sistaff
Saturday October 29th, 2011

Petra Kvitova (left) and Victoria Azarenka will vie for the No. 2 ranking in Sunday

ISTANBUL -- Observations from the semifinals of the WTA Championships, where the youngsters prevailed Saturday to set up a final with the year-end No. 2 ranking at stake:

The players back Petra: Respect in the locker room is the true sign you've made it, particularly when you're young. If there's one thing that's been evident this week, it's that Petra Kvitova clearly has that respect, and she's earned it in the best way possible: by letting her tennis do the talking.

The 21-year-old Czech may be reluctant to talk up her own game, but it turns out she doesn't need to. The other players are doing it for her. They've consistently singled her out as the best player of 2011.

Samantha Stosur was the first player to take a set off Kvitova this week, but fell in the semifinals 5-7, 6-3, 6-3. When asked how much of the match she felt was on her racket, the straightforward Aussie laughed and said, "Not a whole lot of it, to be honest."

That's saying something coming from Stosur, who is used to being the one dictating the action and hitting winners, and it's a testament to Kvitova's effortless power and shotmaking.

"She's very, very young, but already from when I first saw her when I played her at the French a couple years ago until now, it's amazing how much she's been able to improve," the 27-year-old Stosur said. "She's got the game where you will see maybe a flurry of errors, but then you'll flip it over and you'll see that streak of winners. So I'm sure as she gets older, she will only make that better and better."

Similarly, Marion Bartoli, who has spent most of this week as a spectator while serving as an alternate, identified Kvitova as the year's top player. "Kvitova has really been stepping up," Bartoli said, noting that Kvitova won Wimbledon after beginning the year outside the top 30 (at No. 34).

Kvitova, who on Saturday improved to 18-0 indoors this year, is one victory away from becoming the first player in seven years to win the WTA Championships in her debut (Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams in the 2004 final). A victory would also give Kvitova her sixth title of the season.

"I think she's one of those exciting players to watch because she can pretty much do anything," Stosur said.

 Vika the mercurial: Was it exhaustion? Was it annoyance? Was it just because she didn't feel like it? Before Saturday, Victoria Azarenka had punctuated her two victories this week with a stick-out-her-tongue-twirl-her-fingers-through-the-air celebration. But after beating Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 6-3 to qualify for the WTA Championships final, the 22-year-old Azarenka was almost shockingly muted. She didn't crack a smile, she didn't look relieved, she didn't look … anything. In fact, if you didn't know any better, you'd have thought she lost the match.

Azarenka came under fire Friday after admitting to putting in a lackluster performance in the third set of her loss to Bartoli (the Belarusian said she considered the match to be "practice," having already qualified for the semifinals). She was whistled off the court by a disappointed crowd and gave a very curt press conference five minutes later, making it clear that she wanted to be anywhere else. It was an unfortunate few hours for a woman who had seemed to be outgrowing her prickly interactions with reporters. After Saturday's victory, Azarenka expressed regret about Friday's effort.

"Yesterday, I don't want to really think about it," she said. "It was a terrible match, and if I would take it back I would.  But I can't."

They've got legs and they know how to use them: Three women age 27 or older may have won Grand Slam titles this year, but when Monday rolls around, three players under 23 will top the rankings. Sunday's final between Kvitova and Azarenka will determine who will end the year at No. 2 behind 21-year-old Caroline Wozniacki. If experience helps you win the big titles, it would appear that the extra pep in the step of youthful legs is what gets you through the grind of a 10-month season.

One up, one down: Who'd have thunk it three months ago that we'd be congratulating Stosur for a great 2011? Credit to the Aussie for continuing to plug away through her underwhelming results, steadying herself over the summer and emerging as a major champion, then shrugging off the swirling "slump" talk to make the semifinals in Istanbul. She'll finish the year right back where she started, at No. 6, and I don't think many thought she'd back up her breakout 2010.

Meanwhile, Zvonareva came into the year at No. 2 and spent much of 2011 struggling to stay in the conversation. By all accounts the 27-year-old had a fine year, but she was never able to break through during a wide-open season on the WTA Tour. Saturday's loss was a microcosm of her 2011. The match was closer than the scoreline indicates, with a number of games going to deuce. But Zvonareva never quite asserted herself and she played the big points poorly. She'll end the year at No. 7, and here's hoping she finds a coaching situation that will offer her stability and a clear head.

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Finals preview: Azarenka started this event on fire, carrying through her form from last week's title in Luxembourg. But there were signs in her last two matches that the late-season run may be taking a toll. Her movement hasn't been as crisp, her decision-making not as clear. That said, she has been steady, and that might be enough to bring her over the line against an up-and-down Kvitova, who has won their two meetings this year, one on grass and the other on clay. BTB's pick: Unless Kvitova implodes (which is a fair possibility), she'll take it.

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