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Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

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Victoria Azarenka - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Five

Before her sparkling week began, Azarenka breezily informed the press that prize money motivates her at crucial moments in addition to trophies, rankings points, and prestige.  (Not for nothing did she name her dog Rolex, one realizes.)  The mercenary Minx from Minsk thus will not lack for motivation  on Sunday, when she eyes not only the most important title but the first seven-digit paycheck of her career.  After a test of endurance in her last round-robin match, Vika rebounded to stifle Zvonareva with a thoroughly dominant performance in all areas of the game.  Unfolding in a similar manner, her season has witnessed  a stirring recovery from her 2010 disappointments to the finest accomplishments of her career so far as she compiled a winning record against top-10 opponents and stands within one victory of the #2 ranking.  Most memorable among Azarenka’s performances in 2011 were a Miami title, a Madrid final, and a Wimbledon semifinal.  On the last two of those occasions, though, a certain Czech lefty barred her path.

In the pursuit of revenge and the Istanbul title, Azarenka cannot allow herself to slip into counterpunching mode as she did in those earlier losses and when she fell to Kvitova at Wimbledon last year.  Although she has developed a balanced fusion of offense and defense, she will not prosper if her opponent overwhelms her in the winner column.  On this surface, as on the grass of the All England Club, that task is far easier said than done considering that her opponent possesses greater first-strike power on both serve and return.  In order to seize the initiative in points, Azarenka must maintain the high first-serve percentage with which she has protected her vulnerable second serve throughout the week.  Occasionally baffled by lefties like Martinez Sanchez and Makarova before, the world #4 has grown more accustomed with experience to their distinctive challenges.  In this righty-lefty collision of blonde braids and purple Nike headbands, Vika should consider whether she needs to organize cross-court rallies from strength to strength (her backhand to Kvitova’s forehand) or trust in her weaker wing (the forehand) to stay steadier under pressure than Kvitova’s weaker groundstroke (the backhand).  Her opportunities to organize rallies in the first place, though, will hinge upon her ability to overcome the Czech’s superior weight of shot by relying upon her own smoother movement and greater margin for error on her groundstrokes.  Elastic along the baseline, Azarenka may reap rewards if she can maneuver Kvitova into a position where the Wimbledon champion feels compelled to embrace too great a risk.

Across the net, the third seed hopes to repeat Sharapova’s feat of following her maiden Slam with a title in her first appearance at the year-end championships.  Far from a dizzy debutante this week, Kvitova has dropped only one set while burnishing her 2011 record against the top 10 to an intimidating 12-5.  Like her fellow finalist, she redirects the ball fearlessly by stepping inside the baseline and striking it early, which will lead not only to exhilarating, fast-paced rallies but to a battle of court positioning.  Whereas the Belarussian prefers lateral exchanges along the baseline, though, the Czech always looks alert to approaching the forecourt and rarely misses a smash or a swinging volley.  Her first serve and stinging return also earn her ample chances to move forward by thrusting an opponent onto her back foot from the outset.  As the final unfolds, Petra must calibrate her aggression on point-starting shots according to her level of execution, a skill with which she still struggles.  Nevertheless, like Sharapova, she will intimidate many a foe simply through her commitment to unleash so much aggression even on typically cautious shots like second serves and first-serve returns.

Although remarkably shy when compared with the brash Azarenka, or in fact with her own playing style, Kvitova at her best exudes a parallel type of competitive determination through her relentless fistpumps and from her intense blue eyes.  More susceptible than Vika to fluctuations in form, Petra so far has proved less susceptible to fluctuations in emotions.  Her firmer poise under escalating pressure played a key role when she survived their closely contested meetings at Madrid and Wimbledon, which featured scintillating tennis from both players but never quite seemed likely to tilt in Azarenka’s direction.  When she lost the first set of her semifinal to Stosur, having led 4-2, that inner calm resurfaced as she quelled the visibly mounting frustration from the lost opportunity and settled down to the mission of slowing a surging opponent.  One particular moment later in the match caught our attention, when Kvitova set up a routine passing shot against a marooned Stosur—and smacked it into the middle of the net.  Where Wozniacki might have rolled her eyes and giggled, or Azarenka rolled her eyes and glared, their Wimbledon-winning peer barely raised an eyebrow as she turned around and walked back to the service notch.  Just 21 years old, Kvitova looked like a veteran champion who expected to prevail.

Considering their recent history, Kvitova will bring considerable confidence to their third meeting of 2011 together with a nine-match winning streak.  With a title at the most notable non-major on the calendar, she would consolidate her status as the brightest star in the WTA’s younger generation and position herself to claim the top spot in 2012.  Conversely, Azarenka could gain substantial momentum before the fleeting offseason that might propel her towards a maiden Slam next year.  If this 22-year-old warrior and her 21-year-old opponent collaborate upon a stirring final, the WTA’s future will look brighter than one could have expected before 2011 began.

