If viewers of women’s tennis learned anything from 2012, they will have recognized that the cream finally has risen from the parity of the last few years, producing a top four who have dominated their peers not unlike the ATP elite. Fittingly, this group has obtained a stranglehold over the semifinals of the year-end championships, ensuring that one of them will capture the season’s last significant prize.
Sharapova vs. Azarenka: Once a rarity in the WTA, clashes between the top two women have grown relatively familiar this year, as has their usual outcome. Only one of the five encounters between the strong-willed, strong-lunged Eastern European blondes produced a match worthy of recall by the neutral fan, their three-set semifinal at the US Open. In the other four meetings, the losing player won no more than five games, and in fact Sharapova has won no more than five games from Azarenka in five of their last six matches on hard courts. At the Beijing final last month, she showed no sign of building upon the momentum of their much tenser contest in New York, instead returning to the tactical uncertainty and tepid confidence of lopsided losses in Melbourne and Indian Wells. Throughout the world #1’s current dominance over the four-time major champion, with the exception of that US Open semifinal, she consistently has threatened her rival on service games to the extent that each Sharapova hold has felt like a hard-earned victory. Able to withstand the Russian’s first strike with keen reflexes and instincts on return games, Azarenka has used her superior athleticism to gradually wrest away control of the rallies. Her depth of shot has left Sharapova without angles to exploit and forced her into low-percentage tactics difficult to execute through an entire match. Although the world #2 owns one of the most dangerous returns in women’s tennis, her struggle to merely hold serve has left her with little energy to expend on her opponent’s service games.
On the somewhat faster indoor hard court of Istanbul, though, Azarenka might not withstand those first strikes as easily. In a routine straight-sets victory during the round-robin phase, Serena comfortably hit through her from the baseline early in the rally, although fatigue from an epic the previous day might have contributed to the Belarussian’s overall listlessness. But Sharapova’s only victory over Azarenka this year did come under a roof, and the controlled conditions should aid the precision that she must sustain to overcome her disadvantages in consistency and movement. After a season pockmarked with bombardments by this rival, she must stifle the lurking sensation of hopelessness that has crippled her psychologically against Serena in recent years. Neither woman has anything to prove late in the best year of both careers, and both would enter the final as a clear underdog, should the other semifinal produce the expected result. All the same, one wonders whether Sharapova’s season will end in symmetrical fashion, or whether she will use a key victory as a springboard to even greater feats in 2012. As with most such storylines, the truth usually lies in the middle. Azarenka in three
Serena vs. Radwanska: Far less intimidating than the title favorite’s form itself was the fact that she swept through round-robin play without losing a set while playing well below her best for extended periods in every match. So far does Serena appear to tower above the field now that one could envision her finishing the week 5-0 with merely average (for her) performances. Outside an odd detour through Cincinnati, which ended in an early loss to Kerber, Serena has won 41 of her last 42 sets in a span that started with the third set of the Wimbledon final. She faces the same challenger again here in circumstances even more propitious. Aligned against Serena for just the second time since the first half of 2008, when she had not fully developed, Radwanska has spent more than six and a half hours on court during two epic matches as she barely scraped into her first career semifinal at this tournament. While an extremely narrow loss to Sharapova offered cause for confidence, an almost equally narrow, even longer victory over Errani raised cause for concern. Radwanska can expect to spend most of this semifinal on the defensive, and even this resilient competitor simply may lack the spring in her legs to track down ball after ball. Already strapped during the Sharapova match, her serving shoulder must have grown heavy during her exhausting week as well.
Especially ominous from the Pole’s perspective, then, is Serena’s prowess on return this week. Despite a fast court that injects extra pace into serves, she won at least half of her return games in every match so far. None of her victims to date—Kerber, Azarenka, and Li—can boast an especially formidable delivery, but each arguably serves better than Radwanska. Once the worst server in the WTA top 20, the Pole has impressed by improving her first serve into something less than a weapon but more than a liability. If her rhythm ever stutters on that stroke, however, she will face a difficult choice between reducing its pace to increase its percentage or praying that her puny second serve does not meet the fate that it deserves. Throughout the week, Serena has labored uncharacteristically on her own first-serve percentage, usually a signature strength, so Radwanska may find some openings if she can stay close and confident. At the Wimbledon final, she remarkably kept her spirits high despite a disastrous first set and managed to turn a decisive defeat into something approaching a moral victory by forcing a third set. Any victory that she obtains here, with both tangible and intangible factors tilted against her, surely would consist of the moral variety as well. Serena in two