It has been a rough couple of days for the WTA's Big 3. First, Serena Williams exited in the quarterfinals with a stiff back and a blown-up ankle. The next day, No. 2 Maria Sharapova, after appearing to be in world-beating form, was ambushed by Li Na in the semis.
Finally, No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka, while she survived to reach the final, did so under a cloud of suspicion and scorn after taking a 10-minute medical timeout before the last game of her semifinal. None of these women came out unscathed.
The final we've been given isn't the one that was widely predicted. Instead of Serena vs. Maria, we have Vika vs. Li Na. But neither is it a total surprise. Both of these players have a history of success here. Azarenka won this tournament last season, and Li was one set from doing the same in 2011.
Who will win when they meet on Saturday night in Rod Laver Arena? Here's a five-point breakdown:
This goes to Li at the moment. She has rarely, if ever, played better than she did against Sharapova. All of the things that Li and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, worked on during the off-season-serve, forehand, concentration-looked much improved, at least for those two sets.
Azarenka has mostly looked good as well, with the exception of a surprising second-set loss to Jamie Hampton in the third round, and a shaky first set against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals. Vika likes this surface, and before her meltdown against Sloane Stephens yesterday, she was playing sharp, intelligent tennis.
Head to Head
Azarenka leads 5-4, and has won their last four meetings. Three of those have been on hard courts, and in two of them she dropped a set. They've played a few roller coaster matches, and you can easily see this one going the distance.
As far as their specific match-up goes, Azarenka has the advantage (as she does with everyone except Serena). She can stay with Li's pace, and she's more consistent, both from shot to shot and game to game. Li will have to play better than her norm to win. Vika won't.
Each of these women has a smart coach. Yesterday I saw Azarenka's mentor, Sam Sumyk, watching the Li-Sharapova semifinal and drawing up plays in a notebook. He and Vika had obviously done their homework on Stephens; their plan, to hit high and deep to Sloane's backhand, was a success. We'll see what they come up with for Li (hopefully Sumyk wasn't scouting Sharapova instead).
Rodriguez is just as savvy. Yesterday he counseled Li, if she won the service toss, to receive. His theory was that Sharapova is often tight in opening games, and this would allow Li potentially to get an early break. That's what happened.
How will the audience react to Azarenka after her semifinal, and how will Vika react to that reaction? The Aussies greeted her win over Stephens with near silence, and she was still shaken by the incident in her press conference two hours later. While crowds for Slam finals are typically more polite (a.k.a., older and richer) than the average group of rowdies you see on a side court, Azarenka won't be greeted warmly. Will she be defiant, or will she walk out looking like she has a "Kick Me" sign attached to her back?
Knowing her, she'll try to ignore everything and fight, and a me-against-the-world attitude could work for her. But as competitive as she is and as successful as she has been, Vika's confidence isn't ironclad-we could see that yesterday. She'll try to be steely, but I doubt she wants to embrace a role as a WTA villain. If she starts to lose, it could get lonely for her out there. On the motivational side for Azarenka, she needs to win this to stay No. 1. She's proud of that ranking, and won't want to give it up.
The big issue for Li is: What will happen if she misses a few shots? Typically with her, a couple of errors lead to a couple more, and soon she's barking at her player's box as the set is slipping away. She didn't have to worry about that against Sharapova, because she never started to miss. She and Rodriguez have been working on keeping her in her own mental cocoon out there. But until adversity strikes, you never know if and when that bubble is going to burst.
This one could go either way. Looking at the semifinals alone, you would favor Li. If she plays the way she did against Sharapova, she'll probably win. Azarenka, by contrast, will be on edge after her last match, and as I said, she could start to feel lonely and negative if she gets behind. Bad behavior from her will draw boos.
But I picked Azarenka to win this tournament from the beginning, and I'll stay with her now. Over the long haul, she's the superior and steadier player-there's a reason she's No. 1. Still, it will likely take all the skill she has and the confidence she's developed to fight off a scornful audience and a hot opponent.