 

Petra Kvitova - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Four

Kvitova vs. Stosur:  Clearly the most impressive player of the round-robin phase, Kvitova blazed a trail past the world #1, a two-time Slam finalist, and the WTA’s leading performer of the fall without surrendering so much as a set.  Showcasing her electrifying arsenal on the laboratory-like indoor surface, the Czech dissected her opponents by ruthlessly changing the direction of the ball and slapping shots over the high part of the net with ease.  Able to hit any shot from any position here, Kvitova often has caught her opponents oddly flat-footed as she did at Wimbledon, perhaps a combination of her distinctive lefty angles and overwhelming pace.  As she would be the first to admit, her game remains a work in progress, and she sometimes makes the easy look as hard while making the hard look easy.  In her tiebreak against Radwanska on Friday, Kvitova scorched a brilliant backhand winner past a frozen foe before missing the same groundstroke into an open court a few points later.  Her dual capacity for reeling off several straight unanswerable winners or several straight perplexing errors means that few leads or deficits are insurmountable in her matches.  Like Federer, her rapid tempo during and between points only accelerates the momentum shifts caused by her mercurial fluctuations in form.

Outside a second-set wobble in her first match, though, Kvitova has restricted those fluctuations  to inconsequential moments even more effectively than she did at Wimbledon.  Against a player who serves so effectively, she will have less margin for error than against the three easily broken counterpunchers in her group.  When this rising lefty faced Stosur at the Australian Open this year, both players raced through service games en route to a first-set tiebreak, while the second set hinged upon a single break.  Slashing plenty of percussive serves herself in her three victories, Kvitova’s darting delivery into the ad court may suit the court’s low bounce more than her opponent’s high-kicking serve.  After the Czech swung with brazen abandon at even the first serves of her three previous victims, one wonders whether she will approach Stosur so audaciously.  Considering the heavy spin on the Australian’s serves, Kvitova may struggle to control her returns if she continues to play with such high risk.  In addition to their serves, both women parallel the ATP in their preference for forehands over backhands, although the topsin-smothered stroke of the US Open champion contrasts with the flat swings of the Wimbledon champion.  Therefore, their match may revolve around who can pin their opponent into her backhand corner with cross-court forehands, organizing the rally from weakness to strength.  More powerful and more balanced, Kvitova holds the advantage on returns and from the baseline, while Stosur enjoys an edge with her serve and at the net.  But in no area is either so far superior to the other that one woman can assume the role of the clear favorite.

Azarenka vs. Zvonareva:  A pleasant contrast with the first semifinal, the second match should feature many more breaks, much longer rallies, relatively few points won with the serve, and considerably more points decided from the baseline than in the forecourt.  Unlike Kvitova and Stosur, Azarenka and Zvonareva have compiled an extended, intriguing record as they approach their tenth meeting.  One can divide their encounters into roughly three phases.  First came the period of the Russian’s dominance from 2007 through 2009 over the still-raw, immature Belarussian (a description that some might find still apt).  After Zvonareva led by a set and a break at the 2010 Australian Open, seemingly en route to a fifth straight win in their rivalry, one of her infamous implosions set the stage for consecutive lopsided victories by Azarenka.  In the third, more unsettled phase, these two tempestuous competitors played two tight encounters in the second half of 2010 and an ugly rout in a 2011 Miami semifinal.  Perhaps tellingly, Zvonareva won the two former matches and lost the latter.  Whereas Azarenka’s nerve chronically fails her in suspenseful matches against the elite, she possesses greater psychological ability to reverse the trajectory of a match following a dismal beginning.  By contrast, Zvonareva has struggled with turning a tide that flows too strongly against her in the early stages.  But one of her career’s greater accomplishments represents her appearance in the final at the 2008 edition of this tournament, not to mention victories over Clijsters at Wimbledon and Wozniacki at the US Open last year.  Twice a champion in Miami, Azarenka has yet to mount a signature run at a major, and she contests a semifinal at the calendar’s fifth most prestigious event for the first time.

From some perspectives, a “contrast of styles” presents the most intriguing type of duel, like the gladiatorial contests in the Roman Empire that decided whether a Gallic swordsman or a Thracian spear-bearer reigned supreme.  While certainly not lacking in sharpened weapons or potential for drama, the second semifinals does not offer that form of entertainment.  Generally similar in their visions of the games, Azarenka and Zvonareva have developed their backhands into their signature shots and have built excellent transition games upon their ability to combine court coverage with penetrating groundstrokes.  Even when stretched wide along the baseline, both women can project sufficient depth to prevent the opponent from gaining a definitive advantage in the rally.  Their respective levels of execution thus will play the crucial role rather than any affinity for the surface or key matchup between the strength of one competitor and the weakness of another.  From the evidence submitted so far this week, one would tentatively rule in favor of Azarenka, who demolished Stosur and Li with disdain without losing her serve.  Not a notable shot, her delivery abandoned her several times against Bartoli in a meaningless march to nowhere that occupied two and a half hours on Friday, valuable time that Zvonareva will have used to refresh her energies after consecutive three-setters.  When she next takes the court after failing to convert three match points in a loss to Radwanska, the Russian may bear the scars of that cruel disappointment.  Or she may relax, grateful to have earned an opportunity to end her season on a more uplifting note.  Meanwhile, Azarenka must sharpen her focus from the virtual dead rubber of Friday now that the single-elimination weekend has arrived.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Li (1-1) vs. Stosur (1-1):  What a difference a day made for these two women. Less than 24 hours after they opened their week with solid victories over Sharapova, Azarenka thrashed the Roland Garros and US Open champions by identical 6-2, 6-2 scores.  Contributing to their swift transformation from predators to prey, Li and Stosur donated far more unforced errors to their opponent’s cause in their second matches, especially from the forehands on which both rely.  Nevertheless, the relative levels of performance attained by the injured, rusty Sharapova and the crisp, confident Azarenka also played significant roles in the whiplash-inducing turn of events.  Initially optimistic and then perhaps pessimistic, the two first-time Slam champions of 2011 should approach their collision through a realistic lens.  Simply put, the winner of this match earns a trip to a semifinal with the White Group winner (most likely Kvitova), while the loser earns a trip to their vacation destination of choice.  Since the year-end championships so often rest in the hands of computers and calculators, we find it refreshing to have a berth decided by a virtual quarterfinal or a single-elimination match.

