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WTA Insider Heat Index: Can Kerber Make Good In The Middle East?

WTA Insider | Can Angelique Kerber reclaim the No.1 ranking in Doha and Dubai? Will Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta keep up their blistering early season form? The Insider team ranks the most impressive performers thus far in 2017.

Published February 10, 2017 12:15

WTA Insider Heat Index: Can Kerber Make Good In The Middle East?
Angelique Kerber, CoCo Vandeweghe

With the Australian summer in the books, Serena Williams is firmly in control of the tour, having won her 23rd Grand Slam title to surpass Stefanie Graf. Looming on the schedule is the Middle East swing, featuring tournaments in Doha and Dubai; can former No.1 Angelique Kerber reassert herself as the one to beat? How will Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe follow up her big week Down Under?

In the first edition of the WTA Insider Heat Index, Senior Writer Courtney Nguyen and Web Editor David Kane weigh in on who's hot and who's not after the first month of the season.

Hear more from Nguyen and Kane on the latest WTA Insider Podcast:

For more on the Heat Index and the methodology behind it, click here.

Serena Williams

Courtney's Picks:

1. Serena Williams (Rank: No.1; RTS No.1): Serena's run to her record-breaking 23rd major title at the Australian Open was one of the most dominant runs of tennis in the last three years. If she continues to stay healthy and play with the relaxed attitude she displayed in Melbourne, the field is going to have a tough time against her.

2. Johanna Konta (Rank: No.10; RTS No.3): With wins already over Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, Daria Kasatkina, and an in-form Eugenie Bouchard, Konta has flown out of the gates in 2017. The British No.1 has already compiled a 12-2 record on the season, won the Apia International Sydney, and has won 20 of her last 22 sets of tennis. Those two lost sets came at the hands of Serena in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

3. Karolina Pliskova (Rank: No.3; RTS No.4): Much like Konta, Pliskova's start has been near-perfect. She's lost just one match under new coach David Kotyza, compiling a 9-1 record to start the year. She blew away the field to win the Brisbane International without losing a set and came within a few games of booking her spot in yet another major semifinal at the Australian Open. Pliskova may fall away when the tour turns to clay in April, but these first few months on hardcourts should be right in her wheelhouse.

Karolina Pliskova

4. Garbiñe Muguruza (Rank: No.7; RTS No.7): She was blasted off the court by a red hot CoCo Vandeweghe at the Australian Open, but Muguruza's January showed marked improvements over how she finished 2016. At the season's biggest events so far she made the semifinals of Brisbane and the quarterfinals in Melbourne, the first time she made it past the fourth round of a Slam since winning the French Open. With a Top 10 win under her belt against Svetlana Kuznetsova and a 7-2 overall record, Muguruza is back on track.

5. Agnieszka Radwanska (Rank: No.6; RTS No.17): Radwanska's lackluster 6-3 record, with losses to Alison Riske (Shenzhen Open SF), Johanna Konta (Sydney Final), and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (Australian Open 2R) belie her form. After a racquet switch during the off-season she's getting more pace on the ball without sacrificing her feel and all three losses came to precisely the type of players she's most vulnerable against: big, flat hitters. But she's still made the quarterfinals or better at seven of her last eight events.

Angelique Kerber, CoCo Vandeweghe

6. Angelique Kerber (Rank: No.2; RTS No.22): It's been a slow 4-3 start for the former No.1, but her losses have not been bad ones, losing to Svitolina, Kasatkina, and Vandeweghe. She's not far from her standard level and a good run in the Middle East should put her back on track. One shot to keep an eye on her: her serve. It hasn't been there for her so far this year.

7. CoCo Vandeweghe (Rank: No.20; RTS No.5): The American is the lowest-ranked player on this week's list but her blistering run to her first major semifinal in Melbourne was undeniable, scoring wins over Roberta Vinci, Bouchard, Kerber, and Muguruza. Vandeweghe's average rank of opponent in 2017 is 35, which is the best of any player on this list (the next best is Konta at 52, Serena at 53). We have to see whether Vandeweghe can back up the result - she lost to then No.103 Duan Ying-Ying a week before Melbourne - but she's the hot hand on tour.

