In the (figurative) shadow of the Forbidden City stands the last significant women’s tournament of 2012 before the year-end championships in Istanbul. Elevated from a modest status to a Premier Mandatory event three years ago, Beijing has found a fittingly prestigious home in the tennis facility built for the 2008 Olympics. We preview the action scheduled to unfold on the pompously named National Tennis Stadium and the picturesquely named Moon Court and Lotus Court.
First quarter: From the uncertainty surrounding Azarenka’s physical condition may spring an opportunity for the players in her section, especially a former #1 from Serbia. A quarterfinalist at Beijing in each of the last two years, losing to the eventual champions both times, Ivanovic prefers this medium-speed hard court to the fast surface in Tokyo and started the tournament in emphatic fashion with a victory over Christina McHale. Although the left-handedness of Varvara Lepchenko will pose a distinctive challenge, the Serb should master McHale’s compatriot if she can maintain the same serving efficiency and alert focus that she showed in her opener—admittedly far from a guarantee. Forestalling us from selecting her as a surprise quarterfinalist, the sixth-seeded Errani retired in her first match, so the draw lies open for a meeting of current and former #1s in a quarterfinal. While Ivanovic ambushed Azarenka on a hard court in Cincinnati two years ago, the top-ranked woman defeated her convincingly on the blue clay of Madrid and overwhelmingly on the grass of Wimbledon this year, restoring the balance of power in that rivalry. Before that stage, the most notable obstacle to the favorite’s route might arise in the form of Lisicki’s mighty serve, always most dangerous when least expected. Outside grass, the three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist has won only ten matches this year, but both of her previous meetings with Azarenka reached 5-5 in the final set.
Semifinalist: Azarenka (if healthy; otherwise, Ivanovic)
Second quarter: A week after a meek loss in Tokyo, Kvitova started her second Asian tournament more brightly with an uneventful victory over Hantuchova. Next awaiting the Istanbul champion is Suarez Navarro, in theory no match at all for her firepower but in reality an opponent who extended their previous encounter at the Australian Open to a third set. In a preview of the Fed Cup final, Kvitova could test her weapons against Jankovic if the latter can navigate past last year’s finalist Petkovic, here the Serb’s doubles partner. Likely to prevail over Jankovic in ordinary circumstances, the German has struggled to find her rhythm during a year blighted by injuries from start to finish. Falling to Kvitova in a three-setter at the year-end championships last fall, Stosur has revealed impressive form at consecutive tournaments of significance for the first time since winning the US Open. A quarterfinalist in New York and a semifinalist in Tokyo, she will hope that her momentum outweighs an apparent abdominal injury when she trades explosive serve-forehand combinations with Kvitova. Lurking in this section as well is another US Open quarterfinalist, Bartoli, who has struggled with epidemics of double faults throughout the second half without allowing those woes to infect the rest of her game. And perhaps another German, Julia Goerges, will find the Asian fall an appropriate occasion to stir. She has defeated Stosur during this phase of the season before and nearly stunned Kvitova in Fed Cup this year.
Third quarter: Assigned an ominous draw, Li Na either brings her best or worst to tournaments in her home nation. The Chinese superstar recorded multiple upsets en route to the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, but the elevated expectations upon her last year resulted in an embarrassing first-round loss here to Niculescu. Situated near several other veterans, Li would need to solve first Schiavone and then Tokyo champion Petrova, who seeks to become the third straight woman to complete an Asian double. Much older than Wozniacki and Radwanska in 2010 and 2011, the Russian likely will experience fatigue from three three-setters last week while struggling to find motivation so soon after earning her most notable title to date. Formidable in a different sense is the ensuing challenge that might follow for Li in the form of Peng, who has shown a knack for unlocking flustered tennis from her compatriot, perhaps because of their shared origins. But the route might grow more comfortable afterwards, for Li dominated defending champion Radwanska on North American hard courts twice this summer. On the other hand, she fell to potential quarterfinal opponent Laura Robson at the US Open, so the surging teenager could unleash a domino effect if she can solve the third-seeded Pole, hardly an easy task for an opponent who never has faced her. Radwanska has honed a game designed to punish the impetuous and reckless, which should equip her ideally against Robson and should cause Li more difficulty than she has lately. Although Petrova hit through her in Tokyo, the court here should reward a woman who already has reached two Beijing finals in the last three years.
Fourth quarter: Bookending a reasonably sturdy performance against Safarova were two uneven efforts by Sharapova in Tokyo, one of which she survived against inferior competition (Watson) and one of which she could not survive against elite competition (Stosur). A few notches less than her usual steely self, the career Silver Slam winner may lack the emotional reserves to propel herself through yet another draw in a year saturated with so many hard-fought battles and hard-won laurels. No formidable foe bars Sharapova’s path through the first two rounds, however, even if she plays at a fraction of her talents, and she already has defeated possible third-round opponent Makarova twice this year. The red-headed lefty shone in an upset over Kirilenko, so one would fancy her chances in another internecine Russian duel against the abjectly slumping Pavlyuchenkova. When Makarova finds the timing on her serve and the range on her groundstrokes, she can unleash the first strikes necessary to record an upset over an unwary or jaded opponent, as Serena learned to her chagrin in Melbourne. Across the quarter lies a contrast to the projected all-Russian fireworks display, in a possible clash of counterpunchers between Kerber and Wozniacki. The German snatched the Dane’s home tournament in Copenhagen from her this spring, continuing a title drought that extended from August 2011 to a week ago in Seoul. Finally registering her first top-10 victory of 2012 in Tokyo, Wozniacki appears to have rediscovered a level of confidence on which she can build for 2013.
Final: Kvitova vs. Radwanska
Champion: Petra Kvitova