From a glance at their previous meetings, the conclusion seems foregone.  In five matches on hard courts, carpet, and clay, Li has won one total set from her fellow breakthrough artist.  Only once has Li won more than six games in a match from Stosur, but that one occasion came in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati, which unwound through three tangled, competitive sets and may hint at a potential shift in the balance of power following two routine encounters earlier in 2011.  At the core of the Australian’s dominance lies her much superior serve, which has trumped the Chinese star’s often devastating return.  While Stosur’s serve will present the single most potent weapon on the court, she also owns the second most potent weapon in her forehand, a shot that will win most of their forehand-to-forehand rallies.  As opponents typically have attempted before, Li will seek to orient the rallies around their two-handed backhands, where she holds a distinct advantage despite her foe’s improvements in that area.  If the match evolves into a rigidly serve-oriented contest with short points and few breaks, she will have few opportunities to crack the Stosur conundrum.  By contrast, Li may prevail if she can engage in a more fluid, varied contest that rewards her more balanced style.  Stosur broke through an 0-for-career drought against one opponent this week, extended an 0-for-career drought against another, and now must seek to prevent an opponent from snapping an 0-for-career drought against her.

Kvitova (2-0) vs. Radwanska (1-1):  Unlike the previous match, this duel of dissonant styles matters much more to one combatant than to the other.  By ending Wozniacki’s season in emphatic fashion, the Wimbledon champion assured herself a semifinal berth in her first career appearance at this event.  Kvitova thus will approach this third and, for her, meaningless match with minimal motivation or intensity, a factor that may play directly into the hands of her opponent’s hopes.  After a set of her Thursday battle with Zvonareva, those hopes looked frail indeed as Radwanska could not blunt the Russian’s superior weight of shot.  Down to potentially the last point of her 2011 campaign on two different occasions, however, the champion of Tokyo and Beijing refused to submit meekly to a heavier hitter once again.  As she has so many times before, Radwanska survived by eliciting unforced errors until she thrived by striking the deft, exquisitely placed winners that compensate in grace for what they lack in pace.  From our sideline perspective, moreover, the dogged abandon with which she dashes along the baseline and retrieves laser after laser looks as intimidating as the lasers themselves.  In order to defeat Radwanska, opponents must dig into the trenches for a mentally draining encounter.

On the grass of Eastbourne this year, Kvitova dug into those trenches for a third-set-tiebreak victory that contributed to her impetus on the eve of her Wimbledon triumph.  With virtually nothing at stake here, she probably will prove unwilling to commit the degree of focus or determination required by a game so strongly reliant on precision.  As her wayward patches this year have showed, Kvitova can lose to almost any challenger when her mind wanders and carries her vicious offensive combinations with it.  Needing to win only one set for that first career semifinal berth, Radwanska should fancy her chances of exploiting an indifferent opponent.  One of her greatest tests may consist of recovering from the labyrinthine path that she traced on Thursday to reach this stage, but she has mastered such tasks convincingly throughout the second half of 2011.  And at least the Pole can determine her own fate, a situation much more enviable than the position of waiting, watching, and wondering in which Zvonareva finds herself.

Azarenka (2-0) vs. Bartoli (alt.): One has no doubt of advancing, while the other has no hope of doing so.  Combining those ingredients in this virtual dead rubber, neither player has any real incentive beyond the points and prize money available.  Before the tournament, Azarenka emphasized the allure of the latter, but one would counsel caution with a weekend of vital matches looming on the horizon.  For Bartoli, not for the first time an alternate event, the potential windfall may beckon more invitingly.  Nevertheless, she suffered a double bagel against Henin in a similar dead rubber at the year-end championships, so she may join Vika in the awkward exercise of playing a match while not really contesting it, all too familiar from Davis and Fed Cups past.  Istanbul fans should consider leaving after the previous match and preparing for a magnificent day of (singles and doubles) semifinals on Saturday.

Victoria Azarenka - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Azarenka (1-0) vs. Li (1-0):  Showing scant respect for her elders, the Minx from Minsk marched straight from her Luxembourg title to Istanbul and demolished Stosur for the fifth straight time.  While the Aussie suffered from a competitive hangover following her breakthrough against Sharapova, Azarenka permitted her virtually no openings as she surrendered just five points on serve until the last game of the match.  Early in what one hopes will become a week of gritty, grueling competition, the opportunity to notch a swift victory will have enhanced her already excellent hopes of advancing to the semifinals of this event for the first time.  After Sharapova’s withdrawal, Azarenka can rest confident in the knowledge that she most likely will notch a second win on Friday over Bartoli, whom she has dominated almost as relentlessly as Stosur.  She probably will advance even if she doesn’t win on Thursday, therefore, but no top-five player has reached that height by taking such things for granted.

