MELBOURNE—Victoria Azarenka stood to serve at 0-3 in the second set against Kim Clijsters on Thursday afternoon. Two birds circled around and in front of her, well within the range of Azarenka’s Wilson racquet, as she stared across the net and raised her arms to begin her motion. The Belarussian had won the first set of this semifinal, but had watched as Clijsters ran out to a quick second set lead. In the past, Azarenka, who by her own admission today had been viewed as a “head case” by the fans here, might have let the flitting feathered creatures drive her over the edge. Not today: She tossed and served without a hitch.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a preview of the Australian Open women’s event with the title, “Can the New Order Hold?” The question was, could the two young women who had finished 2011 with so much momentum, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova, carry it over to the first Grand Slam of 2012? Could the kids justify their gaudy new No. 2 and No. 3 world rankings and hold off the three veterans—Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova—who have owned this tournament in recent years?
It was a new version of an old WTA story: The old guard had hung on for years, while a new generation of Grand Slam champions had failed to establish itself. But this time there was reason to hope that things had begun to change. The biggest was the steady ascent of Azarenka. The formerly volatile Belarussian came to Melbourne with a new on-court attitude—the “about to cry face” and “breaking racquets stuff,” as she put it, were behind her—and a victory at a tune-up tournament in Sydney. When she finished that event with a win over last year’s Aussie Open finalist, Li Na, Azarenka made a strong claim to being the smart pick to win this year’s first major.
That’s how she played when she got to Melbourne; with the calm confidence of someone on a mission. Azarenka seemed to live in a zone of her own. She came on court with headphones plugged in, and her fist-pumps looked like a form of self-communication.
Azarenka learned as she went. In the third round, against Mona Barthel, she said she had become too calm and mellow out there, and that she had to get herself “p-----d off,” to bring some of the fire back, to finish that match. By the quarterfinals, Azarenka had found the balance. She shook off a total meltdown in a first-set tiebreaker against Agnieszka Radwanska to dominate the last two sets.
Now she was reeling into another third set, against a hot-handed Clijsters. “She was really dominating,” Azarenka said when asked what she was thinking as the third set began. “I just tried to start to be more aggressive and try to play my game and start from the beginning. I know I only have one more set to go, 40 minutes to make a difference. That was my mental approach.”
Azarenka’s mantra is “stay in the moment.” That took work in this third set, which was full of moments—good, bad, and ugly, as well as a momentum swings from one forehand to the next. As these things typically go, each player swung freely when behind and tightened up when ahead. It appeared that Azarenka might have tightened up for good when she went ahead 4-2 and 40-0 on her serve only to watch as Clijsters relaxed and hit from the heels. The Belgian broke after saving five game points. The crowd, which was backing “Aussie Kim” in her final trip to Melbourne, let out a unanimous roar.
The moment of truth had come for the new Victoria Azarenka. It helped that it came on her return of serve. She used that personal specialty to quickly win the first two points of the next game. And she did it again at break point, ripping a backhand return fearlessly and closing the net for a 5-3 lead.
A few minutes later Azarenka bent to the court, a winner. While Vika had found her balance, Kim had lost hers, and her last Aussie Open ended with a whimper, and a hail of unforced errors. If we were looking for a changing of the WTA guard, and sports fans always are, this moment might just qualify: The old guard, in the person of Clijsters, walking out of Rod Laver Arena for the last time; the new, in the form of Azarenka, walking into her first Grand Slam final.
Three hours later, Petra Kvitova thought she might be joining her fellow high-ranked upstart in the final. It was 4-4 in the third set of her semifinal with Maria Sharapova, and for a split second, after a Sharapova shot had been called out at 0-30, Kvitova believed she had three break points to go up 5-4 and serve for the match. Kvitova had been threatening the Sharapova serve all set; the Russian twice saved two break points to survive. Now it was time for Sharapova to use what has never been a specialty of hers: the challenge system. Sharapova was leery of the machine—she said later that it can be “embarrassing” when the ball isn’t close—but there was no choice now. This time she was right, her shot had clipped the line. The point was replayed and Sharapova won it; she was still alive.
This had been another match of momentum swings; the sets veered wildly from one player to the other. Sharapova found a groove at 2-2 in the first. Her ground strokes clicked in and she was finding all of her spots, hitting all of her targets. She appeared to be a shot and a thought ahead of Kvitova in most rallies.
In the second set it was Kvitova’s turn. She found the range on her forehand, while Sharapova’s serve, a villain waiting in the wings, betrayed her at key moments. Kvitova cruised 6-3, and closed out the set with a second serve ace.
In the third, Kvitova threatened to pull away, while Sharapova hung on by her fingernails. But something seemed cut out of Kvitova after Sharapova’s successful challenge at 4-4. The Czech crossed the net to serve at 4-5 with heavy legs, and they never got any lighter. She double-faulted for 15-15 and put an ugly forehand into the middle of the net for 15-30. Down match point, she tried the most bizarre shot imaginable from her: Given a good look at a forehand, her favorite shot, Kvitova chose not to drive it, as she always does, but to slice it. The ball sailed, with sickening slowness, over the baseline. The old guard had a split of the semis. Kvitova met Sharapova’s handshake at the net with glassy eyes.
This one was a Houdini act from Sharapova. She seemed to hold on to her serve in the third set with a tennis version of smoke and mirrors. But she did what she needed to do: Stayed around until something broke her way. She moves on to her second final in the last three Grand Slams, and her first here since 2008. And she cements her reputation, if it wasn’t set in stone before, as one the era’s foremost competitors.
As for Kvitova, there was reason afterward for her fans to take heart. She was asked in her press conference if Sharapova’s challenge at 4-4 had changed the momentum. “I don’t remember this challenge,” Kvitova answered blankly.
Selective amnesia: A good sign. This young player may have lost today, but like Azarenka, she seems to have learned one tennis lesson very quickly: How to forget.