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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.

 

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.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Li (1-1) vs. Stosur (1-1):  What a difference a day made for these two women. Less than 24 hours after they opened their week with solid victories over Sharapova, Azarenka thrashed the Roland Garros and US Open champions by identical 6-2, 6-2 scores.  Contributing to their swift transformation from predators to prey, Li and Stosur donated far more unforced errors to their opponent’s cause in their second matches, especially from the forehands on which both rely.  Nevertheless, the relative levels of performance attained by the injured, rusty Sharapova and the crisp, confident Azarenka also played significant roles in the whiplash-inducing turn of events.  Initially optimistic and then perhaps pessimistic, the two first-time Slam champions of 2011 should approach their collision through a realistic lens.  Simply put, the winner of this match earns a trip to a semifinal with the White Group winner (most likely Kvitova), while the loser earns a trip to their vacation destination of choice.  Since the year-end championships so often rest in the hands of computers and calculators, we find it refreshing to have a berth decided by a virtual quarterfinal or a single-elimination match.

From a glance at their previous meetings, the conclusion seems foregone.  In five matches on hard courts, carpet, and clay, Li has won one total set from her fellow breakthrough artist.  Only once has Li won more than six games in a match from Stosur, but that one occasion came in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati, which unwound through three tangled, competitive sets and may hint at a potential shift in the balance of power following two routine encounters earlier in 2011.  At the core of the Australian’s dominance lies her much superior serve, which has trumped the Chinese star’s often devastating return.  While Stosur’s serve will present the single most potent weapon on the court, she also owns the second most potent weapon in her forehand, a shot that will win most of their forehand-to-forehand rallies.  As opponents typically have attempted before, Li will seek to orient the rallies around their two-handed backhands, where she holds a distinct advantage despite her foe’s improvements in that area.  If the match evolves into a rigidly serve-oriented contest with short points and few breaks, she will have few opportunities to crack the Stosur conundrum.  By contrast, Li may prevail if she can engage in a more fluid, varied contest that rewards her more balanced style.  Stosur broke through an 0-for-career drought against one opponent this week, extended an 0-for-career drought against another, and now must seek to prevent an opponent from snapping an 0-for-career drought against her.

Kvitova (2-0) vs. Radwanska (1-1):  Unlike the previous match, this duel of dissonant styles matters much more to one combatant than to the other.  By ending Wozniacki’s season in emphatic fashion, the Wimbledon champion assured herself a semifinal berth in her first career appearance at this event.  Kvitova thus will approach this third and, for her, meaningless match with minimal motivation or intensity, a factor that may play directly into the hands of her opponent’s hopes.  After a set of her Thursday battle with Zvonareva, those hopes looked frail indeed as Radwanska could not blunt the Russian’s superior weight of shot.  Down to potentially the last point of her 2011 campaign on two different occasions, however, the champion of Tokyo and Beijing refused to submit meekly to a heavier hitter once again.  As she has so many times before, Radwanska survived by eliciting unforced errors until she thrived by striking the deft, exquisitely placed winners that compensate in grace for what they lack in pace.  From our sideline perspective, moreover, the dogged abandon with which she dashes along the baseline and retrieves laser after laser looks as intimidating as the lasers themselves.  In order to defeat Radwanska, opponents must dig into the trenches for a mentally draining encounter.

On the grass of Eastbourne this year, Kvitova dug into those trenches for a third-set-tiebreak victory that contributed to her impetus on the eve of her Wimbledon triumph.  With virtually nothing at stake here, she probably will prove unwilling to commit the degree of focus or determination required by a game so strongly reliant on precision.  As her wayward patches this year have showed, Kvitova can lose to almost any challenger when her mind wanders and carries her vicious offensive combinations with it.  Needing to win only one set for that first career semifinal berth, Radwanska should fancy her chances of exploiting an indifferent opponent.  One of her greatest tests may consist of recovering from the labyrinthine path that she traced on Thursday to reach this stage, but she has mastered such tasks convincingly throughout the second half of 2011.  And at least the Pole can determine her own fate, a situation much more enviable than the position of waiting, watching, and wondering in which Zvonareva finds herself.