Neither should Azarenka take a win over Li Na for granted, since the Chinese star halted her at two majors this year and has won four of their five encounters overall.  At both Melbourne and Roland Garros, Li proved both slightly more consistent in the extended exchanges from behind the baseline and slightly more adept at finishing points once she moved inside the court.  Much more impressive when returning than when serving, both women should know that breaks mean little and that almost no lead or deficit is insurmountable.  In her opening victory over Sharapova, Li illustrated that fact when she managed to win a first set that she appeared to have lost on three different occasions:  when she faced break point trailing 2-4, when Sharapova served for the set after breaking her at love, and when the Russian led 4-0 in the tiebreak.  At that last juncture, the Roland Garros champion relied upon her return to barely flick two mighty serves into play—and then watched her opponent miss a routine point-ending shot.  Although Li cannot expect such generosity when she faces Azarenka, her rhythmic style will benefit from the similarly rhythmic style across the net.  Remarkably, she could erase the disappointments of her second-half campaign by reaching the semifinals here, an objective likely accomplished with a victory on Thursday.

Wozniacki (1-1) vs. Kvitova (1-0):  Splitting three-setters in her first two matches, the world #1 must elevate her level from her first two matches in order to ensure that her last round-robin match does not become her last match of 2011.  Having spent about five hours on court against Radwanska and Zvonareva, Wozniacki cannot afford to lose any of her fabled foot speed when she confronts Kvitova.  While the allegedly sluggish surface slows the ball and produces the longer rallies that she favors, its stickiness also takes a toll upon her all-important legs.  Late in her loss to Zvonareva, Wozniacki looked weary and emotionally deflated despite staying well within range of the Russian.  Perhaps the labors of a long season, fraught with greater turbulence than the calm Dane would prefer, weighed upon her mind as the court clung to her feet.  Or perhaps the accomplishment of clinching the year-end #1 ranking for the second straight season shrank the match into insignificance from her perspective.

Only once in four attempts has Kvitova conquered Wozniacki, but that victory came in the most important of their meetings at Wimbledon last year.  When she dispatched Zvonareva in her first match, the Czech lefty penetrated the court with ease from both groundstroke wings and even added a few surprising touches of finesse.  The controlled indoor atmosphere tilts more towards her unflinching pursuit of precision than towards the style of anyone else in her group.  Not the best front-runner, however, she squandered a double-break lead in the second set against Zvonareva with bizarrely unfocused play.  Even during her sensational run at Wimbledon, Kvitova allowed more than one opponent to edge back into the match after she had won the first set in commanding fashion.  Probably a symptom of her immaturity, this carelessness would play into the hands of Wozniacki should the Dane stay alert and the match stay close.  In the 2-and-0 demolition that Kvitova inflicted upon her at Wimbledon, the match didn’t last long enough for this issue to surface.  On the other hand, the world #1 has lost six or fewer games in each of her three triumphs over the reigning Wimbledon champion, so one senses that this match may end quickly no matter the outcome.

Zvonareva (1-1) vs. Radwanska (0-1):  Most likely a must-win encounter for both combatants, this meeting represents their fifth clash of the season.  After Zvonareva prevailed comfortably in Miami, the Pole prevailed just as comfortably in their three second-half meetings, including finals in San Diego and Tokyo.  Most stunning from her performance there was her impenetrability on serve, hardly a trait that one associates with her; only once in the two matches combined did she lose her serve.  A more familiar Radwanska traded break for break with Wozniacki in a three-setter on Tuesday that remains the best match of the tournament so far.  Although she frustrated her friend much more than in their past several meetings, the inability to hold serve when absolutely necessary ultimately cost the eighth seed a winnable match and will continue to hamper her upward mobility. All the same, her cavernous bag of tricks might fluster the inflammable Russian more than the placid Dane.  By the end of her last few matches, Zvonareva looked hopelessly bewildered as she committed routine errors and lost her normally acute tactical sense.

As she outmaneuvered Wozniacki from the baseline yesterday, the Russian’s versatility and tactical sense shone much more clearly than in her tepid loss to Kvitova that preceded it.  Despite her natural tendency towards counterpunching, she rose valiantly to the occasion when her opponent forced her to take the initiative and redirected the ball down both lines with conviction while approaching the net with success.  Even more notably, Zvonareva did not grow discouraged by her mistakes as did the Dane, nor did she celebrate her winners with much vigor.  That inner poise will serve her well as she aims to conquer a recent but repeated nemesis.  By no means did the world #6 play an immaculate match, though, and a few of her nine double faults threw Wozniacki fleeting lifelines late in the second and third sets.  Radwanska’s season probably ends here if she fails to sustain the momentum in her rivalry, but Zvonareva probably faces a similar prospect.  Whereas Azarenka and Li have everything to gain with a win, these two women have everything to lose with a loss.  Who will handle that situation more smoothly?

