ISTANBUL - Victoria Azarenka took a long and vital step towards the year-end world number one ranking by saving two match points in a heroic tussle against Angelique Kerber in the WTA Championships.
The top-seeded Belarussian beat the revelatory German 6-7 (11/13), 7-6 (7/2) 6-4 in an match full of magnificent rallies and surprises, which leaves Azarenka needing only one more victory to guarantee her a top finish.
Had Azarenka lost either of the match points against her a path might have opened up for the second-seeded Maria Sharapova to sneak through to the summit instead.
But despite repeated frustrations from Kerber’s relentlessly courageous mixture of containment and counter-hitting, Azarenka somehow controlled her once unruly emotions and found a way to prevail.
“On the two match points against me I felt I had to go for it,” Azarenka said.
“I felt she would not miss, so I didn’t want to wait for her to make a mistake – I was determined to make it happen.
“I wanted to change the momentum and take destiny into my own hands. I had a clear mind of what I had to do. It takes time to go through (what’s needed) to learn that.”
With a difficult contest in prospect against Serena Williams on Thursday, that was essential.
A loss to the German on Wednesday and another on to the unofficial favourite from the United States on Thursday might have given Sharapova the opportunity to grasp the top-ranking accolade herself by winning the WTA title on Sunday.
Instead Azarenka denied Kerber both her match points by following up some sound serving with bold and courageous driving.
It helped atone for the four set points in a row and five altogether which Kerber enterprisingly denied Azarenka in a 24-point first set tie-break.
Even in the final set, when the top seed at last appeared to have acquired a winning momentum and twice forced breaks of serve, the superb contest was not over.
Twice Kerber broke back, and it required yet another muscle-stretching, lung-bursting push from Azarenka to force the outcome against her opponent’s serve after three hours and six minutes of excellence.
Earlier Williams overcame the emotions which impelled her to smash a racket and earned her a code violation warning before advancing to the verge of the semi-finals with her second win.
The Olympic, US Open and Wimbledon champion only achieved her 7-6 (7/2), 6-3 win over Li Na, the former French Open champion from China, after a tense, noisy, and surprisingly fraught performance.
It was more a triumph of will than anything else for the unofficial favourite, who landed less than 50 percent of her first serves, dropped service games five times, and needed an hour and 50minutes before she prevailed.
The racket-smashing incident occurred during a weird fourth game in which one of the finest servers in the history of the game delivered two successive double faults to go a break down.
But Williams is one of the most resilient of fighters, and one of the most dangerous of one-hit attackers, and it was these tough qualities which helped see her through.
“I lost serve today more often than all of Wimbledon,” Williams said acidly. “I was just thinking about it too much. I didn’t serve well yesterday and I thought about it. I just need not to think.
“But to win with zero serve, compared with what I normally do is something I can take from the match.”
About the smashed racket, she said: “I guess I was angry and I wasn’t able to control myself. But sometimes I play better when I get angry.”
The 31-year-old American will be the oldest player ever to win the WTA title if she goes all the way. Earlier a new champion became certain when Petra Kvitova, the titleholder from the Czech republic, withdrew from the tournament with a virus.