Azarenka (2-0) vs. Bartoli (alt.): One has no doubt of advancing, while the other has no hope of doing so.  Combining those ingredients in this virtual dead rubber, neither player has any real incentive beyond the points and prize money available.  Before the tournament, Azarenka emphasized the allure of the latter, but one would counsel caution with a weekend of vital matches looming on the horizon.  For Bartoli, not for the first time an alternate event, the potential windfall may beckon more invitingly.  Nevertheless, she suffered a double bagel against Henin in a similar dead rubber at the year-end championships, so she may join Vika in the awkward exercise of playing a match while not really contesting it, all too familiar from Davis and Fed Cups past.  Istanbul fans should consider leaving after the previous match and preparing for a magnificent day of (singles and doubles) semifinals on Saturday.

Victoria Azarenka - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Azarenka (1-0) vs. Li (1-0):  Showing scant respect for her elders, the Minx from Minsk marched straight from her Luxembourg title to Istanbul and demolished Stosur for the fifth straight time.  While the Aussie suffered from a competitive hangover following her breakthrough against Sharapova, Azarenka permitted her virtually no openings as she surrendered just five points on serve until the last game of the match.  Early in what one hopes will become a week of gritty, grueling competition, the opportunity to notch a swift victory will have enhanced her already excellent hopes of advancing to the semifinals of this event for the first time.  After Sharapova’s withdrawal, Azarenka can rest confident in the knowledge that she most likely will notch a second win on Friday over Bartoli, whom she has dominated almost as relentlessly as Stosur.  She probably will advance even if she doesn’t win on Thursday, therefore, but no top-five player has reached that height by taking such things for granted.

Neither should Azarenka take a win over Li Na for granted, since the Chinese star halted her at two majors this year and has won four of their five encounters overall.  At both Melbourne and Roland Garros, Li proved both slightly more consistent in the extended exchanges from behind the baseline and slightly more adept at finishing points once she moved inside the court.  Much more impressive when returning than when serving, both women should know that breaks mean little and that almost no lead or deficit is insurmountable.  In her opening victory over Sharapova, Li illustrated that fact when she managed to win a first set that she appeared to have lost on three different occasions:  when she faced break point trailing 2-4, when Sharapova served for the set after breaking her at love, and when the Russian led 4-0 in the tiebreak.  At that last juncture, the Roland Garros champion relied upon her return to barely flick two mighty serves into play—and then watched her opponent miss a routine point-ending shot.  Although Li cannot expect such generosity when she faces Azarenka, her rhythmic style will benefit from the similarly rhythmic style across the net.  Remarkably, she could erase the disappointments of her second-half campaign by reaching the semifinals here, an objective likely accomplished with a victory on Thursday.

Wozniacki (1-1) vs. Kvitova (1-0):  Splitting three-setters in her first two matches, the world #1 must elevate her level from her first two matches in order to ensure that her last round-robin match does not become her last match of 2011.  Having spent about five hours on court against Radwanska and Zvonareva, Wozniacki cannot afford to lose any of her fabled foot speed when she confronts Kvitova.  While the allegedly sluggish surface slows the ball and produces the longer rallies that she favors, its stickiness also takes a toll upon her all-important legs.  Late in her loss to Zvonareva, Wozniacki looked weary and emotionally deflated despite staying well within range of the Russian.  Perhaps the labors of a long season, fraught with greater turbulence than the calm Dane would prefer, weighed upon her mind as the court clung to her feet.  Or perhaps the accomplishment of clinching the year-end #1 ranking for the second straight season shrank the match into insignificance from her perspective.

Only once in four attempts has Kvitova conquered Wozniacki, but that victory came in the most important of their meetings at Wimbledon last year.  When she dispatched Zvonareva in her first match, the Czech lefty penetrated the court with ease from both groundstroke wings and even added a few surprising touches of finesse.  The controlled indoor atmosphere tilts more towards her unflinching pursuit of precision than towards the style of anyone else in her group.  Not the best front-runner, however, she squandered a double-break lead in the second set against Zvonareva with bizarrely unfocused play.  Even during her sensational run at Wimbledon, Kvitova allowed more than one opponent to edge back into the match after she had won the first set in commanding fashion.  Probably a symptom of her immaturity, this carelessness would play into the hands of Wozniacki should the Dane stay alert and the match stay close.  In the 2-and-0 demolition that Kvitova inflicted upon her at Wimbledon, the match didn’t last long enough for this issue to surface.  On the other hand, the world #1 has lost six or fewer games in each of her three triumphs over the reigning Wimbledon champion, so one senses that this match may end quickly no matter the outcome.

