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Agnieszka Radwanska - 2011 China Open - Day 9

Invited to predict which woman stood in the best position to accomplish the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing, tennis analysts might have suggested Sharapova, Azarenka, Kvitova, or perhaps Wozniacki, who accomplished the same feat a year ago.  But we’d wager that few outside Poland expected Radwanska to claim the most significant title of her career one week before relegating it to second-most-significant status the next.  Only with an exceptional degree of focus, timing, and anticipation can a player impose her own style and vision of the game upon much more powerful foes.  Claiming her second straight title, Radwanska dulled the sting of her opponent’s shots and meticulously outmaneuvered them in rallies until they resembled cobras swaying harmlessly under the spell of a snake-charmer.  Skeptics will note that she faced neither Sharapova, Kvitova, nor Serena, whose high-octane offenses have shattered her spells before.  Nevertheless, the Pole befuddled two elite opponents in Azarenka and Zvonareva en route to the Tokyo title, while her gritty performance in outlasting Petkovic revealed resilience impressive for a player seeking the most significant victory of her career.  Moreover, she regularly found a deeper first serve or a riskier backhand when the moment demanded it, showing a capacity for modulation rare in the modern era.  The return of this deft, clever craftswoman to the top 10 travels some distance towards refuting the widespread criticism of the WTA as a leviathan comprised of fundamentally identical, interchangeable parts.   And, considering Radwanska’s success after distancing herself from her father, Wozniacki fans should feel reassured that their heroine made the correct decision this summer.  The Pole monopolized the hardware but not the headlines, though, and we cast our mind back to a few other storylines of the Asian double  as well.

Radwanska’s final victim in Tokyo, Zvonareva collected the runner-up trophy there following a commendable display of perseverance in the semifinals against Kvitova.  Rather than dissolve in frustration when the Czech started the match in scorching form, Vera dug into the trenches late in the first set, waited for a crack to emerge in her opponent’s self-belief, and then chipped away at that crack until Kvitova’s game crashed down around her.  In the final and against an inspired Ivanovic in Beijing, Zvonareva reverted to rubble herself under pressure.  Those debacles highlighted her career-long struggles in title matches and when defending huge quantities of points, critical flaws to be sure but not flaws that should diminish her overall improvements as a competitor.  Also impressive in a more modest way were the achievements of Kirilenko, who overcame a massive power differential to win two epics from Stosur and reach quarterfinals at both tournaments.  Doomed by her limited talents to remain in the second tier, she still has shown an opportunistic streak on several notable occasions, although the correlation of her elevated grunt with her elevated form may draw raised eyebrows from spectators (or rather listeners).  Most observers expected to hear a certain more famous shriek ricocheting through the air of Tokyo and Beijing, but an untimely ankle injury to Sharapova halted such hopes early in a Tokyo quarterfinal with Kvitova that already had become compelling.  On a brighter note, the new world #2 far surpassed the quality of her US Open performance in a fiercely contested two-tiebreak victory over Goerges that showcased her competitive ferocity.

After a disastrous US Open Series, Goerges showed signs of snapping that skid when she won consecutive matches at Tokyo and severely tested Sharapova throughout their ruthless slugfest.  The erratic brunette achieved the odd distinction of losing three consecutive sets in tiebreaks, however, as she failed to solve Kirilenko in her Beijing opener.  As 2011 fades, one will continue to wonder whether the real Goerges lies closer to the Goerges of the first half or the Goerges of the second half.  No such questions surround her countrywoman Petkovic, who more than compensated for her absence from Tokyo with a superb run in Beijing that brought her within two games of victory.  Rallying from a set-and-break deficit against Bartoli, she played relentlessly focused, intelligent tennis against Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals and tournament upset artist Niculescu a round later.  Few players have matured more quickly than Petkovic in the last few years, and fewer still have matured on court while remaining their quirky, engaging selves without racket in hand.  In the most important match of her career so far, she thought nothing of either the occasion or her winless record against Radwanska but played without fear or reservation, especially when she recovered from an 84-minute first set to bagel the Pole in act two.  Although the curtain didn’t descend on this marvelous three-act drama as Petkovic had hoped, she danced during the trophy ceremony with charming abandon and a smile on her face.  Less able to flash her trademark smile was Lisicki, who withdrew yet again from a tournament as injuries continue to blight her young career.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a shot to Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 5, 2011 in Beijing, China.

The German found herself far from alone in succumbing to a foe other than an opponent, for Beijing witnessed such departures from Azarenka and Ivanovic.  In both cases, this most recent walkover and retirement extended a prevailing theme in a year littered with injuries for the two glamorous women.  For the raven-haired Serb, her injury ended the strongest week of her season so far, built upon the bones of fellow Slam champion Kuznetsova and top-5 opponent Zvonareva.  Not since winning Roland Garros in 2008 had Ivanovic scored consecutive victories over champions with the pedigrees of those two Russians, a feat that bolstered her confidence even as she admitted with artless honesty that it surprised her.  Probably regretting the opportunity to extend the momentum from her Tokyo semifinal, meanwhile, Azarenka likely surrendered any chance to overtake Wozniacki for the year-end #1 ranking at Istanbul.

