Commentary

Jankovic leads star-laced field at Sony Ericsson Championships

A season rife with drama and volatility will culminate this week at the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, Qatar. Although Jelena Jankovic already has cemented the top world ranking, this event will showcase which player is the true queen of 2008.

Originally Published: November 3, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

So long, Madrid. Hello, Doha.

The elite Sony Ericsson Championships debut in Qatar this week after two years in Spain. The usual suspects, besides the injured Maria Sharapova, are in the eight-woman tournament, and Venus Williams will make a long-awaited return. Thanks to Justine Henin's departure, we'll have a new champ this year.

"It's a great tournament, where the spotlight is completely on the players and they're treated like queens," said Katrina Adams, a former pro and now an analyst for the Tennis Channel. "I think each match is going to be competitive."

Here's a breakdown of the field:

[+] EnlargeJelena Jankovic
Thomas Niedermueller/Getty ImagesWinning Doha would be the perfect vindication for Jelena Jankovic, who finished 2008 sans a Grand Slam title.
Jelena Jankovic

Seed: 1
2008 record: 63-17, four titles
2008 Grand Slams: SF Australian Open, SF French Open, 4R Wimbledon, F U.S. Open
Career Grand Slam titles: none
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2007

Consistency hasn't been a problem for the elastic Jankovic: She's the only woman in this tournament who has reached at least the semifinals in three majors this season.

Winning the big one, though, is still troublesome.

Perhaps the Serb could do little against dominant eventual champion Sharapova at the Australian Open, but Jankovic let a break advantage slip deep in the third set against countrywoman Ana Ivanovic at the French. In New York, too much levity hindered her versus Serena Williams in the U.S. Open finale. Jankovic picked herself up in the fall, though, and won titles in three straight weeks.

The debate rages as to whether Jankovic deserves to be the year-end No. 1; a win in Doha would strengthen her case.

Adams' verdict: "I think she's probably the hottest player going in. Winning the championships would be huge for her and also take some pressure off her from her peers and say to fans, 'I'm No. 1 without a Slam, but I've won the championships,' which, in the ladies' opinion, is probably the fifth-most-important tournament of the year."

Dinara Safina

Seed: 2
2008 record: 55-17, four titles
2008 Grand Slams: 1R, F, 3R, SF
Career Grand Slam titles: none
Previous appearance at year-end championships: N/A

Safina, the solitary newcomer to the bonanza, turned her career around after teaming with Croatian coach Zeljko Krajan, a baby-faced 29-year-old.

Safina's ascent began on clay in Berlin, where, after a mediocre 11-10 start to the campaign, she sent Henin into retirement, edged Serena Williams and ousted Elena Dementieva for the title.

Against the trio, Safina, 22, rallied from a set down in each round, foreshadowing her French Open experience. In Paris, Safina saved match points when encountering Dementieva and a brooding Sharapova on her way to her maiden Grand Slam final. She backed up that performance by excelling during the U.S. Open Series and advancing to the U.S. Open semis.

But as Safina has pointed out herself, she remains prone to losing it mentally.

Adams' verdict: "We all know for Dinara, her toughest challenge is really keeping her emotions together. When you're playing high-caliber tennis day in and day out, it can be testing, so it's going to be very tricky for Safina."

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Thomas Niedermueller/Bongarts/Getty ImagesSerena Williams is seeking her first year-end championship since 2001, when she won via a walkover versus Lindsay Davenport.
Serena Williams

Seed: 3
2008 record: 43-7, four titles
2008 Grand Slams: QF, 3R, F, W
Career Grand Slam titles: nine
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2007

Only Serena Williams, it seems, can shake off bouts of inactivity and land major titles. She proved it at last year's Australian Open and played just two events between Wimbledon and this year's U.S. Open.

Williams has contested just one match post-U.S. Open, and she lost to hit-and-miss Chinese baseliner Na Li in Germany. An ankle injury forced her to bail out of Moscow's Kremlin Cup, although she felt fine enough to surf in Hawaii in mid-October. Her Doha preparation also included filming an episode for MADtv.

Adams' verdict: "She's obviously had some extracurricular activities going on, but you better believe in the last couple of weeks she's been grinding it out, getting ready for the challenge of Doha. I think she wants to put herself in position to start off strong next year. Serena's proven year after year she doesn't have to play to come back and win big tournaments."

Ana Ivanovic

Seed: 4
2008 record: 38-13, three titles
2008 Grand Slams: F, W, 3R, 2R
Career Grand Slam titles: one
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2007

Unlike when Jankovic earned the No. 1 ranking, few had qualms when Ivanovic rose to No. 1 in June. The tour's golden girl had just won her first major at the French Open and had already made it to Australian Open final, in which she gave Sharapova her toughest test.

