We're down to the final four at the WTA Championships in Istanbul. Shockingly (wink, wink), Serena Williams is still alive. Is the favorite? Yes, that was a rhetorical question. Nonetheless, here are our predictions sure to go wrong:
Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic
A little disorder here or there is good for sports, is it not? Every once in a while a long shot emerges and sneaks her way into back end of a tournament. Unseeded Flavia Pennetta gave the Italian nation plenty of reason to exult at this year's US Open when she reached the semifinals. And how about Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki, the Nos. 15 and 23 seeds, respectively, who made the Wimbledon final a couple of months earlier. We could go on and on.
Well, if you clamor for something to shake up the tennis terrene right now, our advice is pretty simple: Don't look at Serena Williams to be that person. She just swept the round-robin stage of the WTA Championships and, ho-hum, failed to drop a set along the way. Raise your racket if you didn't see that coming.
If you want some more foreboding news for Williams' opponents, she hasn't lost one set at the year-enders to anyone other than her sister, Venus Williams, since 2007. That is, if you're scoring at home, more than a half-decade ago. And lest we forget, Williams also whitewashed the field a year ago.
Shall we just give her the championships trophy now? The short answer is "yeah." The longer answer is, "Well, yeah, probably, but what if …"
Well, what if what? Williams' semifinal opponent in Istanbul, Jelena Jankovic, might just be game for a good challenge Saturday. If anything, the rejuvenated Serb is always game. She has a shrewd way of getting under her opponents' skin, something Serena knows better than anyone. Early this year in Charleston, Jankovic continually tried to quick-serve Williams, until the American finally got fed up and put up her racket as if to say I'm not ready. The two had a quick verbal spat, which proved to be the demise of Jankovic. But her gamesmanship rattled Williams, enough that the American dropped the opening set.
But despite all the dirt we could dig up on the game's foremost diva, Jankovic deserves credit for her comeback this season. After reaching the world No. 1 ranking in 2008. Jankovic's game began to slowly decompose. That year, she reached two Grand Slams semifinals and one final. Her butter-smooth game led her to four titles and a lot of respect. But then for the next three years, Jankovic made it past the fourth round of a Slam just once.
How many players have ever come back to where Jankovic is after such a long time struggling just to stay in the top 20?
Obviously, Jankovic has exceeded all expectations this season. She even admitted before the WTA Championships began that making the elite eight field seemed too lofty a goal. But she worked vigilantly to infuse herself back into the inner circle.
"Yeah, I feel pretty confident," Jankovic said. "I had a great week in Beijing two weeks ago, played the finals, have beaten some of the girls that are here in the draw, lost to Serena. There's no reason for me not to be confident. I believe in myself. I prepared very well. I enjoy myself.
"I believe that I can, you know, compete against these players and that I can win. I think if you think that in your mind, then you can do it."
This is the year-end championships, the last event of the season, the last opportunity to head into 2014 carrying all that confidence and momentum. Jankovic will be, as we already said, game.
But then again this is it for the WTA season, and Serena has no aspirations of ending it any other way than what the script says.
Prediction: Williams in two sets
You have to be impressed with Li Na so far. Not only has she played effective tennis en route to a perfect 3-0 record in Istanbul, but she has played with a deep sense of resolve.
Take, for instance, her match Friday against Victoria Azarenka. The final score was lopsided, but Azarenka injured her back early in the first set and took some extended timeouts, a tactic that can throw an opponent into a frenzy.
"I mean, today the match is not about tennis [or] fitness," Li said. "Only about mentally. Because I thought maybe after the first set she will give up or retire, but she still try to continue."
Li was seemingly unaffected in a 6-2, 6-1 rout of Azarenka, sending the world No. 2 into a long holiday, a sojourn she really needs after an uninspired post-US Open run that saw her lose five of her last six matches of the year.
"Well, yeah, now is a good time to sit and evaluate," Azarenka said. "I think overall, if you look at the results of the numbers, I had a pretty good year. I'm No. 2 in the world. I had great results on the big tournaments, and I had injuries."
Li is peaking at the right time. She opened up the 2013 season by reaching the Australian Open final but then labored, especially throughout most of the spring and early summer. Li then reached the quarters of Wimbledon and three straight semis in Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open.
She played the China Open a few weeks before the start of Istanbul and lost to Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals.
This is where we make our smooth segue to Kvitova. She's a hard one to figure out. Two years ago, she became the centerpiece of the next generation of stars after winning the year-enders and leading her Czech team to the Fed Cup title.
But whether it was because Kvitova couldn't handle the pressure of expectation or because her success was merely a product of playing on a faster surface, she floundered for quite a while. Last year, she won only two titles and withdrew from the WTA Championships with a virus after just one match. This season, she, too, has only two titles and has been heavily scrutinized for her lack of fitness. But Kvitova finally recognizes that.
"[I] started practice with new fitness coach after the US Open," Kvitova said after beating Angelique Kerber on Friday. "We had like 14 days of hard work, so I think that it shows on the court."
One thing is for sure: Although Kvitova has had her share up ups and downs the past two seasons, her robust lefty game is lethal on faster, slicker surfaces. Since 2011, Kvitova has a remarkable 31-4 record on indoor hard-court matches, including a stretch in which she won 25 straight.
But Kvitova knows her laurels alone won't be enough to get by Li.
"To be honest, I'm not thinking about the 2011," Kvitova said. "I think it's maybe a little bit better for my confidence that I know I can play on this surface and to play good in the semifinal, but it's a different year and different tournament for me right now, and it's a different opponent, too. Just really trying to be ready for tomorrow."
Prediction: Li in three sets