Assigned strangely identical draws in both weeks, the current inhabitant of the WTA penthouse fell on her face once more.  Two of her three total wins came against the hard-hitting but one-dimensional Gajdosova, while three-set losses to Kanepi and Pennetta continued her summer embarrassments at the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory events that she had dominated in the second half of 2010.  Radiating much less confidence and poise than she did a year ago, Wozniacki failed to serve out the match in Beijing that she eventually lost—a lapse against a second-tier opponent inexcusable in a #1, notwithstanding the Italian’s gritty effort.  The Dane’s misery found plenty of notable company, however, amongst the season’s three first-time Slam champions.  Despite reaching the semifinals in Tokyo, courtesy of Sharapova’s retirement, Kvitova’s meltdown at that stage overshadowed her preceding victories over anonymous foes; moreover, it presaged her opening-round Beijing defeat to the equally anonymous Arvidsson.  Yet neither the Czech nor Stosur (one total win, two losses to Kirilenko) matched the catastrophe of Li Na, excruciatingly feckless before her home fans as she absorbed a first-round bagel against Niculescu.  As Istanbul approaches, observers will wonder whether any of these four players can challenge for the season’s last significant title, which promises a fascinating collection of veterans and novices.

That tournament still lies a few weeks in the future, though, and for now the spotlight returns to the ATP with previews of the later rounds in Shanghai.  A week from now, we will publish a similar article that reflects on the men’s passage through Asia.

 

 

Vera Zvonareva - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Starting with her mid-career breakthrough last summer, Zvonareva reached the concluding stages of several pivotal tournaments:  Wimbledon, the US Open, Beijing, and the Australian Open.  Yet the intelligent, volatile Russian settled for best supporting actress at the first three of those events and succumbed in the semifinals of the fourth, continuing a habit of falling just short when a momentous triumph seemed within her grasp.  On the other hand, Zvonareva bowed only to the elite on those occasions, losing all four times to players who have held the #1 ranking and to Slam champions in three of the four defeats.  Her highly documented struggles in finals thus may stem in part from the opposition with which ill fortune has confronted the former #2, who could regain that lofty ranking if she wins Tokyo.  Amidst titles in such minor bastions of the WTA as Pattaya City and Baku, the Russian has claimed few noteworthy laurels since Indian Wells in 2009.

At first glance, Zvonareva’s opponent would seem a comparatively comfortable challenge far from her more formidable nemeses.  Upon closer examination, though, Radwanska has won their last two meetings this summer with the sort of gritty tenacity that can trouble emotionally fraught competitors like Zvonareva.  In the San Diego final, the Pole’s much-critiqued serve never deserted her as she never conceded a single break while capitalizing upon the few opportunities that she earned.  Unlike ferocious shot-makers who can afford to drift mentally or grow negative at times, Radwanska can defeat elite opponents and maximize her potential only by maintaining her keen focus and her confidence.  When she struggled during the first half of the season, a slump exacerbated by injuries, her lack of confidence prevented her from unfolding her distinctive style effectively late in close sets and matches.  Like Wozniacki, her decision to distance herself somewhat from her father has breathed new life into her game and her appetite for competition.  Snapping a three-year drought without a title at San Diego, she rebounded impressively from a US Open disappointment to win three-setters over Jankovic and Azarenka here.  Much as with the Belarussian, she can fluster Zvonareva by exploring not only the lateral but the vertical dimensions of the court.  Although more multifaceted and more consistent than Azarenka, the fourth seed still prefers to wage war from the baseline with a similar pace and spin on most strokes.  Exposed in her losses to Radwanska this summer were her reluctance to improvise and adjust in unfamiliar positions or situations, where she often looked marooned as the Pole outmaneuvered her.

From her performance against Kvitova in the semifinals, by contrast, emerge promising omens for Zvonareva’s fortunes in this final.  When she slipped deep into a first-set deficit, Vera did not disintegrate as she has in so many earlier encounters, petulantly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Perhaps aware of her adversary’s inexperience and chronic inconsistency, she instead stayed calm and forced her opponent to earn what seemed a predestined first-set victory.  After saving several points and reversing the tide, Zvonareva then offered the volatile Czech no second chances but rather accelerated her meltdown by subtly applying pressure.  A thoughtful and sensitive tactician at her best, she carefully exposed Kvitova’s (few) weaknesses, such as her movement towards her backhand or her haste in creating nonexistent angles on deep balls near the center of the baseline.  Despite her counterpunching instincts, she interwove her standard game with timely bursts of aggression—a pummeled backhand second-serve return here, an unexpected net approach there—to keep her victim uneasy and reeling.  Zvonareva certainly will need to return more aggressively than in her two previous 2011 encounters with Radwanska, but otherwise she should remain mostly inside her low-risk comfort zone.  While the Pole possesses slight advantages in footwork and speed, the Russian should neutralize those edges on most occasions with her superior power, especially on the serve, and equal consistency.  If this match stays competitive, as it should, each player must carefully decide when to cast aside her habitual aversion to risk and when to wait patiently for a misstep from across the net.  Against Radwanska’s spontaneity stands Zvonareva’s programmatic style, but both favor the elongated rallies that require multiple shot combinations to win.  Moreover, both have developed a talent for uncovering an opponent’s most significant flaws and scraping away at them like a shoe on a blister.  Will the Russian become the third Tokyo titlist from her nation in the last seven years, or will the Pole record the most remarkable accomplishment of her career to date?

As Tokyo prepares to crown a first-time champion, Beijing beckons with the final WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of 2011.  We return to preview that draw tomorrow before discussing the two ATP 500 events on Sunday.

Victoria Azarenka - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

In the final Premier Five tournament of 2011, all four semifinalists spring from the same, richly talented region of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Despite sharing these cultural origins, though, the quartet represents a range of distinctive playing styles from a towering lefty to an artist of finesse.

