Vera Zvonareva - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Starting with her mid-career breakthrough last summer, Zvonareva reached the concluding stages of several pivotal tournaments:  Wimbledon, the US Open, Beijing, and the Australian Open.  Yet the intelligent, volatile Russian settled for best supporting actress at the first three of those events and succumbed in the semifinals of the fourth, continuing a habit of falling just short when a momentous triumph seemed within her grasp.  On the other hand, Zvonareva bowed only to the elite on those occasions, losing all four times to players who have held the #1 ranking and to Slam champions in three of the four defeats.  Her highly documented struggles in finals thus may stem in part from the opposition with which ill fortune has confronted the former #2, who could regain that lofty ranking if she wins Tokyo.  Amidst titles in such minor bastions of the WTA as Pattaya City and Baku, the Russian has claimed few noteworthy laurels since Indian Wells in 2009.

At first glance, Zvonareva’s opponent would seem a comparatively comfortable challenge far from her more formidable nemeses.  Upon closer examination, though, Radwanska has won their last two meetings this summer with the sort of gritty tenacity that can trouble emotionally fraught competitors like Zvonareva.  In the San Diego final, the Pole’s much-critiqued serve never deserted her as she never conceded a single break while capitalizing upon the few opportunities that she earned.  Unlike ferocious shot-makers who can afford to drift mentally or grow negative at times, Radwanska can defeat elite opponents and maximize her potential only by maintaining her keen focus and her confidence.  When she struggled during the first half of the season, a slump exacerbated by injuries, her lack of confidence prevented her from unfolding her distinctive style effectively late in close sets and matches.  Like Wozniacki, her decision to distance herself somewhat from her father has breathed new life into her game and her appetite for competition.  Snapping a three-year drought without a title at San Diego, she rebounded impressively from a US Open disappointment to win three-setters over Jankovic and Azarenka here.  Much as with the Belarussian, she can fluster Zvonareva by exploring not only the lateral but the vertical dimensions of the court.  Although more multifaceted and more consistent than Azarenka, the fourth seed still prefers to wage war from the baseline with a similar pace and spin on most strokes.  Exposed in her losses to Radwanska this summer were her reluctance to improvise and adjust in unfamiliar positions or situations, where she often looked marooned as the Pole outmaneuvered her.

From her performance against Kvitova in the semifinals, by contrast, emerge promising omens for Zvonareva’s fortunes in this final.  When she slipped deep into a first-set deficit, Vera did not disintegrate as she has in so many earlier encounters, petulantly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Perhaps aware of her adversary’s inexperience and chronic inconsistency, she instead stayed calm and forced her opponent to earn what seemed a predestined first-set victory.  After saving several points and reversing the tide, Zvonareva then offered the volatile Czech no second chances but rather accelerated her meltdown by subtly applying pressure.  A thoughtful and sensitive tactician at her best, she carefully exposed Kvitova’s (few) weaknesses, such as her movement towards her backhand or her haste in creating nonexistent angles on deep balls near the center of the baseline.  Despite her counterpunching instincts, she interwove her standard game with timely bursts of aggression—a pummeled backhand second-serve return here, an unexpected net approach there—to keep her victim uneasy and reeling.  Zvonareva certainly will need to return more aggressively than in her two previous 2011 encounters with Radwanska, but otherwise she should remain mostly inside her low-risk comfort zone.  While the Pole possesses slight advantages in footwork and speed, the Russian should neutralize those edges on most occasions with her superior power, especially on the serve, and equal consistency.  If this match stays competitive, as it should, each player must carefully decide when to cast aside her habitual aversion to risk and when to wait patiently for a misstep from across the net.  Against Radwanska’s spontaneity stands Zvonareva’s programmatic style, but both favor the elongated rallies that require multiple shot combinations to win.  Moreover, both have developed a talent for uncovering an opponent’s most significant flaws and scraping away at them like a shoe on a blister.  Will the Russian become the third Tokyo titlist from her nation in the last seven years, or will the Pole record the most remarkable accomplishment of her career to date?

As Tokyo prepares to crown a first-time champion, Beijing beckons with the final WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of 2011.  We return to preview that draw tomorrow before discussing the two ATP 500 events on Sunday.