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Li, Radwanska, Kvitova Target Doha Title

Feb 9th 2014

Three of the top five women have spurned the first Premier Five tournament of 2013.  But the absence of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sharapova does not strike a crippling blow to Doha.  The reigning Australian Open champion leads the rest of the top 10 into a field where each of them has a much stronger chance to claim this title than they normally would.  No February tournament matters as much as Doha does. 

Li Na

First quarter:  Destined to reach No. 2 after the tournament, Li Na shares this section with two fellow Roland Garros champions.  One of them, the faded Francesca Schiavone, could face her in the second round.  The other, the resurgent Ana Ivanovic, will aim to build on her stunning quarterfinal run at the Australian Open, where she upset Serena Williams.  Although far from barren, her early draw looks manageable with world No. 9 Angelique Kerber posing the main barrier to another quarterfinal.  Ivanovic has enjoyed more success against Kerber than most top-10 opponents, and the German may be weary from Fed Cup exertions over the weekend.  American fans will want to monitor the return of Sloane Stephens from a post-Australian Open injury.  Infamously inconsistent at non-majors in 2013, Stephens needs to turn a new leaf in that area this year.

Second quarter:  In contrast to Li’s smooth early path, both of the top-eight seeds in this section face early threats.  Petra Kvitova, who won the last Premier Five tournament in Tokyo, returns from a respiratory illness to a potential opener against one of the women whom she defeated there.  Even the depleted version of Venus Williams has flustered Kvitova in their last two hard-court meetings, split between them.  The Czech lefty also might need to solve Kirsten Flipkens, her nemesis at Wimbledon last year.  For her part, world No. 8 Jelena Jankovic must solve Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova to reach the quarterfinals.  Cibulkova appeared to suffer from a post-Melbourne hangover in Fed Cup, producing uneven tennis, so Jankovic’s task might be less difficult than it looks.  Also in this section is Alisa Kleybanova, whose comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma has not yet taken flight.

Third quarter:  It’s been a strange start to 2014 for Simona Halep, who bookended her first major quarterfinal with early exits in Sydney and Paris.  Many women need time to adjust to their elevated status when they soar as swiftly as Halep has.  Still, she finds herself in the weakest section of the draw near two slumping Italian veterans.  Fourth seed Sara Errani has produced few results worthy of her ranking since Roland Garros last year, while age seems to have caught up with doubles partner Roberta Vinci.  A third Italian in their section, Flavia Pennetta, could upset Errani in the second round.  This veteran will need to rely on her experience against teenage Australian Open semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard.  A long trip from Fed Cup in Canada to the Persian Gulf awaits Bouchard, but this soft section offers her an opportunity to keep rising up the rankings.

Caroline Wozniacki

Fourth quarter:  Changing coaches after the Australian Open, Caroline Wozniacki will start her partnership with Michael Mortensen in Doha.  She must hit the ground running against Andrea Petkovic, who shone in Fed Cup over the weekend.  Wozniacki has lost both of her meetings on outdoor hard courts with Samantha Stosur, one of them here, and she may need to turn that tide to set up a quarterfinal against another woman of Polish origin.  Like Li, Agnieszka Radwanska should view Doha as a chance to capture a marquee title without facing Williams, Azarenka, or Sharapova.  A rare victory at the Australian Open over the second of those women boded well for her 2014 campaign, but a collapse against Cibulkova a round later did not.  Unseeded in Doha, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova recently won a Premier title in Paris.  She took a set from Radwanska in Melbourne before fading.