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  In a likely WTA rivalry of the future, this pair will meet for the eighth occasion and second time this year.  At Indian Wells, their first 2011 collision climaxed in a third-set tiebreak after Azarenka saved multiple match points before breaking Radwanska when she served for the match.  After she split her first four encounters with the Pole, including two three-setters, the Belarussian more recently has appeared to overcome the multifaceted challenge that she poses with three consecutive victories on fast surfaces.  Extending her dominance over Bartoli with a second-set bagel, Azarenka has looked progressively sharper with each match that she has played, raising her level of performance with the simultaneously elevating competition.  In the quarterfinal, she reversed the direction of her groundstrokes almost at will despite the pace generated by the Frenchwoman, and her serve rarely betrayed her at meaningful moments.  While she aimed for lines and corners with her characteristic aggression, her shot selection bore the signs of calculation and commitment more often than recklessness or indecision.  Still uncertain is Vika’s second serve, the shot that has impeded her progress at majors and upon which Radwanska will hope to capitalize with her pinpoint returns.

Although one might expect the fast surface to showcase Azarenka’s strengths, especially if the roof stays closed, Radwanska paradoxically has delivered some of her best tennis on the sport’s faster courts.  A two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, she benefits from the extra jolt that they add to her relatively gentle groundstrokes.  In this duel between an inveterate baseliner and an all-court player, expect Radwanska to utilize her finesse to draw Azarenka into the forecourt on uncomfortable terms, for conventional volleys remain the least impressive feature of the Belarussian’s game.  By contrast, Azarenka will aim to take time away from the crafty Pole with penetrating groundstrokes that force her into defensive mode throughout.  If the match drifts deep into a third set once again, we should get a glimpse of Vika’s improved but still questionable fitness late in the season.  One must favor Radwanska in a war of attrition, on both physical and mental grounds, but lately Azarenka has combined her offense with consistency and composure.  Feasting upon the erratic or the temperamental, the Pole specializes in applying death by paper-cut to her opponent’s psyche and thence to her game.  When she faces a foe who can both outhit her and survive in extended rallies, her options dwindle significantly.

Zvonareva vs. Kvitova:  Sadly aborted after just seven games, Kvitova’s quarterfinal with Sharapova nevertheless may have steeled her for the stern tests in the semifinal and final.  Less known for her serve than the Czech, Zvonareva surprisingly has dropped only one service games across her three matches this week and faced only two break points in her last two matches.  On the other hand, her competition has ranged from mild to feckless, not subjecting her to any significant pressure after the first set of her first match.  Never have the Russian and the Czech contested a suspenseful match, although they have evenly divided their four meetings since 2009.  Conquered on clay by Kvitova in Rome and Madrid, Zvonareva has dismissed her comfortably at the Australian Open at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  The surface edge suggested by that record provides insights mitigated significantly by the stunning rise of both players during the last two seasons.  Whereas Kvitova has evolved into a more versatile and skillful athlete, Zvonareva has continued to practice largely the same style but has enhanced her emotional fortitude.  Nevertheless, her tempestuous personality has receded rather than entirely vanished, and Kvitova’s serve certainly can frustrate Vera as have the similarly potent deliveries of Serena, Venus, Stosur, or Sharapova.

Attempting to become the seventh Russian finalist in the last seven years of this event, Zvonareva must have felt relieved to have dodged the Stosur bullet when her compatriot Kirilenko conveniently upset the Aussie.  Even more dangerous when granted second chances, the Russian has not won a tournament of this magnitude since Indian Wells 2009, where she defeated Kvitova en route to the title.  Six years her junior, the Czech has accumulated more experience this year in the latter rounds of key events from Wimbledon to Madrid, where she defeated Zvonareva en route to the title.  Against such a smooth mover and adroit counterpuncher, though, Kvitova will need to stay patient in rallies rather than flinging forehands towards corners with the impetuousness that proves most effective on grass.  Despite swerving into Zvonareva’s excellent backhand, her swerving ad-court lefty serve should assist her in opening the court from the outset.  A returner often aggressive to a fault, the Czech should carefully consider the degree of risk that she wishes to assume in her opponent’s service games.  Unlike the other semifinal, a break-fest in the making, service holds should set the tone in a meeting between two deliveries that rarely disintegrate.   As Kvitova hopes to erase the memories of her abject mid-summer swoon, Zvonareva aims to extend her impetus from an encouraging second half.

Petra Kvitova Maria Sharapova of Russia (L) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic pose before their Ladies' final round match on Day Twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2011 in London, England.

Kanepi vs. Radwanska:  Hailing from nearly adjacent countries, these Eastern European women could not represent more divergent attitudes to the sport.  While Mats Wilander surely would include the Estonian among the “mindless bashers” of the WTA, he could have little but praise for the crafty Pole who has won both of their previous meetings.  Just 16-16 when this tournament began, Kanepi has resurfaced impressively with victories over US Open quarterfinalist Pennetta and world #1 Wozniacki, the Tokyo defending champion.  Fitness typically has troubled a player more burly than many, but she rallied impressively from a one-set deficit against the Italian and outlasted the Dane in another extended encounter.  Better known for her physical and mental resilience is Radwanska, the author of a one-set comeback as well against Jankovic, whom she bageled in the final set.  Nevertheless, her nearly total lack of offense proved no impediment when she faced a Serb just as comfortable with counterpunching and reluctant to seize the initiative.  Since Wimbledon, Radwanska’s star has risen steadily with a title in San Diego and semifinal at the Rogers Cup.  She avenged her US Open loss to Kerber in yet another three-setter this week and has accumulated so much momentum over the last few months that only an outstanding serving and returning performance from Kanepi can stop her.  Once the rally shifts into neutral terms, the Estonian’s raw talent will struggle to overcome the Pole’s expert ball placement and point construction.

