2. Agniezska Radwanska: During the first set of her 2012 Wimbledon final against Serena Williams, Radwanska looked as though she had reached the peak of her abilities, good enough to reach a final with her masterful, eclectic game of squash shots and slices and creative lobs and defense and (for her opponents) maddening consistency, but not strong enough to step in the ring with Williams, whose power blasted through Radwanska's game and made spectators want to throw in the towel for her -- or give her a hug.
Then, in the second set, the consistency won out, frustrating Williams and forcing a third set that did not even seem possible. Radwanska lost the third set and the title, but the hope was that her game was good enough to win a major, after all. She may not hit with Sharapova, Williams, Petra Kvitova or Samantha Stosur power, but she didn't need anyone's pity, either.
Then, in 2013, the limits of Radwanska's game grew more pronounced. Injuries crept in. Radwanska is slight of build, and as the year progressed she wore enough physio-tape as to look mummified. She won big matches, reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, but was upset by the harder-hitting Sabine Lisicki -- and with it went her best chance thus far to win a major. Radwanska was challenged harder in 2013 by lower-ranked players.
Radwanska is still a force, ranked fifth. She won two titles in 2013, but after winning that second set from Williams in the 2012 Wimbledon final, she has lost five straight without taking a single set and is 0-8 lifetime. Radwanska ended 2013 losing her last four matches, getting shut out of the year-end championship at Istanbul. She is 2-8 lifetime against Sharapova and 3-13 against Azarenka, including seven straight losses. Against the top three women, Radwanska is 5-28.
Radwanska is solid. Unlike Stephens and Kvitova and some of the other women in the top 15, she wins matches, but she is in danger of entering Caroline Wozniacki/ Sara Errani territory: unable to compete with the very top players while having to expend more energy just to maintain their current place from the players beneath them in the rankings.
3. Simona Halep: After a breakout 2013 in which she went 50-16 and won six titles, Halep won't be sneaking up on anyone. For proof of life as the hunted instead of the hunter, another climber, American Madison Keys, just beat Halep in the first round at Sydney last week.
Halep played fearlessly in 2013, best evidenced by her last title of the year, when she won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria. In the semifinal and final, against Ana Ivanovic and Stosur (two former Grand Slam champs), Halep lost the first set 6-2 and won the championship easily, winning the final two sets against Ivanovic 6-1, 6-3 and Stosur 6-2, 6-2.
Halep is now ranked 11th in the world, ahead of Stephens, Ivanovic and Lisicki, all of whom have been to semifinals of major tournaments. She won titles on all four surfaces -- clay in Nurnberg and Budapest, grass in Den Bosch, hard court in New Haven (easily beating another Grand Slam winner, Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-2) and indoor hard court at Sofia.