Combined with six of the top ten women are two unfamiliar faces in the quarterfinals of the year’s last Premier Mandatory tournament. As a result, Beijing features a pair of imbalanced matches in the top half and a pair of intriguing matches in the bottom half. While the world #1 and a recent nemesis of hers ply their trade on the Lotus Court, the National Tennis Center features the tournament’s greatest superstar and a “Golden Flower” from the home nation, who could meet in a marquee semifinal should each advance.
Azarenka vs. Oprandi: Across her last five tournaments, the world #1 has lost to just one opponent: Serena. Almost impeccable on hard courts this year, Azarenka has relished the medium-speed surface in Beijing that suits her fluid transition game from defense to offense. The brash Belarussian defused Lisicki’s thunderous serve with ease in the second round and withstood a surprisingly confident challenge from Vesnina to reach her 15th quarterfinal in her last 16 tournaments. Having upset Ivanovic on Centre Court in her previous match, Romina Oprandi already has recorded the finest accomplishment of her career by far. This Swiss-Italian hybrid also defeated Urszula Radwanska, who has enjoyed an impressive second half, and she will force Azarenka to strike her targets consistently. But nothing suggests that Vika will not, for she has shown no signs of the odd dizzy spells that undid her last week in Tokyo. Confined to single digits in both winners and errors against Ivanovic, Oprandi essentially plays not to lose, and that strategy cannot overcome a healthy Azarenka with her intensity intact.
Suarez Navarro vs. Bartoli: Only a marginally less surprising quarterfinalist than Oprandi, the Spanish clay specialist delivered a Serbian smiting of her own by toppling Jankovic in the third round. More notable, however, was her victory over an ailing Kvitova despite the vast power disparity between their weapons. Again at a disadvantage in that department, Suarez Navarro will hope to disrupt Bartoli’s rhythm with high-bouncing groundstrokes and clever placement. The two most critical strokes in this quarterfinal both come from the favorite’s racket, however, in her serve and her return. Suspect for much of the second half, the former has not abandoned her yet this week but can disintegrate without warning, depleting her confidence in the rest of her game. Meanwhile, her return should devastate the gentle serves of Suarez Navarro, allowing Bartoli to step inside the court early in the rally. From that position, her double-fisted groundstrokes can create devastating angles, while her modest lateral mobility will not hinder her.
Li vs. Radwanska: Colliding for the third time in the second half, they produced remarkably unremarkable tennis in two routs on North American hard courts by the Chinese star, who did not even need to find her best tennis to dispatch the Pole. Already laboring in the shadow of one nemesis, Azarenka, Radwanska will not want to acquire another of lesser renown. During the last few months, the defending champion in Beijing has lost a handful of matches that she should not lose, including defeats to Vinci in New York and Petrova in Tokyo. After a brilliant first half, those disappointments suggest a dip in form or perhaps merely the onset of fatigue as Radwanska becomes the victim of her own success. Both women survived tense three-setters against opponents below their quality, the Pole against Dominguez Lino and the home hope against Peng. Able to conquer her compatriot on Chinese soil, Li showed more mettle than she did during a ghastly loss to Wozniacki in Tokyo last week. She did strike 16 double faults in that match, though, surely a career high or close to it for a woman normally so solid on serve. That emotionally difficult challenge behind her, perhaps Li can unwind her nerves for an opponent whom she should not fear. The burden rests on Radwanska to reverse the momentum in their mini-rivalry, but her previous success in the Chinese capital (two finals in three years) could infuse her with a different sort of belief.
Sharapova vs. Kerber: From their three previous encounters, all this year, springs an apparent trend. While Kerber won on the relatively minor stage of the Paris Indoors, Sharapova swept their meetings at more significant tournaments in Melbourne and Rome. Qualifying for Istanbul this week, the German seeks her third straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory or Premier Five tournament, an accomplishment that few would have foretold a year ago. Despite a peripatetic schedule that would have exhausted many a competitor, Kerber has not experienced diminished results in the second half, although she did look weary in a lopsided Tokyo loss to Radwanska. Also pedestrian last week, Sharapova has displayed much more purposeful, focused tennis at a tournament where she never has excelled. Relinquishing just six games in her last two matches, she has maintained a high first-serve percentage and relished the transition from the faster court in Tokyo to a surface where she has extra time to aim her weapons. The quality of her competition now rises sharply from two Romanians and a qualifier to a sixth-ranked lefty with 60 victories in 2012, but Sharapova has dominated lefties all year with the single exception of that February loss to Kerber. Perhaps better prepared for this quarterfinal, the German overcame a pair of wildly erratic sets to eke out a tight final set from Wozniacki on Thursday that featured just a single, match-ending break. If she finds herself in another third set on Friday, a fascinating battle of wills should unfold between two women who have dazzled in that format this year (Sharapova 13-1, Kerber 20-2).