Azarenka vs. Bartoli:  Unlike the previous match, this quarterfinal features two opponents with the same set of offensively oriented goals.  In most of their previous meetings, Bartoli’s double-fisted groundstrokes have placed her at a disadvantage when she confronts Azarenka’s symmetrical baseline game.  An efficient mover who covers the court better than most aggressors, the third seed has exploited the Frenchwoman’s less assured lateral movement and sometimes forced her to take one of her hands off the racket.  On fast surfaces like grass and indoor hard courts, however, Bartoli will have as great an opportunity as she ever will to topple Vika, who will have a little less time to counter her opponent’s first strike.  Inspiring the Frenchwoman with further hope is her impressive victory over fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, one of the WTA’s most improved players in 2011.  Meanwhile, Azarenka slogged through an erratic victory over the unremarkable Klara Zakopalova during which she fell behind early in both sets.  Since both players possess outstanding power and precision on their returns, their first-serve percentages will play a vital role in the outcome.  On the other hand, Bartoli may wish to strike bold returns even on Azarenka’s first serve, normally a consistent shot but not a weapon.  By contrast, the Frenchwoman’s serve can deliver point-ending shots or double faults in equal abundance, a consequence of her idiosyncratic rhythm and motion.  Both women exited the US Open in the first week, Azarenka predictably and Bartoli unexpectedly, so both may consider this tournament an opportunity to reassert themselves after a generally uplifting summer.

Kirilenko vs. Zvonareva:  Winless in five previous clashes with her compatriot, Russia’s other Maria nevertheless has thrust Zvonareva deep into two tense encounters last year, one of which culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The WTA’s Russians often bring out the worst in each other’s games, a pattern that should apply with no less force to the fragile Zvonareva.  Scoring consecutive victories over Slam champions Stosur and Ivanovic, Kirilenko may have benefited from the post-championship malaise of the former and a back injury to the latter, but she has developed an increasingly proficient net game in recent months that carried her to the second week of the US Open.  Less susceptible to pressure than some of her countrywomen, she saved several match points against Stosur there before winning the longest women’s tiebreak in tournament history.  Not seriously tested by either of her first two opponents, Zvonareva has dropped just three games in her last three sets while dispatching Pironkova and Benesova.  While mighty servers can rattle the second-ranked Russian, she can settle into her balanced baseline style when she faces an opponent without that level of power.  Her penetrating groundstrokes may hamper Kirilenko’s efforts to close off angles at the net or finish points, suggesting that she will need an error-prone night from Vera to advance.  In falls past, Zvonareva has enjoyed notable successes such as reaching the finals last year at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing and coming within a set of the year-end championships title in 2008.  Appearing to thrive in the less intense atmosphere of these events, she can focus calmly upon playing tennis—something that she does as well as anyone in the WTA on any given day.

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Since their collision in the Wimbledon final, its protagonists have traced divergent routes through the summer.  As Kvitova sputtered and fizzled during early, one-sided losses in both Canada and Cincinnati, Sharapova pounded her way to the title at the latter Premier Five event.  At the US Open, though, their paths drew parallel once more in error-strewn early losses that bore scant resemblance to their mastery of the grass.  On the faster courts of fall, the first-strike tennis that they practice should reap rewards, as it has for 2009 Tokyo champion and former year-end championships titlist Sharapova.  Discomfited by Kvitova’s sliding lefty serve on grass, she may find that shot less frustrating on the somewhat higher-bouncing courts here.  Yet Sharapova also will need to avoid the double digits in double faults that she reached during her otherwise scintillating third-round, two-tiebreak victory over Julia Goerges.  At the All England Club, Kvitova struck her shots with superior depth although not closer to the lines, thus pinning her opponent behind the baseline without embracing excessive risk.  Consequently, Sharapova will seek to win the crucial battle of north-south court positioning before showcasing her more familiar ability to stretch an opponent laterally with angles.  The Czech moves slightly more effectively than her fellow Wimbledon champion and has slightly more variety in her arsenal, although she will win far fewer matches through subtlety and nuance than through the muscular imposition of her authority.  Most intriguing of the Tokyo quarterfinals, this match pits the season’s most impressive resurgence on the women’s side against its most impressive breakthrough artist.  They have met only twice in their careers, but the WTA can only hope that such intriguing intersections between stars of different generations occur more frequently in the future.  Even in the depleted significance of this setting, these matches make the fall more meaningful.

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 2, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Less than two weeks after the US Open finals, the fall season ignites with a Premier Five tournament in Tokyo that features seven of the WTA top 10 although not two of the season’s four Slam champions or Serena Williams.  The top two in the world and the top two seeds, Wozniacki and Sharapova won the last two editions of this event, so they will hope to begin the march towards Istanbul with commanding performances here.