Zvonareva (1-1) vs. Radwanska (0-1):  Most likely a must-win encounter for both combatants, this meeting represents their fifth clash of the season.  After Zvonareva prevailed comfortably in Miami, the Pole prevailed just as comfortably in their three second-half meetings, including finals in San Diego and Tokyo.  Most stunning from her performance there was her impenetrability on serve, hardly a trait that one associates with her; only once in the two matches combined did she lose her serve.  A more familiar Radwanska traded break for break with Wozniacki in a three-setter on Tuesday that remains the best match of the tournament so far.  Although she frustrated her friend much more than in their past several meetings, the inability to hold serve when absolutely necessary ultimately cost the eighth seed a winnable match and will continue to hamper her upward mobility. All the same, her cavernous bag of tricks might fluster the inflammable Russian more than the placid Dane.  By the end of her last few matches, Zvonareva looked hopelessly bewildered as she committed routine errors and lost her normally acute tactical sense.

As she outmaneuvered Wozniacki from the baseline yesterday, the Russian’s versatility and tactical sense shone much more clearly than in her tepid loss to Kvitova that preceded it.  Despite her natural tendency towards counterpunching, she rose valiantly to the occasion when her opponent forced her to take the initiative and redirected the ball down both lines with conviction while approaching the net with success.  Even more notably, Zvonareva did not grow discouraged by her mistakes as did the Dane, nor did she celebrate her winners with much vigor.  That inner poise will serve her well as she aims to conquer a recent but repeated nemesis.  By no means did the world #6 play an immaculate match, though, and a few of her nine double faults threw Wozniacki fleeting lifelines late in the second and third sets.  Radwanska’s season probably ends here if she fails to sustain the momentum in her rivalry, but Zvonareva probably faces a similar prospect.  Whereas Azarenka and Li have everything to gain with a win, these two women have everything to lose with a loss.  Who will handle that situation more smoothly?

Berdych-Roddick:  For the second straight year, Roddick came within a few points of decapitating half of the ATP’s reigning hydra in London.  Although his match against Nadal will fade from memory far faster than the 2009 Wimbledon final, he displayed a similarly courageous and resilient effort.  Delivering unexpectedly explosive blows at critical junctures, the American’s backhand rewarded his trust in his weakest shot.  Most pivotal to Roddick’s near-upset, of course, was a serve that whistled unopposed past Nadal eighteen times and often flustered the Spaniard despite his excellent return.  The easily flustered Berdych failed to crack this code in the Miami final that he contested with Roddick, a tale of two competitive but ultimately straightforward sets.  Prior to that afternoon, the American conquered the Czech on the indoor courts of San Jose as well as the Brisbane tournament.  In his opening clash with Djokovic, Berdych confirmed our impression of him as an impostor at this event; after he immediately signaled his uncertainty with an early double fault, he submitted a lethargic, error-strewn performance.   Six of their eight meetings have featured tiebreaks, an area in which Roddick lately has fallen far short of his usual excellence (7-13 since June).  But Berdych won’t reach a tiebreak this time unless he produces a higher first-serve percentage and a more authoritative sequence of forehands than he has showcased during the season’s second half.  As Murray knows well,  every set and game matters in this format, so Roddick should aim to dispatch the Czech as efficiently as possible.

Nadal-Djokovic:  Frequently outplayed by Roddick on Monday, Nadal nevertheless quelled his evident discomfort on the surface just soon enough to score a critical opening victory.  Reversing the American’s momentum in the second-set tiebreak, he barely brushed the sideline with a reflex backhand flick off a penetrating second serve.  An ace and a fistpump later, the Spaniard’s confidence finally settled onto firmer foundations.  In the aftermatch of his debacle at the O2 Arena last year, this triumph must boost his courage before a clash with one of his 2009 nemeses in London.  The proud owner of a 7-4 hard-court record against Rafa, Djokovic dismantled the Spaniard three times last year before gallantly succumbing in a four-set US Open final this September.  Although the Serb claims to have focused himself upon winning his nation’s maiden Davis Cup title, he delivered a poised effort against Berdych during which he never faced a break point.  In a situation that lacked drama or suspense, Djokovic sensibly refrained from injecting any drama of his own, a weakness that has cost him against the perpetually focused, businesslike Nadal.

