First, a bit of background. As this article mentions, the USTAPCAOWCC replaces the nearly decade-old playoff, which was kind of fun for fans (an extra event in December! YES!) but which probably did no favors for the off-season rest and training schedules of the participants. Plus, it was an invitational tournament, not based strictly on rankings, which inevitably left at least one highly qualified player out. Plus plus, there were no points at stake, so seven players on each side went home with pretty much zilch.
So really, the new format is much more humane.
The three-week women's challenge incorporates three $50K tournaments: Macon (which debuted last year as a $25K two weeks earlier in the calendar), New Braunfels, Tex., and Captiva Island, Fla. All will have live streaming and strong fields (Lucic-Baroni!) that should provide for plenty of great tennis for those who attend and watch online. Points are distributed as follows:
Qualifiers get 5 points. Edited to add: As Colette points out in comments, the qualifying points likely do NOT count toward the USTAPCAOWCC. Also, only each player's top 2 results count in the standings. However, all the points are worth noting from the perspective of players' rankings.
I will refrain from predicting a USTAPCAOWCC "winner" because there are too many variables and because, well, we are the real winners in all this. Also, I'm not including Macon #2 seed Madison Brengle in this preview, as she's entered only in that tournament, and has secured herself a main draw spot at the Australian Open already!
Macon seed & opponent: #3, to face Ednia Gallovits-Hall (ROU)
Points to defend this fall: 154
What's at stake: Last fall was a tremendous one for the then-Georgian. Starting in Albuquerque, Tatishvili went 26-4 in 7 USTA Pro Circuit events, ranking from $25K to $75K. The points she earned there kept her ranking afloat even through injury earlier this year. Just last week, Tatishvili was one of 13 Americans in the Top 100. Then her 50 titlist points from Macon 2013 came off. This week, she's got 34 from her Rock Hill $25K final last year coming off; next week, 120 points from two titles ($25K Florence and $50K New Braunfels) are dropping. The good news is, notwithstanding a first-round loss indoors at the WTA event in Linz, she seems to have rediscovered her form, with a title in Albuquerque and a semi in Las Vegas. But to have any real shot of making the main draw of the Australian Open, she'll likely have to win two of the three USTAPCAOWCC tournaments outright - and even that might not be enough.
Macon seed & opponent: #4, to face Lauren Embree (USA)
Points to defend this fall: 0
What's at stake: Last fall, Min tried her hand at two indoor European events - Luxembourg and the $100K event in Poitiers - and came out with 10 points. This year she'll be a top seed at three outdoor US events, where she'd need just 2 quarterfinals or 1 semi to end up near #108 (the traditional cut-off for Australian Open direct entry). A title at any of the three events would get her at or near #100 for the first time ever. But what's her form like these days? Since her breakthrough run to the Bad Gastein semis this summer, she's 2-7 with some perplexing losses. And she'll have Tatishvili-like points to defend starting in March. If 2015 is going to be The Year of Grace, she'll want it to start pretty much now.
Macon seed & opponent: #8, to face Gabriela Ce (BRA)
Points to defend this fall: 42 (balanced a bit by 8 points from her 17th-best result)
What's at stake: Last fall, Falconi was having a blast, it seemed, Down Under, gobbling up the points on the Australian Pro Circuit en route to a Top 150 ranking. This year, she has stayed in North America since July, managing some a final in Albuquerque and a semifinal last week in Mexico. At stake for her is her second-best year-end ranking (after ending 2011 at #84, last year stands as second best at #144) and a possible Top 12 seed in Melbourne (i.e. #120 ranking).
Macon opponent: Marina Melnikova (RUS)
Points to defend this fall: 88
What's at stake: Mel ended last year with a final and three semis in US & Canadian ITF events before losing in the first round of Captiva Island to a surging (and now injured) Allie Kiick. Then she was diagnosed with rhabdomylysis and her entire early 2014 was mucked up. Given what she's been through, a Top 150 ranking would be a nice way to end the year, but she's got her work cut out for her, starting with a different Mel (with whom, quite frankly, I'm just not familiar - which always worries me - and who is currently at her career high). At least she's starting in Georgia!
Macon opponent: Olivia Rogowska (AUS)
Points to defend this fall: 18
What's at stake: It was in New Braunfels last year that Chirico recorded her first (and to date, only) Top 100 win - upsetting top seed Mariana Duque-Marino, dropping only 4 games in the process. This talented teen is now sitting at her career high, and is in great shape to get direct entry into the Australian qualies draw - just one win should keep her above what (I think) is the magic #200 number. She has yet to prove herself a threat to the best in the world, but she continues to show good upward progress. Also, she is an aficionado of tight sets matches: she has played four tiebreaks over the past two years that have gone at least 22 points.
Ranking: 194 (3 spots but only 1 point behind Chirico)
Macon opponent: Qualifier
Points to defend this fall: 18
What's at stake: Last year's winner of the USTAPCAOWCPO had a burst of success this summer by beating Monica Puig and reaching the Stanford quarterfinal as a qualifier. But in the next round she won just one game against Varvara Lepchenko and hasn't won a match since. So overall, given high hopes following the Atlanta playoff, 2014 has to be seen as something of a letdown. Like Chirico, the teenager has a bright future ahead of her, and like Chirico, she's got to get a win or two to secure her spot in the Melbourne qualies
Macon opponent: Samantha Crawford (USA)
Points to defend this fall:
What's at stake: Yet another player on the AO qualies bubble, Boserup had a couple of very strong results this year wrapped inside a LOT of double faults. If nothing else, she should beat her previous year-end career-high ranking of 218, and she showed a lot of people that she's got some mean strokes and good fight in her.
Macon opponent: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (CRO)
Points to defend this fall: 49
What's at stake: It was back-to-back semis in $25Ks last year that set Muhammad on the path to the multiple career-high rankings she has achieved this year. And now those points come off. And to top it off, she drew the top seed in the first round. Watching Muhammad in Quebec this year, I saw an athlete who had finally put the various elements of her game together. Unfortunately, I saw the same thing, at an even higher level, in Lucic. Asia won't make the Top 200 this year but even if she doesn't win a match during this stretch, she'll stay in the Top 300 and with next-to-nothing to defend in the first half of next year, will be well positioned for her big breakthrough by Wimbledon.
Macon opponent: Veronica Cepede Royg (PAR)
Points to defend this fall: 44
What's at stake: Marand's dream of getting into the US Open qualies last year didn't come to pass. Nor, unfortunately, did she get a wildcard this year for the Open. But whatever her results this fall, it's been a season of marked improvement for the lefty. Her highest year-end finish is assured and if she can just maintain and then boost her ranking a bit, she'll finally be in Flushing next summer.
Macon opponent: Julia Boserup (USA)
Points to defend this fall: 10
What's at stake: It seemed so certain a couple of years ago that Crawford would be in the Top 200 by now. Instead she's clinging on to the Top 300 despite having the weapons of a Top 100 player. So what's at stake? Potentially, a whole lot of self-belief that her time is now.