Samantha Stosur - 2011 US Open - Day 14

Azarenka (0-0) vs. Stosur (1-0):  For the second time in less than 24 hours, Stosur confronts a strong-willed and strong-lunged blonde who has throttled her throughout their previous meetings.  Less extensive than her streak of futility against Sharapova is her winless span against Azarenka, during which she has lost four straight matches and eight straight sets.  Yet, as one might expect, the experience of winning her first major by defeating the greatest player in her (or perhaps in any) generation has galvanized Stosur’s confidence against her competition in general.  No sterner test of that confidence could one imagine than a meeting with her long-time nemesis, who had crushed her twice this year.  Two improved components of the US Open champion’s arsenal allowed her to prevent a double-digit losing streak against Sharapova and could spur her to snap the winless drought against Azarenka as well.  Formerly a neutral shot at best, her backhand has provided a barometer of Stosur’s confidence throughout the peaks and valleys of her career, and rarely has she struck it with greater depth and conviction than in her victory on Tuesday.  Perhaps more importantly, her poise on important points assisted her in escaping a perilous, fascinating, multiple-deuce final game, when her nerves inevitably crept upon her but remarkably failed to overtake her.

When she faces Azarenka, a better scrambler than Sharapova, Stosur may need to strike one or two additional shots to finish rallies despite a surface through which her forehand has jolted percussively.  Moreover, the Belarussian vixen swaggers into Istanbul just days removed from a Luxembourg title.  On the other hand, fatigue or one of her frequently recurring injuries could blunt the daggers hurled by Azarenka, who has recorded mixed results at the year-end championships.  Whether Vika’s forehand or Sam’s backhand breaks down sooner and more often should decide this scintillating encounter.

Sharapova (0-1) vs. Li (0-0):  Seemingly pained by her lingering ankle injury, Sharapova lacked the characteristic depth on her groundstrokes and the pinpoint ferocity of her returns.  Without diminishing Stosur’s effort, Maria aided her adversary’s cause by committing clusters of routine errors at crucial moments, such as second-serve returns on break points in the last game.  Somewhat reminiscent of grass, the low-bouncing surface in the Istanbul Dome may hamper a player as statuesque as Sharapova.  Better adapted to the lower bounce is the compact physique of her opponent on Wednesday, who twice defeated the Russian on grass as she reversed the latter’s early dominance over their rivalry.  When Sharapova edged within two victories of the career Slam at Roland Garros this year, Li Na narrowly stifled that bid for history before creating her own historic moment two days later.  Since that sparkling June afternoon, however, the Chinese star has accomplished virtually nothing of note—at least in a positive sense.

A battle-tested veteran who has endured surgery after surgery, Li has greeted her breakthrough like a wide-eyed novice rather than embracing the spotlight of international celebrity.  In the first match of her career at the year-end championships, she should reassure herself that she has nothing to lose against an opponent far more experienced on such occasions.  During four previous appearances at this tournament, Sharapova never has failed to reach the semifinals.  A loss to Li almost certainly would halt her hopes this year, so one does not doubt that the Russian will expend as much energy as her ankle permits in the struggle to survive for another day.  As a player sound in mind but not in body meets a player sound in body but not in mind, we expect a match less attractive than its participants with copious unforced errors and puzzling momentum shifts.

Wozniacki (1-0) vs. Zvonareva (0-1):  Evenly split are the eight meetings between the Dane and the Russian, who held the top two ranking positions about a year ago.  Six of those eight encounters have occurred since the start of 2010, all of them in semifinals or finals, so they always have played for some of the highest stakes imaginable and meet in the year-end championships for the third consecutive season.  Winning both of their previous clashes at this event, Wozniacki gallantly overcame not only Zvonareva but an excruciating leg injury in a three-setter two years ago.  In the 2010 sequel, Vera nearly edged through the first set before suffering one of her familiar meltdowns.  Steadier in personality and slightly more consistent on the court, the world #1 typically has emerged triumphant when both attain their highest level.

Recently, however, neither woman has delivered her best tennis for sustained stretches.  While Zvonareva mustered unconvincing resistance to Kvitova on Tuesday, only narrowly did Wozniacki deflect the accelerating charge of Radwanska, whom she had handled comfortably before.  Had the Pole preserved her set-and-break advantage, this match would have opposed two 0-1 players on the edge of elimination.  As matters unfolded, only Zvonareva totters with her back to the precipice, whereas Wozniacki eyes a nearly certain semifinal berth with a win here.  Unlike her compatriot Sharapova, the second-ranked Russian often does not confront adversity with steely determination but can allow fatalism to overtake her.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki has built her ascent to #1 in part upon the bones of insecure, easily unhinged competitors.  But Zvonareva won their most recent meeting in February and captured their most significant meeting in a semifinal at last year’s US Open.  Discount her at your peril.

