Not a major or Premier Mandatory tournament but just an ordinary Premier event, the Stuttgart tournament welcomes the top four women in the world to its penultimate round.  Slashing their paths through a stunningly deep field, each of the semifinalists can expect only to confront ever greater obstacles over the weekend.

Azarenka vs. Radwanska:   Dispatching her rival four times in the first three months of 2012, the world #1’s victories grew progressively more lopsided from three-setters in Sydney and Australia to a routine affair in Doha and an overwhelming rout at Indian Wells.  A barometer of Azarenka’s evolving maturity, her performances in these matches revealed a more disciplined and composed competitor than we had seen in her formative period.  Vika rebounded impressively from frustrating first sets in their first two meetings to wrest away control of the rallies and eventually cruise through the final sets, while that Indian Wells encounter represented a masterpiece of controlled aggression, perhaps her finest single performance of a spectacular season so far.  Since both women break serve and lose serve more frequently than most elite contenders before them, we should see a match where returns set the tone and where few games end quickly.

Following a chaotic three-set victory over Barthel, her second thriller against the German in 2012, Azarenka must recover efficiently for a physical, grinding match that likely looms ahead.  Nevertheless, she exuded her familiar determination in outlasting an inspired dark horse on a surface not her best, suggesting that the post-Miami vacation has left her mentally refreshed.  Forced to erase a substantial early deficit against Li Na, Radwanska similarly responded to adversity with aplomb in recording her 28th straight victory over an opponent other than Vika.  This semifinal offers an opportunity for the Pole to consolidate her apparent breakthrough in Miami, a title from which she has suffered no hangover.  If she can reverse Azarenka’s momentum in this crucial rivalry, the world #4 would bolster her case as a legitimate threat at the more significant tournaments ahead.  More adept on hard courts than on conventional clay, both women hope to translate their dominance from one surface to the next.

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Stifled by Stosur’s serve-forehand combinations for most of two sets, the statuesque Russian refused to relinquish hope as she protected her own less bulletproof serve as best she could.  After a double fault cost Sharapova the first set, another double fault produced her opponent’s first match point and seemed to signal the logical conclusion to her scintillating effort.  Adhering to her motto of playing one point at a time, though, the world #2 saved the match point with a penetrating backhand, exploited the slightest of blinks from Stosur in the next game, and before long had reversed the dynamic of the match.  She did not face a break point thereafter while gradually tightening the pressure upon the Australian, who to her credit did not crumble until 5-5 in the final set.  Having held serve at love to stay alive at 4-5, Sharapova opened this three-hour thriller’s last game with a thunderous ace and service winner that snuffed out her foe’s last flickers of belief.

As they eagerly await a sequel to that signature performance, Stuttgart citizens should remember that the Russian generally has not excelled on the day following one of these three-hour dramas.  For example, she succumbed quietly to Peng in Beijing immediately after mounting a stirring comeback against Azarenka there in 2009.  But her semifinal opponent likely will not force her into the endless rallies that could test Sharapova’s ability to sustain her energy.  With the Williams sisters now just sporadic participants, Kvitova has become the only player who can match or surpass the world #2’s firepower from the baseline.  At Wimbledon, she astonished international audiences by effectively out-Sharapovaing Sharapova, stepping further inside the court, hammering her groundstrokes with greater depth, taking more balls out of the air, and generally seizing command of the rallies before the former champion could.  An arid post-Australian spell behind her, the Czech demonstrated her return to health by demolishing four straight top-25 opponents over the past week, including victories over Schiavone and Kerber here. 

Unlike the first semifinal, this display of unvarnished power should revolve around service holds.  Broken just once in three sets on Friday, Sharapova lost her serve to Kvitova only once in each of the three sets that they played in Melbourne and has conceded no more than one break in seven of her last eight sets against top-eight opponents.  For her part, the world #3 wields one of the WTA’s most powerful and most reliable deliveries, ranging from the flat serve down the middle to the classic lefty serve that swings wide in the ad court.  Considering Sharapova’s mastery of the epic genre, displayed at her expense a few months ago, Kvitova will want to establish herself early in the match before any suspense develops.  The Czech has displayed a taste for the flamboyant and dramatic before, but this time she should aim for the straightforward and uneventful so that her opponent’s mental resilience tips an evenly balanced match for the second straight day.