul with two Grand Slams under her belt, a career-high for many, but still she is “a bit disappointed” with her campaign. No wonder she will be gunning for another year-ending trophy to make this year, where she became the first women’s tennis player to surpass $10-million prize money in a single season, another one of her vintage ones.

Williams will face 2011 winner Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber in a tough Red Group. On the opposite side, Victoria Azarenka will come up against Li Na, Sara Errani and Jankovic.

Williams favorite

Serena will again be the one to beat for the title, as almost every player to have attended yesterday’s WTA All Access rounds of talks admitted.

“Serena is very strong at the moment, but everybody can have a bad day – if she is not on her 100 percent she can lose,” Errani said. “It is difficult but not impossible.”

Azarenka is tipped to give Williams a run for her money. She seems to come up with her kryptonite against Super Serena – she won two of their last four meetings. Both of her wins came on hard court, signaling she could have another shot of upsetting Serena at Sinan Erdem. But the Belarusian refused that she was favoring the hard court.

“If you look at the ratio of courts in tournaments, there is a bigger chance. Two of four courts Grand Slams are hard courts,” she said. “I feel comfortable playing in all of them.”

Radwanska, who has made it clear that she was not a fan of the “slow” Sinan Erdem Dome surface, is a regular name on the bill with three consecutive appearances. She says the thrill of coming to the year-ending event is not growing old: “I think every year is exciting,” she said. “I’m just very happy to be qualified – it’s always a great thing.”

Far from the consistent line of Radwanska, Jankovic has turned 2013 into her big year. After slipping out of the top 30, she returned to the women’s tennis’ elite tournament and understandably proud of her comeback.

“It’s been a great journey,” she said of her 2013 campaign. “It’s a lot of hard work and determination, and sacrifice and doable and everything is possible. Even though you fall out of top 30 you can come back.”

Istanbul’s last year will mark the end of an era for the WTA. The body will introduce a different format in Singapore: It will last eight days and will include Legends and Rising Stars as well as the return of the year-end gala. It is an ambitious push, but there is little doubt that at the end of this week, Istanbul will raise the bar to pose a great challenge to Singapore.

 

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