Fitting Finalists: Kvitova, Azarenka to collide at the end
ISTANBUL—In a year of parity—or mediocrity, take your pick—the WTA year-end championship fittingly pits the two healthiest and hottest players coming into the tournament. In Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, Sunday’s finale also features the youngsters best equipped to stamp their imprint on the sport in 2012 and beyond (apologies to year-end No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki).
The afternoon at Sinan Erdem stadium kicked off with the two most recent Grand Slam champions squaring off—Wimbledon winner Kvitova of the Czech Republic against U.S. Open titlist Sam Stosur of Australia. No. 3 Kvitova, the only player yet to drop a set in the tournament, came out mashing the ball into the corners. Her strategy was obvious: Keep points quick, attack everything short and take big swipes at returns. At the outset she executed flawlessly, breaking Stosur in the first game and keeping the pressure on.
No. 7 Stosur, no slouch in the power department, felt ambushed. “The first three or four games or something I was really just trying to hang in there,” said Stosur, who had been 0-2 against Kvitova coming into the match, including a third-round loss at the Australian Open. But Stosur held her ground, started to mix things up, and waited for Kvitova to go off—which the 21-year-old Czech is wont to do. At 4-3 40-love, Kvitova missed an easy backhand pass and then unleashed a flurry of errors. Stosur broke back for 4-4, seized the momentum and closed out the set 7-5.
The hard-hitting southpaw did not abandon her high-risk, high-reward strategy (does she have another one?). And after dropping her first set of the week, Kvitova kept at it. She broke early in the second and third sets, including a seven-game run for a commanding 5-0 lead in the third. She finished off the last two sets 6-3, 6-3. “She played like a hurricane at the end,” said her coach, David Kotyza. In other words, it was Kvitova’s match to win or lose, and Stosur said as much. Asked how much of the match she felt she had on her racket, Stosur said: “Not a whole lot of it, to be honest.”
Fourth-ranked Azarenka had an easier time with No. 6 Vera Zvonareva, though the match was tighter than the 6-2, 6-3 score line suggests. The 22-year-old Belarusian was coming off a late-night loss to substitute Marion Bartoli, but showed few ill effects. Azarenka played the key points better, converting five of 12 break points, while the Russian managed just two of seven. Several games extended into long multiple deuce struggles. “The score again doesn't say much about the game,” said Azarenka of the 1 hour, 41-minute affair.
Zvonareva, who came into today’s match with a 6-3 head-to-head advantage, said she was pleased with her performance, but her serve let her down, including seven double faults, a 59 percent first-serve percentage and a woeful 26 percent of points won on second serve. She lost five of nine service games.
Both of these under-23-year-olds have made big strides in 2011. Kvitova, who started the season outside the Top 30, is rounding into a very dangerous all-around player after a miserable post-Wimbledon campaign that culminated in a first-round exit at the U.S. Open to Alexandra Dulgheru. Her coach Kotyza said the almost painfully shy player from tiny Fulnek was finally starting to adjust to life after Wimbledon. “She knows she is a little more famous than before,” he said. “Now she is playing the same tennis as in the end of the first half of the season.”
Azarenka can appear indifferent at times, but the explosive Belarusian has put up a very consistent season, including her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. She has always been hungry to succeed, and a bit more power on her serve and mental toughness at the right moments should translate into major championships.
But Kvitova has more potential. To my eyes she is likely successor to the Williams sisters as queen of the power game in women’s tennis. But the player she most reminds me of is American Lindsay Davenport. Lanky and lumbering, the 6-footer hits big and long off both wings, owns a devastating serve and can get away with average speed as long as she takes early control of points. She doesn’t hit the ball as cleanly as Davenport—yet—but she is a slightly better mover and she is more comfortable moving forward and taking the net. She seems to have only one gear, but at 21 she has the look of a player that needs a tad more polish to reach the top.
“She's very, very young, but already from when I first saw her when I played her at the French a couple years ago till now, it's amazing how much she's been able to improve,” said Stosur. “And even from when I played her at the Aussie Open till now, I think she's taken huge strides. She's got the game where you will see maybe a flurry of errors, but then you'll flip it over and you'll see that streak of winners.”
If we already knew Kvitova was good on grass (including a breakout semifinal showing at Wimbledon last year), she might be better indoors. She is now 18-0 this season inside, and she brings a nine-match winning streak into the final. Like a lot of big hitters, Kvitova thrives on low-bouncing, fast indoor surfaces—the kind she grew up on in the long Czech winters. “She likes stable conditions,” said Kotyza.
The final has the makings of a dandy. Both players are coming off tournament titles (Azarenka at Luxembourg, Kvitova at Linz); both have a shot at the No. 2 ranking; both want the bragging rights and momentum for next year. (Unfortunately, both make annoying sounds when they strike the ball or hit winners—Azarenka’s “eeeyaaa” shriek versus Kvitova’s pterodactyl-like screech).
Kvitova owns a 3-2 mark over Azarenka, including wins in their last three meetings, two of which took place on big stages this year—the finals at Madrid and the semifinals at Wimbledon. Kvitova said that gave her the psychological advantage.
“I won both, so hopefully it will be better for me, mentally,” she said.
Azarenka can stand toe-to-toe with anyone on the baseline and is the superior mover, but knows she cannot sit back and wait for Kvitova to either blow balls by her or bash errors. She will need to block out her past losses and find the right mix of aggression and consistency, a blend she was unable to summon in their previous encounters this year.
“I don't really want to look back into our last previous matches,” Azarenka said. “I mean, both times she won a tournament (and) she was in her best form. Now she's playing good, as well as I am. It's gonna be really tough battle, for sure. I just have to be consistent and aggressive, the same that she's gonna try to do.”
Still, no one in the women’s game except the Williams sisters can match Kvitova’s pace. Which means that the final more or less rests on her sometimes devastating, sometimes erratic racket.
A title Sunday would give Kvitova strong claims for the unofficial title of player of the year during a season in which no one player dominated. Four different players won the four majors, and no player except Australian Open finalist Li Na of China, who went 7-9 after winning Roland Garros, advanced to more than one Grand Slam final.
Kvitova would then own six titles on four different surfaces, tying her for the WTA lead with Wozniacki (who despite her No. 1 ranking failed to reach a Grand Slam final). It would give her wins at three big events—Madrid, Wimbledon and Istanbul. And it would secure the No. 2 ranking, which only Azarenka can wrest away from her by winning the championship herself.
Those into symmetry will likewise note that Kvitova is the first year-end debutante to reach the final since Maria Sharapova went the distance in 2004, beating Serena Williams in the final. That happens to be the same year the Russian won her maiden Grand Slam at the All-England Club.