First quarter:  After falling in the US Open semifinal last year, Wozniacki vaulted from that achievement to consecutive titles in Tokyo and Beijing.  Despite the relatively fast surface of the Ariake Colosseum, she eyes a comfortable route to the semifinals, far from the leading power-hitters who could topple her.  Thwarted in her openers at her last two Premier Five tournaments, the Dane can rely upon her familiar steadiness to withstand the erratic Gajdosova or the inexperienced Marino.  While US Open quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta might await in the third round, she has lost all five meetings with Wozniacki and twice on the clay that most favors her strengths against the top seed.  Aligned to face the defending champion in the quarterfinals is the former generation’s Wozniacki, Jankovic, who came within a few points of the Cincinnati title before suffering her sixth straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major.  Runner-up to Sharapova here two years ago, the Serb initially dominated the Dane before losing three times to her this spring in clashes between the WTA’s two premier counterpunchers.  Lurking to intercept Jankovic in the third round, US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber would need to repeat her New York upset over Radwanska.  In her opener, meanwhile, the loathsome Quebec champion Zahlavova Strycova aims to engage Jelena in a contentious catfight.  But the Serb should survive such distractions and the lefty style of Kerber before Wozniacki outlasts her again.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  An undeserving first-week loser in New York, Azarenka will fancy her chances of striking deep into the draw should she maintain the level that she showed during the second set against Serena there.   She has won all six sets that she has played against most probable third-round opponent Peer, although the Israeli has struggled this season following  a 2010 campaign that brought her to the verge of the year-end championships.  Among the intriguing players in this section is Radwanska’s sister Urszula, who qualified for the main draw after reaching the Tashkent semifinals and likewise qualifying for the US Open.  Considered a more offensive player than Aga, the younger Radwanska defeated first-round opponent Zakopalova earlier this year but probably could not threaten Azarenka.  In the lower section of this quarter, two double-fisters brace for collision in Peng and Bartoli, the former of whom has enjoyed a career season and perhaps the latter as well.  Inspired by an upset over Cibulkova in New York, Irina Falconi seeks to build upon a promising summer against home hope Ayumi Morita.  The most compelling first-round encounter in this section, however, pits rapidly rising American teenager Christina McHale against the former prodigy Tamira Paszek.  Known for epic matches against Jankovic and Schiavone at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Paszek rebounded from injuries to reach her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon this summer—defeating McHale resoundingly en route.  A combined 11-2 against Peng and Bartoli, Azarenka will find herself in a winnable quarterfinal no matter the opponent, able to rely upon her symmetrical groundstrokes and superior movement.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  Unaccountably frowning upon Zvonareva, the draw deities once again assigned her a likely quarterfinal meeting with Stosur, who has won their last eight encounters.  Even before that stage, the Russian might find her solid but not electrifying offense tested by Cibulkova, who gradually ground her down physically and emotionally at Indian Wells.  Amplifying her forehand while committing to greater aggression, the Slovak has registered two victories over Wozniacki this year despite disappointing for most of the summer as an abdominal strain hampered her.  Can countrywoman and Guangzhou finalist Magdalena Rybarikova ambush Cibulkova and trouble Zvonareva?  That possibility looks doubtful, which suggests that the 2011 US Open champion should meet the 2010 US Open runner-up once more.  The only serious threat to Stosur before the quarterfinals, Ivanovic plays a style strikingly similar to the Aussie with serve-forehand combinations masking an indifferent backhand.  While they have split their four previous meetings, all in uneventful fashion, one would favor the US Open champion over the former Roland Garros champion because of her recent serving superiority.  On the other hand, first-time Slam champions Li and Kvitova suffered post-breakthrough hangovers that continue to linger.  In the first match since stunning Serena on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stosur cannot afford such a lapse when she faces Kirilenko for the second straight tournament.  Collaborating on a 32-point tiebreak at the US Open, they might produce another scintillating encounter with their crisp net play, refined in doubles.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  From a champion in 2009 to a first-round victim in 2010, Sharapova has mirrored her career’s radical oscillations in her fortunes at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.  Two years ago, her unexpected title charge followed the ignominious 21-double fault loss to Oudin in New York, illustrating her talent for reinvigorating herself immediately after her setbacks.  In 2011, another dismal three-set loss in the third round of the US Open might perform the same function, inspiring Sharapova to visit retribution upon her next sequence of opponents.  As proved the case last year, though, she could face a challenging opening assignment in New Haven finalist Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon before defeating Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li Na consecutively at the Yale tournament.  Sharapova’s conqueror in 2010, Kimiko Date-Krumm, has fallen in the same quarter again but now will target Wimbledon champion Kvitova.  Since blazing 222 winners to capture her first Slam title, the Czech flamed out of the North American hard-court season with just two victories in three tournaments.  Although she should solve the fading Date-Krumm (perhaps not without difficulty), US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova poses a more formidable obstacle in the third round.  These budding rivals have split their four meetings, including two this year, and have reached third sets in all of them.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, therefore, the Russian’s accelerating momentum and their past history incline one to slightly favor an upset.  Sharapova certainly would prefer an upset, for she has won 14 of her last 15 matches against fellow Russians and her only meeting with Pavlyuchenkova, albeit in three sets.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open Tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 3, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.

We return to continue the stories of Tokyo by the quarterfinals or so, perhaps with an excursion to Bangkok beforehand.  (If the title reference whizzed past you like a Sharapova backhand, consider investigating the work of Yasujiro Ozu.)

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With all due respect to the veterans featured in the second semifinal, the first semifinal bears far more intriguing implications that range beyond this Premier Five title.  Rising to prominence almost simultaneously, Wozniacki and Azarenka have elevated themselves above their peers as the leading contenders of their generation.  Close friends outside the arena, they have honed divergent playing styles and crystallized into distinct personalities, thus providing the key ingredients for a scintillating rivalry.  The gentle, understated Dane patiently maneuvers her opponents into awkward positions, whereas the fierce, flamboyant Belarussian bristles with competitive vigor as she cracks her groundstrokes amid Sharapova-esque shrieks.  After the Williamses and the Belgians drift away, Wozniacki and Azarenka will find themselves at the reins of the WTA, so their semifinal collision in Tokyo presages future collisions in championship matches around the world.

Split at 2-2, their current head-to-head record traces the contrasts between their respective pathways towards the top.  Polished into a complete player earlier than Azarenka, Wozniacki comfortably eased through their initial clash at the 2008 US Open, but the Belarussian’s outstanding 2009 witnessed a pair of lopsided victories over the Dane.  Almost a year ago, they collaborated on one of the most memorable matches at the year-end championships.  Fully in control for a set and a half, a merciless Azarenka looked poised to deal a third consecutive blow to her friend’s self-belief.  Clawing back into contention with one grinding rally at a time, however, Wozniacki eroded Vika’s patience and unlocked her notorious temper.  Eventually, the Belarussian’s brittle façade of ruthlessness crumbled into a rubble heap of smashed rackets, code violations, and tears of rage.

