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Abdicating her Premier Five crown rather meekly, Sharapova strolls towards Beijing in the company of Stosur, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic.  Presented with the opportunity to succeed the Russian as a Tokyo champion, however, are a sprawling array of ladies-in-waiting with divergent playing styles and personalities.  We scan the ranks of these would-be Cinderellas and arrange them according to their chances of sliding into Maria’s vast slipper.

Azarenka:  Almost certainly a future Slam champion, the Belarussian regrouped sturdily from the concussion that prematurely ended her US Open.  After such an experience, one might expect hesitancy and awkwardness in a player’s next appearance, but Azarenka cruised past Safarova before benefiting from Bartoli’s retirement.  Vika has won two-thirds of her return games in the Japanese capital while saving 13 of 15 break points.  Similar to Sharapova in many respects, her playing style should suit the fast courts, and she might feel especially motivated to end the season impressively after a largely desultory 2010 campaign.  On the other hand, Azarenka has found herself threatened in numerous service games and may not be able to sustain this pressure when she confronts high-quality adversaries like Wozniacki.  Against Coco, she must seek to avoid the complacency that can arise from facing an unheralded foe.  Moreover, the Belarussian must restrain her volcanic temper when the American connects with unreturnable serves on key points.  If she accomplishes those two tasks, a semifinal spot beckons.  If her emotions don’t betray her through three more rounds, in fact, the slipper should fit her better than anyone else here.

Wozniacki: Historically, the fall season witnesses few achievements from the relentless warriors who have ground through tournament after tournament on every continent throughout the season (see N for Nadal).  But Wozniacki defied that trend a year ago by reaching the semifinals in Doha despite a debilitating injury, although she may have performed better with the injury than she would have without it—more on that thought when we reach this year’s Doha.  Clinching her spot in the year-end championships, the Pole-Dane eyes an excellent opportunity to seize the top ranking without overcoming a Williams sister or a Belgian.  She surrendered just seven games in the four sets that she has played here so far, expending little more energy against Pavlyuchenkova than she expended against Miss Bye in the first round.  Unless her consistency evaporates as notably as it did in the US Open semifinal, one doesn’t expect her to be troubled by Radwanska’s paper-cut tactics.  In a semifinal against Azarenka, though, she will confront an opponent with greater power but only slightly less fluid movement and consistency; the matchup thus recalls her ill-fated meeting with Zvonareva at the US Open.  If Wozniacki’s tenacity can destabilize her friend’s precarious psychological equilibrium, however, she should capture her fifth title of the year.

Dementieva:  Swiftly overcoming her New York disappointment, the Olympic gold medalist looked as suffocating as ever when she demolished talented upstart Shvedova.  (Here’s your punishment for turning Kazakh, Yaroslava!)  While struggling to hold serve against Pennetta, Dementieva fought her way through the crucial games, found first serves when she most needed them, and never allowed the Italian to consolidate momentum.  Not a prototypical power hitter, the Russian relies upon her explosive movement and crisp footwork to control rallies on these fast surfaces; also, she anticipates her opponent’s gambits as well as anyone.  Yet a ghastly cascade of double faults always lurks around the corner, and the ensuing toll upon her self-belief has hampered her late in tournaments.  A win over Zvonareva might quell her inner doubts for the next few days, however, and provide her with the impetus required to score two more victories over credible but not intimidating opposition.  In the absence of top contenders, Dementieva has capitalized upon her opportunities more adroitly than many of the WTA’s rather maladroit opportunists.

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Zvonareva:  Encountering a pair of unprepossessing Italians, the two-time Slam finalist turned her first two matches into more complicated affairs than necessary by struggling to close out her service games.  As a result, what should have been a soporific cruise past Errani became an unsightly lurch from one break point to another.  In the second set against Vinci, Zvonareva finally translated “efficiency” into Russian with a satisfying bagel.  Unlike Jankovic, Vera doesn’t actively court drama, yet it seems to follow the lure of her piercingly blue eyes anyway.  Her all-Russian quarterfinal with Dementieva should feature plenty of drama, both visual and auditory.  Not sufficiently powerful to batter through her compatriot’s relentless defense, Zvonareva probably will fall a little short in an entertaining match littered with endless baseline exchanges and countless service breaks.  If she does navigate past Dementieva, however, she should reach the final, at which point anything can happen.  (It usually doesn’t for Vera, though, who is 1-4 in finals this year.)

