Hard work for Azarenka and Williams

Updated: October 24, 2012, 6:03 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

ISTANBUL -- The two most dominant players on the women's tour were victorious at the year-end WTA championships in Istanbul on Wednesday, but Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams didn't have it easy in beating Angelique Kerber and Li Na, respectively, in the Red Group.

Thoughts from their matches on Day 2:

Vika old and new

Azarenka
Al Bello/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka was able to contain her fiery temper on Wednesday.

Given how Kerber short-hops balls, she'd be a pretty good second baseman. Her powerful legs would make her a useful fullback in football or midfielder in soccer.

We know Kerber, though, as a tennis player, and the German has gone from virtual unknown to one of the world's best in 15 months. Kerber can retrieve like Caroline Wozniacki, but her lefty ground strokes pack much more of a punch. She has an admirable blend of offense and defense, and her first serve intermittently gets her free points.

It will be interesting to see how she develops in the next two or three years. Kerber can get more out of the serve -- especially going out wide on the ad side -- and become more aggressive. She's shown a willingness already to go cross-court or down the line on both the forehand and backhand, keeping opponents guessing.

When Kerber reversed a 6-2 deficit in an enthralling first-set tiebreak to prevail 7-6, she was closer to ending Azarenka's 13-match winning streak. And when she held two match points at 5-4 in the second set, she was almost on her way to the net to shake hands.

But Azarenka's mental toughness surfaced, Kerber flinched ever so slightly, and the world No. 1 survived 7-6 (11), 6-7 (2), 6-4 in her debut this week.

Azarenka played wonderfully to fend off the two match points, yet Kerber will be frustrated that she allowed Azarenka to go on the offensive: She hoped Azarenka would miss instead of seizing the initiative.

Azarenka was back to her racket-flinging ways with Kerber closing in on the upset. However, unlike in years past, she regrouped -- and quickly. Azarenka routinely pummeled her textbook two-handed, cross-court backhand and finally, in the third set, took advantage of Kerber's inviting second serve.

Normally the crowd would be rooting for Kerber, the underdog, in the third set, but it appeared to be backing Azarenka. One fan in the stands even had a sign that partly read, "Love your scream." Not a tennis hotbed, but those fans in Istanbul clearly support the big names and players they know, as evidenced, too, by Williams' popularity.

Kerber slipped to 0-2, but this won't be her only appearance at the year-end championships.

All about the serves

[+] EnlargeNa Li
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesTennis officials are hoping Li Na's appearance in the final will boost the sport's popularity in China.

Was that Justine Henin facing Williams to open play Wednesday?

The service motion sure looked like Henin's, but it was, of course, Li. Carlos Rodriguez, Henin's former coach, is now guiding Li, and is obviously intent on altering Li's delivery. With Li, 30, one wonders if it's a wise move. Tinkering with the serve is always risky (ask Novak Djokovic or Maria Sharapova), and time isn't on her side.

As charismatic as the 2011 French Open winner is, she's fortunate to be in Istanbul. Players are judged mainly on their display at Grand Slams, and Li was the only member of the top 10 not to appear in a Slam quarterfinal this year.

She was unable to take advantage of an error-filled outing from Williams; Li was even more wayward in the 7-6 (2), 6-3 result. Indeed, the women's tennis tour, seeking a new global sponsor, would be advised not to put this one on the promo reel. They combined, in the first set alone, to hit 38 unforced errors and 13 winners.

And we're indoors.

The way Williams served, you'd have thought she was the one experimenting.

Through five games her first-serve percentage stood at 39. At one stage she struck three consecutive double faults, and overall, committed three foot faults. She slipped and slid, almost rolling her ankle, and nearly blew a 40-0 lead on serve in the second set. To her credit, when she realized the serve was off, Williams simply spun the ball in to give her a foundation.

Li, accommodatingly and predictably, failed to maintain a 4-1 first-set advantage.

The atmosphere was so subdued, countering Azarenka's match, that Marion Bartoli would have been a welcomed sight. With her practice swings and bobbing up and down, she'd have at least provided some energy.

Bottom line: Williams is 2-0 heading into Thursday's blockbuster against Azarenka.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

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