Roland Garros: Sharapova d. Azarenka

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After an intense battle with Victoria Azarenka—and her own fluctuating game—Maria Sharapova emerged victorious, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, and for the first time in her career will enter a Grand Slam final as the defending champion.

Sharapova’s first-set form was as intimidating as her first service game was disastrous. In an exemplary recovery from double-faulting twice and being broken to love, she broke straight back and quickly began to bully her less-powerful opponent around the court. Azarenka usually makes up for her lack of raw power with impeccable and consistent depth and judicious use of angles, but it was Sharapova who displayed both of those qualities in the first set. After breaking for 3-1, the Russian landed her first ace of the match, and from there her first serve, too, started to make an appearance.

The result was a storm of hitting that matched the threatening storm hanging overhead, which left Azarenka visibly dazed by the end of the 28-minute first set. After the second set opened with an 18-shot rally sealed by Sharapova’s 12th winner—the kind which Azarenka could usually be relied on to win—it seemed this set might go very much the same way.

But Sharapova made her first bad error since the first game of the match for 30-15 and started to wobble just enough for Azarenka to get her feet under her. The No. 3 seed found a touch more effectiveness on her first serve, imposed herself on the return, and for the first time absorbed Sharapova’s power well enough to get the Russian on the move—particularly to her forehand side, a pattern of play that can be relied upon to elicit errors. As Azarenka got better, Sharapova’s accuracy declined precipitously, and she played an abysmal game, ending with a double fault, to drop the second set.

The 35-minute rain delay which followed may have cleared the air in metereological terms, but Sharapova returned to the court with an even greater lowering intensity. She couldn’t quite recapture her accuracy of the first set, especially because Azarenka was also playing with increased bite, but made up for it with some fantastic shots, breaking at 1-1 after three Vika forehand errors and neat hands after an intimidating return. But in the game that followed, Sharapova hit three double faults in the game that followed and finally struck a fourth to be broken. Yet she bounced back instantly, in characteristic fashion, with a perfect blend of patience and aggression to overwhelm Azarenka’s defences.

If Azarenka let herself down anywhere in the match, it was in her next service game, in which a combination of poor second serves and backhand errors with Sharapova’s immense returning and eagerness to step into the court led to a double-break deficit. It’s impossible to argue hypotheticals, but if Sharapova had not had an insurance break to rely upon after seeing four match points go by at 5-2—on every one of which she served to Azarenka’s stronger backhand—before she double-faulted consecutively to be broken, it might have been a match-changing game rather than a valiant rearguard action.

As it was, Sharapova produced one of her best games of the match two games later to close it out to love, ending on her 12th ace to seal her return to the Roland Garros final.

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