Schiavone:  At a youthful 30, the top Italian continues to remind the tennis world that nothing is impossible.  Far in distance and time from her favored clay, she demonstrated her hard-court while halting the sentimental run of home hope Date.  Schiavone possesses both stronger mental resilience and a weaker set of offensive weapons than the other players in her half.  According to standard WTA logic, her week should end soon against someone with the capacity to outhit her from the baseline.  On the other hand, Schiavone has constructed a career out of defying such standards and expectations.  Her artful placement and uncanny knack for transitioning from defense to offense can unsettle players with more balanced, technically solid games.  Most importantly, she rises to the occasion rather than shrinking from it, a trait that distinguishes her from many of her rivals.  Although these factors usually aren’t enough to overcome her limitations, most notably an unimposing serve, they can spark unexpected moments of brilliance.  It’s unwise to count on her and equally unwise to count her out.

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Radwanska:  Last fall, the Asian hard-court season witnessed the crafty Pole’s surge to the Premier Mandatory final in Beijing.  Deceptively challenging on a fast surface, she strikes her groundstrokes early and revels in absorbing and redirecting the pace of her rivals. The fast surface also maximizes her improved but still underwhelming serve, allowing her to hold with greater regularity.  In order to progress deep into tournaments, however, the fleet-footed Radwanska usually relies upon clever counterpunching to extract untimely errors from her opponents.  While the Pole can frustrate impetuous shot-makers like Petkovic, she has yet to seize a significant title.  During the course of a six-round tournament, one of her more powerful foes almost always finds just enough consistency to overpower her from the baseline at key moments.  Against Wozniacki, Radwanska must find a way to outmaneuver the top seed, bring her to the net in uncomfortable situations, and outlast her in baseline exchanges.  Considering the relentless consistency of the world #2, it’s less than plausible that she can execute these tactics throughout an entire match.

Kanepi: Arguably the greatest surprise of the WTA season, the Estonian has become much more than just the best player from her nation.  Having reached consecutive Slam quarterfinals, Kanepi reprised her US Open ambush of 2009 finalist Jankovic in the third round after subduing Peer a day earlier.  Those two victories over capable counterpunchers confirmed her evolution from a mighty but wildly erratic ball-bruiser into a relatively complete player with reliable weapons on serve, return, and both groundstrokes.  Yet her patience will be thoroughly tested in a quarterfinal with Schiavone, who will be sure to drag Kanepi into uncomfortable positions on the court and force her to strike balls lower than the high contact point that she prefers.  Nevertheless, the Estonian’s style perhaps suits the surface better than the Italian, and her superior serve will allow her to win more free points.  Seeking her first Premier Five semifinal, Kanepi probably isn’t ready to overcome a series of experienced, versatile opponents.  At this stage, she remains a draw-detonating dark horse rather than a contender for prestigious titles.

Vandeweghe:  Perhaps Melanie Oudin isn’t the future of American women’s tennis after all.  Unremarkable since that stunning US Open charge, the Georgian has ceded the spotlight to a brash Californian with a percussive serve and forehand.  Riding those strengths to an upset over Zvonareva in San Diego, Vandeweghe hasn’t yet learned how to harness her weapons consistently.  Nevertheless, she qualified for the tournament and then slashed past Seoul finalist Zakopalova as well as the sagging Rezai.  Friendly to mighty serves, the surface rewards her preference for abbreviated, arrhythmic rallies.  But the American remains a raw albeit promising competitor when juxtaposed with the smooth, textured, and balanced style that Azarenka has crafted.  Vandeweghe has never won a WTA title of any level, so a breakthrough here would be shocking.


Whether you’re getting up early or staying up late, enjoy the quarterfinals from Tokyo!