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Whereas the placid Wozniacki has steadily climbed upward in the rankings, the volatile Azarenka has surged as dramatically as she has sagged.  Since the end of May, Vika has lost in the first round of Roland Garros, reached the Eastbourne final, lost in the third round of Wimbledon, won the Stanford title, lost in the first round of Cincinnati, reached the Rogers Cup semifinal, and quite literally knocked herself out of the US Open.  Considering these oscillations between peaks and valleys, one shouldn’t be surprised that she has arrived in the semifinal one event after that US Open disaster.  Meanwhile, the Dane gradually accumulated momentum after a tepid start to 2010.  Building upon her home title in Copenhagen, she captured the Premier Five crown at the Rogers Cup, reached the US Open semifinal, and now threatens Serena’s grasp upon the top ranking.  While her tempestuous friend has ridden an elevator up and down the rankings, moreover, the second seed has firmly entrenched herself within the top 5.  Yet many observers believe (rightly, we think) that Azarenka’s explosive offense will garner more majors than Wozniacki’s indefatigable but relatively power-drained counterpunching.  Although Vika often will fall lower than Caro, she also can soar higher once she matures.

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Will streaky conquer steady in Tokyo?  On the relatively fast hard court, the Belarussian’s formidable weaponry might penetrate the Dane’s defenses more effectively than in Doha.  Often practicing together, the semifinalists will enter their encounter familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Curious to contemplate is the choice that they will face between exploiting their sturdier groundstroke or targeting their opponent’s more vulnerable wing, for Wozniacki and Azarenka both prefer their backhand to their forehand.  Not among the game’s leading servers, the two friends have bolstered that shot in recent months but still will win many more points from the baseline than from the service notch.  More adept in the forecourt than the Dane, the Belarussian will hope to exploit her skill at the net in order to abbreviate rallies and exploit the opportunities created by her probing cross-court strokes.  When focused and poised, Vika showcases just as much intelligence with her shot selection and point construction as her friend and rival.  But if an extended match unfolds, as seems plausible, Azarenka must steel herself against succumbing to emotional fatigue again.  Don’t be deceived by Caro’s unassuming visage; her willpower runs as deep as Vika’s more overtly expressed determination.

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Perhaps the single most significant victory of Wozniacki’s career, her performance against Sharapova at the US Open might suggest that she should defuse a player popularly labeled as Sharapova’s descendant.  Yet the often overstated comparison between the Russian and the Belarussian provides only a limited tool with which to sketch the contours of the incipient rivalry between the Belarussian and the Dane.  Less willing than Sharapova to embrace risk at all costs, Azarenka strikes her groundstrokes slightly higher above the net and perceptibly further inside the lines.  Not quite as spectacular a shotmaker as the Russian, she moves much more fluidly and displays greater consistency in protracted baseline exchanges.  These qualities allow Azarenka to create openings gradually rather than pulling the trigger as early as did Sharapova in New York; in this case, Wozniacki can’t rely upon simply surviving the first few blows.  On a mental level, however, Vika hasn’t quite matched the unblinking intensity with which the three-time Slam champion assaulted every point and every shot when at her best.  Just as Wozniacki’s offense remains a work in progress, so is Azarenka’s mind.

Rather than recapitulating a familiar formula, therefore, the Wozniacki-Azarenka rivalry offers a distinctive spectacle with which tennis fans should acquaint themselves.  All signs suggest that we will witness many more such duels on stages grander than Tokyo.

***

Confronting Schiavone for the twelfth time, Dementieva targets revenge for their tense yet truncated Roland Garros semifinal.  On her favorite surface and restored to health, the Russian looks likely to reverse that outcome against an Italian probably weary from an epic victory over Kanepi.  Dominating three quality opponents in Shvedova, Pennetta, and Zvonareva, Elena has displayed some of her smoothest tennis in 2010.  On the other hand, Schiavone might undermine the steady, rhythmic ball-striking of Dementieva by refusing to give her the same stroke and spin throughout a rally.  While the Russian prefers to wage a lateral war of attrition from the backcourt, the Italian hopes that her sparkling forecourt skills can lure her adversary out of her baseline citadel.  Since both players have struggled on serve throughout their careers, we should see swarms of break points, enticing second serves, and a match in which no lead is safe.  Whatever the outcome, the Tokyo final will feature a tantalizing encounter between a seasoned veteran and a youthful upstart, charting a narrative that never fails to intrigue.  We explore that narrative tomorrow.

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Abdicating her Premier Five crown rather meekly, Sharapova strolls towards Beijing in the company of Stosur, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic.  Presented with the opportunity to succeed the Russian as a Tokyo champion, however, are a sprawling array of ladies-in-waiting with divergent playing styles and personalities.  We scan the ranks of these would-be Cinderellas and arrange them according to their chances of sliding into Maria’s vast slipper.

Azarenka:  Almost certainly a future Slam champion, the Belarussian regrouped sturdily from the concussion that prematurely ended her US Open.  After such an experience, one might expect hesitancy and awkwardness in a player’s next appearance, but Azarenka cruised past Safarova before benefiting from Bartoli’s retirement.  Vika has won two-thirds of her return games in the Japanese capital while saving 13 of 15 break points.  Similar to Sharapova in many respects, her playing style should suit the fast courts, and she might feel especially motivated to end the season impressively after a largely desultory 2010 campaign.  On the other hand, Azarenka has found herself threatened in numerous service games and may not be able to sustain this pressure when she confronts high-quality adversaries like Wozniacki.  Against Coco, she must seek to avoid the complacency that can arise from facing an unheralded foe.  Moreover, the Belarussian must restrain her volcanic temper when the American connects with unreturnable serves on key points.  If she accomplishes those two tasks, a semifinal spot beckons.  If her emotions don’t betray her through three more rounds, in fact, the slipper should fit her better than anyone else here.