Tested much more severely than Novak in his opener, Rafa conquered an opponent whose relentless, staccato rushes into the forecourt interrupted the Spaniard’s rhythmic flow.  Against a foe with a less overwhelming serve, the world #1 should find himself in longer baseline exchanges where his fluid style should find clearer expression.  During the course of a rivalry that already has extended across 22 meetings, the Spaniard has brought out the best in the Serb’s offense, while the Serb has brought out the best in the Spaniard’s counterpunching.  Among our favorite elements of this delicious matchup is the forehand contrast between the flat, nonchalant swipe of Djokovic’s inside-out rockets and the crafty curl of Nadal’s cross-court hooks.  The often awkwardly low bounce in the O2 Arena clashes with Rafa’s preference for high-bouncing groundstrokes, yet his ability to adapt among any adverse conditions ranks second to none in the ATP.  A win for Nadal virtually would secure a semifinal berth as the winner of Group A and quite possibly a weekend reunion with Roger.  Meanwhile, a win for the event’s 2008 champion probably (although not definitely) would lead him to the semifinals and an opportunity to cement his second-half resurgence.  While Djokovic might prefer a Davis Cup title to a World Tour Finals crown this year, he typically forgets such prearranged priorities in the heat of battle, much to the delight of everyone except his opponents.

***

We return tomorrow to preview Federer-Soderling and Murray-Ferrer as Group B draws to a conclusion.

 

Federer-Murray:  Inhabiting a netherworld between majors and Masters events, which type of tournament does the year-end championships resemble?  Unable to win a set from Federer in their two Slam finals, Murray has accumulated a 5-1 record against the Swiss superstar at Masters tournaments.  Fittingly, they have split their two prior meetings at this event, neither of which showcased especially scintillating tennis. Last year in the O2 Arena, Great Britain’s home hope lulled Federer into tepid errors during the first set before he vanished puzzlingly in the last two sets.  This match almost certainly determines the winner and runner-up of Group B, for both players will fancy their chances against Soderling and Ferrer on Friday.  Recording similarly routine victories in their London openers, Federer and Murray benefited from the ineptitude of their opponents, but they adjusted adeptly to the surface after the far faster court in Paris.  Content to play defensively against an erratic Soderling, the Scot will need to emerge from his comfort zone more often in order to overcome an adversary whose groundstrokes looked (mostly) as crisp and stylish as his outfit.  A departure from the usual tone of this rivalry, none of their three meetings this year have proved highly competitive.  Together with Berdych, Murray remains the only player to score multiple victories over Federer this year, winning his two Masters 1000 titles at the expense of the Swiss.  Thoroughly outmaneuvered in the Shanghai final, the world #2 otherwise has enjoyed a reassuring fall campaign that should inspire him with much-needed confidence for 2011.  Having compiled a 9-3 record against top-10 players since Wimbledon, Federer would relish the opportunity to conquer the man responsible for two of those three losses.  For Murray, meanwhile, the opportunity to shine before his champion-starved compatriots beckons.  Beyond these intriguing narratives, Wednesday’s encounter might well offer a rehearsal for Sunday’s final.

Soderling-Ferrer:  Already in deep peril, the Swede and the Spaniard both face a virtual must-win situation in order to preserve their hopes into the final round-robin stage.  As in the afternoon encounter, one can glean ample evidence from their previous meetings, of which no fewer than five occurred this year.  Contrary to expectations, Ferrer won two of their three hard-court meetings during the second half, although one of those occurred on the ultra-slow hard courts of his home tournament in Valencia.  Even on the lawns of Wimbledon, however, the Spaniard sorely tested Soderling’s patience throughout five contentious sets. Neither player has anything significant to prove this week and must realize their extremely slim chances of advancing to the semifinals, which almost certainly would require a Soderling win over Federer or a Ferrer win over Murray.  In fact, they are effectively playing for prize money and points, a situation that rarely produce the most sparkling tennis.  Basking in the glow of his first Masters 1000 title like an alligator in a bayou, the new (and probably soon former) world #4 surfaced from his complacency only sporadically against Murray.  Comprehensively outgunned by Federer, Ferrer failed to punish the Swiss legend for a pedestrian first-serve percentage and displayed body language more muted than his customary grunting, fist-pumping vigor.  While the Spaniard has enjoyed a characteristically sturdy fall, he didn’t dazzle at either of the key events in Shanghai and Paris.  On the other hand, Soderling did.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss Berdych-Roddick and Nadal-Djokovic.  The drama may have declined in Group B, but Group A looks likely to remain tightly contested until the last ball struck on Friday.

