Commentary

Fresh faces who could compete in Doha in '08

There are three first-timers at this year's Sony Ericsson Championships. And with a changing of the guard in the women's game, will we see even more newcomers in 2008, when the event moves to Doha?

Originally Published: November 9, 2007
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Same city, new look at this week's season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid. For the first time in three years, three newcomers -- Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Anna Chakvetadze -- were part of the elite eight, and Daniela Hantuchova made her inaugural appearance under the current format.

Gone, and it seems for good, are the likes of Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis, and few know what is next for the wobbly Amelie Mauresmo.

Could there be more debutants when Doha, Qatar hosts the showpiece in 2008? Here are a few players, some more experienced than others, who shone this year and might -- or might not -- continue to surge.

Nicole Vaidisova
Age: 18
Rank:12th
2007 W-L: 37-14, 0 titles

Ever since emerging on tennis' radar by winning two titles as a 15-year-old, Vaidisova has been dubbed a can't-miss prospect. A tall (6-0), hard-hitting blonde from Eastern Europe who just happened to be honed by Nick Bollettieri, she has been followed by inevitable comparisons to Maria Sharapova. Vaidisova has yet to match the Russian's prowess in majors, but it was another year of steady progress for the Czech (still only 18), despite a wrist injury and mononucleosis.

Nicole Vaidisova

Vaidisova

"There's not that many tournaments I played wrong or I can say didn't go well," said Vaidisova, who competed in 14 events. "Once I played, I played well."

Last year, Vaidisova, coached by her stepfather, Alex Kodat, got to a maiden semifinal, two fourth rounds and a third round in the slams. This year saw her reach one semi, two quarterfinals and a third round at the U.S. Open, where she had virtually no preparation because of mono. Vaidisova admits she needs to control her emotions -- the rackets still fly, and those non-stop looks to her support camp put Justine Henin's to shame. If it happens, 2008 could be the year she emulates Sharapova as a Grand Slam champion.

"It's not impossible for her to win a slam next year," said Samantha Smith, a former British pro who now is an analyst with the BBC and Eurosport. "If she stays clear of injuries and illness, I think she'll be top five."


Shahar Peer
Age: 20
Rank: 18th
2007 W-L: 46-22, 0 titles

Given she's served mandatory time in the Israeli army (in a clerical position), it's little surprise Peer is considered one of the most disciplined and hardest working players around.

Shahar Peer

Peer

"A lot of people say they want to be good but don't do the things they need to do, and she does everything she needs to do," said Louis Cayer, a former Canadian Davis Cup captain who worked with Peer for seven months a few years ago. "If a coach says, 'Do 500 jumping jacks,' she'll do 501. She fights on every point."

Peer reached her first two Grand Slam quarterfinals this year, one a memorable tussle against Serena Williams, the eventual champion, at the Australian Open, which ended 8-6 in the final set. Chakvetadze upended her in straight sets at the U.S. Open, where Peer became the first Israeli woman to reach the last eight. Her year-end ranking always has improved, although it remains to be seen whether the feisty baseliner has enough to reach the next level.

"You can see her between 10 and 20, and sneaking into the top 10," Smith said. "The only thing with her is that she doesn't have a lot of variety to her game. And her second serve is an issue."


Tatiana Golovin
Age: 19
Rank: 15th
2007 W-L: 46-18, 2 titles

Where to begin with the worldly Golovin, who was born in Moscow, plays for France and lives in Miami? She also caught the eye of the tennis set in 2004, rising more than 300 spots to finish the year 27th, and has raised more than a few eyebrows since by donning hot pants and wearing red underpants at Wimbledon.

Tatiana Golovin

Golovin

After two seasons of modest improvements to her ranking, Golovin overcame an ankle injury to win her first two titles in 2007 and ended her campaign by reaching back-to-back finals in Stuttgart, Germany, and Zurich, both times losing to Henin. If she can add to her arsenal, the top 10 might beckon, according to seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander, Golovin's latest high-profile coach.

It sounds like a big "if," though.

