The first of four round-robin days at the WTA year-end championships features two matches from the White Group and one from the Red Group. While Azarenka and Li wait one more day for their Istanbul debuts, the rest of the field springs into action.
Radwanska vs. Kvitova: After a stirring US Open Series that included two titles, Kvitova quickly sank back into her malaise of inconsistency with early departures from the US Open, Tokyo, and Beijing. Although those setbacks halted her summer momentum, she may gain confidence from returning to the court where she reeled off five straight victories a year ago. Moreover, her opponent brings scant momentum to the last tournament of 2012 herself, not having won a title since the clay season and suffering several lopsided second-half defeats. As one might expect, Kvitova has swept all three of their meetings, including two on indoor hard courts and one at the 2011 year-end championships. But that round-robin match stayed competitive until near the end, despite the power disparity between them most sharply reflected in their serves. Serving for the first set before losing it in a tiebreak, Radwanska punished Kvitova for every lapse in focus that marred her game even then, so the Czech must stay more alert than she has for much of this year. Both women have delivered their best career performances to date at the same tournament, Wimbledon, a surface similar to Istanbul in its speed and low bounce. Considering that parallel and their previous encounter here, this match should prove the most interesting of the day. Whoever wins will have positioned herself well for a semifinal berth with a round-robin match against heavy underdog Errani still ahead.
Serena vs. Kerber: Before checking the victory box in Serena’s column, recall briefly that the German won their only meeting this year in Cincinnati, another fast hard court. Sandwiched between a gold medal at the Olympics and a US Open crown, that tournament likely did not awaken more than mild interest in the legend, nor will the memory of her loss there undermine her confidence. On the other hand, Kerber may build from that upset a foundation of self-belief, which she rarely has lacked through her unforeseen rise. Likely to finish the year inside the top five, this less familiar lefty beginning with K has remained impervious to nerves no matter the setting and the opponent, so Serena cannot take her too lightly. Although the German’s counterpunching style seems more suited to slower surfaces, both of her three titles this year came indoors against favored opponents (Bartoli in Paris, Wozniacki in Copenhagen). At Cincinnati, she obtained repeated success by hooking her lefty serve wide in both courts, where Serena struggled to plant her feet for an effective return. Expect her to repeat that tactic here, but also expect the American to find an answer fueled by greater determination. Unable to break Kerber this summer, Serena might well go unbroken herself in this meeting amidst a hail of aces reminiscent of her Wimbledon fortnight.
Sharapova vs. Errani: Only once have their paths crossed, but that occasion will remain emblazoned in the minds of both women forever. On the day that Sharapova completed the coveted career Grand Slam, Errani stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier as a maiden major finalist, an accomplishment that stunned observers even more than her conqueror’s feat. Dimmed by the glow surrounding the champion afterwards was the resolute effort with which the runner-up acquitted herself, not intimidated by the occasion after the first few games passed. As she did then, Errani should feel virtually no pressure at a tournament that most expect her to finish winless, so even a competitive match would register as a moral victory. To be sure, a victory of any sort other than moral looks improbable on a fast court where Sharapova can finish points swiftly without permitting the Italian time to unsettle her. The weakest server in the field, the world #7 may benefit a little from the pace added by the surface but will struggle even more than in Paris to track down the vicious returns of both her first and second offerings. Sharapova’s 0-2 record at Istanbul last year stemmed substantially from an ankle injury that probably should have prevented her from playing at all. Typically excellent under a roof, she could not have asked for a more accommodating opponent against whom to find her rhythm early in the week.