Departing from the uneventful script of Tuesday, Wednesday in Istanbul showcased two spectacular epics in which the top two women surged back from the brink to conquer tenacious challengers. Also illustrated over the first two days of the tournament is the superiority of the top four to the lower half of the entrants, who have won just one of eleven sets in the matches pitting haves against have-nots. On Thursday, then, the have-nots may feel thankful to turn their weapons on each other for a change.
Kerber (0-2) vs. Li (0-1): Virtually eliminated from contention barring a miracle, Kerber may struggle for motivation in the wake of a heartbreaking loss to Azarenka. The German held double match point before falling just short of the upset in a captivating 187-minute encounter that featured arguably her best tennis of the second half. A day later, she may lack the energy or the competitive willpower to win essentially a meaningless match for her, except in terms of money and points. At the start of her current six-match losing streak against top-ten opponents was a rollercoaster final that she contested against the Chinese star in Cincinnati. After losing nine of the first eleven games, Li suddenly turned a near-certain embarrassment into the highlight of her season by reeling off eleven of the last twelve. The pair also split their two previous 2012 meetings, so this match should turn into a tense battle if Kerber brings her full competitive vigor. On the other hand, it could turn into a ghastly debacle on both sides of the net if one woman enters listless and the other feckless. Broken six times in two sets by Serena, Li struggled to find any rhythm on her serve in a match only close because of her opponent’s underwhelming form. But, fortunately for her, she can metamorphose virtually overnight—or on a changeover—into the lethal ball-striker whose compact strokes and low center of gravity should suit a surface like the Istanbul court. Li in three
Azarenka (1-0) vs. Serena (2-0): A plausible preview of Sunday’s final, the twelfth edition of this series and seventh since last summer inspires the greatest anticipation of the day. Despite Serena’s stranglehold over their rivalry, which she leads 10-1, Azarenka appeared to acquire a bit of momentum when she came within two points of defeating her in a US Open classic. Serving for the match in that final, the world #1 proved by rebounding from an ineffectual first set that she will not flinch like most of the WTA against this intimidating opponent. And other collisions between them have produced spans of scintillating baseline exchanges, such as tiebreak sets at Wimbledon this year and the US Open last year. As one would expect from a legendary champion, Serena always has found the sidelines with her forehand and the corners with her first serve on the crucial points in those matches, while Azarenka has shown occasional fragility in the same moments. That said, the veteran has not found either sidelines or corners with great regularity in either of her first two matches, uncharacteristically missing more than half of her first serves. Serena probably deserves credit for defeating two top-eight opponents in straight sets without her most formidable weapon, but its absence could cost her against an opponent as steady as Azarenka. Already with one foot in the semifinals, she should feel much less urgency than she did in their marquee meetings at Wimbledon, the Olympics, and New York. Recovering from an emotionally and physically exhausting epic, like Kerber, the world #1 could secure the top ranking for the end of 2012 with a victory over a nemesis responsible for four of her seven losses in completed matches this year. Azarenka will have more chances to achieve that goal later this week, though, and likely another chance at Serena. Serena in two
Stosur (alt.) vs. Errani (0-1): Substituting for defending champion Kvitova, last year’s semifinalist Stosur should welcome the opportunity to defend some of her points against an opponent whom she has solved on hard courts, and then a disinterested Sharapova. Although Errani memorably won their three-set semifinal at Roland Garros this year, the advantage should shift clearly in the more powerful woman’s favor on an indoor hard court. In four previous hard-court meetings, Stosur has lost one total set, and she impressed at both the US Open and Tokyo this fall with a victory over Sharapova and a near-victory over Azarenka. Following an optimistic beginning, Errani found herself thoroughly overmatched by Sharapova’s power on this court, where her soft serves and high-bouncing groundstrokes lack the necessary sting. Nevertheless, the Italian has vaulted to an entirely new level this year, and that upset of the heavily favored Stosur in Paris may have provided her with vital psychological capital. When the latter fell to Schiavone at the same tournament two years ago, she continued to struggle mentally in their ensuing meetings, even on more favorable surfaces. Perhaps the relatively low stakes in this match will allow Stosur to banish any demons that still lurk in her mind and reassert her command over this opponent before 2013. Stosur in two