Australian Open: Azarenka d. Sharapova

Saturday, January 28, 2012 /by

201201280451174890311-p2@stats.comGiven that Victoria Azarenka has always been a player with enormous potential, the fact that at 22 she had yet to contest a Grand Slam final was either disturbing or, to some, a sign that she probably had some fatal flaw. But in the final of the 25th Grand Slam of her career, the Belarussan Bombardier demonstrated that the wait was well worth it.

Playing with remarkable and unexpected poise and expertise, Azarenka arrived at the top of the game—for she will be No. 1 when the new rankings come out—with an explosion, utterly dominating three-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Azarenka overcame an understandable episode of competitive paralysis at the start of the match and then won 12 of the last 13 games; the final score was 6-3, 6-0. 

Going into this final, it seemed unlikely that Azarenka could withstand the savage nature of Sharapova's game, founded as it was on one of the best serves in women's tennis (at least when it was firing properly) and powerful, quick-strike ground strokes that blew her opponents back off the baseline or landed for outright winners. But Azarenka destroyed that theory by camping on or inside the baseline, taking Sharapova's shots on the rise, and exposing the former champion's comparative lack of athleticism.

Azarenka had hinted that she might be able to pull this off, but few expected her to do it on this occasion and in such grand style. The history of Grand Slam final debutantes is littered with ghastly, sometimes humiliating losses. But Azarenka played a final that will rank right alongside the best performances of any woman, period. 

There was no sign of what was to come at the outset—but for the fact that Azarenka, serving first, was quickly if not fatally gored. A double-fault in that first game put Azarenka down break point, but she survived that. A forehand error gave Sharapova another look, and this time she converted the break when Azarenka made a backhand error off a service return.

When Sharapova wasted no time in winning the second game, and pinned Azarenka down 0-30 in the next one, it appeared that a rout might be in the making. But suddenly Azarenka loosened up and let her versatile game flow. Not only did she find the range on her groundstrokes, but her ability to play from inside the court put Sharapova on the defensive. Not only did she put Sharapova on the defense, but Azarenka's willingness to play a truly all-court game (meaning she had no fear of hitting either hitting an approach shot or rushing the net when the opportunity presented itself) paid rich dividends. Not only. . . well, you get the point.

Azarenka scratched out a hold in that third game, then broke Sharapova. The next three games were holds, but the eighth game of the match, with Sharapova serving at 3-4, proved to be the turning point. Sharapova jumped to a 40-15 lead, but couldn't hold it. She fought off one break point but almost immediately faced another, thanks to a beautifully executed approach shot and volley winner. Azarenka converted the break when she threw in a drop shot and chased down Sharapova's get, putting away the ball.

Suddenly, the floodgates were open, and when Sharapova hit her 16th unforced error on the first point of the second set, and was soon broken, the only real question was whether or not Azarenka could keep it together. She did, and with grace and ease that will leave many of us looking at her in a new light.

The most telling statistic was Sharapova's inability to win points when she hit second serves. She won just three of 17 second serve-points, while Azarenka's proficiency in the same category was above that magic 50 percent mark, eight for 15. Both women hit 15 winners, but Sharapova made two-and-a-half times as many unforced errors as Azarenka, 30. The enduring image of the match for me is Azarenka hunched over her backhand like a sniper hunkered down on the scope of a rifle, and pulling the trigger without a tremor, time and again.

This young lady who once seemed hampered by her one-speed (high) game has often been called one-dimensional. But in this Australian Open final, Azarenka won because of versatility, skill, mobility, and all-around athleticism married with great aplomb and focus. It's a combination we don't see all that often, in what was less a match than a performance.

The wait for Azarenka's first Grand Slam title was well worth it—for us as well as her.

—Pete Bodo

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