Two familiar foes will duel for a place in the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup tonight as Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska meet for the 17th time.
Both women need to win this one, the only Montreal quarter-final to follow the seedings. Azarenka has been out of action for much of 2014 thanks to a serious foot injury, and she has thousands of points to defend over the coming weeks. Radwanska has been typically active on tour throughout the season, but it’s been months since she produced an impressive performance on a big stage. A win for Vika would prove that she’s well and truly back in contention; victory for Aga would make her relevant again.
After stop-start – mostly stop – outings in Eastbourne, Wimbledon and Stanford, Azarenka has now won two matches in a row for the first time since January. She gritted out a three-set win over Alize Cornet earlier this week, and dispatched British qualifier Heather Watson in straight sets last night. The Cornet match was, unsurprisingly, a messy affair, riddled with errors and exacerbated by a nasty looking knee injury for Azarenka. But the Belarusian’s defeat of Watson was in another class entirely, the first indication that she is finally about to shake off the rust.
On Thursday, Vika had an answer to everything Watson threw at her. When the Brit played aggressively, Azarenka chased every ball and made her younger opponent hit an extra, often unexpected, shot. When Watson fell back into defensive rhythms, Azarenka pounced on short balls and moved forward with relish. In short, she produced the kind of display that characterised her standout 2012 season: consistent, attacking and full of desire.
If Azarenka showed signs of a return to form in her third round match, Radwanska was curiously flat for much of hers. Many of her ardent admirers have noted a loss of mojo recently, and although she got past Sabine Lisicki in three sets, it was far from peak Pole. Radwanska’s best stretch came at the end of the contest, when she recovered from a break down in the decider and capitalised on the German’s errors to take the final five games. However, the former beacon of consistency made plenty of mistakes herself, and for long periods there was little evidence of the flair and creativity that made her famous.
Even accounting for Azarenka’s lack of match practice this year, it’s difficult to see tonight’s quarter-final playing out in the same way as the pair’s most recent match. (At the Australian Open, Radwanska carved, chipped, sliced and lobbed like a magician to win a memorable three setter.) Instead, we should expect a continuation of Azarenka’s overall mastery of Radwanska. She leads the head-to-head 12-4, and before Melbourne had won seven in a row.
In the past, Radwanska has generally struggled to counter Azarenka’s relentless baseline barrage. The problem isn’t so much one of pace – Radwanska is a master at changing the direction of strongly-struck balls – but of time. Azarenka hits hard and deep and from side to side, giving the Pole little opportunity to create a surprising angle or throw in a startling drop shot. Azarenka knows how to put Radwanska under pressure, and when she’s under pressure, she’s on the ropes.
Prediction: Azarenka in two sets.