This may not be the most glamorous finish to a WTA year, but it might be the most exciting -- and least predictable.
With six tournaments remaining on the docket before the WTA Finals in Singapore, the list of contenders for the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking is as deep as the eight-woman field that will gather in Singapore. The gap between No. 1 Garbine Muguruza and No. 8 Jelena Ostapenko is 2,115 points -- a deficit that could conceivably be overcome by any of the top players.
Nobody among the top four WTA players is entered in a tournament after this week in Beijing, and that quartet is separated from each by a paltry 640 points. Here's a breakdown:
No. 1 Garbine Muguruza (6,245 points)
The Wimbledon champion retired from her first-round match in Beijing on Monday with an unspecified virus. Not exactly great timing as the season winds down.
The 23-year-old Spaniard's hold on the top ranking is tenuous at best. She is just 4-3 since she reached No. 1 at the US Open. Muguruza qualified for the WTA Finals last year but won just one match in the round-robin phase. Although she's officially done with regular-season tour play, she could still ask for a wild card into an upcoming tournament if she wants to pad her rankings lead.
No. 2 Simona Halep (5,645 points)
The Romanian dynamo is much-loved and admired, and her sleek, appealing game has proved its worth innumerable times. So why is it that the prospect of winning a Grand Slam title, or earning the No. 1 ranking, is tantamount to exposing her to Kryptonite?
Halep is not scheduled for any more events after Beijing, where she's still trying to right herself after that devastating first-round loss to Maria Sharapova at the US Open. Halep has won just one match since that upset (where she was the No. 2 seed at the Open). She has been a contender at Singapore the past three years running. She reached the championship match in her first appearance but has tailed off with a 5-6 record since.
No. 3 Elina Svitolina (5,640 points)
She's a great dark horse pick to end the year ranked No. 1, although she is defending two upcoming semifinals (Beijing, Moscow) and could see significant points drop off.
The rap on Svitolina has been that she doesn't step up her game when it counts most, at the majors. True, the 23-year-old Ukrainian has made just two quarterfinals at Grand Slams in her career. But she leads the WTA with five singles finals this year, winning four of those. Svitolina upended Caroline Wozniacki in two of those deciders and Halep in another. Winning breeds winning; Svitolina could take out her Grand Slam frustrations on the field at Singapore.
No. 4 Karolina Pliskova (5,605 points)
This 25-year-old Czech was handed a gift earlier this year, when she backed into the top ranking because of early losses by those ranked above her. Pliskova did not make the most of her opportunity, which answered some questions in the minds of those wondering if she was cut from championship timber.
While she didn't exactly melt down from the pressure after reaching No. 1 in July, Pliskova failed to raise her game and consolidate her position. But she can still confound the skeptics. She trails Muguruza by a little more than 600 points. Pliskova qualified for Singapore last year for the first time, but she won just one round-robin match.
No. 5 Venus Williams (4,652 points)
The drop-off from Pliskova to Williams is nearly 1,000 rankings points. Williams' fate isn't entirely in her own hands, but while the women ranked above her are done with tour events, she is playing Hong Kong. With the points she might earn there, and up to 1,500 available in Singapore, anything can happen -- even if it probably won't.
Williams is by far the most experienced and successful of the women who will be competing in Singapore. Her singles record is 11-5, and she won the title in 2008. At 37, Williams has been selective in her scheduling. She hasn't played a tour event since the US Open, but if she's well-rested and gets a few matches under her belt in Hong Kong, she could be formidable.
No. 6 Caroline Wozniacki (4,640 points)
It would be nothing short of amazing if Wozniacki were to become the year-end No. 1 for a third time, still without having won a Grand Slam. The feat also would be a testament to the athleticism and stamina that drive her to play more tournaments than almost all of her peers. She is the ultimate WTA grinder, and she's proud of it.
But Wozniacki has the same problem as Halep. The Dane is always a contender, but she seems unable to step up to win the big one. Nevertheless, Wozniacki is in her prime at 27, she has overcome some injury issues, and is loaded with enthusiasm and determination -- two especially powerful factors in today's WTA. Wozniacki has compiled a 9-4 record at a quartet of WTA Finals.
No. 7 Johanna Konta (4,435 points)
The 26-year-old British player stood by idly last year as Svetlana Kuznetsova grabbed the eighth -- and final -- qualifying spot for Singapore out of her hands. Until Monday, it seemed that we might see a repeat of that battle this year. But Kuznetsova was eliminated from contention in Beijing, while Konta secured a berth in Singapore.
Konta's biggest problem going forward is likely to be confidence. After a great start, she sputtered out in the summer. She hasn't won a singles match since mid-August. That's a lot of bad karma to overcome, but those five consecutive first-round losses have left her fresh for the two tournaments that remain on her regular-season schedule.
No. 8 Jelena Ostapenko (4,130 points)
The 20-year-old who stunned the world when she won the French Open in June has regained that form this fall. So far, she's won the title in Seoul and was a semifinalist in Wuhan.
It might seem like the 2,115 rankings point by which she trails Muguruza is too much to overcome, but here's the important thing: Ostapenko has no points to defend. Everything she earns will be gravy, and she's entered in Linz and Moscow before Singapore starts. She could vault right to the top if she goes on a tear. It's late in an exhausting year, and Ostapenko would probably have to rip through the field in Singapore to take the top ranking. But it's a possibility.
As it is for all the women chasing the No. 1 ranking.