The closing week of regular WTA action last week saw Russian number one Svetlana Kuznetsova score a successful title defence at the Kremlin Cup on home soil. Meanwhile, across the European continent in Luxembourg, Monica Niculescu captured her first title in more than two years and her third overall by winning the BGL Luxembourg Open.
With the Moscow title, Kuznetsova looks set to end the year inside the top 10 for the first time since 2009 and an overall sixth, while Niculescu is bound for her second top 40 finish in a row and her third overall.
Last week’s titlists
Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam champion and former world number two has an experienced a Renaissance-esque 2016 season. Since her latest Grand Slam triumph at the French Open seven years ago and a fourth top five finish that same year, the Russian struggled for consistency the next two years, winning just one title during that period. Injuries ultimately saw her career derailed in late 2012 as she sat out the remainder of that year with a knee injury. She soon found herself outside the world’s top 70 by the end of 2012.
Kuznetsova rebounded strongly in 2013 despite falling further to as low as number 85 at the start of the season. Two Grand Slam quarterfinals were the highlight of her 2013 season and she finished that year ranked 21st. The Russian then lifted her first title in exactly four years when she triumphed at the Citi Open in 2014. She also made the quarterfinals of the French Open that same year. She then ended 2015 by claiming her first title at the Kremlin Cup. Throughout 2014 and 2015, she remained a consistent floater in the top 30 rankings, ending both seasons ranked 28th and 25th, respectively.
This year, Kuznetsova started with a bang, capturing the title at the Apia International Sydney and as a result, found herself back in the world’s top 20. A string of early losses, however, ensued as the Russian went on to win just one of her next six matches, including a winless Fed Cup campaign against the Netherlands in the opening round tie. At the Miami Open, Kuznetsova reached her biggest final since winning the China Open in 2009, defeating then-world number one Serena Williams in the last 16, but was stopped in the final comprehensively by Victoria Azarenka.
Stepping on the red dirt, her most successful surface, she kicked off her clay campaign with a last four showing in Prague. Despite an opening round loss to Laura Siegemund in the first round of Madrid, she went on to reach the quarterfinals of Rome and then posted a round of 16 appearance at the French Open where she was stopped by eventual champion Garbiñe Muguruza. Kuznetsova then went on to make the last 16 at Wimbledon and the Olympics, and also posted quarterfinal showings in Montreal and Cincinnati. Despite an early US Open exit, she bounced back by reaching the semifinals of Wuhan and Tianjin.
Accepting a late wildcard into the Kremlin Cup, the top-seeded defending champion Kuznetsova needed to win the title to seal her qualification and complete the eight-player line-up at the WTA Finals. The Russian did just that, scoring wins over Alizé Cornet and ninth seed Timea Babos to reach the last four. There, she sailed past fourth seed Elina Svitolina and then went on to beat Australian Daria Gavrilova at the loss of just three games for her 17th career title. Not only does Kuznetsova qualify for the year-end championships by winning Moscow, it marked the first time in her career where she has successfully defended a title.
Three seeded players in Moscow this year suffered early exits, namely third seed Carla Suárez Navarro who lost to Gavrilova, fifth seed Elena Vesnina who fell to eventual semifinalist Julia Goerges, and sixth seed Barbora Strycova who was defeated by lucky loser Ana Konjuh. A pair of seeded Russian players, seventh seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and eighth seed Daria Kasatkina both made the quarterfinals. Goerges and Gavrilova squared off in the other semifinal encounter, which Gavrilova won in straight sets.
29-year-old Monica Niculescu has been on tour for almost 15 years now. The Romanian veteran employs an unorthodox unique technique rarely seen in the game: a forehand slice. Niculescu had her breakthrough in 2011 when she finished the season inside the top 30 for the first time in her career, courtesy of a strong finish to the year where she made the last 16 at the US Open, the semifinals in Beijing and a runner-up finish in Luxembourg.
In 2012, she hit her career-high ranking of 28th early in the season and finished runner-up in Luxembourg once again to finish the year. It was not until 2013 when she lifted her maiden WTA title when she won the inaugural Brasil Tennis Cup, defeating Olga Puchkova in the final. Niculescu’s 2014 season was highlighted with a title in Guangzhou and she made the last 16 of Wimbledon the following year. Before Luxembourg this year, her best results of the year were the final in Seoul last month, where she lost to Lara Arruabarrena, and last 16 showings in Doha and Miami.
Returning to Luxembourg as a two-time runner-up, the Romanian began her search for a title here by beating Kirsten Flipkens at the first hurdle before coming back from a set and a break down to beat Francesca Schiavone. She then made the last four after her projected quarterfinal opponent, second seed Caroline Wozniacki, withdrew with an illness.
Henceforth, Niculescu was unstoppable as she defeated third seed Kiki Bertens in the last four in straight sets and saved her best for last as she sliced past top seed Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-0 to win the title, making it third time lucky for the Romanian after her runner-up showings in 2011 and 2012.
The eight seeds in the Luxembourg fields suffered mix fortunes as only four seeds (including Kvitova, Wozniacki and Bertens) managed to reach the quarterfinals. Fifth seed Siegemund and seventh seed Eugenie Bouchard fell at the first hurdle and they were joined by sixth seed and defending champion Misaki Doi. Doi fell to eventual surprise semifinalist, American Lauren Davis. Eighth seed Johanna Larsson made the last eight, where she was defeated by Kvitova.
Finalised Road to Singapore
This week’s rankings will be a reflection of the completed Road to Singapore as the WTA Finals begins this week. Kuznetsova completes the top eight player line-up for the year-end championships with ninth-ranked Johanna Konta and number 10 Suárez Navarro as the alternates.
Progressing down the ranking table, Gavrilova surges to a new career high ranking of 24th, moving up 13 places, after emerging as the runner-up in Moscow. Niculescu rises from 51st to 37th after winning Luxembourg while Moscow quarterfinalist Konjuh moves up from 58th to 48th. Moscow semifinalist Goerges improves nine spots to 55th while Luxembourg semifinalist goes up 13 spots to 72nd. Czech Denisa Allertova rises from 100th to 95th after making the last eight in Luxembourg.
Players who fell in the rankings include Pavlyuchenkova, who drops four spots to 27th after failing to match last year’s result in Moscow, where she was the runner-up. 2015 Luxembourg quarterfinalist Siegemund falls two spots to 31st after a first round loss this year.
Latvian Anastasija Sevastova moves down five spots to 35th after a first round exit in Moscow, having made the quarterfinals last year. Doi, who failed to defend her Luxembourg title, falls from 30th to 39th. Lesia Tsurenko, a Moscow semifinalist last year, exits the top 50, going down from 49th to 59th after an opening round loss this year.
This week’s action
The eight-player field for the year-ending WTA Finals, which commences this week, will be led by world number one Angelique Kerber and defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, who is seeded second. Other players who will have their eyes on Billie Jean King Trophy include (in order of seeding) Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Muguruza, Madison Keys, Dominika Cibulkova and Kuznetsova.