Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova meet on Saturday to become not only the 2012 Australian Open champion, but also the world No. 1. Will Azarenka, in her first slam final, show nerves against a steely Sharapova? Can Sharapova account for the fact that Azarenka can beat her at her own power game?
It has become a trend on the women's tour, not unlike men's tennis in the late-1990s. The most powerful players have gotten older and begun to break down, and a host of players now find themselves with the opportunity to capitalize. And really, none have. Defensive specialist Carolina Wozniacki has spent more than a year at No. 1 because some incredible hitters haven't been able to harness both their brains and overall games long enough to make a sustained charge.
- Ana Ivanovic wins the 2008 French Open and reaches No. 1 at 20 years old, then completely loses the plot. She hasn't made even a grand slam quarterfinal since then, and she currently ranks 22nd in the world.
- Jelena Jankovic replaces Ivanovic as No. 1, despite having never even made a grand slam final. She loses the 2008 U.S. Open final to Serena Williams, then falls apart. She's made it past the fourth round in just one of the last 13 slams and ranks 13th.
- Dinara Safina powers her way to No. 1 but cannot escape her own brain. Her ranking plummets to the 100s by 2010, and she is beaten, 6-0, 6-0, by Kim Clijsters at the 2011 Australian Open. After back troubles, she is now considering retirement.
- Svetlana Kuznetsova powers her way to the 2009 French Open (her second slam title), reaches No. 2 in the world, and falters. She has made only one slam quarterfinal since and is about to fall out of the Top 20.
- Vera Zvonareva makes back-to-back slam finals in 2010, then another semifinal, loses badly in all three matches, and fades into the woodwork. Now she's 27 and barely holding onto a Top 10 ranking.
- Li Na experiences a late-career breakthrough winning the 2011 French Open at 28. Then she loses in the second round at Wimbledon, the first round at the U.S. Open, and collapses against an injured Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open.
- Sam Stosur experiences a late-career breakthrough, winning the 2011 U.S. Open at 27. Then she loses in the first round of the 2012 Australian Open.
- Petra Kvitova wipes the floor with Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon finals, then bows out in the first round of the U.S. Open.
The last five slams have seen five different champions, and this will be the sixth. Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, 30 and 28 respectively, have repeatedly returned from injuries to win slams. Now, we're looking at a women's tour where seven of the top 15 players, and ten of the top 21, were born before 1985 (which, amazingly, makes you "old" now) and few of the younger players have experienced sustained breakthroughs.
Enter Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. Sharapova, a three-time slam champion, is somehow still only 24, and after shoulder surgery (and the major inconsistency that followed), she is one match from reassuming the No. 1 throne. The 22-year old Azarenka, meanwhile, has spent much of her career playing the same type of fiery, powerful and wildly inconsistent tennis as many of her peers, but she has caught fire at the right time. She made the Wimbledon semifinals last year, and after bowing out in the third round of the U.S. Open, she has spent most of the last four months laying waste to the women's field. She is 23-3 since the U.S. Open, 11-0 so far in 2012. And she, too, is one win away from taking Wozniacki's No. 1 ranking.
Match No. 1: Moscow 2007 Round Of 16: Azarenka won, 7-6 (9), 6-2
Match No. 2: Los Angeles 2009 Round Of 32: Sharapova won, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2
Match No. 3: Beijing 2009 Round Of 32: Sharapova won, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5
Match No. 4: Stanford 2010 Finals: Azarenka won, 6-4, 6-1
Match No. 5: Miami 2011 Finals: Azarenka won, 6-1, 6-4
Match No. 6: Rome 2011 Quarterfinals: Sharapova won, 4-6, 3-0--RET.
The two have played six times, and though the series is split at 3-3, Azarenka has won six of the last seven sets between the two. (She lost their last match after suffering an injury midway through the second set.) Their matches have followed one of two paths: either Sharapova wins in three, or Azarenka wins in straight sets. (That would make the first set pretty key then, huh?)
Here are three questions for Sharapova-Azarenka:
1. Where's Azarenka's head? Watching Azarenka in this tournament has been exhausting, both because of her physical style and her sustained intensity. Known previously for having a bit of a temper (to put it nicely), she has built and sustained positive energy for most of the last two weeks, pumping her first and talking to herself after every winner. Can she sustain that against another intense (but far more level-headed) competitor in Sharapova?
And beyond this match, what happens if Azarenka wins? Can she maintain this level of (good) intensity moving forward? Or will she pull a Stosur/Na/Ivanovic? If she does assume the No. 1 spot, can she keep it?
2. Where's Sharapova's serve? It is a key to every match Sharapova plays. When she returned from her shoulder injury, she still had fantastic ground strokes and one of the best service returns in the game, but she consistently fell behind against good opponents because she was spraying her serve all over the court, the net and the first few rows of the stands. She has improved immensely, but even now, when she misses a couple of first serves, it seems like another few misses are sure to follow. Azarenka is a powerful hitter; she will feast on second serves if given the opportunity.
3. Who Starts Faster? In the semifinals, Sharapova started quickly against a nervous Kvitova, taking the first set by a 6-2 margin before Kvitova began to get herself into the match. This is her sixth slam final, and it is Azarenka's first. Odds are good that Sharapova will be hot from the start. Will Azarenka? If you watch the videos below (and you, by all means, should), you will see a mostly relaxed Azarenka outhitting Sharapova and beating her at her own power game. But Kvitova did the same thing to Sharapova last year at Wimbledon; nerves make one hell of a difference.
And yes, there will be grunting. Lots and lots of grunting. But try not to get distracted by that because you would miss some fascinating tennis/drama if you do. This has been an absolutely incredible Australian Open, on both the women's and (even moreso) men's side. The finals could be every bit as intriguing.