Djokovic-Berdych:  If Soderling entered London with the greatest momentum, Berdych reached the year-end championships with the least impetus of the elite eight.  Since the Wimbledon final, Berdych has fallen before the semifinals in every tournament, whereas Djokovic has soared to three finals (and one title) since August.  Moreover, the Serb should prosper on a medium-speed, low-bouncing hard court that may frustrate the stiff, lanky Czech.  The only first-time singles entrant this year, Tomas nevertheless should take comfort from Novak’s admission that the Davis Cup title supersedes the World Tour Finals as his dominant goal.  Confirming what had been painfully obvious, though, Berdych released his own admission that the pressure of his elevated status had undermined his recent performances.  With both players seemingly ebbing in motivation, their encounter might hinge upon the loser’s frailties rather than the winner’s excellence.  Their two previous meetings in 2010 unfolded in that manner; after Djokovic repeatedly unleashed untimely double faults in their Wimbledon semifinal, Berdych wasted multiple opportunities to establish a convincing advantage in a Davis Cup semifinal clash that he eventually lost.  If the Czech captures this match, the world #3 will find himself in a serious predicament, forced to defeat both Nadal and long-time nemesis Roddick in order to advance.  Unless Soderling defeats Federer, however, the Serb’s top-four ranking remains intact regardless of his fate here.  Despite his preliminary disclaimer, one suspects that his natural competitive instincts might revive when he steps onto the court at an event that he won in 2008.

Nadal-Roddick:  Just 4-7 in his career at the year-end championships, the nine-time major champion seeks to atone for an embarrassing week in London last year, during which he failed to win a set.  Focused on the first half of the season, Nadal generally arrives at this last battle depleted in energy and intensity, yet he emphatically disproved his doubters at the US Open and conceivably could do so again.  Although Roddick should relish the indoor conditions, he may find the court less swift than he would prefer; on the other hand, the world #1 already has expressed discomfort with the low-bouncing surface. In a memorable Miami semifinal this year, the American improved to 3-2 against the Spaniard on hard courts.  At the midpoint of that meeting, however, Nadal had dominated their baseline exchanges and seemed likely to cruise to an uneventful straight-sets victory.  Faltering at 3-4 in the second set, he displayed an uncharacteristic diffidence that emboldened his opponent into an equally uncharacteristic outburst of opportunistic shot-making.  Since Miami, however, Nadal has traveled in a direction starkly opposite from Roddick, who barely qualified for London.  While the Spaniard has soared to three consecutive major titles, the American has endured a summer bout of mono amidst demoralizing Slam losses to Gabashvili, Lu, and Tipsarevic.  Victory probably lies beyond his grasp this time, but a competitive battle would lift his confidence for the two highly winnable matches against Berdych and Djokovic that await.

***

We return tomorrow with previews of Federer-Murray and Soderling-Ferrer.

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Vying for the vast pot of gold on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Wozniacki and Clijsters reprise their collision in the 2009 US Open final.  That match produced a scoreline less intriguing than its events would suggest, for the Dane came within a few points of winning the first set and tested the Belgian in a series of elongated rallies.  Slightly more poised when the US Open title hung in the balance, Clijsters hopes to reproduce that performance in Doha, but she faces a more mature and determined edition of Wozniacki this time.

Why Clijsters might win:  Entering only seven previous hard-court tournaments this year, the Belgian nevertheless won four titles on her favorite surface.  En route to the winner’s podium in Brisbane, Miami, Cincinnati, and New York, she overcame such luminaries as Henin (twice), Venus (twice), and Sharapova. In 2010, Clijsters has won not only all four of her finals but all nine of her meetings with opponents who have held the #1 ranking.     Intriguingly, each of Kim’s hard-court losses this year came against Russians (Petrova, Kleybanova, Zvonareva), so perhaps Wozniacki should consider changing her passport. Moreover, the Belgian seems unruffled by any potential off-court distractions, whether the absence of her family or the car accident just before her semifinal.  Playing just well enough to win for much of the week, the world #3 probably recognizes that little lies at stake for her here; a second title at the season-ending event adds little of consequence to the resume of a three-time Slam champion.  Rather than sapping her motivation, this circumstance should allow Clijsters to find the relaxed, flowing brand of tennis that she displays when at her best.  Not a devotee of drama like Serena and Sharapova or an acolyte of artistry like Henin, Kim functions most effectively when she keeps her emotions at bay.  Like most of Wozniacki’s opponents, she must balance patient point construction with aggressively stepping inside the baseline at opportune moments.  Unlike most of Wozniacki’s opponents, however, Clijsters possesses the ideal set of tools to solve this riddle, especially the lithe and explosive moment that alloss her to transition so swiftly from defense to offense.