The descent began after Paris, when, by her own admission, she was mentally drained. An early loss at Wimbledon paled in comparison to an even earlier defeat to French journeywoman Julie Coin at the U.S. Open -- as a thumb injury contributed to the latter.

Ivanovic emerged from her slumber at the right time to win her first tournament since the French in Linz, Austria, on Oct. 26.

Adams' verdict: "Having won in Linz gives her a little bit of confidence going in. For Ana, I think anything is possible. When she's serving well and cracking that forehand, depending on how fast the surface is going to be in Doha, she has a chance."

Elena Dementieva

Sony Ericsson Championships

White Group
Seed Player
1 Jelena Jankovic
4 Ana Ivanovic
6 Svetlana Kuznetsova
8 Vera Zvonareva

Seed: 5
2008 record: 54-15, three titles
2008 Grand Slams: 4R, QF, SF, SF
Career Grand Slam titles: none
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2006

More than a few pros would coast if they were ensconced in the top 15 and getting up there in tennis years. Not Dementieva.

Sony Ericsson Championships

Maroon Group
Seed Player
2 Dinara Safina
3 Serena Williams
5 Elena Dementieva
7 Venus Williams
The newly turned 27-year-old has beefed up her serve since the spring, and although it won't ever be a weapon, at least the double faults are gone. Those groundstrokes remain world-class.

With faithful mom Vera by her side, Dementieva achieved her career goal at the Beijing Olympics by claiming gold, headlining a Russian sweep. If she hadn't blown a hefty lead to Safina at Roland Garros, who knows whether her Grand Slam drought would have ended?

Adams' verdict: "Elena is always one of those sleepers, although we know what her results have been. But if she's off just a little bit, her unforced errors can creep up, and she, too, has shown signs of showing her frustration on the court. It will be a big challenge for her to come into the championships and have a chance to win."

Svetlana Kuznetsova

Seed: 6
2008 record: 44-18, no titles
2008 Grand Slams: 3R, SF, 4R, 3R
Career Grand Slam titles: one
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2007

Talk about an unpredictable campaign: Henin called it quits; Sharapova bulldozed her opponents at the Australian Open, then sat out most of the second half with a bum shoulder; Ivanovic rode an emotional roller coaster; and the Williams sisters each took part in the four majors for the first time since 2001.

Could Kuznetsova, armed with a new coach in fellow Russian Olga Morozova, add to the wackiness by winning in Doha and thus ending her slump in finals? The talented Kuznetsova is 0-10 in her past 10 finals since profiting in New Haven, Conn. -- a U.S. Open warm-up -- in 2007 when her Hungarian opponent, Agnes Szavay, stopped while leading 6-4, 0-3.

Adams' verdict: "At this point, it's some kind of a mental block for her. But we all know how dangerous Svetlana can be. She's won Grand Slams before, she's been to finals and she understands what it takes to compete at a high level for five or six consecutive days against the top players."

Venus Williams

Seed: 7
2008 record: 35-11, two titles
2008 Grand Slams: QF, 3R, W, QF
Career Grand Slam titles: seven
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2002

Williams, the oldest competitor at 28, once again proved that she's the best grass-court player on the circuit when she won a second straight Wimbledon title without dropping a set. The achievement was more impressive because she'd missed a chunk of the previous two months thanks to what the tour classified as "illness."

Williams, though, hasn't won a Grand Slam on a surface other than grass since the 2001 U.S. Open. She was close at Flushing Meadows in September. Had she not wasted all 10 set points against Serena in a quarterfinal that turned out to be one of the matches of the season, the streak might have ended. A relatively prosperous fall ensued.

Adams' verdict: "Venus is probably playing some of her best tennis of the year outside Wimbledon. She understands what playing in the last tournament of the year means."

Vera Zvonareva

Seed: 8
2008 record: 61-21, two titles
2008 Grand Slams: 1R, 4R, 2R, 2R
Career Grand Slam titles: none
Previous appearance at year-end championships: 2004

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. Zvonareva is the only tournament entrant who didn't reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2008, and she fell in five finals.

The pluses?

Only Jankovic has won more matches, and so far, no one surpassed her total of reaching seven finals. The emotional 24-year-old joined Dementieva and Safina on the podium in China after winning bronze, and she's guaranteed of finishing the season in the top 10 for the first time in her career.

Although Zvonareva has struggled against Jankovic, Ivanovic and the Williams sisters, she won't be intimidated if she meets Safina. Zvonareva has beat Safina in their three battles since February.

Adams' verdict: "Zvonareva I've nicknamed the 'volcano.' She can erupt at any time, so if she can keep her emotions together and focus on executing, then she's one of those sleepers that can do some damage."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.