Vera Zvonareva's talent for failing upward deserted her in the semifinals of the WTA Championships, where she had no business being in the first place after having lost two of three singles matches in the round-robin portion of the WTA's marquee event. She was beaten, 6-2, 6-3, by Victoria Azarenka, who will play Petra Kvitova for the title tomorrow.
The great battle here was one of consistency—or lack thereof. Azarenka did a much better job of playing well when she needed to, while Zvonareva reverted to her pre-2010 habits of sabotaging herself—sometimes exactly when she most needed to lift her game.
Prime example: At the brink of elimination in the final game of the match, Zvonareva secured double-break point by virtue of an impressive cross-court forehand winner and deft drop shot. She wasted her first chance with an acceptable backhand error, but followed on with a horrendous backhand service-return error. From deuce, Azarenka won the next two points. For the match, Azarenka saved five of seven break points while breaking Zvonareva five times in two sets.
Zvonareva's inconsistency wasn't entirely a mental issue. Her serve was all over the place, and one of the signature sounds of the match—even Azarenka's banshee shrieks couldn't drown it out—was the "thud" of Zvonareva's racket hitting the court on her follow-through. It wouldn't have been so bad if the ferocious swipe produced a monster serve; but the sound merely underscored the degree to which Zvonareva was out of balance and perhaps going for more than she was able to deliver. Give her points for realizing that she needed to put Azarenka back on her heels; take points away from her for poor execution.
Azarenka was in control throughout the match; she was gifted an early break via a Zvonareva double fault, and she subsequently carved out two more breaks. When a player has as much trouble holding as Zvonareva did, the onus on an opponent to hold is less severe. And, the troubled server can swing from the heels due to her desperate situation. Hence, Azarenka dropped serve twice but still won the first set easily.
The beginning of the second set was competitive. Zvonareva pushed the envelope a bit, as if she would outhit one of the biggest hitters in the WTA. But in the latter part of this year Azarenka has dialed her aggression back a bit, and she made Zvonareva pay for her brave if somewhat reckless strategy. Given that even the more modulated Azarenka tends to be a one-speed player (watching her can be as monotonous as staring at a pneumatic press punching out bottlecaps, although her shriek does serve to keep your eyelids open), Zvonareva might have been better served calling upon her versatility and guile—although, admittedly, neither would have done much good without the requisite consistency.
But that was asking too much of this accidental semifinalist. Zvonareva looked like a tired player with a tattered, wrinkled game by the end. The recently expanded WTA offseason will give her plenty of opportunity to iron out the flaws. Meanwhile, Azarenka and Kvitova will contest the kind of final that seems most appropriate: a match between two hungry, relatively young players.
Note to Azarenka and Kvitova: Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo all went on to win Grand Slam events the year after they first won the WTA Championships.