A year ago in Tokyo, Radwanska fired her first shot across the bows of the WTA elite by claiming the most important title of her career to date. Twelve months later, two Premier Mandatory titles and a first major final have consolidated that breakthrough even more impressively than anyone could have expected. Outside an inability to solve Azarenka, in fact, Radwanska has recorded perhaps the strongest hard-court campaign of any woman this year, and her return to a second straight final in Tokyo illustrates her maturity as she aims to defend a title for the first time. Only once in the tournament has she lost more than four games in a set, elevating her form with each match until a nearly flawless performance against Kerber. Donating only four unforced errors in that semifinal rout, Radwanska continued the relatively aggressive mentality that she had shown against Wozniacki the day before in flattening her forehand down the line and looking for opportunities to redirect the ball. Normally a more conservative player, she completed the Tokyo-Beijing double last year by shifting towards a similarly aggressive strategy.
Not likely to limit her unforced errors to single digits, Petrova will aim to thrust Radwanska onto the defensive as soon as possible with penetrating serves and returns. Although she nearly exited the tournament in the quarterfinals, a comeback against Errani sparked the veteran’s confidence for a commanding victory over Stosur. Those consecutive upsets over top-10 upsets have catapulted Petrova to her highest ranking and most significant match in many months, where she once again claims the role of the heavy underdog. Often at her worst when under the greatest expectations, she might shine in a situation with reduced pressure, and the early stages of the match should reveal her level of self-belief. Since Radwanska feasts upon erratic players lacking in confidence, the Russian will need to assert herself behind her first serve with a higher percentage than she has posted for most of the tournament. Surviving without her greatest weapon on more than half of her service points, she will face a more consistent return game than from any of her previous opponents. Once the rallies reach a neutral position, Radwanska’s superior movement, fitness, and steadiness should prove crucial advantages.
In finals, moreover, she regularly has risen to the occasion with a 10-2 record at non-majors (and six straight victories) as well as an unexpectedly sturdy effort in her first major final at Wimbledon, extending Serena to three sets. By contrast, Petrova has accumulated a modest 11-11 record in finals and has not claimed a tournament of this consequence since Berlin in 2006. When the two collided in an Eastbourne final four years ago, however, an entertaining three-set battle of cat and mouse unfolded during which the Russian saved three match points in the second set and snatched that set in an epic tiebreak—but could not sustain that momentum in the final set. Unless Petrova can shorten points and take time away from Radwanska, she should succumb to the same issues of durability sooner than she did when less depleted by age. Already having spent nearly twice as much time on court as her younger opponent, she either must win efficiently or not at all.