Victoria Azarenka - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

In the final Premier Five tournament of 2011, all four semifinalists spring from the same, richly talented region of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Despite sharing these cultural origins, though, the quartet represents a range of distinctive playing styles from a towering lefty to an artist of finesse.

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  In a likely WTA rivalry of the future, this pair will meet for the eighth occasion and second time this year.  At Indian Wells, their first 2011 collision climaxed in a third-set tiebreak after Azarenka saved multiple match points before breaking Radwanska when she served for the match.  After she split her first four encounters with the Pole, including two three-setters, the Belarussian more recently has appeared to overcome the multifaceted challenge that she poses with three consecutive victories on fast surfaces.  Extending her dominance over Bartoli with a second-set bagel, Azarenka has looked progressively sharper with each match that she has played, raising her level of performance with the simultaneously elevating competition.  In the quarterfinal, she reversed the direction of her groundstrokes almost at will despite the pace generated by the Frenchwoman, and her serve rarely betrayed her at meaningful moments.  While she aimed for lines and corners with her characteristic aggression, her shot selection bore the signs of calculation and commitment more often than recklessness or indecision.  Still uncertain is Vika’s second serve, the shot that has impeded her progress at majors and upon which Radwanska will hope to capitalize with her pinpoint returns.

Although one might expect the fast surface to showcase Azarenka’s strengths, especially if the roof stays closed, Radwanska paradoxically has delivered some of her best tennis on the sport’s faster courts.  A two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, she benefits from the extra jolt that they add to her relatively gentle groundstrokes.  In this duel between an inveterate baseliner and an all-court player, expect Radwanska to utilize her finesse to draw Azarenka into the forecourt on uncomfortable terms, for conventional volleys remain the least impressive feature of the Belarussian’s game.  By contrast, Azarenka will aim to take time away from the crafty Pole with penetrating groundstrokes that force her into defensive mode throughout.  If the match drifts deep into a third set once again, we should get a glimpse of Vika’s improved but still questionable fitness late in the season.  One must favor Radwanska in a war of attrition, on both physical and mental grounds, but lately Azarenka has combined her offense with consistency and composure.  Feasting upon the erratic or the temperamental, the Pole specializes in applying death by paper-cut to her opponent’s psyche and thence to her game.  When she faces a foe who can both outhit her and survive in extended rallies, her options dwindle significantly.

Zvonareva vs. Kvitova:  Sadly aborted after just seven games, Kvitova’s quarterfinal with Sharapova nevertheless may have steeled her for the stern tests in the semifinal and final.  Less known for her serve than the Czech, Zvonareva surprisingly has dropped only one service games across her three matches this week and faced only two break points in her last two matches.  On the other hand, her competition has ranged from mild to feckless, not subjecting her to any significant pressure after the first set of her first match.  Never have the Russian and the Czech contested a suspenseful match, although they have evenly divided their four meetings since 2009.  Conquered on clay by Kvitova in Rome and Madrid, Zvonareva has dismissed her comfortably at the Australian Open at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  The surface edge suggested by that record provides insights mitigated significantly by the stunning rise of both players during the last two seasons.  Whereas Kvitova has evolved into a more versatile and skillful athlete, Zvonareva has continued to practice largely the same style but has enhanced her emotional fortitude.  Nevertheless, her tempestuous personality has receded rather than entirely vanished, and Kvitova’s serve certainly can frustrate Vera as have the similarly potent deliveries of Serena, Venus, Stosur, or Sharapova.

Attempting to become the seventh Russian finalist in the last seven years of this event, Zvonareva must have felt relieved to have dodged the Stosur bullet when her compatriot Kirilenko conveniently upset the Aussie.  Even more dangerous when granted second chances, the Russian has not won a tournament of this magnitude since Indian Wells 2009, where she defeated Kvitova en route to the title.  Six years her junior, the Czech has accumulated more experience this year in the latter rounds of key events from Wimbledon to Madrid, where she defeated Zvonareva en route to the title.  Against such a smooth mover and adroit counterpuncher, though, Kvitova will need to stay patient in rallies rather than flinging forehands towards corners with the impetuousness that proves most effective on grass.  Despite swerving into Zvonareva’s excellent backhand, her swerving ad-court lefty serve should assist her in opening the court from the outset.  A returner often aggressive to a fault, the Czech should carefully consider the degree of risk that she wishes to assume in her opponent’s service games.  Unlike the other semifinal, a break-fest in the making, service holds should set the tone in a meeting between two deliveries that rarely disintegrate.   As Kvitova hopes to erase the memories of her abject mid-summer swoon, Zvonareva aims to extend her impetus from an encouraging second half.