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Why Wozniacki might win:  In contrast to her opponent, the world #1 can augment her reputation as much as her bank account with a title at the most important non-major on the calendar.  Although she can’t silence her critics until she captures a Slam, the Dane would deliver a compelling statement of intent by conquering the reigning US Open champion.  Having won six consecutive finals, Wozniacki has accumulated much more experience in championship matches—and consequently greater self-belief—than she had when she met Clijsters at the US Open a year ago.  Extended to three sets in her last two title tilts, she responds more resolutely to adversity than she did in that match, when she faltered slightly after the disappointment of losing the first set.  Somewhat fortunate to escape the first set of her semifinal against Zvonareva, Wozniacki has distributed four breadsticks and a bagel this week against three top-10 opponents.  While Clijsters has unleashed her share of aces in Doha, she won’t serve the Dane off the court as did Stosur.  The 20-year-old #1 can settle into baseline rallies and establish a groundstroke rhythm, aware that this match should feature plentiful service breaks.  Since their 2009 US Open clash, moreover, the Dane has elevated her own delivery into a more imposing weapon instead of simply a point-starting shot.  Her backhand has evolved into the equal of her opponent’s renowned two-hander, and she has forced herself against her instincts to strike some forehands with less spin and more conviction.   If she can generate aggression from that wing as well as from her backhand, she can mentally outlast Clijsters in a war of attrition.

***

Previews will proliferate on the blog next week (Bali, Fed Cup final, Paris Indoors), but first we rewind the most memorable moments of the 2008 Olympic gold medalist.

 

 

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Whether thundering or tiptoeing past the pitfalls distinct to the round-robin format, the top three women in the world join a plucky Australian in the Doha semifinals.  Who will edge one step closer to claiming the largest single paycheck in the sport?

Stosur vs. Clijsters:

Winless in four career meetings against Clijsters, the Australian fell to the Belgian during the latter’s title runs this year at Miami and the US Open.  Nevertheless, Stosur edged progressively closer to snapping the skid in New York, where she not only won a set from the defending champion but held multiple leads in the final set.  During the first two matches of her Doha debut, the Maroon Group winner recalled the explosive serve-forehand combinations that she regularly unleashed during the first half of the season.  Neither the quirky Schiavone nor the methodical Wozniacki could trouble Stosur on her serve after she recovered from an inauspicious opening to her first match.  Just as encouraging to her fans was the Aussie’s success in converting the few break points that she obtained on the world #1’s serve.  In a fraught clash with Dementieva, however, traces of frailty resurfaced as she failed to close out a straight-sets victory and staggered under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak.  At the US Open, Stosur’s serve (and, seemingly, her nerve) abandoned her when the Belgian’s mid-match ineptitude opened a pathway to a spectacular upset.   Suddenly unable to hold, the Aussie allowed Clijsters as many lives as a cat.  Yet their New York encounter occurred in the aftermath of a tepid summer for Stosur, whereas this clash will unfold at a moment when her self-belief should approach pre-Wimbledon heights.

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Idle since defending her US Open title, Clijsters settled somewhat tentatively into the week with a win over Jankovic that featured ten double faults.  The deceptively one-sided scoreline thus illustrated the Serb’s stutters as much as the Belgian’s brilliance.  In a three-set victory over the tempestuous Azarenka, moreover, the world #3 struggled to convert opportunities to finish the match in straight sets and profited from yet another third-set meltdown by the Belarussian.  While her loss to Zvonareva may have boosted the Russian’s confidence (see below), one suspects that Clijsters felt little urgency to win an essentially meaningless encounter.  But can she banish that complacency overnight?  Surely aware of her commanding head-to-head against Stosur, she should enter their semifinal confident that she can end the Aussie’s season.  If Clijsters rises to the level that she displayed late in the US Open, she should prevail as the more versatile, nuanced, and athletic player.  If she continues to wobble through adventurous service games, though, Stosur might connect with just enough timely returns to cement her breakthrough 2010 campaign with another head-turning triumph.