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 China Open - Day 4

Kvitova vs. Zvonareva:  In her first career match at the year-end championships, the Wimbledon champion confronts a player who conquered her twice on hard courts this year.  If this pair of combatants continue their rivalry’s pattern of alternating wins, Kvitova will emerge the victor from this meeting.  More intriguing is the pattern of lopsided scorelines that their rivalry has followed, for all five of their encounters have included at least one set in which the losing player won two or fewer games.  Now that both have entrenched themselves inside the top 5, one hopes for a more suspenseful battle worthy of the occasion.  Even when they did play a tiebreak set in the first set of their Tokyo semifinal, the two women failed to distinguish themselves at the same time.  Instead, Kvitova reeled off five of the first six games against an inept Zvonareva before abruptly disintegrating beyond repair as the Russian cruised to an unexpected triumph.  As the narrative of that match suggests, the Czech’s superior first-strike power and greater shot-making audacity should allow her to dictate the outcome of this meeting, played on a fast indoor court similar to the Linz event where Kvitova just won a title.  Yet here again their past history surprises, for the reigning Wimbledon champion has captured both of their clay meetings while losing all three of their hard-court collisions.  Not overwhelmed by the prestigious occasion, Zvonareva has advanced from her group in two of her last three appearances at the year-end championships.  Highlighting her 7-3 record during that span are victories over three different top-5 opponents.  This match thus may prove the most challenging for Kvitova in the round-robin stage, but a baptism by fire will strengthen a player who often plays to the level of her competition.

Wozniacki vs. Radwanska:  Since her best friend won their first meeting in 2007, the world #1 has treated Radwanska with anything but friendliness as she has swept to comfortable victories on four straight occasions.  Wozniacki’s counterpunching style so far has adapted neatly to frustrate her quasi-compatriot, who has lacked the explosive firepower to hit through her defenses and has struggled to outlast her from the baseline—a task in which very few have succeeded over the past two years.  During her recent title runs in Tokyo and Beijing, though, Radwanska showed flashes of greater willingness to carpe the diem on important points, courage that would serve her well on the fast surface this week.  Far from discouraging, her opening-round loss in Moscow probably will have provided her with valuable time to regroup from those potentially career-changing achievements.  At this tournament, we will receive our first answer concerning just how far those achievements actually did change her career.  Despite her futility against Wozniacki, Radwanska should approach this match with greater confidence springing not only from her rise but from her friend’s concurrent embarrassments.  Although she reached the semifinals at the US Open, the world #1 hasn’t reached a final anywhere but New Haven since Roland Garros.  She looked unsteady at best and confused at worst in early exits at the two key Asian tournaments to opponents well outside her class.  But the motivation of assuring the year-end #1 ranking may spur Wozniacki onwards, and Radwanska may have quenched her competitive hunger for the year.

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  Commanding an immaculate record against the Australian, Sharapova has won all nine of their meetings and eleven consecutive sets during a span that extends back to 2005.  None of their twenty sets has reached 5-5, in fact, a curious statistic for two of the WTA’s premier servers over the last several seasons.  Visibly intimidated by the Russian’s return, Stosur never has delivered one of her signature serving performances against her and has not found a way to shield her modest backhand from her opponent’s savage two-hander.  Both women have relied on first-strike tennis throughout their careers, a style that demands supreme will and conviction for effective execution.  Now that she has joined Sharapova among the ranks of Slam champions, perhaps the US Open titlist can display those traits that she has lacked during their previous encounters.  Having defeated Serena in a Slam final, she should realize that she can overcome any challenge if she can showcase her ATP-like game to its fullest.  Reportedly less than full strength after a painful ankle injury at the Tokyo tournament, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since winning Cincinnati in early August.  So heavily does she rely on precision that her lack of preparation and any nagging concerns over her injury may offset her timing by a critical fraction.  Meanwhile, Stosur won just one total match in Tokyo and Beijing before reviving with a solid albeit not spectacular march to the Osaka final.  Since the Russian and the Australian have struggled in equal measure against Azarenka, each will want to open their Istanbul campaigns with a victory that permits them margin for error as round-robin play progresses.  Much as with the Wozniacki-Radwanska match, one player eyes an opportunity to build upon a potential career breakthrough, while an opponent who has dominated their meetings aims to ensure that history repeats itself.

After a rather arid week in tennis news, the sport springs back to life with the first of its year-end championship tournaments, held in the unfamiliar setting of the Istanbul Dome.  We profile each of the WTA’s Elite Eight before they fire the first shots in their marquee collisions.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark receives the WTA Year- End No 1 Trophy on during day four of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 29, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Red Group:

Wozniacki:  A finalist at the 2010 edition of the year-end championships, the face of Turkish Airlines also battled out of her round-robin group two years ago.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki also reached finals in both of her appearances in the Middle East, including a Premier Five title in Dubai.  Less auspicious are the omens from her Asian fall campaign, which concluded with pre-semifinal losses at both Tokyo and Beijing in stark contrast to her consecutive victories there last year.  On the slick indoor surface, her defensive skills may not withstand the firepower of Kvitova, who crushed her in their only fast-court meeting at Wimbledon last year.  Not since April has Wozniacki defeated a top-eight opponent other than Schiavone, whose underperforming second half forestalled her attendance.  All the same, the Great Dane owns a winning or even record against everyone in her group despite having accomplished less than all of them this fall.

