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.