Istanbul: Victoria Azarenka implied her season was all but over after a 6-4 6-3 loss to Jelena Jankovic on Wednesday delivered a significant blow to her chances of making a challenge for Serena Williams’ title at the WTA Championships.
However Azarenka’s words were almost as much of a surprise as her first defeat in four years to the seventh-seeded former world number one, as she only needs to win her remaining group match to be almost sure of qualifying for Saturday’s semi-finals.
The world number two from Belarus cut a forlorn and self-critical figure after another unusually error-prone performance, with fewer redeeming features than her struggle to get past Sara Errani of Italy on Tuesday.
After dropping serve to go 2-4 down in the first set, Azarenka appeared to struggle with a lack of confidence, and sometimes over-pressed to try to repair the increasing damage.
Azarenka admits to feeling the fatigue well before the end of the season, and once the intelligent and strongly-focussed Jankovic had tenaciously clung to her fifth-game break to capture the first set, she made admirably steady progress.
It was an especially encouraging result for the Serbian, who has needed two years to climb back into the top eight after lengthy and career-threatening injury problems.
Jankovic played a consistent and well-thought-out match, drawing out the errors from her opponent, and serving solidly and tenaciously to cling to the leads she had patiently chiselled.
But Azarenka was disconsolate.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t do well, so to find just one will make it really difficult,” she said.
“Of course she’s playing well. She’s playing her best tennis just now, but I can’t sit here and say I played well.
“I let a lot of balls go, there were a lot of mistakes, small mistakes, a little bit bigger mistakes — it was just so inconsistent.”
Azarenka then suggested she had all but given up on the title here.
“I have one more match, so, you know, for me, it’s just going to be about that,” she said.
“Then there is a break, and 2013 will be over for me. So that’s what I kind of have to deal with at this particular moment — just one more match.”
If Li Na had been taking notice — which she almost certainly was not — it might have been another of several motivators to reverse the result of her last meeting with Azarenka, on a highly dramatic day in Melbourne in January.
Williams by contrast cruised to her second straight sets win in an hour and 20 minutes, beating Agnieszka Radwanska for the eighth time in eight meetings while making almost certain of qualifying for Saturday’s semis.
The skilful but marginally lightweight world number four from Poland has only taken one set from the American in all that time — in the Wimbledon final last year — and persistent and imaginative though she often was, she did not have the weapons to avoid being trampled on.
Williams said she was tired too.
“Yeah, it’s similar to, you know, having match point — it’s so close, but yet it’s so far away [the end of the season].
“You have to kind of stay focused throughout the whole ordeal,” she replied.
“It hasn’t gotten easier any year, any year that I have played. But you’ve just got to, whatever, decide if you want to or not.”
Earlier Li Na made an encouraging start to her bid to reach the semis for the first time, when she contained a courageous second set fight-back by Sara Errani, the sixth-seeded Italian, to win 6-3, 7-6 (7/5).
“I just enjoy this moment,” Li said, looking very much as though she was doing that. “I don’t know if, how you say, if I can stay same level until end of the next year — or maybe I’m going to retire,” she said, parodying a question which journalists have often put to her.
On Thursday she was due to play Jankovic, in a match which could have seen either of them clinch a place in the last four.