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Steve Flink: Azarenka Steps To The Forefront

1/28/2012 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After watching Victoria Azarenka obliterate Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 to capture her first major title at the Australian Open, I was reminded of a conversation I had long ago with the late Ted Tinling. Tinling was a highly regarded, endlessly informative, ever enlightening walking historian of the sport. He had seen more major finals than anyone. We were talking about how enjoyable it was to envision the way a Grand Slam championship match might take shape. We were in accord that it was often impossible to project what might occur whenever a Grand Slam tournament final was contested. We agreed that the pressure surrounding these historically crucial skirmishes was immense, and could often overwhelm one or even both of the participants. And then Tinling put it all in perspective when he said, “ The best part of a final at a Grand Slam event is how we imagine it in the hours leading up to it. There are so many possibilities, and so many imponderables. It’s marvelous when the match exceeds our expectations, but it is sad when the match falls short of what we believe it could be. That occurs more than we would like.”

The showdown between Azarenka and Sharapova clearly fell into that category. Both women were playing inspired tennis coming into this contest. Sharapova had avenged her loss in the Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova with a spirited three set semifinal triumph over the left-hander in Melbourne. Azarenka had toppled defending champion Kim Clijsters in another three set semifinal, holding her nerve admirably after Clijsters took the middle set with gusto. There was a sense among the cognoscenti that Azarenka and Sharapova might push each other to the hilt in a stirring three set contest. Why? Because Sharapova had considerable experience on her side, and this was her sixth career final at a major. She was seeking a fourth Grand Slam tournament crown, and seemed primed for the occasion and confident about her chances.

As for Azarenka, she seemed to be riding the crest of a wave after opening up her 2012 campaign with a tournament triumph in Sydney. Although this was her first major final, the 22-year-old who was born in Belarus had been gaining ground over the last three years. She had concluded 2009 at No. 7 in the world, finishing 2010 at No. 10. But in 2011 she took a substantial step forward, moving to No. 3 in the women’s game, reaching her first major semifinal at Wimbledon. Her maturation process was impressive. Once upon a time, Azarenka had been too highly strung emotionally for her own good, and there was a feeling among her peers that her body or mind might break down at any time during matches of lasting value.

Those days appear to be gone for Azarenka. Her temperament has been largely transformed. Her composure nowadays is markedly improved from even a few years ago. And yet, Azarenka was facing one of the greatest of all modern female tennis competitors in the Australian Open final. Sharapova’s will is almost legendary. Her fighting spirit is second to none in the world of women’s tennis. At 24, Sharapova has been remarkably resilient since securing her last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open four years ago. On October 15, 2008, she had surgery on her right shoulder. From August 2008 until May of 2009, she could not compete in singles. But despite a multitude of problems with the shoulder after her surgery, Sharapova was unwaveringly professional. She ended 2009 at No. 14 in the world and slipped to No. 18 when 2010 concluded, but last year was a revival for Sharapova as she moved back into the top five in the world and got to the final of Wimbledon.

So there was every reason to believe that the combination of Sharapova’s reservoir of experience and Azarenka’s exuberance and growing self-assurance as a match player would make for a potentially great and closely contested final. Both women knew that a victory would guarantee them the No. 1 world ranking. Both players believed they were playing the kind of tennis that could carry them to the title. Both realized that this was a pivotal moment in their careers, and they wanted to make the most of it. Adding to the drama was the fact that their head-to-head record was locked at 3-3, although Azarenka had stopped Sharapova emphatically in the 2010 final at Stanford, California, and trounced her renowned opponent again in Miami last year. She was then forced to retire against Sharapova in Rome last spring with an injury, allowing the Russian to advance with a 4-6, 3-0 triumph that was hardly a win at all.

Be that as it may, this final presented a gigantic opportunity for both players, and it was Sharapova who came out of the gates with sounder execution, sharper instincts, and unmistakable conviction. Azarenka, meanwhile, was apprehensive. In the opening game of the match, Azarenka served two double faults, made a rash of mistakes, and was broken largely because she seemed entirely too aware of what was at stake. At break point down, Azarenka steered a backhand wide down the line. This was an uncomplicated battle between two supremely capable big hitters, and Sharapova had the upper hand at the outset. She surged to 40-0 in the second game, threw in one double fault, but gathered herself swiftly to hold on at 15 with a cleanly produced forehand winner down the line.

The third game of the match was critical for both competitors. Azarenka served her third double fault to trail 0-30. Sharapova was within striking distance of a second service break and a chance to take command of the set. But Azarenka found her range just in time. She caught Sharapova off guard with a deep forehand crosscourt that was unanswerable. That point altered everything. Sharapova missed a backhand return down the line off a first serve, then sent a forehand return wide off an attackable second serve. Azarenka held on at 30, and then broke Sharapova at love for 2-2 with a cluster of deep and piercing strokes. She then held at 15 for 3-2, having swept 12 of the previous 13 points.