Wozniacki: Historically, the fall season witnesses few achievements from the relentless warriors who have ground through tournament after tournament on every continent throughout the season (see N for Nadal).  But Wozniacki defied that trend a year ago by reaching the semifinals in Doha despite a debilitating injury, although she may have performed better with the injury than she would have without it—more on that thought when we reach this year’s Doha.  Clinching her spot in the year-end championships, the Pole-Dane eyes an excellent opportunity to seize the top ranking without overcoming a Williams sister or a Belgian.  She surrendered just seven games in the four sets that she has played here so far, expending little more energy against Pavlyuchenkova than she expended against Miss Bye in the first round.  Unless her consistency evaporates as notably as it did in the US Open semifinal, one doesn’t expect her to be troubled by Radwanska’s paper-cut tactics.  In a semifinal against Azarenka, though, she will confront an opponent with greater power but only slightly less fluid movement and consistency; the matchup thus recalls her ill-fated meeting with Zvonareva at the US Open.  If Wozniacki’s tenacity can destabilize her friend’s precarious psychological equilibrium, however, she should capture her fifth title of the year.

Dementieva:  Swiftly overcoming her New York disappointment, the Olympic gold medalist looked as suffocating as ever when she demolished talented upstart Shvedova.  (Here’s your punishment for turning Kazakh, Yaroslava!)  While struggling to hold serve against Pennetta, Dementieva fought her way through the crucial games, found first serves when she most needed them, and never allowed the Italian to consolidate momentum.  Not a prototypical power hitter, the Russian relies upon her explosive movement and crisp footwork to control rallies on these fast surfaces; also, she anticipates her opponent’s gambits as well as anyone.  Yet a ghastly cascade of double faults always lurks around the corner, and the ensuing toll upon her self-belief has hampered her late in tournaments.  A win over Zvonareva might quell her inner doubts for the next few days, however, and provide her with the impetus required to score two more victories over credible but not intimidating opposition.  In the absence of top contenders, Dementieva has capitalized upon her opportunities more adroitly than many of the WTA’s rather maladroit opportunists.

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Zvonareva:  Encountering a pair of unprepossessing Italians, the two-time Slam finalist turned her first two matches into more complicated affairs than necessary by struggling to close out her service games.  As a result, what should have been a soporific cruise past Errani became an unsightly lurch from one break point to another.  In the second set against Vinci, Zvonareva finally translated “efficiency” into Russian with a satisfying bagel.  Unlike Jankovic, Vera doesn’t actively court drama, yet it seems to follow the lure of her piercingly blue eyes anyway.  Her all-Russian quarterfinal with Dementieva should feature plenty of drama, both visual and auditory.  Not sufficiently powerful to batter through her compatriot’s relentless defense, Zvonareva probably will fall a little short in an entertaining match littered with endless baseline exchanges and countless service breaks.  If she does navigate past Dementieva, however, she should reach the final, at which point anything can happen.  (It usually doesn’t for Vera, though, who is 1-4 in finals this year.)

Schiavone:  At a youthful 30, the top Italian continues to remind the tennis world that nothing is impossible.  Far in distance and time from her favored clay, she demonstrated her hard-court while halting the sentimental run of home hope Date.  Schiavone possesses both stronger mental resilience and a weaker set of offensive weapons than the other players in her half.  According to standard WTA logic, her week should end soon against someone with the capacity to outhit her from the baseline.  On the other hand, Schiavone has constructed a career out of defying such standards and expectations.  Her artful placement and uncanny knack for transitioning from defense to offense can unsettle players with more balanced, technically solid games.  Most importantly, she rises to the occasion rather than shrinking from it, a trait that distinguishes her from many of her rivals.  Although these factors usually aren’t enough to overcome her limitations, most notably an unimposing serve, they can spark unexpected moments of brilliance.  It’s unwise to count on her and equally unwise to count her out.

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Radwanska:  Last fall, the Asian hard-court season witnessed the crafty Pole’s surge to the Premier Mandatory final in Beijing.  Deceptively challenging on a fast surface, she strikes her groundstrokes early and revels in absorbing and redirecting the pace of her rivals. The fast surface also maximizes her improved but still underwhelming serve, allowing her to hold with greater regularity.  In order to progress deep into tournaments, however, the fleet-footed Radwanska usually relies upon clever counterpunching to extract untimely errors from her opponents.  While the Pole can frustrate impetuous shot-makers like Petkovic, she has yet to seize a significant title.  During the course of a six-round tournament, one of her more powerful foes almost always finds just enough consistency to overpower her from the baseline at key moments.  Against Wozniacki, Radwanska must find a way to outmaneuver the top seed, bring her to the net in uncomfortable situations, and outlast her in baseline exchanges.  Considering the relentless consistency of the world #2, it’s less than plausible that she can execute these tactics throughout an entire match.

Kanepi: Arguably the greatest surprise of the WTA season, the Estonian has become much more than just the best player from her nation.  Having reached consecutive Slam quarterfinals, Kanepi reprised her US Open ambush of 2009 finalist Jankovic in the third round after subduing Peer a day earlier.  Those two victories over capable counterpunchers confirmed her evolution from a mighty but wildly erratic ball-bruiser into a relatively complete player with reliable weapons on serve, return, and both groundstrokes.  Yet her patience will be thoroughly tested in a quarterfinal with Schiavone, who will be sure to drag Kanepi into uncomfortable positions on the court and force her to strike balls lower than the high contact point that she prefers.  Nevertheless, the Estonian’s style perhaps suits the surface better than the Italian, and her superior serve will allow her to win more free points.  Seeking her first Premier Five semifinal, Kanepi probably isn’t ready to overcome a series of experienced, versatile opponents.  At this stage, she remains a draw-detonating dark horse rather than a contender for prestigious titles.

