A day after Djokovic comfortably defended his Rogers Cup title, one of two major champions will claim her first title of the season. Since Li and Kvitova broke through at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2011, they have faltered at times under the weight of their unaccustomed celebrity. Not since the year-end championships in Istanbul had the latter even reached a final despite her prodigious talents, which have encouraged some to christen her the Serena of the next generation. Nearing the conclusion of her career, by contrast, Li reached finals in Sydney and the Premier Five tournament in Rome, where she won sets from Azarenka and Sharapova. On the second of those occasions, she came within two games of a routine straight-sets victory and held a match point in the third set before succumbing in the year’s most thrilling WTA final.
Depleted by marquee withdrawals, the Rogers Cup would welcome a championship match livelier than the passage of Djokovic past an overmatched Gasquet. Both of its women’s finalists may feel fortunate to have earned this opportunity, for each has survived a match for which the opponent served. Scarred by many of her own meltdowns, Li must have felt a tremor of compassion for semifinal challenger Safarova as she imploded on the verge of her first prestigious final. But the Chinese veteran deserves applause for staying mentally firm amidst the Czech’s frailty and forcing her to play through each point. When Ksenia Pervak served for a straight-sets victory against her in the second round, meanwhile, Kvitova did not despair but capitalized on wayward serving from the Russian to sweep through the tiebreak and the third set. Also linking these finalists is their shared tendency to jolt from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again within the same match. Their only previous 2012 meeting, at Sydney, neatly illustrated this resemblance with a three-set rollercoaster dominated for the first set and a half by Kvitova and for the second set and a half by Li. After the former had looked invincible and the latter feckless, the tables suddenly turned for no apparent reason as the same shots that had barely nicked or barely missed the lines started doing the opposite. Although Kvitova showcases a riskier brand of tennis than perhaps anyone else in the WTA elite, Li also plays with fire by redirecting balls down the lines and striking groundstrokes exceptionally early to create imaginative angles.
At their best, however, the Montreal finalists construct points smartly rather than attempting winners too early. For Kvitova, her swinging lefty serve opens the court effectively for a first forehand, while Li often will stretch an opponent outside the sidelines with cross-court forehands before exploiting the opening down the line. The setting of a Premier Five final may unsettle each of them into their chronic spells of swinging first and thinking later, so the woman who sets the tempo of the match and stays tactically coherent will hold a significant advantage. Nearly undone by her profligacy from the baseline against Wozniacki, Kvitova may have learned a valuable lesson from her comeback in that semifinal, built upon more patient shot selection in rallies and a more consistent if slightly less explosive first serve. Li will bring significantly more offensive firepower than did the Dane, but the Czech cannot allow that fact to fluster her into swinging for winners too early. With the arguable exception of her backhand, her weapons surpass those of her fellow finalist in every department as long as she can harness them calmly. Expect a match with plenty of momentum shifts and occasional bursts of emotion erupting from beneath the stoic demeanor cultivated by both women, seeking to collect valuable momentum before the US Open in the absence of most leading rivals.