8. Elina Svitolina (Rank: No. 13; RTS No.8): The Ukrainian is knocking on the door of her Top 10 debut, having started her year with a win over Kerber and then winning her fifth title of the season last week at the Taiwan Open. Svitolina is 10-2 on the season, though her win over Kerber is her only win over a Top 30 player so far this season.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

9. Svetlana Kuznetsova (Rank: No.8; RTS No.10): Her 7-4 start to the year includes two quarterfinals in Brisbane and St. Petersburg and a Round of 16 appearance at the Australian Open. She also finished 2016 having made the semifinals or better at four of her last five tournaments. Always one to march to the beat of her own drummer, it seems Kuznetsova has rediscovered her consistency.

10. Venus Williams (Rank No.11; RTS No.2): Given her inspired run to the Australian Open final, it may be surprising to see Venus down at No.10. Feel-good story aside, she did not beat a Top 25 player to make the final and faced only one seeded player (Pavlyuchenkova), so it's difficult to gauge whether her form was lightning in a bottle or sustainable. She was understandably out of gas by the time she arrived in St. Petersburg, losing quickly to Kristina Mladenovic. We'll have a better sense of her form when she returns at the BNP Paribas Open in March.

Dominika Cibulkova

11. Dominika Cibulkova (Rank No.5; RTS No.14): Her four losses have all come to players ranked outside the Top 30 (Alizé Cornet, Bouchard, Ekaterina Makarova, and Yulia Putintseva) and her only Top 20 win has come against Elena Vesnina. Cibulkova is still stuck in second gear to start the season, but she's not far off from a solid level.

12. Barbora Strycova (Rank No.17; RTS No.12): The Czech is one of the most dangerous floaters in most tournament draws these days. She's 8-3 to start the season, with two of those losses coming to Serena (Australian Open) and Radwanska (Sydney). Meanwhile she's racked up good wins over quality opposition, including Vinci, Caroline Wozniacki, Andrea Petkovic, and Caroline Garcia.

Johanna Konta, Serena Williams

David's Picks:

1. Serena Williams (Rank: No.1; RTS: No.1): The American stormed into the history books in emphatic style, winning the Australian Open without dropping a set and reclaiming the No.1 ranking. Even at 35, Serena is in a class of her own, and her newfound on-court serenity should make her all the more frightening through the spring.

2. Karolina Pliskova (Rank: No.3; RTS: No.4): Pliskova made a booming start in Brisbane, and put to rest any doubts about her Grand Slam consistency by reaching another second week in Melbourne. A former finalist in Dubai, the Czech powerhouse has been on the ascendency since last summer, and has all the weapons to continue doing damage in either the Qatar Total Open, or the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships - or both.

3. Johanna Konta (Rank: No.10; RTS: No.3): There's been no sophomore slump thus far for Konta, who is quickly making a career of efficiently beating those ranked below her. Her domination of Radwanska in the Sydney final was encouraging, but the Brit will need to rack up more of those wins to rise further up the rankings. A solid force on hardcourts, she's nonetheless untested in the Middle East - set to make her debut in Dubai after opting out of Doha to play Fed Cup.

Garbine Muguruza

4. Garbiñe Muguruza (Rank: No.7; RTS: No.7): Muguruza showed us a little bit of everything in Australia: her devastating power, her flair for the dramatic, and her open admission that the she's still figuring it all out since winning her maiden major title at the French Open. The Spaniard has grown leaps and bounds since her post-Paris slump to start 2017, and has few points to defend at events that have the kind of courts on which she can comfortably dictate.