Kvitova:  Amidst three natural counterpunchers, the Czech must feel sanguine about her chances as the principal offensive threat on an offense-oriented surface.  Although she appeared to Czech out of competition for a few months after winning Wimbledon, a title on the fast indoor courts of Linz may have signaled the onset of a resurgence.  That trophy came at the expense of noted defensive artists Jankovic and Cibulkova, proving that Kvitova lately has deployed her weapons with greater wisdom and consistency than during her long second-half skid.  But she fell resoundingly to Zvonareva in a Tokyo semifinal after squandering a massive lead, her second hard-court loss to the Russian this year.  The only first-time participant in her group, Kvitova may need a match or so to adjust to the unique format and rhythms of the tournament.  Moreover, as with the other first-time Slam champions, she will have to overcome the urge to complacently accept her accomplishments thus far as sufficient for a season.  Beneath that shy veneer, though, Kvitova has shown herself capable of surprising resolve throughout a year in which she surpassed Wozniacki as the pathbreaker of her generation by winning Wimbledon.  A title here, which the Dane does not own, would cement the Czech’s ascendancy in that role.

Zvonareva:  Recalling Wozniacki’s success in the Middle East, Zvonareva has enjoyed such visits to the region as the Doha title this year, another Doha final three years ago, and the 2008 final of the year-end championships in Doha.  (On second thought, maybe she just has a special affection for the Qatari capital.)  After a modest first half, the second-ranked Russian raised her performance several notches in the second half by surging into three finals and acquitting herself creditably in a quarterfinal run at the US Open.  The round-robin format may benefit Zvonareva by removing some of the pressure associated with single-elimination draws; if she falters in one match, she can reassure herself that she will survive to another day.  Winning her last meeting against both Wozniacki and Kvitova, she generally prefers a more modestly paced hard court but demonstrated her ability to adapt to faster surfaces by reaching finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.  Likely grateful to see her inevitable nemesis Stosur elsewhere in the draw, Zvonareva now may have to defuse new nemesis Radwanska, who collected all three of their meetings since Wimbledon without dropping a set.  As noted above, however, she doesn’t need to win every match.

Radwanska:  Slipping unobtrusively into the draws at previous editions of this event, the Pole positively thundered into the 2011 year-end championships by becoming the second straight player to record the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing.  The last player to accomplish that feat, Wozniacki built upon it by marching within a set of the 2010 title at this tournament.  Can Radwanska follow in her footsteps?  In theory, the fast indoor surface should undermine her affinity for finesse and carefully calculated gambits.  In practice, it also will add an additional jolt of pace to her strokes, which she had struck with greater conviction and acceptance of risk this fall.  Outside her losing records against Wozniacki and Kvitova, fatigue may pose the most serious concern for Radwanska, who fell immediately at the Kremlin Cup and has had little experience in her career with plowing deep into consecutive tournaments.  Beyond the physical dimension, her style demands a high degree of mental focus that may have faded slightly in the aftermath of her Asian accomplishments.

Maria Sharapova - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 4

White Group:

Sharapova:  Four years ago, her most recent appearance at the year-end championships culminated with that season’s most memorable match, a three-set final against Henin that lasted nearly three and a half hours.  More than anyone except perhaps Kvitova, Sharapova should thrive on an indoor surface where the wind can disrupt neither her ball toss nor her pinpoint groundstrokes and the WTA’s best return of serve.  Her fall season ended prematurely with an ankle injury, though, and she has practiced this week with that joint tightly wrapped amidst hints that she will not compete at full strength.  Perhaps more concerning, the Russian had endured a wildly erratic stretch on the summer hard-courts during which she averaged over 40 unforced errors per match.  But Sharapova looked crisper when she arrived in Tokyo, and a lack of pre-tournament matches with her 2007 shoulder injury did not prevent her from carving her way to the final past four talented opponents.  While she has struggled against Azarenka, she has maintained the same uncanny dominance over Stosur that the Australian has inflicted upon Zvonareva.  With a probable loss and probable win in those two matches, her encounter with the perplexing Li Na may decide whether she emerges from the group.

Azarenka:  A diluted or updated version of Sharapova, depending on one’s perspective, Vika has emulated her successes against Stosur by relying upon her more balanced baseline style.  After a minor injury in Beijing, she cruised to the Luxembourg title last week against overmatched adversaries.  While that accomplishment would seem to provide her with momentum, Azarenka has developed a disquieting habit of alternating between the remarkable and, well, the retiring.  During this spring alone, consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella followed an Indian Wells retirement and preceded a Stuttgart retirement, which in turn preceded a Madrid final and then a Rome retirement.  A repeated guest at this event in the last few years, Azarenka collaborated with Wozniacki, Radwanska, and Clijsters on some of its most entertaining matches.  But she ultimately lost all of them in three sets as the magnitude of the occasion and the concomitant tension unnerved her.  Unless she suffers an injury as she has here before, however, she should not only advance from this group but win every round-robin match to arrange a meeting with the Red Group runner-up on Saturday.

Li:  Theoretically the third-ranked player in this group, the reigning Roland Garros champion has fizzled in spectacular fashion at nearly every significant event since then, from a second-round Wimbledon loss to a first-round exit from the US Open to another opening-round defeat at her home tournament in Bejing.  Meanwhile, she squandered multiple match points before losing to a player outside the top 30 (New Haven), split with the coach who led her to the aforementioned Roland Garros title (Michael Mortensen), signed sponsorship deals projected to earn her more endorsement money than any player except Sharapova, and announced the upcoming release of what should prove a fascinating autobiography.  As the events chronicled above indicate, the success of Li’s off-court attempts to capitalize upon her major breakthrough have contrasted starkly with her on-court fecklessness, the product of a complacency that she openly has admitted.  The last set that she played before Istanbul, a bagel at the hands of the underpowered Niculescu, exposed a competitor who strangely lacked confidence in any of her most familiar shots.  In her debut appearance at the year-end championships, Li can remind herself that she has nothing to lose but the match—or rather three of them.  On paper, though, her 2011 Slam triumphs over Azarenka (twice) and Sharapova would have positioned her to exploit this draw.  Thus, an opening awaits if she can awake.

