As the third major of the season nears its conclusion, Wimbledon showcases the Battle of the Oder between a Pole and a German before the Duel of the Decibelles between two strong-willed, strong-lunged major champions. Just as Roland Garros had become Sharapova’s tournament to lose by this stage, so has Wimbledon resigned itself to Serena’s not-very-tender mercies barring an exceptionally stirring effort from another lefty beginning with K or one of the two women who could end the tournament as #1
Kerber vs. Radwanska: Not until the last few moments of their quarterfinal did this semifinal clash take form, and in fact a Lisicki vs. Kirilenko meeting looked more probable midway through both third sets. After she had dominated her compatriot for most of the first two sets, Kerber spurned three match points late in the second set, twice let a lead slip away early in the third, and tottered on the verge of a crushing collapse when a double fault let Lisicki serve for the match. As thoughts of the Eastbourne final must have raced through her head, she halted the skid just in time to reel off the last three games of a sometimes perplexing but often entertaining all-German quarterfinal. Moving crisply and constructing points smartly for most of the tournament, Kerber had not lost a set until that round. One hardly would identify her as the same woman who fell to Laura Robson in her Wimbledon opener last year, but one might identify her as the same woman who conquered Radwanska in the second round of the US Open. Ultimately reaching the semifinal at that major, Kerber proved that result no accident by repeating the result here, one major after a quarterfinal at Roland Garros. Moreover, she leads the WTA in matches won this year and collected her first two career titles from small tournaments in Paris and Copenhagen. In addition to a maiden major final, a victory here would establish her as the highest-ranked lefty in women’s tennis, a development that literally nobody could have foreseen a year ago.
Of much greater significance were Radwanska’s two titles at Dubai and Miami this year, however, the culmination of a surge that started just before Kerber’s emergence last summer and extended through prominent tournaments in Tokyo and Beijing. Until May, Radwanska had not lost a match all season to anyone other than Azarenka and suddenly had transformed herself from an intriguing figure on the fringes of the spotlight to a genuine contender. Or so it seemed until three straight early losses in Rome, Roland Garros, and Eastbourne testified to her admitted fatigue from accumulating many more matches than she normally does in the first half of a season—a fatigue that Kerber seems yet to feel. Gifted with an exceptionally kind draw until the quarterfinals, Radwanska achieved an immensely important breakthrough by finally moving past that stage at a major. Appropriately, that breakthrough did not come without a heaping helping of drama, including three rain delays, a set-and-break lead that got away, and a net cord in the final set that nearly gave Kirilenko a match point. If the Pole vaults into the first major final of her career, she will ascend to a career-high ranking of #2. Both of those feats would astonish most observers familiar with her modest serve and limited baseline power.
Thus, both semifinalists have reinvented their careers and will bring the best tennis that they ever have played to a match arguably the most important that each has played. Through the course of 2012, Radwanska has displayed a steely competitive determination against all opponents but Azarenka, that late-May wobble aside. For her part, Kerber has exuded pugnacity in winning the Paris final against home hope Bartoli and the Copenhagen final against home hope Wozniacki, both heavily favored at the time. In her debut major semifinal at the US Open, she erased one significant deficit and threatened to erase a second in a surprisingly poised effort against eventual champion Stosur. Kerber and Radwanska split their two meetings last year and have reached a third set in three of four overall. After the German sprung her US Open ambush, the Pole exacted her revenge with another three-setter in Tokyo just a month later, on a surface perhaps more similar to Wimbledon than anywhere else that they have collided. Although Kerber can find heavy serves at times, and Radwanska can unleash them occasionally too, this match should develop into a more fluid encounter decided by rallies, movement, and shot selection. With a Wimbledon final at stake, one might expect that nerves would play a pivotal role as well, but the gritty efforts by both women in their quarterfinals and throughout 2012 in general suggest otherwise. Clearly overshadowed by the other semifinal, which most feel will produce the champion, this match could prove the more scintillating of the two from an aesthetic perspective, for Kerber and Radwanska have developed versatile games and can win points in a multitude of ways.
Serena vs. Azarenka: As the four-time Wimbledon champion and accomplished escape artist so often has done before, Serena survived in the early rounds until she thrived when the competition stiffened. A game from defeat against Zheng and Shvedova, talented players but well below her quality, she soared to vintage form in a comprehensive victory over Kvitova. Summoning her best against the best, Serena sustained her crucial intensity better than she has in any match of this magnitude since returning from her year-long absence. While the defending champion matched the former champion blow for blow from the baseline for most of the match, she found no answers to the latter’s impenetrable serve. When the American hits drop shots for winners and inside-out backhands off lines without hesitation, one can sense her towering confidence on the court. To be sure, Serena has revealed a susceptibility to abrupt dips in form as well this year, falling to Wozniacki on an error-strewn evening in Miami a round after hitting 20 aces against Stosur and falling to Makarova in the fourth round of the Australian Open after a convincing first week. On the other hand, her quarterfinal effort sparked memories of her championship charge in Madrid, when she lost just four games to Sharapova and four more to her opponent in this semifinal, who then held the top ranking.
Almost unnoticed through the first few rounds, the former and likely future #1 has proceeded to this stage more convincingly than any of her fellow semifinalists. Authoritative against Ivanovic, Azarenka withstood a spirited assault from Paszek under the Centre Court roof, twice failing to serve out the match before reasserting herself in the tiebreak. When she encounters Serena, she cannot afford to let those opportunities slip away. But, the Belarussian’s popularly maligned serve has proved generally effective this tournament, falling only twice in her last four matches until the last-minute lapse against Paszek. When Serena demolished her in Madrid, that shot prevented Azarenka from gaining a foothold in the match by offering such a vulnerable target for the American’s pinpoint returns. Unable to impose herself behind her own serve, Vika could not subject her opponent to any pressure in return games, the area where she typically shines. If she can collect service holds more regularly, she can start to challenge Serena more consistently and plant some seeds of doubt in her mind. Although the 13-time major champion has won seven of their eight career meetings, Vika has threatened to topple her twice at majors. In consecutive Australian Opens, she won the first set from Serena but then retired on the first occasion and squandered a 4-0 lead on the second. The precedent clearly exists, therefore, for Azarenka to discomfit her legendary adversary on a momentous stage. Once the rallies start, her penetrating groundstrokes will test Serena’s footwork and patience as she searches for the right moment to pull the trigger without retreating too far behind the baseline.
On the grass of Wimbledon, though, the task of surviving the most formidable first-strike power ever projected by a female tennis player looms larger than it did on the relatively moderately paced hard courts of Melbourne. When they met on Centre Court three years ago, Serena eased past an Azarenka still some distance from maturity and too mentally fragile to master the moment. More concerning from Vika’s perspective in the recent trend in their rivalry, which includes three victories for the American over the last twelve months during which she lost seven or fewer games on each occasion. Azarenka played a close set against Serena each time, in Toronto, New York, and Madrid, but never came as close to seizing control of the match as she had at the Australian Open. In the last five sets that they have played, this outstanding returner has broken her rival’s serve exactly once, a staggering statistic in view of the world #2’s quality and the fondness of the top women for service breaks. Defying that trend, Serena disagrees with the religious proverb that it is better to give than to receive. Amidst the unholy howling certain to emanate from Centre Court in a match of such importance, the former champion will frustrate Azarenka if she continues to hammer her hardest serves on the most vital points, snuffing out her opponent’s opportunities before they truly develop. Since the veteran should control the short, staccato exchanges, her younger opponent either must find a way to lengthen the majority of the points or dominate the points that do extend longer as authoritatively as Serena dominates those that do not.