Zvonareva vs. Wozniacki:

The ultra-steady Dane faces the ultra-streaky Russian for the fifth time this year but for the first time during their respective tenures at #1 and #2.  Splitting her six previous collisions with Wozniacki, Zvonareva conquered her when they met in the US Open semifinal, a routine result that startled most observers.  Clearly fond of this tournament, the Russian reached the final of its 2008 edition without dropping a match and has lost just three of her last fifteen matches in the Persian Gulf state.  The most impressive performer of the round-robin stage, she efficiently dismantled the doomed Jankovic and delivered a poised performance to overcome a determined effort by Azarenka.  During the latter match, the Russian rallied from an early deficit before shrugging off an untimely double fault in the first-set tiebreak, the type of error that once would have ignited a match-turning tantrum from her.  Having not lost a set this week, Vera will have gained confidence from recapturing the momentum in her mini-rivalry with Clijsters after her crushing defeat in the US Open final.  Although she succumbed to Wozniacki in the Beijing final, Zvonareva extended that match to a third set with artful tactics that included targeting the Dane’s forehand corner.  Likely to craft a similarly thoughtful plan here, the Russian must adhere to it through adversity as she did in New York rather than retreating into passivity as she did in Beijing.

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Charting an oddly circuitous course to the semifinals, the world #1 initiated proceedings by overwhelming a listless Dementieva.  Nestled in the more placid group, Wozniacki seemed likely at that stage to reach the semifinals without much ado, but she looked fallible in failing to convert a single break point on Stosur’s serve.  Flustered in the first set against Schiavone, the 20-year-old suddenly found herself within a set of elimination before halting the Italian’s momentum in its tracks. Having escaped that ignominious fate, Wozniacki now stands within two victories of buttressing her controversial ranking upon the most significant title of her career.  Even at the end of an exhausting season, she should approach this weekend with ample motivation.  When Caro confronted Vera here last year, moreover, she overcame a melodramatic bout of cramping to battle past the Russian; on the other hand, Zvonareva comprises a much more imposing challenge now than she did then.  As a result of their Beijing meeting, the momentum in their blossoming rivalry rests squarely in Wozniacki’s corner.  Yet the momentum in this tournament lies just as firmly with Zvonareva.  Which context will prove more relevant on Saturday?

***

We return to preview the Doha final tomorrow while casting preliminary thoughts towards a Dementieva tribute to be published next week.

Filled with beguiling sequences such as Ivanovic scampering through the Pantheon, the WTA’s “Looking for a Hero” commercial promoted the 2008 edition of the opulent but often maligned year-end championships.  Ironically, though, the advertising campaign underscored the Tour’s most glaring weakness, the power vacuum atop its rankings that has produced seven different #1s in the last two and a half years.  As 2010 lurches to a conclusion, the search for a hero continues…

Maroon Group:

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Wozniacki:  Having won four of her last five tournaments and 23 of her last 24 matches, the world #1 enters Doha with maximum momentum.  But will fatigue settle into her game as it did when she last attempted to win three consecutive titles, at the US Open?  Wozniacki finds herself in the more comfortable section and theoretically should defeat all of her round-robin opponents, thus assuring herself the year-end #1 ranking.  Not until the semifinals can she encounter Clijsters, Jankovic, or Zvonareva, the three players here with relatively recent success against her at key events.  In last year’s edition, Wozniacki outlasted Azarenka in an epic duel and heroically battled through leg cramps to defeat Zvonareva before retiring in the semifinals against Serena.  Unless she faces Clijsters in that round this year, she’ll probably improve upon her 2009 performance.

Schiavone:  A member of the “elite eight” for the first time in her career, the Roland Garros champion certainly can threaten away from clay.  She defeated all of her round-robin opponents en route to that improbable major title, but she hasn’t defeated any of them anywhere else and has lost to both Wozniacki and Dementieva during the second half.  On the other hand, Schiavone enters Doha healthier than many of her rivals, while she rises to the occasion more confidently than the Aussie and the Russian in her group.  Moreover, she avoids the two players here who have completely baffled her in the past, Clijsters (0-11) and Zvonareva (0-10).  A key intangible in her situation, the Fed Cup final looms just a week after this event concludes.  At the core of that inspired Italian team, Schiavone may let her thoughts drift towards a competition that means more to her than it does to most WTA stars.  Yet she remains one of the most opportunistic players on the Tour, and opportunity knocks loudly in this group.

Stosur:  During the first half, the Aussie looked likely to establish herself in the top 5 with a serve-forehand combination among the best in the WTA.  After losing a Roland Garros final that she probably should have won, though, diffident play and a mysterious arm injury undermined her second half.  Although she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open with a tense, thrilling victory over group-mate Dementieva, one wonders how she will respond to meeting Schiavone for the first time since Paris.  Despite that US Open achievement, Stosur exited prematurely from all of her Asian tournaments and has not reached a semifinal since Stanford.  Unless the Aussie rediscovers the confidence that recently has eluded her, it’s hard to see her snapping that streak in her debut appearance at the singles event here.  After collecting herself during the offseason, Stosur should return with renewed purpose in 2011.