Vandeweghe:  Perhaps Melanie Oudin isn’t the future of American women’s tennis after all.  Unremarkable since that stunning US Open charge, the Georgian has ceded the spotlight to a brash Californian with a percussive serve and forehand.  Riding those strengths to an upset over Zvonareva in San Diego, Vandeweghe hasn’t yet learned how to harness her weapons consistently.  Nevertheless, she qualified for the tournament and then slashed past Seoul finalist Zakopalova as well as the sagging Rezai.  Friendly to mighty serves, the surface rewards her preference for abbreviated, arrhythmic rallies.  But the American remains a raw albeit promising competitor when juxtaposed with the smooth, textured, and balanced style that Azarenka has crafted.  Vandeweghe has never won a WTA title of any level, so a breakthrough here would be shocking.

***

Whether you’re getting up early or staying up late, enjoy the quarterfinals from Tokyo!

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Although the Slam season has ended, plenty of captivating action remains in the tennis calendar.  As the battlefields shift to Asia, the Tokyo event promises to reward the sport’s faithful followers.  We examine the promisingly balanced draw at the year’s final Premier Five event.

First quarter: Tantalizingly close to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki should enjoy a placid route to the quarterfinals after a bye, a qualifier, and probably Pavlyuchenkova.  After a dismal loss to Date in Seoul, the Russian teenager outlasted Cibulkova in the first round here but continues to struggle with her serve; moreover, she has lost all eight sets that she has played against the Pole-Dane, including six this year.  In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki most likely will face the enigmatic Kuznetsova, who will be favored to overcome Radwanska for the third time in five tournaments.  Before that potential third-round encounter, though, Sveta probably will need to navigate past the recently resurgent Szavay, previously a stern test for the Russian.  A 2008 finalist in Tokyo, Kuznetsova should relish the fast courts if she encounters Wozniacki, still centered around counterpunching despite a slightly enhanced offense.  On the other hand, the world #2 conquered the two-time major champion with ease at the Rogers Cup and edged her a year ago on another fast court—the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter: Stacked with fascinating first-round matchups, this section features two former #1s, three Roland Garros finalists, and no fewer than five 2010 titlists.  Of Bartoli, Wickmayer, Kleybanova, and Ivanovic, only one can reach a third-round collision with Azarenka, who must be eager to erase memories of her bizarre New York demise.  A near-ideal blend of power and movement, the Belarussian should prosper on Tokyo’s speedy surface, although she has lost both of her meetings with the Serb this year.  Injected with minor momentum after two quality wins in Seoul, 2008 champion Safina stares at a second-round meeting with Stosur.  The Aussie performed much more impressively than expected in New York, considering her historic aversion to fast hard courts and a mysterious arm injury.  Despite the Russian’s more balanced groundstroke game, Stosur should advance to a highly winnable clash with the weary Rezai.  Scheduled to meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Sam has never won a set from Vika in four meetings and has won just six games in the four sets that they have played this year.  Unless she serves exceptionally well, the Belarussian’s dominance should continue.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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Third quarter: Defending a title for the first time in her comeback, Sharapova finds herself in probably the weakest quarter of the draw.  If she stays alert to evade the ageless Date, Maria should ease past the ever-glamorous, ever-fragile Hantuchova to set up an intriguing encounter with Schiavone.  One of Sharapova’s six Tokyo victims last year, the Italian came closer than anyone to derailing that title run; she led by a set and 4-2 in the first round before fading sharply.  Fresh from an invigorating quarterfinal run at the US Open, she will seek to derail the Russian’s rhythm with artful placement, dogged defense, and a competitive intensity that almost (but not quite) matches Maria’s fabled ferocity.  A potential rematch of the 2009 final could lurk in the quarterfinals, yet Jankovic floundered ignominiously on the summer hard courts.  Before that round, in fact, she likely will need to defuse New York nemesis Kanepi, who seems determined to capitalize upon consecutive Slam quarterfinal appearances.  Despite a slightly disappointing US Open, Sharapova enters the tournament in distinctly superior form to the Serb, while the Estonian’s lack of subtlety would play directly into Maria’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter: Much ink has been spilled upon the perceived demise of the WTA’s Russian empire, but all three remaining seeds in this section are Russian, two of them hold Olympic medals, and one of them could gain the top ranking after Beijing.  In order to achieve that implausible objective, Vera must at least reach the final here.  After her Wimbledon heroics, she departed prematurely from her next two tournaments, so we won’t be surprised to see an early exit after another major final appearance at the US Open.  Rather than seriously targeting #1, Zvonareva probably will rest content with her unexpectedly stellar Slam campaign and drift quietly into Doha following an indifferent fall season.  She eyes a third-round encounter with Petrova, who reached the Seoul semifinals last week with three resounding victories…but then retired with an illness, not for the first time this year.  Removing a formidable dark horse threat, the withdrawal of Li Na eased the path of Dementieva, who suffered gallant losses against top-6 opponents in both New Haven and New York.  Familiar with the most excruciating forms of adversity, the resilient Russian should face the recently disappointing Shvedova and then Pennetta.  Probably more motivated than her compatriot to record a solid fall season, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist should trump the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist for the fifth time in seven meetings if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

***

We will revisit Tokyo by the quarterfinals, if not sooner.  Before then, however, we will discuss key events from last week’s four small tournaments that might outline trends for the fall.  Another edition of (TW)2 lies ahead…

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