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After a three-hour semifinal that featured 17 service breaks, Wozniacki staggered into a Tour-leading sixth final of 2010. Having won her last four championship matches, the top seed will be favored to overcome Dementieva, whom she narrowly edged in the New Haven semifinal days before the US Open.  If the Dane does capture this Tokyo title, she will find herself firmly positioned to capture the #1 ranking with a modest quarterfinal showing in Beijing.  (A glance at the draw there reveals no obstacle more formidable than Pavlyuchenkova, whom Wozniacki expertly dismantled in Tokyo.)  And, although Premier Five events don’t substitute for majors, another elite title might dull the knives that skeptics already are sharpening should the 20-year-old become the third Slam-less #1 since 2008.

At stake for Dementieva is no such grand prize, but the 2005 champion could gain crucial self-belief after a season that started promisingly with two early titles but that has been blighted with untimely injuries.  Now in the twilight stage of her career, the Russian surely realizes that her window of opportunity is shrinking swiftly.  Reasserting her relevance at key tournaments, an uplifting conclusion to her 2010 campaign could lay the foundation for a resurgent 2011.  Even without a compelling incentive, though, Dementieva competes rigorously on all stages and has maintained an exemplary work ethic.  Advancing to the final without dropping a set, she has already dispatched two higher-ranked opponents here (Zvonareva and Schiavone).

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From that labyrinthine collision with Azarenka spring causes for concern that might imperil Wozniacki a day later.  A commanding first set complete, the top seed suffered an uncharacteristic lapse in her consistency; even her trusty backhand deserted her and capriciously darted outside the doubles alley.  Justifiably perplexed by the situation, Wozniacki waged a largely futile battle with herself for most of the second set, which wouldn’t have reached a tiebreak had Azarenka not wobbled just as severely.  The stark momentum shift that occurred early in the third set then testified to the Dane’s capacity for rebounding from adversity and exercising what we have termed “the art of amnesia.”  Steady and poised once again, she marched into a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead…and then nearly let this three-break advantage evaporate.  When the top seed finally served out the match on her third attempt, she profited significantly from hasty errors donated by her friend.   Thus, while Wozniacki again demonstrated her admirable survivor skills, she also revealed periods of frailty similar to those that she endured against Zvonareva at the US Open.  An experienced veteran like Dementieva will pounce upon such opportunities more efficiently and judiciously than did the still-raw Azarenka.

Rewinding to her New Haven meeting with the Olympic gold medalist, the Dane’s supporters should feel more sanguine about her chances.  A more reliable server than Dementieva (admittedly no great distinction), Wozniacki generally held more comfortably when the match became close.  After a dismal first set that recalled her second set against Azarenka, she regrouped just as she did in the third set of her semifinal here.  Meanwhile, the Russian proved unable to summon her crispest tennis deep in the final set of their New Haven clash, failing to serve out the match and surrendering an early lead in the deciding tiebreak.  Mentally much sturdier than the veteran, the 20-year-old more easily casts aside her more egregious miscues.  When she squandered multiple match points before the tiebreak arrived in New Haven, she never slumped into defeatist resignation.  On a more technical level, Dementieva often found herself mired in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, which clearly favor Wozniacki.  Stepping around her backhand to unleash her more potent forehand, the Russian risked surrendering crucial court positioning; this factor might resurface on Tokyo’s fast courts.

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Crafting parallel styles, Wozniacki and Dementieva have built their reputations upon rhythmic, high-percentage baseline ball-striking, buttressed by crisp movement and alert anticipation.  Both players often recoil from taking the initiative, so the conventional wisdom that the more offensive player will prevail may not apply here.  In New Haven, Dementieva resolutely forced the issue and decided the majority of the points, yet she fell excruciatingly short.  Several months earlier in the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki sought to seize command of the rallies against fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, a strategy that appeared to cloud her mind and stifle her instincts.  The Tokyo title may be won not by the bolder shot-maker, therefore, but by the player who lures her opponent from her comfort zone and exposes her limitations more effectively.  In such an encounter, minimizing weaknesses could be as crucial as maximizing strengths.

What are those strengths and weaknesses?  We outline a shot-by-shot breakdown of who has the edge:

Serve:  Wozniacki

Return:  Dementieva

Forehand:  Dementieva

Backhand:  Wozniacki

Volleys:  Neither

Movement:  Both

Mental:  Wozniacki

***

While the final chapter of Tokyo remains unwritten, the first pages of Beijing are about to be penned.  We march into the Chinese capital with a quarter-by-quarter preview tomorrow.

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