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After four high-quality but largely straightforward semifinals, the two Wimbledon singles finals present remarkably similar narratives.  Both matches oppose a world #1 and former champion against a challenger from outside the top 10 whose exertions here will carry them into that elite group in next week’s rankings.  Although the two top dogs will be heavily favored to reclaim the Wimbledon crowns this weekend, their adversaries enjoy a greater than negligible chance to achieve an upset to remember.  We discuss the women’s final today before returning to outline the men’s final tomorrow…

What feats must Vera Zvonareva perform in order to solve top seed Serena Williams, who has dropped just three services games in her first six matches and faced just ten break points in the tournament?  The task may seem monumental to her, but it shouldn’t; six years ago, a little-known Russian scored an unexpected breakthrough here in her first Slam final, so Zvonareva has a precedent from which to extract confidence.  Likewise, Schiavone’s stunning victory on the Parisian clay should remind her that nothing is impossible on any given day in this sport.  Further bolstering her belief will be her win over Serena and Venus in the doubles quarterfinals a few days ago, when she partnered Elena Vesnina to snap the sisters’ 27-match Slam winning streak in doubles.  Through six previous meetings with the 12-time Slam champion, Zvonareva has won on just one occasion, yet she captured sets from her fabled foe in three other meetings and rigorously tested her on the fast hard courts of the US Open.  Long notorious for mental lapses, the world #21 has exhibited none of the emotional frailty that caused her downfall as recently as this year’s Australian Open, when she dominated Azarenka for a set and a half before suddenly losing the last nine games.  Sinking into one-set deficits in both of her previous matches, the Russian continued her tactic of burying her head in the towel at each changeover.  This time, however, the strategy seemed an intelligent bid to refocus herself rather than a desperate attempt to escape from her surroundings.  A clear underdog against Clijsters and a massive favorite against Pironkova, she responded impressively to those divergent contexts without wilting under the pressure of her surroundings. 

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According to traditional tennis wisdom, lower-ranked players must leave their comfort zones and relentlessly aim for the lines when seeking to upset favorites, for they have nothing to lose in such circumstances.  While we agree with that advice, we think that the line that Zvonareva should target is not the sideline but the baseline.  There, she can expose Serena’s often shaky footwork and prevent her from opening up the angles that allow the American to showcase her unrivaled shotmaking talents.  The Russian’s strongest chance for victory is to center this collision around unforced errors instead of winners—the uglier the tennis, the better where she is concerned.  Rather than playing to her own strengths, therefore, she should concentrate on playing to Serena’s weaknesses, for her flaws against Serena’s flaws are a less lopsided contest than her weapons against Serena’s weapons.  That said, Zvonareva must take the initiative fearlessly when openings do emerge, especially on the American’s forehand side.  When Serena is a trifle tense, as one suspects that she will be, that wing breaks down more often than the technically superior backhand.  Although the Russian lacks the versatility that could frustrate Serena and disrupt her rhythm, she does possess the consistency to profit from any lapses in the top seed’s form.  Whether she can exploit her opportunities remains an open question, but we think that she will see an opening or two during the course of the final.

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Across the net, Serena’s job is relatively simple:  take care of business on her serve, reach into the vast reservoir of her experience to take the confidence that she needs, and she will hold the Venus Rosewater Dish for the fourth time.  Simple does not mean easy, however, and the world #1 noted at her pre-final press conferences that she’ll need to avoid burdening herself with undue pressure.  Whereas Zvonareva can swing freely in the knowledge that nobody expects anything remarkable from her, genius is almost as routinely expected from Serena as from Federer.  Yet nerves have bothered the defending champion more at Wimbledon than any of the majors; she’s 3-2 in finals there while compiling a 9-1 record everywhere else.  Clearly suffering from the pressure in the 2004 championship match, the American hit several two-handed forehands, stumbled during key rallies, and generally looked as though she were waiting for order to restore itself on its own, which it never did.  During this fortnight, Serena looked completely impenetrable in her early rounds before dropping her level a notch or two in the quarterfinals and semifinals.  Kvitova deserves considerable credit for dragging her into a first-set tiebreak, but we were surprised that the American allowed that situation to unfold.  More often, Serena grinds through some unsightly early victories before steamrolling the competition in the second week.  Many commentators have attributed that trend to the process of shaking rust from her magnificent offense, yet it’s also possible that she doesn’t bring her full focus to such encounters, feeling ever so slightly complacent beneath her ferocious demeanor.   Sensational through the first four rounds, her serve has dropped a bit in the last two matches, and the bandages that she wore on her right arm during the doubles suggested that fatigue may have settled into that crucial limb.

Having discussed all of the primary reasons why an upset could occur, we nevertheless doubt that Serena will let this title slip away.  Beyond the obvious motivation of adding to her already stellar Slam title list (and passing Billie Jean King in that category), she’ll surely be eager to climb within one Wimbledon crown of her sister, clearly the second-best player in the family everywhere but at this tournament.  If Serena can master her nerves and unleash her game at its fullest height, there’s little that Zvonareva can do to contain her power.  Despite illustrating the defending champion’s superiority in most areas, these statistics from the fortnight suggest that the Russian won’t find herself completely overwhelmed in the championship match:

Service games lost:  Serena 3; Zvonareva 5

Winners / errors:  Serena 167/72; Zvonareva 141/72

Break points converted:  Serena 26/36; Zvonareva 23/48

Break points saved:  Serena 7/10; Zvonareva 20/25

On the other hand, this statistic is overwhelming indeed:

Aces / DFs:  Serena 80/12; Zvonareva 23/22

Once again, we expect Serena to rely upon the best shot in women’s tennis to separate herself from a determined challenger at pivotal moments.  The world #1 probably will be able to combine her electric delivery with an adequate supply of penetrating returns, vanquishing Zvonareva in a pair of reasonably competitive sets.  If she starts the match a little off-key, however, a highly compelling encounter could develop. 

Serena may be sniffing the victory champagne, but can a new Schiavone spoil her party?  We can’t be sure, but we are sure that nothing could spoil the party below.  😉

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