INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—We’ve been asking for order to be restored on the women’s side for so long that it’s hard to remember that there ever was an order to begin with. In recent years, Slam-less No. 1s have rotated at the top, while first-time major-title winners have popped up and vanished just as quickly. Unruliness seemed destined to reign forever.
But here we are in the third month of 2012 and we’re about to get our second-straight big-event final between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, who are currently ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world. It’s the first meeting, believe it or not, between the WTA computer’s top two players since January 2008, when Justine Henin beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in Sydney.
The last match between Vika and Maria was so recent, six weeks ago in Melbourne, that Azarenka's stunningly easy 6-3, 6-0 win there still rings in the ears. In that one, Azarenka was dominant in the first set, and when Sharapova tried to answer in the second, she misfired badly. We shouldn’t expect anything so similarly one-sided on Sunday in Indian Wells, should we? A champion of Sharapova’s caliber wouldn’t let herself be embarrassed like that twice in a row, would she?
In truth, a repeat isn’t all that far-fetched. In the seven matches they’ve played, Azarenka has won four. More crucially, she has won their last three on hard courts, and the two before Australia were almost as one-sided as Melbourne—Vika won 6-4, 6-1 in Stanford in 2010, and 6-1, 6-4 in the Key Biscayne final last April. It was the latter match that sent Azarenka off on the winning roll that she’s still on today.
In Australia, Azarenka beat Sharapova thoroughly, in every way you can. She jumped on her serve, she counterpunched from the baseline, she moved her back and forth along the baseline, and even tormented her with drop shots and lobs. “She was the one dictating from the baseline,” Sharapova said afterward, “and I was the one running like a rabbit.”
Is there hope for the rabbit to win the race this time? Both Sharapova and Azarenka have, for the most part, dominated this week, but both were also forced to make one escape—Vika against Mona Barthel in her opener; Maria against Maria Kirilenko in the quarters. On Friday night, Azarenka was work-woman-like, rather than inspired, in dispatching Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, 6-4, 6-3. Sharapova began her semi with Ana Ivanovic at less than 100 percent physically, according to her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, but she warmed to the diva battle quickly. By the end of a well-played first set, Sharapova was cracking the ball. Her serve, both first and second, held firm when she needed it.
And there we may have the key to the match, the Sharapova serve. At the French Open and Wimbledon last year, she fought her way to the semis and final, respectively, only to have her most vulnerable shot betray her. Close but no cigar has been a theme of the current, 2011-2012 iteration of Sharapova. Finalist at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Key Biscayne, semifinalist at Roland Garros, she has consistently looked like the player to beat—and then she’s been beaten.
The story has obviously been different for Azarenka. She’s been winning any which way she can in 2012—sneaking past Kim Clijsters before blowing out Maria in Melbourne; with an ankle injury against Agnieszka Radwanska in Doha, and then with a large chip on her shoulder against Radwanska in Indian Wells. Tomorrow she’ll be motivated to win a tournament she’s never won; to show that the Aussie final was no fluke; and to extend her season-opening win streak to 23, which would get her to Key Biscayne, where she’s the defending champion, unscathed.
Aside from Sharapova’s issues with her serve, Azarenka is the better mover and the more consistent baseliner. While Vika, unless she happens to be teaching her opponent a lesson that day, can’t normally reach the ball-striking heights of Maria at her best, she’s also less likely to have a terrible day. That base of consistency and confidence, along with her current No. 1 player’s ability to win without her best, should lift Azarenka.
But hopefully it doesn’t sink Sharapova too low. Now that we’ve got some order on the court, the next step is to put a good match out there with it.