Dressed in a pair of what appeared to be white, old-school gym shorts over black, knee-length running tights with an electric-blue shirt and fluorescent yellow headband, Victoria Azarenka looked like she might have mistakenly thought she was booked to practice, rather than play the Indian Wells final for $1 millon at 11 a.m. today.
As it turned out, most of that ensuing final between Azarenka and Maria Sharapova looked more like a spirited, relaxed practice session for the Belarusian, as she rolled to a 6-2, 6-3 win that only looked like it might become competitive, with all the surprises that entails, in the late stages of the second set.
But as one-sided as the match was, it was also entertaining in many ways—partly because both women fearlessly clubbed the ball, showing neither fear nor doubt. And that's always cause for celebration, no matter what the scoreboard finally says.
The last time these two met in a final, Azarenka started a bit slowly (no surprise, given that the occasion was the Australian Open—Azarenka's first trip that far at a major) but ultimately belted through Sharapova, 6-3, 6-0. Azarenka turned the tables on Sharapova and overpowered her in that one; she dictated with her power and made the Russian look slow and awkward with her quickness, and ability to move the ball around the court.
Sharapova, though, is a superb competitor. She proved it again today by standing up to Azarenka and throwing everything she has against the undefeated (in 2012) world No. 1. It produced only slightly better results, but had to be somewhat gratifying nonetheless. Should the day come when Azarenka slows up and stops impersonating Novak Djokovic circa February 2011, you just know Sharapova will be there, rubbing her hands together.
It's an open secret, and has been ever since Sharapova's debut, that she's not the quickest or most pliant player out there. What she has is a big game that seeks to end points with dispatch, after three- and four-shot combinations, and a big heart to go with it. That's almost always been good enough.
Sharapova has always been able to hit through players, and thus she hasn't had to worry too much about extreme angles, or changing the direction of the ball. This is what cost her the match today. She simply was unable to hit with the familiar (and requisite) degree of power and also move the ball around in Azarenka's court. It was almost like Sharapova swung so hard and hit with such pace that she couldn't risk actual targeting, except in the most basic sense. If her strategy was to keep the ball down the middle, she executed it beautifully. But we all saw the result.
Azarenka, meanwhile, has that surreal aura of confidence. It really is beginning to seem like she's thinking, "If Novak can do it, why can't I?" Serena Williams has been one of the very few players who can actually stand toe-to-toe with Sharapova and consistently come out on top. And while Azarenka doesn't have Serena's serve or raw power, her defense and quickness compensate nicely.
When Azarenka broke to start match, it was the 13th game she'd won in the last 14 she's played against Sharapova. After a quick hold, it looked as if Azarenka might simply overrun Sharapova, but the WTA No. 2 managed a hold of her own with an ace, after fending off two break points.
The hitting in the heart of the first set was impressive, yet Azarenka held with ease while Sharapova struggled in each of her service games, and gave up that critical second break in the seventh game. Azarenka rolled to 40-15 and won the break point with a whopper of a forehand drive volley.
Although Sharapova managed to get to deuce when serving the first game of the second set, she was broken when she made a backhand error. The next thing you knew, it was 0-3 and it looked like this match would be no more encouraging for Sharapova, score-wise, than their meeting in Melbourne. It looked like she had punched herself out.
To her credit, Sharapova immediately broke Azarenka to get on the scoreboard. Although she was broken in turn, she took Azarenka's serve once again and then held to a long game to close within 3-4. But Azarenka held and broke Sharapova one last time to end it.
Azarenka had reason to celebrate, but Sharapova had reason to hope.