The season-ending WTA Finals are set to take place this week as the top eight singles and doubles players battle for the last trophy of the 2021 season.
While there are a few notable absentees, such as world No 1 Ashleigh Barty and four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, the field is still stacked with quality. World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka will be the top seed ahead of Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Krejcikova, Iga Swiatek, Maria Sakkari, Garbine Muguruza, Paula Badosa and Anett Kontaveit.
With Pliskova and Muguruza the only two players to have competed at the finals before, who has made the most surprising runs to secure their place in Guadalajara?
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You probably have to go back to Andy Murray’s incredible run to the ATP Finals in 2016 to find anything to match Kontaveit’s form heading to Mexico.
After losing five matches in a row in the summer, Kontaveit has embarked on an incredible run that has seen her compile a 26-2 win-loss record, soar from 28th in the WTA rankings to world No 8, and win four titles. At indoor events in Ostrava, Moscow and Cluj-Napoca she went 15-0, losing just one set over that span, and she clinched her place at the finals with a 6-2 6-3 win over Simona Halep in the Cluj-Napoca final.
It is a remarkable improvement for a player whose only previous title win had been in 2017.
Kontaveit credits the mid-season hiring of Dmitry Tursunov for some of her success – “he definitely brought some fresh air to the team and gave me a new perspective, he's helped me take things more easy” – and it is clear that there has been a transformation in the Estonian, who has been around the top 30 for several years but has rarely challenged the best players.
It will be fascinating to see whether Kontaveit can keep her run going in Mexico and, if she does, what it means for the year ahead. Will she be a force at the majors in 2022?
Like Kontaveit, Badosa has surged up the rankings this year to earn herself a spot at the WTA Finals.
The 23-year-old started the year at 70th in the world and is set to end it inside the top 10, after becoming only the fifth Spaniard to crack the top 10. Badosa won the first title of her career in May and followed that up coming through a difficult draw to win the WTA 1000 at Indian Wells last month.
As a former French Open junior champion, clay has traditionally been Badosa’s strength, and she showed that by leading the tour in clay-court match wins (17) in 2021. However, this year she has also shown that she can be a threat on all surfaces. Badosa has wins over world No 1 Barty and world No 2 Sabalenka, made the last 16 at Wimbledon, and owns a very impressive 10-3 record against top-20 opponents this year.
While Badosa has sometimes been compared to Maria Sharapova, she so far lacks the Grand Slam success that the Russian enjoyed as a youngster. If she can maintain her strong form into next season then she will certainly be one to watch.
What Krejcikova has achieved over the last 12 months is almost unique in recent tennis history.
Before the start of this year she was largely known as a doubles player, having been ranked No 1 in the doubles rankings in 2018 and won the French Open and Wimbledon that year. Predicting that she would enjoy the sparkling season that she has would have been almost impossible given her singles record heading into 2021 stood at 20 wins and 20 losses, with a number of the wins only coming at the back end of last year.
She started the year by reaching her first WTA 1000 final in Dubai but it was the middle of the season where Krejcikova truly blossomed, winning her first WTA title in Strasbourg and then lifting the singles and doubles titles at the French Open.
"My journey, I think it's inspiring because nine months ago I was actually out of the top 100," Krejcikova said at the time. “I had the label that I'm a doubles player. Now, nine months later, I'm actually a singles Grand Slam champion and the world just changed. Everything just changed.”
Krejcikova has continued to build on her success, making the quarter-finals of the US Open, cracking the WTA top 10, and finishing the year by winning 29 of her last 33 WTA matches.
She is the only player that will be competing in singles and doubles at the WTA Finals this year, and will be the first to do so since Karolina Pliskova in 2016.
When are the WTA Finals?
The WTA Finals get underway on Wednesday, November 10 with the round robin.
The semi-finals of both the singles and doubles take place on Tuesday, November 16. The finals of the singles and doubles bring the event to a close on Wednesday, November 17.
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