Dementieva:  Since the WTA instituted the eight-player draw in 2003, the star-crossed Russian has reached the semifinals just once in six appearances, compiling a 3-12 record in round-robin play.  Somewhat understandably, Dementieva hasn’t voiced much enthusiasm lately for the event, and she withdrew from last week’s tournament in Luxembourg with a foot inflammation.  But her balanced groundstroke game should suit the medium-speed hard courts in Doha; in fact, she defeated 2008 champion and 2009 finalist Venus there last year.  In 2010, Dementieva has engaged in tightly contested encounters with everyone in this group, suggesting that she will have a chance to win each of her round-robin battles.  Less promising for the Russian’s fans is her recent trend of falling painfully short in those encounters, including losses in third-set tiebreaks to both Wozniacki and Stosur.  Nevertheless, she defeated Schiavone in both of their hard-court meetings this year and has enjoyed a far stronger fall than Stosur, including an outstanding run to the Tokyo final.

Semifinalists:  Wozniacki, Dementieva

White Group:

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Zvonareva: The blue-eyed, ever-brooding #2 achieved the improbable feat of reaching two finals in Doha during the same year (2008), which witnessed the last edition of the regular-season event and the first edition of the year-end championships.  Vera being Vera, she lost both of those finals in angst-ridden fashion, a trend that has dogged her in 2010.  During last year’s edition of this event, moreover, Zvonareva watched with a mixture of shock and pity as Wozniacki hobbled helplessly around the court…and still managed to overcome the Russian.  Having won the first nine sets that she played against Azarenka, she surrendered the momentum in that mini-rivalry at the Australian Open but may have recaptured it at the Rogers Cup.  Most significantly, Zvonareva remains the only player to defeat Clijsters on a hard court since March and demonstrated at Wimbledon that she could conquer the Belgian on the grandest stage of all, as long as it isn’t a final.  But will the possibility of becoming the year-end #1 weigh heavily on her shoulders?

Clijsters:  The only hard-court Slam champion in Doha, Clijsters has lost just one match on this surface since Indian Wells.  Seemingly recovered from her own foot troubles, she entered no tournaments during the post-US Open season and thus arrives at the year-end championships fresh albeit perhaps a bit rusty.  The round-robin format will allow Kim to rid herself of rust without dire consequences, although she finds herself in the distinctly thornier group.  Dominant against Zvonareva before her comeback, she has dropped two of three meetings this year with the world #2, while she split her two clashes with Azarenka.  After winning the season finale in 2003, Clijsters performed reasonably well but not brilliantly in her last two appearances there.  Outside the US Open, her level at top tournaments has veered from the fantastic (Miami, Cincinnati) to the feckless (Australian Open, Indian Wells).  Will the absence of her family affect the Belgian, who appeared to draw emotional support from their presence at previous tournaments?

Jankovic: An apparent clay pigeon in a section with three avid sharpshooters, the Serb has won just eight matches since the clay season.  Jankovic owes her appearance here to sterling performances in Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, but she has struggled with a characteristic concatenation of injuries and illnesses during the second half.  While she can be most dangerous when most discounted, JJ has vanquished just two top-10 players this year (Kuznetsova, Wozniacki) and probably will need to double that total within three matches in order to advance.  In her last two appearances at the year-end championships, Jankovic did reach the semifinals before falling to Venus on both occasions.  Note that the Serb lost to Zvonareva here in 2008 and Azarenka here in 2009, however.

Azarenka: Having captured her second title of 2010 on Sunday, Vika seeks to finish an sporadically dazzling but generally disappointing season.  When she has gained momentum in recent months, Azarenka has almost invariably fallen flat on her face in the next tournament (sometimes literally).  In 2009, she edged within a few games of a semifinal berth after dismantling Jankovic and dominating the first half of her match against Wozniacki, but she let the opportunity slip away and then retired against Radwanska a match later.  Faced with a more daunting challenge this time, Azarenka must defeat one of the top three players in the world in order to emerge from her group.  Yet it’s not an impossible mission for a swaggering competitor who has conquered every Slam champion that she has played except Venus and seems perpetually poised for a breakthrough.

Semifinalists:  Zvonareva, Clijsters

***

Eight aspiring empresses, one set of imperial robes.  Can anyone wear them as regally as Ana?

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