Stosur:  In a story familiar from her predecessors this year, the WTA’s third first-time Slam champion of 2011 took a virtual vacation from competition in her ensuing tournaments.  Perhaps a testament to her greater maturity and steadiness was Stosur’s swifter revival when she reached the Osaka final, an important confidence boost despite a lopsided loss to Bartoli at that stage.  A semifinalist at the year-end championships in 2010, the Aussie showed no debutante nerves while comfortably defeating Wozniacki and extending Clijsters to a third-set tiebreak.  Arguably the best server of the eight participants, she should win more free points and hold serve more comfortably on the fast surface than most.  But her winless record against both Sharapova and Azarenka looms large in what usually functions as a double-elimination format.  Will Stosur’s Slam breakthrough, defeating the normally impenetrable Serena, embolden her to overcome those who relentlessly have preyed upon her?

Semifinals:  Kvitova vs. Sharapova, Zvonareva vs. Azarenka

Final:  Kvitova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Petra Kvitova, who would repeat Sharapova’s 2004 feat of winning her first major at Wimbledon and then winning the year-end championships in her first appearance there

***

Ignited by this preview is a daily series of articles that will discuss each singles match during the week in Istanbul as Turkey hosts a significant tennis event for the first time in its history.

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 6

Overshadowed by plotlines like the ascendancy of Djokovic and the decline of Federer is the singular season of contradictions alternately enjoyed and suffered by Andy Murray.   Sometimes heroic and sometimes humiliated, Murray reached semifinals at all of the year’s last three majors consecutively for the first time in his career—yet fell more or less routinely to the same player at all of them.  The Scot inflicted one of the only two blemishes on Djokovic’s 2011 record—yet absorbed an ignominious annihilation in their most significant meeting, at the Australian Open.  But the starkest and strangest dichotomy of all springs from his record at hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments, which will stand at two titles and three opening-round losses if he wins on Sunday.  The defending champion in Shanghai, Murray seeks to sweep the ATP Asian season with a third consecutive hard-court title in a season during which he lost five consecutive hard-court matches.

Since Madrid eleven tournaments ago, though, the world #4 has lost only one match to an opponent other than Djokovic or Nadal, whose rivalry may now have paused until the Australian Open.  Instead of a top-two opponent, the ambitious David Ferrer now positions himself between Murray and not only an eighth Masters shield but the #3 ranking.  The Scot has won all of their hard-court meetings and thrashed Ferrer comprehensively in a Tokyo semifinal just eight days ago, when he stayed more consistent and intelligent in the extended rallies.  More impressive this week, the third seed has rallied from one-set deficits in three consecutive matches to reach his second Masters 1000 final of the season, so he will not falter mentally under early adversity.  In a statistic from which Isner could take pride, Ferrer has not lost his serve for eight consecutive sets while registering 37 consecutive holds.  In Tokyo, a key reason behind Murray’s dominance lay in the disparity between their serves, an advantage that may not hold on Sunday against the suddenly serve-slashing Spaniard.  On the other hand, the puny returns of Roddick and Lopez often transform average servers into leviathans at the notch.  Also uncharacteristic of the clay-based grinder whom we know as Ferrer was his surprisingly effective movement into the forecourt and generally efficient volleys, although he did miss a key volley when facing set point against Lopez.  Adjusting to the slick DecoTurf surface with creditable aplomb, the world #5 showed that his game may conceal more variety than we associate with it.  This thought begs the question of why Ferrer has settled into a relatively passive playing style, which has crippled him against the ATP elite, but this self-deprecating figure may lack the inner confidence necessary to execute more aggressive tennis under pressure.

Often critiqued for similar reasons, Murray generally has stayed content in Shanghai to unfold his trademark brand of high-percentage, low-risk tennis.  Facing no opponent more notable than Wawrinka, he enjoyed the rare gift of facing two opponents outside the top 30 in the quarterfinal and semifinal of a Masters 1000 event.  Unlike Ferrer, who may arrive a little jaded from three straight three-setters, Murray should bring ample reserves of energy to their clash.  He needed a set to summon the willpower to leave his comfort zone in the Tokyo final against Nadal, and he may need a lesser leap of faith in himself here if Nadal’s compatriot continues to shine even in the traditionally weaker areas of his game.  Far different from their Tokyo meeting was an Australian Open semifinal in which the Spaniard came within a point of a two-set lead over the Scot, trumpeting his danger

Winless in Slam finals and thoroughly feckless on those stages, Murray has compiled quite the opposite sort of record in Masters 1000 finals:  7-1, with his only loss to Nadal.  Determined to attain the #3 ranking this year, he has extracted vital motivation from that mission throughout the last few weeks, when his rivals have not found any such goal to grasp.  The defending champion of Shanghai surpassed Federer on the court in last year’s final and likely will surpass him in the rankings after this year’s final, squeezing all of the juice that he can from the meager fruits of fall.