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.

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