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Suns, Rising and Setting: WTA Tokyo Preview

Sep 20th 2013

The final act has arrived.  After the opening Australian hard-court season, the spring mini-majors in Indian Wells and Miami, the European clay and grass swing, and the North American summer hard courts, the 2013 WTA season winds down in Asia with key events in Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul.  The last Premier Five tournament on the calendar, the Toray Pan Pacific Open ends its three-decade existence this week.  Two of the top three women, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, withdrew before the draw.  But the Australian Open champion and US Open runner-up leads a very deep field onto the fast courts of the Ariake Coliseum.

Victoria Azarenka

First quarter:  Few women excel at winning ugly as much as Victoria Azarenka does.  The world No. 2 did not often look her bulletproof self on the American summer hard courts, yet she recorded a title and two runner-up appearances in three tournaments.  Azarenka could face a fellow major champion in her opener, Venus Williams having traveled to Tokyo in the absence of her sister.  Venus won both of her previous meetings against Vika, but they have not met during the former’s decline and the latter’s emergence in 2012-13.  The hottest WTA player of the summer, Simona Halep, could await Azarenka in the early stages as well if she can survive two-time 2013 titlist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  Several rising stars beyond Halep populate this section, most notably Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, and Eugenie Bouchard.  They lie further from Vika than from the 10th-ranked Jelena Jankovic, a former finalist in Tokyo.  Azarenka won key hard-court clashes with Stephens (Australian Open) and Jankovic (Cincinnati) this year, tournaments that she eventually won.  In fact, she has not lost before the final on an outdoor hard court since April 2012.

Semifinalist:  Victoria Azarenka

Second quarter:  Two weary competitors bookend this section.  Third seed Sara Errani showed symptoms of burnout after an early loss at the US Open, logical considering her heavy schedule in both singles and doubles.  Now outside the top 10, former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has not reached a semifinal at an event of this level in over a year.  A sequence of injury/illness woes have combined with erratic form to deplete Kvitova’s confidence.  She fell to potential third-round opponent Carla Suarez Navarro during the Asian season last year, although she has swept their other meetings.  Kvitova’s early draw looks less ominous in general than the group surrounding Errani.  Two-time major champion and former Tokyo runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova has followed a strong first half with a miserable second half, but she could outhit the Italian counterpuncher on a fast court.  One might say something similar about Sorana Cirstea, whose momentum has faded after a strong summer highlighted by a Rogers Cup final.  Gone in the first round of Guangzhou as the top seed last week, Cirstea faces an unpredictable opener against Julia Goerges, one of the year’s most notable underachievers.

Semifinalist:  Petra Kvitova

Third quarter:  Few women inspire much confidence in this section, which does include a former Tokyo champion.  Fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki won this title three years ago during her tenure as the world No. 1 but has not won a title at any level this year.  One of two unseeded quarterfinalists at the US Open should test her immediately once the surges of Daniela Hantuchova and Flavia Pennetta (ultimately a semifinalist in New York) collide.  Wozniacki herself showed improved form during the US Open Series in Cincinnati and New Haven, including an upset over Kvitova, before a first-week exit to a qualifier in New York renewed questions about her future.  The Dane at least has fared better recently than two of the other three seeds in this section.  While Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens has lost four straight matches, Samantha Stosur followed her split with long-time coach David Taylor by tumbling out of the US Open in the first round.  An upset might befall her this week against the feisty, ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm, who ambushed Maria Sharapova in Tokyo three years ago.  The strongest upward trend in this section belongs to eighth seed Roberta Vinci, a quarterfinalist at the US Open for the second straight year and a woman who tends to win the matches that she should win.

Semifinalist:  Roberta Vinci

Agnieszka Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska enjoyed her last two trips to Tokyo, winning the 2011 title and finishing runner-up last year.  In the wake of a US Open disappointment, a solid week in Seoul primed her for success there once again, perhaps at the expense of her sister.  Urszula Radwanska will look to score an early upset over a tired Dominika Cibulkova, who did defeat Agnieszka in their last meeting this summer.  Consistent success over the last three years against the other two seeds in the quarter will boost Radwanska’s hopes of a deep run.  Despite ending her partnership with coach Nigel Sears, Ana Ivanovic produced a strong US Open campaign that nearly culminated in an upset of Azarenka.  That said, Radwanska has outmaneuvered the Serb on surfaces slow and fast since the latter’s descent from the No. 1 ranking.  Top-ranked German and top-ranked lefty Angelique Kerber dipped outside the top 10 recently, only to nudge back into it as others around her struggled.  Kerber lost to Radwanska at this tournament in each of the last two years,  and she dropped both of her matches against Ivanovic this year. 

Semifinalist:  Agnieszka Radwanska

Final:  Victoria Azarenka vs. Agnieszka Radwanska

Champion:  Victoria Azarenka

A final between the top two seeds is far from guaranteed in the fall season, though, when upsets often occur at a higher rate.  In less elite men’s draws at Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, they should strike even more frequently.  A preview of those tournaments will appear on Sunday or Monday.