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With all due respect to the veterans featured in the second semifinal, the first semifinal bears far more intriguing implications that range beyond this Premier Five title.  Rising to prominence almost simultaneously, Wozniacki and Azarenka have elevated themselves above their peers as the leading contenders of their generation.  Close friends outside the arena, they have honed divergent playing styles and crystallized into distinct personalities, thus providing the key ingredients for a scintillating rivalry.  The gentle, understated Dane patiently maneuvers her opponents into awkward positions, whereas the fierce, flamboyant Belarussian bristles with competitive vigor as she cracks her groundstrokes amid Sharapova-esque shrieks.  After the Williamses and the Belgians drift away, Wozniacki and Azarenka will find themselves at the reins of the WTA, so their semifinal collision in Tokyo presages future collisions in championship matches around the world.

Split at 2-2, their current head-to-head record traces the contrasts between their respective pathways towards the top.  Polished into a complete player earlier than Azarenka, Wozniacki comfortably eased through their initial clash at the 2008 US Open, but the Belarussian’s outstanding 2009 witnessed a pair of lopsided victories over the Dane.  Almost a year ago, they collaborated on one of the most memorable matches at the year-end championships.  Fully in control for a set and a half, a merciless Azarenka looked poised to deal a third consecutive blow to her friend’s self-belief.  Clawing back into contention with one grinding rally at a time, however, Wozniacki eroded Vika’s patience and unlocked her notorious temper.  Eventually, the Belarussian’s brittle façade of ruthlessness crumbled into a rubble heap of smashed rackets, code violations, and tears of rage.

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Whereas the placid Wozniacki has steadily climbed upward in the rankings, the volatile Azarenka has surged as dramatically as she has sagged.  Since the end of May, Vika has lost in the first round of Roland Garros, reached the Eastbourne final, lost in the third round of Wimbledon, won the Stanford title, lost in the first round of Cincinnati, reached the Rogers Cup semifinal, and quite literally knocked herself out of the US Open.  Considering these oscillations between peaks and valleys, one shouldn’t be surprised that she has arrived in the semifinal one event after that US Open disaster.  Meanwhile, the Dane gradually accumulated momentum after a tepid start to 2010.  Building upon her home title in Copenhagen, she captured the Premier Five crown at the Rogers Cup, reached the US Open semifinal, and now threatens Serena’s grasp upon the top ranking.  While her tempestuous friend has ridden an elevator up and down the rankings, moreover, the second seed has firmly entrenched herself within the top 5.  Yet many observers believe (rightly, we think) that Azarenka’s explosive offense will garner more majors than Wozniacki’s indefatigable but relatively power-drained counterpunching.  Although Vika often will fall lower than Caro, she also can soar higher once she matures.

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Will streaky conquer steady in Tokyo?  On the relatively fast hard court, the Belarussian’s formidable weaponry might penetrate the Dane’s defenses more effectively than in Doha.  Often practicing together, the semifinalists will enter their encounter familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Curious to contemplate is the choice that they will face between exploiting their sturdier groundstroke or targeting their opponent’s more vulnerable wing, for Wozniacki and Azarenka both prefer their backhand to their forehand.  Not among the game’s leading servers, the two friends have bolstered that shot in recent months but still will win many more points from the baseline than from the service notch.  More adept in the forecourt than the Dane, the Belarussian will hope to exploit her skill at the net in order to abbreviate rallies and exploit the opportunities created by her probing cross-court strokes.  When focused and poised, Vika showcases just as much intelligence with her shot selection and point construction as her friend and rival.  But if an extended match unfolds, as seems plausible, Azarenka must steel herself against succumbing to emotional fatigue again.  Don’t be deceived by Caro’s unassuming visage; her willpower runs as deep as Vika’s more overtly expressed determination.

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Perhaps the single most significant victory of Wozniacki’s career, her performance against Sharapova at the US Open might suggest that she should defuse a player popularly labeled as Sharapova’s descendant.  Yet the often overstated comparison between the Russian and the Belarussian provides only a limited tool with which to sketch the contours of the incipient rivalry between the Belarussian and the Dane.  Less willing than Sharapova to embrace risk at all costs, Azarenka strikes her groundstrokes slightly higher above the net and perceptibly further inside the lines.  Not quite as spectacular a shotmaker as the Russian, she moves much more fluidly and displays greater consistency in protracted baseline exchanges.  These qualities allow Azarenka to create openings gradually rather than pulling the trigger as early as did Sharapova in New York; in this case, Wozniacki can’t rely upon simply surviving the first few blows.  On a mental level, however, Vika hasn’t quite matched the unblinking intensity with which the three-time Slam champion assaulted every point and every shot when at her best.  Just as Wozniacki’s offense remains a work in progress, so is Azarenka’s mind.

Rather than recapitulating a familiar formula, therefore, the Wozniacki-Azarenka rivalry offers a distinctive spectacle with which tennis fans should acquaint themselves.  All signs suggest that we will witness many more such duels on stages grander than Tokyo.

***

Confronting Schiavone for the twelfth time, Dementieva targets revenge for their tense yet truncated Roland Garros semifinal.  On her favorite surface and restored to health, the Russian looks likely to reverse that outcome against an Italian probably weary from an epic victory over Kanepi.  Dominating three quality opponents in Shvedova, Pennetta, and Zvonareva, Elena has displayed some of her smoothest tennis in 2010.  On the other hand, Schiavone might undermine the steady, rhythmic ball-striking of Dementieva by refusing to give her the same stroke and spin throughout a rally.  While the Russian prefers to wage a lateral war of attrition from the backcourt, the Italian hopes that her sparkling forecourt skills can lure her adversary out of her baseline citadel.  Since both players have struggled on serve throughout their careers, we should see swarms of break points, enticing second serves, and a match in which no lead is safe.  Whatever the outcome, the Tokyo final will feature a tantalizing encounter between a seasoned veteran and a youthful upstart, charting a narrative that never fails to intrigue.  We explore that narrative tomorrow.

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