ISTANBUL—Rivalries are created when two players close in ability meet on a consistent basis in big matches with the outcome largely uncertain before the start, which we haven’t been able to say about Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova for some time. Dating back to 2010, Azarenka has won six of their last eight matches, all on hard courts.
Even though Azarenka has had her way with Sharapova on hard courts this year (4-0, including wins at the Australian Open and U.S. Open), the feeling abound the Sinan Erdem Dome before their semifinal was that, deep down, the Russian believed that she could solve the puzzle. On Friday, she looked me straight in the eyes when I asked her why she hadn’t been getting over the hump against Azarenka, and essentially said she has been wasting opportunities—not that Azarenka was flat out better. When asked about what she needed to do in today's match, Sharapova replied, “I think just stay with her a little bit more and be a little bit more consistent, but aggressively consistent.”
Aggressively consistent—or perhaps consistently great is more appropriate, considering their largely lopsided record. But Sharapova hit the high notes in a 6-4, 6-2 victory over her fellow shrieking siren. The win was by no means a huge upset, as Sharapova holds four Grand Slam titles to Azarenka's one, but anyone who watched their previous hard-court clashes would acknowledge that the usually lethal Belarusian was nowhere to be found on Saturday.
Perhaps Azarenka was mentally exhausted after taking another loss to Serena Williams in the round-robin stage; she also admitted that she was physically spent after her marathon win over Angelique Kerber and a tough two-set win over Li Na yesterday. Azarenka was simply sluggish today, saying she woke up this morning feeling sore and stuff.
And it showed.
What Sharapova did in this match—and didn’t do in their recent hard-court meetings—was serve consistently well, return deep and accurately, and take control of points with her first groundstroke which is exactly what Azarenka had been doing to her. Sharapova won numerous points with a formulaic approach, striking a big serve or return, following it up with a groundie into the corner, then a final one into the open court.
Despite Azarenka’s condition, she’s faster than Sharapova and does a terrific job of retrieving, resetting points from defensive positions, and eventually seizing control of them. But even though Sharapova must have known that Azarenka wasn’t at her best, that didn’t mean that she didn’t have to play well, or close out big points.
Sharapova has not exactly been a lock when trying to serve out sets this season, and on her first set point of the first set at 5-4, she hit a weak and predictable second serve down the T that Azarenka buried at her feet. But Sharapova didn’t quake, ripping a forehand winner at deuce. On her second set point, she achieved the near impossible: Managing to get a kick serve into Azarenka’s backhand rather than serving down the T, which she does a good 80 percent of the time into the ad court. Fooled, Azarenka flew a backhand long.
Sharapova broke Azarenka to start the second set with perhaps her most impressive point of the match, going way out wide on the dead run and lifting a deep lob that forced Vika to respond with a mid-court looper. Sharapova then cracked a leaping forehand winner. The match was not over there, but the Russian raced out to a 4-0 lead, gutted out a 24-point game to hold to 5-1, and then easily held to win the match when Azarenka netted a return.
Sharapova ended the contest with 30 winners to just 12 for Azarenka, whose eyes welled up in tears during the second set. But about 45 minutes later she was laughing hysterically about the song she just cut with her friend, pop star RedFoo, which features her famous grunting.
Sharapova admittedly cannot afford to dwell on the win. She faces Serena in the Sunday final, who she hasn’t beaten since the final of 2004 WTA Championships and has crushed her this year on fast outdoor clay (Madrid) and grass (Olympics). But she believes she’s going in there with a shot, much like today, and mentioned how long it took her to figure out Justine Henin before she was able to turn the tide against her. Williams holds a 9-2 career record against Sharapova, but it’s is clear that win or lose, Maria is going to keep trying to make their matches into rivalry worth talking about.