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.

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