Eight women descended on Istanbul earlier this week for the WTA Tour Championships, with a ninth getting a chance to play due to a withdrawal. But now, only four remain.
Round-robin play at the 2012 WTA Tour Championships concluded Friday with two "elimination matches," with the winner going to the semifinals and the loser heading home for the winter.
In the first match, Agnieszka Radwanska needed three hours and 29 minutes to dispatch Sara Errani, 6-7 (6) 7-5 6-4. The match broke a record for longest WTA Tour Championship match under the best-of-three format—the previous record was the 2007 final between Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova, which Henin won 5-7 7-5 6-3 in 3:24.
In the second match, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka overcame an early break in the first set to win the tiebreaker, 7-4, and then broke Li Na to win the second set 6-3, in the process securing the year-end No. 1 rank.
So, with round-robin play in the books, semifinal action will get underway tomorrow. Here's a preview of the two matches.
Serena Williams is in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches in women's tennis history. Many people thought her days were numbered after her shocking first-round exit at the French Open to Virginie Razzano, but Williams has gone the other way instead, losing just one match in the last five calendar months.
Williams did not play any warm-up tournaments before Wimbledon but hit the ground running in London. Leading up to the quarterfinals, she survived three-set encounters with Jie Zheng and Yaroslava Shvedova before knocking out defending champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals and world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals.
She was pushed to a third set in the Wimbledon final against Agnieszka Radwanska but reeled off five consecutive games in the final set—punctuated by a four-ace game down 1-2—to win the title, 6-1 5-7 6-2.
After repeating as Stanford champion, Williams headed to the Olympics, where she was confronted with a draw that featured five players that were either currently or once ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the world. Undaunted, she tore through that gauntlet, losing only 17 games in six matches—in other words, her average victory was 6-1 6-2. She trounced Maria Sharapova for the gold medal, 6-0 6-1, nearly double-bageling her.
Understandably fatigued from the long summer season, Williams lost in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati to Angelique Kerber, 4-6 4-6. To this date, that's her only loss since late May. Entering the semifinals, she's won 28 of her last 29 matches and is an astounding 55-4 (93.2%) this season.
After the Cincinnati loss, Williams ripped through the field at the US Open, losing only 19 games in her first six matches before being pushed and then some against Azarenka, who was serving for the championship up 5-4 in the third set. But Williams dug in and secured the break, held to consolidate and then broke to win the third set 7-5 for her fourth US Open title.
Idle until this week, Williams showed minimal signs of rustiness, defeating Kerber 6-4 6-1 to avenge her Cincinnati loss, topping Li Na 7-6 (2) 6-3 and turning back Azarenka 6-4 6-4. After playing in the first three days of the Championships, she had Friday off, and will be refreshed heading into Saturday's semifinal.
The same can't be said of her opponent, Radwanska, who had to battle for three hours and 29 minutes in her match against Sara Errani on Friday. She also played another three-hour-plus match this week, losing to Sharapova in three sets on Wednesday.
The two have faced off three times in their careers, with Williams holding a 3-0 advantage and their last meeting coming at the Wimbledon final. Given Williams' utterly indomitable form and Radwanska's quick turnaround, I can't see Williams having too much trouble moving on to the finals. She'll win the match in straights.
When one looks back on the WTA season, one thing that jumps out is Maria Sharapova's success on clay.
A self-described "cow on ice" whilst playing on the dirt—it never was her best surface—she nonetheless enjoyed a breakthrough clay season, winning titles in Stuttgart and Rome before taking home the biggest prize of all, the French Open trophy.
With her 6-3 6-2 victory over Sara Errani at Roland Garros, Sharapova captured her first French Open title and completed the career Grand Slam.
However, aside from her three clay titles, Sharapova has yet to win another title. She made the finals of the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Beijing but lost all three to Victoria Azarenka, while also losing to Azarenka in the US Open semifinals. She also made the final in Miami but lost to Agnieszka Radwanska.
At Wimbledon, playing as the No. 1 seed, she was upset in the fourth round by Sabine Lisicki. Back at Wimbledon three weeks later for the Olympics, Sharapova scored a silver medal, but only after being smoked by Serena Williams in the gold-medal match.
In the matchup of the two top-ranked players in the world, it's advantage, Azarenka. She holds a 7-4 advantage over Sharapova in their career meetings, and has defeated her four out of five times this season, with Sharapova's only win coming in the Stuttgart final. Other than that, when the two have played on hard courts, Azarenka has had no problems, losing only one set to Sharapova in those matches.
Sharapova has had two easy matches so far in Istanbul, turning back Sara Errani and alternate Samantha Stosur with relative ease, but had to dig deep to beat Agnieszka Radwanska in a match that exceeded three hours and ended around 2:00 A.M. in Istanbul.
Azarenka hasn't had an easy time at the Championships, needing over three hours to defeat Angelique Kerber and losing to Williams before overcoming a slow start to defeat Li Na, clinching a semifinal berth as well as the No. 1 ranking in the world.
Much as I'd like to say Azarenka should have no problems beating Sharapova for a fifth time this season, I have a gut feeling that Sharapova will raise her game and give Azarenka a hard time. But will it be enough to finally beat her on a hard court this season? No. It says here that Azarenka will need three sets to advance to the final.