For with the dominant names of the last decade absent from the WTA Championshipsâ€”the Williams sisters, Kim Clijsters and, withdrawing during the Round Robins, Maria Sharapovaâ€”the new stars were given centre stage to performâ€”and they did just that.
Hosted in a new home in Istanbul, the year-end finale tapped into a fresh enthusiasm from a country that, match by match, was drawn into the intensity of the battle for supremacy that unfolded.
The Turkish fans, enjoying unprecedented access to world-class sport at knock-down prices, repaid the womenâ€™s efforts in spades, filling every match, cheering every player. And on the last day, those fans, and many more around the world, were rewarded with a final of almost palpable intensity.
The last two standing were Nos 3 and 4 in the world, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, who were playing not only for the end-of-year title but also to become No2.
Each with their fate in the hands of the woman across the net, they mirrored one another in so many ways. They had both climbed to career-high rankings in the last few weeks, had won two of the closing tournaments of the WTA calendarâ€”Azarenka in Luxembourg and Kvitova in Linzâ€”and had near identical match-wins to their name ahead of Istanbul: 52 and 53 respectively.
They even mirrored one another on court: two statuesque women in navy blue and cerise with long, blond ropes of hair plaited down their backs.
If there was an advantage either way it was with Kvitova. She came into the final without losing a match and having won her last three meetings against Azarenka, most recently in the semi-final of Wimbledon this year. But both were finding superlative form, hitting hard and deep, able to find angled winners on forehand and backhand and with enough aggression to make outright winners at the drop of a hat.
Kvitova, though, showed her intent from the off. She broke her opponentâ€™s first service game with what is becoming one of the shots of womenâ€™s tennis, a huge left-handed forehand down the line. Azarenka was, quite simply, rooted to the spot and Kvitova broke again and held serve to love. It was 5-0 to the six-foot Czech in just 20 minutes.
A steely Azarenka, however, got a glint in the eye. Games began to race past in her favourâ€”five in a row, saving two set points on the wayâ€”as Kvitova began to over-hit ball after ball.
Then suddenly, Kvitovaâ€™s inhibitions vanished as quickly as they had arrived. She held serve to 15 and converted her third break point chance to take the set, 7-5.
The start of the second set showed just how tense both women were: It see-sawed through three quick breaks of serveâ€”indeed it was almost four breaksâ€”before Azarenka, now looking the calmer and more consistent of the two, eventually took the advantage, 4-2. With the points shared 50-50, Azarenka served out, 6-4, to level the match.
Kvitova looked in deep trouble during the first game of the decider as she went down 0-40 on serve, but she pulled back to deuce and defended a fourth break point. Then, in what seemed a replay of the first set, she opened a 3-0 lead.
It was a tense and vocal final set that mixed up huge winners with big errors, careful serves with cautious returns. The famousâ€”or notoriousâ€”Azarenka squeal paled against the growing volume and frequency of the Kvitova screech as the Czech inched, point by full-blooded point, to the winning post.
In the end, it was the Wimbledon champion who took the greater chances compared with the woman she beat on Londonâ€™s lawns. Azaenka saved one match point on her serve only to see Kvitova serve out the match, after two and a half hours, 6-3. The young woman who seemed such an overwhelmed Grand Slam champion in July had become, by the end of October, the confident WTA Champion.
Kvitovaâ€™s year does not stop here, however. She has one more duty to fulfil, in Moscow, in less than a weekâ€™s time. She will join her Czech team-mates for the final of the Fed Cup and will have to perform at her best to get the better of a formidable Russian team that contains Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko and the woman she beat this week, for the loss of just five games, Vera Zvonareva.
It may be a step too far: She cannot, after all, win the Cup on her own. But she will surely still be regarded as the player of 2011. With six titles to her nameâ€”one of them a Grand Slam and one the year-end Championshipâ€”and a climb from No34 at the start of 2011 to No2 at its end, there are few who can match her.
Based on the improvement in her tennis, her concentration and her confidence through 2011, she may well become No1 in the world by the spring, especially as Caroline Wozniacki has big points to defend at the Australian Open, Dubai, Doha and Indian Wells.
Also significant for the year ahead is Kvitovaâ€™s record on grass. She lost just one match, the final at Eastbourne, out of her 12 on grass this year.
She will relish the prospect not only of defending her Wimbledon title but also of going for Olympic gold.
What she must not ignore, during this fascinating phase in womenâ€™s tennis, is that a clutch of other women are also enjoying their best ever form. Sam Stosur and Na Li won their first Grand Slams, Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams are promising to return in Melbourne, and Azarenkaâ€”along with other rising stars such as Andrea Petkovic and Pavlyuchenkovaâ€”are all poised to attack the top of the game.
So roll on 2012. Womenâ€™s tennis is, after a few years in the doldrums, finding a very rich vein.
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