Two weeks after the US Open, nine of the top ten women reconvene at the last Premier Five tournament of 2012. Each of the first four crowned a different champion: Azarenka, Sharapova, Kvitova, and Li. At the fifth, we might see all four of those decorated women shine again.
First quarter: When she returned to her favored hard courts at the US Open, Azarenka settled back into a rhythm that recalled her brilliance on the surface earlier this season. Still without a title since Indian Wells, however, the world #1 often falters during an Asian fall season in which her chronic injuries can surface. A familiar opening opponent awaits---probably—in the person of Tamira Paszek, whom she defeated in the Wimbledon quarterfinals each of the last two years. Having reached the quarterfinals at every tournament this year except Roland Garros, a walkover in Rome aside, Azarenka should continue that consistency by comfortably handling Roberta Vinci. The Italian has enjoyed a strong second half that included a US Open quarterfinal appearance after an upset over Radwanska, but the top seed has shown too much resilience in a season when she has not dropped a third set to anyone outside Serena. Separating the 2012 Azarenka from the earlier version is that enormously bolstered mental strength, which she may need in a quarterfinal against Kerber, also outstanding in three-setters this year. Although she disappointed in New York, the lefty reached the final in Cincinnati with a victory over Kvitova, so momentum surges would collide if she meets Ivanovic in the third round. Also in this section are chronically intriguing youngsters Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea, both of whom recorded strong efforts in Guangzhou last week.
Second quarter: Defending a significant title for the first time, Radwanska aims to escape from the doldrums that descended predictably after she broke through at Wimbledon. A shadow of herself at the Olympics and the North American hard courts, she might open against former finalist Jankovic, deep into a spiral of decline rather than the Pole’s temporary lull. Contesting the Seoul final against Wozniacki on Sunday, Kaia Kanepi must regroup efficiently to launch her Tokyo campaign against a qualifier and then perhaps French prodigy Caroline Garcia. Witnessing Laura Robson soar to a higher level of performance, Garcia might seize inspiration to do the same. Despite simmering tensions between China and Japan, Li still plans to play an event where the fast, low-bouncing surface should suit her style. The Roland Garros champion dazzled during the US Open Series, in which she finished second, but she could not sustain the momentum in New York. All the same, one would favor her against Wozniacki in a third-round rematch of their memorable semifinal at last year’s Australian Open. Lurking to intercept one of them, perhaps, is the enigmatic Russian lefty Makarova, who just extended Wozniacki to a third set in a Seoul semifinal. Li overwhelmed Radwanska at both Montreal and Cincinnati this summer, so smart observers should fancy her chances of a quarterfinal upset here.
Third quarter: Arguably the best indoor player in the world, Kvitova resembled Federer last fall in her romp through the year-end championships and a pair of smaller tournaments. If weather forces the Tokyo roof to close, the Czech should prosper even more than one already would expect on this surface suited to her strengths. Likely to meet the returning, rusty Petkovic in her opener, she will lack the time to play herself into the tournament from which she benefited in many of her best weeks this year. Once Kvitova survives that test, though, the path could grow gentler against either Petrova or Peng. The Russian veteran managed to reach the second week of the US Open, exploiting a fortuitous draw, but she lacks the fitness or the versatility to wear down or unnerve the younger sharpshooter. Hoping to echo her stunning triumph over Sharapova two years ago, Date-Krumm eyes a winnable opener against Bartoli, who followed her impressive US Open quarterfinal appearance with a retirement early last week. The flames of the Japanese star’s improbable comeback have dwindled sharply, so she likely will not advance deep into the draw even if she delivers an upset. Among the most successful women at majors this year was the unheralded Sara Errani, probably the most surprising story of tennis in 2012. The unassuming Italian has accumulated a massive number of matches across singles and doubles, and she may begin to pay the price for her triumphs in both competitions. Thoroughly outgunned by Kvitova in a New Haven semifinal, she should find the fast court in Tokyo no more accommodating in this dramatic contrast of physiques and playing styles.
Fourth quarter: Since she launched her comeback from shoulder surgery, Sharapova has recorded wildly oscillating results at this tournament. A champion in 2009, she fell to Date-Krumm in the first round a year later and then played reasonably well for two matches last year before suffering an ankle injury. The perennially dangerous Lisicki looms for the fourth time this year and third time in the last four tournaments. Familiar with the German’s mighty weapons, Sharapova lost the first set in all three of their previous 2012 meetings but rallied to win two of them. Resembling her early draw at Wimbledon, her surroundings include Pironkova and Guangzhou finalist Hsieh, although Safarova may pose the most legitimate third-round threat. The less famous Czech lefty defeated Sharapova last year in Madrid, and the idiosyncratic dynamic of these fall tournaments might spark a competitor susceptible to underachievement when it matters most. Projected to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals is Stosur, less of a doormat for the Russian lately than usual. The two delivered a classic battle on the Stuttgart clay this spring, so a rematch could sparkle. Among the most notable openers in Tokyo, meanwhile, is a clash between Shvedova and Schiavone that pits two players with almost nothing in common outside their doubles expertise.
Final: Azarenka vs. Kvitova
Champion: Petra Kvitova