5. Angelique Kerber (Rank: No.2; RTS: No.22): It hasn't been all roses for the former No.1 in 2017, who saw herself stunned by an inspired Vandeweghe in Melbourne. Kerber looks fitter than ever, but is still adjusting to her role as the one to beat if losses to Elina Svitolina and Kasatkina are any indication. Strong runs in Doha and Dubai could see her return to the top spot, but look for the Middle East as an opportunity for the German to get back to basics with Indian Wells and Miami on the horizon.

6. CoCo Vandeweghe (Rank: No.20; RTS: No.5): Recency bias aside, Vandeweghe's excellent advanture Down Under was objectively the biggest revelation thus far this season. Barreling through Kerber and Muguruza in back-to-back, high-stakes matches takes some doing, and it will be interesting to see whether the American, who posted solid results in the Middle East last year, can keep up that intensity in Doha and Dubai.

7. Dominika Cibulkova (Rank: No.5; RTS: No.14): The reigning BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global champion has had an understandably slower start after her breakneck finish to 2016, but will have plenty of opportunity to kickstart her season in the Middle East after a solid week in St. Petersburg. With little to defend between now and the clay court season, the Slovak can easily find herself in the Top 3 by Miami.

Agnieszka Radwanska

8. Agnieszka Radwanska (Rank: No.6; RTS: No.17): Radwanska began 2017 looking for answers, switching racquets with the hope of adding a more powerful dimension to her off-court game. Ironic, then, that her three losses to start the season came against big-hitters in Shenzhen, Sydney, and Melbourne. A semifinalist last year in Doha, the Pole is certainly capable of building up a consistent foundation in the Middle East, but this more long term strategy may see more short term losses before the tour turns moves stateside.

9. Venus Williams (Rank: No.11; RTS: No.2): Venus undoubtedly turned back the clock in Melbourne. It wasn't against the strongest field, but the former No.1 fed off her superior fitness and experience to roar into her first major final in seven years. Her performance in St. Petersburg immediately after showed her lacking in the former, and sitting out Doha and Dubai is likely a wise decision as she readies for what could be a grueling March. With the clay swing just around the corner, she'll have fewer chances to advance up the rankings before Wimbledon.

10. Elina Svitolina (Rank: No.13; RTS: No.8): Svitolina is one of the next generation's most enigmatic players. The Ukrainian can string together title runs at WTA Internationals, earn big wins at Premiers, but can rarely combine the two for a truly noteworthy week. Fresh off a title in Taiwan, she could solve the mystery in Doha and Dubai, having made the semifinals last year at the latter.

Barbora Strycova

11. Barbora Strycova (Rank: No.17; RTS: No.12): Strycova has stealthily earned the most consistent results of the season, and is on the road to becoming a fixture at the business end of big tournaments. Last year's Dubai runner-up earned two Top 20 wins en route to the semifinals in Sydney, and pushed Serena to two tough sets in Melbourne; can she take that extra step in the Middle East?

12. Svetlana Kuznetsova (Rank: No.8; RTS: No.10): Kuznetsova could have found herself higher on the list were it not for kryptonite Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who knocked her out of back-to-back events in Australia. Still looking confident after her nearly flawless end to 2016, the Russian took a precautionary withdrawal from Doha and could be poised for a big run in Dubai, where she thrice reached the final.

Summary:

Courtney Nguyen David Kane
1. Serena Williams Serena Williams
2. Johanna Konta Karolina Pliskova
3. Karolina Pliskova Johanna Konta
4. Garbiñe Muguruza Garbiñe Muguruza
5. Agnieszka Radwanska Angelique Kerber
6. Angelique Kerber CoCo Vandeweghe
7. CoCo Vandeweghe Dominika Cibulkova
8. Elina Svitolina Agnieszka Radwanska
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova Venus Williams
10. Venus Williams Elina Svitolina
11. Dominika Cibulkova Barbora Strycova
12. Barbora Strycova Svetlana Kuznetsova

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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