Among the curiosities of the unique round-robin phase at the season’s two concluding tournaments is its final day, which can mean everything for some and nothing for others. To the relief of those attending Istanbul on Friday, two of the three matches will serve as essentially knockout battles to decide the runner-ups of each group. And few fans would object to seeing Sharapova in any context, no matter how meaningless, so in general the tournament can congratulate itself on escaping the pitfalls that the round-robin format can create.
Sharapova (2-0) vs. Stosur (0-1): In a dead rubber between the White Group winner and an irrelevant alternate, Sharapova might find motivation from her loss to Stosur at Tokyo or a similar result in their meeting here last year. After a career of futility against the Russian, her fellow US Open champion broke through under the Istanbul roof en route to reaching the semifinals, a triumph that laid the foundation for a resilient effort when they met at Stuttgart in one of the year’s best WTA matches. Although she yielded in that epic and nearly unraveled late in the Tokyo encounter, Stosur appears to have curbed the fear of Sharapova that formerly rendered her hapless when they collided. All the same, she displayed dismally uneven tennis in losing a third-set bagel to Errani, the type of opponent whom she should have dominated. With virtually nothing at stake, one wonders whose game loses more from the lack of intensity. Sharapova must win to preserve her slim chance of stealing the year-end #1 ranking from Azarenka, but she has attached little significance to this goal. Expect a flat, uninspired match of short points before the Russian strolls into the semifinals and the Aussie heads home for the winter. Sharapova in two
Azarenka (1-1) vs. Li (1-1): Faced with the same challenge on the last day of round-robin play in 2011, Li crumbled meekly under the weight of Stosur’s serves combined with her own painfully visible nerves. Another winner-take-all match for the right to play Sharapova tasks her with an even more daunting assignment on paper, since Azarenka has conceded almost nothing away from clay this year except to Serena. But Li has extended her to a third set twice in that span, including a hard-court final in Sydney that revealed how evenly their games balance each other. As she had earlier in their careers, the Chinese star often jerked the world #1 around the baseline despite the latter’s fluid movement, only to earn a taste of her own medicine in the final’s decisive stages. The two women share a symmetrical set of groundstrokes, an absence of clear weaknesses, a keen instinct for transitioning from defense to offense, and a solid return game that compensates for their chronically unreliable serves. (Appropriately even, then, is a head-to-head record poised at 4-4, although Azarenka has swept the last three after Li’s early dominance.) Sharing a victory over Kerber and a loss to Serena this week, both have found their form only in fits and starts. In a match where each should threaten the opponent’s serve consistently, several momentum shifts could unfold that recall their previous 2012 meetings. Based on that recent history, one must hand a slight edge to the world #1, who has not lost consecutive completed matches since July 2011 and will want to lock up the top spot as soon as possible. Azarenka in three
Radwanska (1-1) vs. Errani (1-1): Both women in the other winner-take-all match have surpassed expectations this week, the Italian by winning a match and the Pole by nearly seizing the White Group from Sharapova’s grasp in a thrilling epic. Fortunate to receive a day of rest, Radwanska cannot afford to linger over the disappointment of Wednesday against an opponent whose confidence will have risen following a victory on Thursday. Not since Budapest in 2006, when both ranked outside the top 100, has this year’s Roland Garros finalist defeated this year’s Wimbledon finalist. Most recently, Radwanska surrendered just a single game to Errani on the blue clay of Madrid, although that strange scoreline stemmed in part from the Italian’s exhaustion after an overstuffed clay schedule. Contrary to the blueprint of success on an indoor hard court, these compact counterpunchers have crafted conservative baseline styles mixed with occasional flair around the net. More comfortable there than many of their peers, they should beguile the audiences with unconventional shots and tactics during points longer than those in most matches this week. In the ensuing power outage, one woman will need to step outside her defensive comfort zone to become the aggressor, either Radwanska with her backhand down the line or Errani with her inside-out forehand. Winless in 22 previous meetings with top-five opponents, the Italian faces a daunting challenge in breaking through on the surface least suited to her. But should anything that she does surprise anyone anymore? Seeking her first career semifinal at the year-end championships, Radwanska knows well to be wary. Radwanska in two