Agnieszka Radwanska Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open at Ariake Colosseum on October 1, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan.

At first glance, Agnieszka Radwanska cuts an unremarkable figure far from the dazzling glitter of the celebrities who populate the upper echelons of the WTA.  Compact in physique and unassuming in manner, the Pole does not intimidate through her mere presence as do most Slam champions.  In fact, her outwardly unspectacular game has offered a foil for the offensive brilliance of her rivals as often as it has entangled them in snares of strategic confusion.  But now she stands as the favorite to win her first Premier Mandatory title, just a week after capturing the Premier Five crown in Tokyo.  While one should not confuse the Tokyo-Beijing double with the Indian Wells-Miami double or similarly formidable accomplishments, a sweep of the premier fall tournaments would propel Radwanska into the conversation of contenders for early 2012, at a moment when the WTA hierarchy looks especially vulnerable.

Her penultimate obstacle takes the form of a tenacious Italian veteran with whom she has split her two previous hard-court meetings.  Not deterred by her 0-5 record against Wozniacki, Pennetta astonished us by rallying from a one-set deficit in her quarterfinal to bagel the world #1 en route to a stirring comeback.  Lacking composure on such occasions before, the Fed Cup heroine found the courage to rebound after squandering a third-set lead amidst a series of unsightly unforced errors.  When Wozniacki served for the match at 6-5, 30-0, Pennetta halted the Dane’s momentum in its tracks with a discipline and confidence rarely witnessed from her.  Attempting to build upon that success, she possesses the versatility to gradually outmaneuver Radwanska from the baseline but will find her inflammable temper tested once again.  More familiar as a counterpuncher than an aggressor, Pennetta adapted effectively to a more offensive mentality against Wozniacki and will need to retain that degree of focus when she meets a player who has won nine straight matches.  Meanwhile, Radwanska will relish the opportunity to face an adversary less likely to maul her second serve or attempt to end points quickly than many of her recurrent nemeses.  In her recent victories over foes such as Zvonareva and Ivanovic, she has protected her serve exceptionally well by saving break point after break point while swiftly exploiting any chinks in her opponent’s armor.  The product of her notable intelligence and focus, this opportunism could carry her past many of her more muscular, less imaginative peers as long as her body can withstand the weight of their blows.  This summer, Radwanska overcame a painful shoulder injury to win the San Diego title and reach the Rogers Cup semifinal.  Without a massive ball-striker like Stosur, Serena, or Sharapova awaiting her over the weekend, she should not feel compelled to leave her artistic comfort zone, a dangerous prospect for her fellow semifinalists.

Much less competitive than the first semifinal in terms of ranking and accomplishments, the clash between Petkovic and Niculescu would seem to scarcely test the German.  Against top-20 opponents Bartoli and Pavlyuchenkova, the German impressed with her command of her game and emotions at key points when the momentum of the match threatened to spin away from her.  Just as she had snuffed out the Frenchwoman’s third-set comeback, she prevented the mighty Russian from charging into a final set by winning the match-ending tiebreak decisively.  The only woman to reach three major quarterfinals this year, Petkovic has managed to balance the competitive demands of the Tour with her plethora of outside interests while maintaining a consistency superior to most rising stars.  Her upward mobility springs from this ability to blend diversity in life with consistency on the court, and a Premier Mandatory title would lie well within reach until one recollects her 0-4 record against Radwanska.

On the other hand, Petkovic hasn’t entirely quelled the specter of the unpredictable, inexplicable defeat that has plagued nearly all WTA prodigies.  Recent examples of that genre on her record include a loss to Arantxa Parra Santonja at the last Premier Mandatory event, in Madrid, and a strangely desultory effort against Ksenia Pervak at Wimbledon.  During the second half, though, Petkovic has fallen only to Radwanska (twice), Jankovic, and Wozniacki while reaching the quarterfinals or better at five straight tournaments.  Projected to reach the top 30 with one more victory, Niculescu already has won six matches this week—one more than Radwanska would win should she collect the title.  Progressing from the qualifying draw to the semifinals, the quirky Romanian deserves credit for never yielding to the superior reputation and talents of her opponents.  Like Radwanska, she has dared to diverge from the WTA blueprint for success, a style that Azarenka succinctly described as “hard, harder, and hardest.”  Although Petkovic fits largely inside that mold, she also has acquired a more sophisticated tactical sense with which she constructed a thoughtful, coherent plan in her victories over Sharapova and Wozniacki, among others.  If she can combine that dimension of the game with her far superior weight of shot, the idiosyncratic German should reach her third final of 2011.

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