Despite its position deep in a long season, well after the final major, the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing could not have asked for a more intriguing group of semifinalists: the top two women, the leading home hope, and an eccentric character with a unique approach to the game. This recipe should produce highly watchable entertainment on Saturday amid a demonstration of baseline power.
Azarenka vs. Bartoli: Initially dominated by the Belarussian, who won their first seven encounters, this rivalry has shifted towards the Frenchwoman with three victories in the last five. Among them, however, came a retirement in Eastbourne (not an uncommon way for Vika to lose) and a meaningless match late in round-robin play at the year-end championships, after Azarenka already had clinched a semifinal berth. That said, Bartoli remains one of only two women to defeat the world #1 in a completed match on a hard court this year, displaying her double-fisted game at a nearly flawless level in the Miami quarterfinal that snapped her rival’s 26-match winning streak. Although she rarely wins a title of consequence, the Frenchwoman has developed a reputation for threatening elite contenders and playing to the level of the competition, both up and down.
With two unimpressive servers and magnificent returners, one can anticipate a semifinal filled with service breaks or at least tightly contested games. Court positioning should play a crucial role for Bartoli, lethal when she steps inside the baseline and leans into her groundstrokes but vulnerable when stretched outside the alleys. As Azarenka has shown in their previous meetings, an opponent can stifle the Frenchwoman with consistently penetrating groundstrokes. Since most neutral rallies should favor the world #1, technically the steadier of the two, she need not seek to leave her comfort zone. Instead, Bartoli must deliver especially potent first strikes to thrust Azarenka onto the defensive early in the rally, for the Belarussian has worn her down physically before. Losing no more than six games in any of her four matches this week, the Australian Open champion should bring plenty of energy and mental tenacity to the battlefield, while Bartoli may struggle to recover a day after a draining epic against Suarez Navarro. Considering the recent history between them, nevertheless, one should not pencil the world #1 into her third Premier Mandatory final of the year too readily.
Sharapova vs. Li: On opposite sides of the net stand the two richest women in tennis and arguably the two most popular superstars in China. Like the rivalry between the other pair of semifinalists, the encounters between these fellow Roland Garros champions have followed an odd trajectory. After Li could not solve Sharapova early in their careers, she mastered her nemesis early in the latter’s comeback and reeled off four straight victories to follow her string of five defeats. Reversing the momentum this year, the Russian defeated the Chinese star twice in dramatically divergent fashions: a rout in Miami and a thriller in Rome that she had trailed by a set and a double break, and in which she had saved a match point. Curiously, the contrasts between these matches sprang more from Li’s level and the wild fluctuations in it than from the quality produced by Sharapova, generally steady on both occasions. As the younger woman has grown more predictable with age, the veteran has shown no sign of abandoning her affinity for the mercurial.
Perfect in four meetings against Li on outdoor hard courts, Sharapova has looked the superior of the two semifinalists this week, a pedestrian opener aside. Since then, she has lost six total games to three foes and elevated her tennis with each round until a stunning display against world #6 Kerber, which she dominated in every facet of the game. But Li improved distinctly from a sprawling cascade of errors and double faults against Peng to record a relatively routine victory over Radwanska, a regular victim of hers this year. Armed with compact swings rather than the elongated strokes of her opponent, her efficient, streamlined game has troubled an opponent who wins few matches with her movement, although Sharapova has bolstered that former weakness lately. Somewhat like a WTA version of Davydenko, Li specializes in striking her groundstrokes and redirecting them down sidelines, a talent that requires sparkling precision. This precision can ebb and flow radically from one week or even one match to the next, explaining her career-long pattern of inconsistent results. When it ebbs and flows within a single match, a gripping drama can unfold. To record her third straight victory over the Chinese star, meanwhile, Sharapova must balance her natural aggressive instincts with smart recognition of moments when Li simply needs an accomplice in her own destruction.