"I believe that she's never going to be like Sharapova," said Wilander, who guided Golovin during the U.S. Open Series. "She doesn't have that winning attitude. It's just not a natural attitude for her to win, to beat the other person, or I'm going to die. She's enjoying hitting the ball a little more than most people do. She just needs to learn all the shots, then she'll enjoy it even more. Once she enjoys it even more, she'll win even more."


Agnes Szavay
Age: 18
Rank: 20th
2007 W-L: 56-14, 2 titles

Szavay's breakthrough had some pondering Hungary's last real tennis starlet, former world No. 7 Andrea Temesvari. That ranking still is in the distance, but Szavay went one better than Temesvari by reaching a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. She also claimed her first two titles and jumped more than 180 places in the rankings to No. 20, surprising even her coach.

Agnes Szavay

Szavay

"She can play from the baseline, she can play at the net, she's got a good serve and has touch," said Zoltan Kuharsky, who used to work with Ivanovic. "She has a lot of options, and that's why I thought it would take a little longer until she's doing the right thing at the right moment. But she's got it very quickly."

If her tournament wins are any indication, the confidence is there, too. Sure, it was only a Tier 4 event -- the lowest top-level designation -- but Szavay lost just one set en route to winning in Palermo, Italy, in July and showed no final jitters, dropping a single game against Martina Muller. Szavay topped Jankovic to win the China Open in September, saving a match point with a second-serve ace. Then there was her Grand Slam-like stint at the Pilot Pen preceding the U.S. Open. Szavay endured three qualifying matches, won four more in the main draw and led 2004 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova by a set in the final before retiring with a back injury.

"At New Haven, she beat Hantuchova, then she realized she can beat anybody," Kuharsky said.


Victoria Azarenka
Age: 18
Rank: 26th
2007 W-L: 34-18, 0 titles

Azarenka started taking tennis more seriously after visiting the United States when she was 10, even though she won only one match in three tournaments. Eight years later, she is doing much better.

Victoria Azarenka

Azarenka

Leading the Belarusian charge, the 2005 junior world champion reached her first two finals and posted wins over Sharapova -- extending her Kremlin Cup woes -- and Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli. She also became a Grand Slam champion, teaming with countryman Max Mirnyi to claim the mixed doubles title at Flushing Meadows, and made the fourth round in singles by ousting a subpar Hingis.

"She's a perfectionist and likes to do everything right," said her coach, Antonio Van Grichen, who represented Portugal in the Davis Cup.

An aggressive baseliner, Azarenka cut her season short so she could prepare early for 2008. This week, she was due to begin working with noted fitness trainer Pat Etcheberry -- who has shaped the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Henin -- in Florida, with emphasis placed on her lower body. Azarenka's first serve could be as big as Vaidisova's "in a year or so," Van Grichen said.


Agnieszka Radwanska
Age: 18
Rank: 27th
2007 W-L: 39-23, 1 title

Forget about a cat or dog; Radwanska owns a pair of pet mice. Her game is a bit different, too. Regarded as a player who knows how to construct points, similar to Golovin, Radwanska was ushered into the spotlight when she upset defending champion Sharapova in the third round of the U.S. Open. Her court savvy was clearly on show. Radwanska coped better with the blustery conditions, harangued Sharapova by hovering menacingly on returns and turned things around after losing, at one point, eight straight games. A month earlier, she became the first Pole to win a WTA event, triumphing at Stockholm's Nordic Light Open.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska

"She's one of the smartest, clued-up players," Smith said. "She's going to give players all sorts of headaches."

Radwanska knows she needs to get stronger -- at 5-foot-8, she's an inch taller than Szavay, but weighs about 15 pounds less. And whether it's gym work or other aspects of her game, Radwanska has someone nearby to push her. Younger sister Urszula, 16, is the world's top-ranked junior and plans on competing at more top-tier tournaments in 2008.

"We're best friends and have been practicing for 13 years," the elder Radwanska said.

Her 2008 goals are modest.

"For sure, I want to save all the [ranking] points," she said. "Top 20 [would] be perfect.''

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist.

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