Sharapova knew how sizably the momentum had shifted, and she put everything she had into holding on for 3-3. That sixth game went to deuce twice, but an obstinate Sharapova got the hold with an ace down the T. She would not win another game for the rest of the one-sided contest. Azarenka began to find her comfort zone and her range of shots and options was too much for an ill at ease Sharapova. Azarenka held at 30 for 4-3 by drawing her adversary in with a drop shot and then rolling a topspin lob winner into a wide open space.

Sharapova charged to a 40-15 lead in the eighth game, but she overanxiously sent a forehand long and followed with a double fault. That three deuce game was hard fought on both sides of the net, but Azarenka was not to be denied. She broke Sharapova by exploiting another fine drop shot. Azarenka forced Sharapova to scamper forward, and then moved up in the court to cut off the Russian’s response with a backhand volley into an open court.

Azarenka would never look back. She lost only one point in the ninth game as she held for the set at 5-3, missing just one first serve in the process. Azarenka was beating Sharapova to the punch at every juncture. Her ball control was decidedly better, her returns crisper, her depth and accuracy far superior to Sharapova’s. Serving at 15-40 in the opening game of the second set, Sharapova was outfoxed by an alert Azarenka. Sharapova was poised to demolish a short ball off her backhand, and she chose to go down the line. Azarenka stayed home and anticipated that play perfectly, driving a forehand passing shot crosscourt for a clean winner.

Azarenka was down break point in the second game of the second set, but she saved it by pulling Sharapova off the court, luring her adversary into a netted backhand down the line. That point was symbolic in many ways of the entire match as Azarenka rushed Sharapova into an error by taking the ball early and driving her shot with absolute authority.

Azarenka held on for 2-0 in that second set and unrelentingly blitzed through the set from there. Sharapova missed three of five first serves in the third game. The No. 4 seed was pressing. She could find no way out of her personal wilderness. Azarenka was dictating the terms of this match, setting the tempo, controlling the climate with growing efficiency. She broke Sharapova at 15 for 3-0 and then held at 30 for 4-0. She was outplaying Sharapova with such ruthlessness that there was no way she could doubt herself or her chances. Azarenka’s footwork was decidedly better than Sharapova’s, and her shot selection was first rate.

Sharapova’s forehand—so mighty and unstoppable in the first few games—deteriorated significantly. At 0-4, 30-40, she made an unforced error off that side, and Azarenka was almost home free. Serving for the match at 5-0, Azarenka was remarkably poised. Sharapova produced a forehand winner off the net cord to reach break point, but Azarenka was unperturbed. She provoked a backhand error from Sharapova, drove a brilliant forehand winner down the line, and then unleashed one last forehand down the line with interest. Sharapova missed a backhand down the line.

 The No. 3 seed had collected nine games in a row—and 12 of the last 13—to complete her triumph. It had taken only 82 minutes. She had played almost impeccably after falling into the 0-2, 0-30 first set deficit. Azarenka broke Sharapova no fewer than five times and lost her own delivery only once. She made only 12 unforced errors, 18 less than Sharapova. Moreover, Azarenka won a respectable 68% of her first serve points while Sharapova took only 53% in that category. But the most telling statistic of all was this: Sharapova won only 18% of her second serve points and Azarenka took a healthy 53%. That was always going to be the key to this contest. These are two of the best returners in the women’s game, but Azarenka was able to take her second serve returns earlier than Sharapova and control points regularly, while Sharapova was abysmally below her normal standards in that facet of the game.

Azarenka was admirable in her first final at a Grand Slam event. Eight of the previous ten times a player had made a debut in a major women’s final, that competitor had been beaten. Across the Open Era—starting in 1968—players appearing in their first Grand Slam championship women’s final had lost 44 of 68 matches. But Azarenka kept things uncomplicated once she turned the corner in the third game of the first set. She played magnificently while Sharapova was alarmingly off her game. Sharapova had suffered a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Serena Williams in the 2007 Australian Open final, but she has frequently been taken apart by Serena, so that setback was not shocking.  

This time around, Sharapova must blame herself to a degree for not seizing the few chances she had, for not elevating her game and imposing her will when it mattered. But the fact remains that Azarenka was simply too good. She has moved to another level of the game, and her leap from No. 3 to No. 1 in the world is thoroughly deserved.

The 22-year-old has established herself as the fifth different player to secure a major since the start of 2011. Clijsters took the Australian Open a year ago, and then Li Na won at Roland Garros, Kvitova ruled at Wimbledon, and the Australian Sam Stosur was victorious at the U.S. Open.  Now Victoria Azarenka has stepped into the forefront of the sport. The hope here is that she builds on the platform of this Australian Open triumph and travels to other high destinations across the next few years. Azarenka is an excellent ball striker who has improved her first and second serves considerably. Her return of serve is among the best in the game. She has the head and the heart to win another major before this year is over, and it is up to her to do just that.