Australian Open 2012: Azarenka sails past Sharapova to No1

Victoria Azarenka sweeps aside Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final to claim her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne

victoria azarenka
Victoria Azarenka brushed Maria Sharapova aside in straight sets PA Photos

victoria azarenka

Under clear skies and 30-degree heat on the sweeping blue arena at the heart of Melbourne Park, two of the most aggressive players in women’s tennis prepared for battle in the 100th Australian Open.

Maria Sharapova glided into view, 6ft 2ins of cool, calm elegance; Victoria Azarenka, barely any shorter, plugged in and with the loose, rolling gait of a boxer.

Looking on were the two greatest Australian champions: Rod Laver, a three-time champion in his homeland and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first of his two calendar Grand Slam; and Margaret Court, holder of a record 24 singles Slam titles, 11 of them in Australia.

The presence of such tennis royalty lent an extra frisson to what already felt like a special final: a former champion—Sharapova won in 2008—versus a champion-in-the-making—Azarenka won the junior Australian title in 2005, reached the quarters here in 2010 and the semis in Wimbledon last year.

Tall and willowy, feisty and strong, the women’s head-to-head suggested it would be close. They had three wins apiece, two each on hard courts, and last year Sharapova won in straights in Rome, Azarenka in straights in Miami. They arrived at this final via near-identical three-set, two-hour-plus wins over Grand Slam champions: Sharapova over Petra Kvitova and Azarenka over Kim Clijsters.

There was one more element. They started the match ranked 3 and 4 but, by the end, one of them would be the new No1.

It was Sharapova who burst from the gates to pounce on a nervy Azarenka serve. The young woman from Belarus needed time to acclimatise to her first Grand Slam final but Sharapova appeared in no mood to give it to her. Two double faults and a couple of wide backhands later, Azarenka conceded an immediate break of serve.

She may have hoped to break back what can be one of the more inconsistent serves in the women’s game—Sharapova underwent shoulder surgery in 2008 and can produce multiple double faults of her own—but there was no sign of weakness: Sharapova held.

When Azarenka went 0-30 down on serve again, the murmur around the Rod Laver Arena suggested that many people shared the same concern: If Sharapova broke again, she may very quickly beat her opponent into submission.

But although Azarenka has struggled to manage her nerves on big occasions in the past, 2011 saw her mental game mature alongside her practical game. In Sydney, just a fortnight before Melbourne, she beat three top-10 players to win her ninth career title.

Now she clenched her jaw and her fist to force her own power shots into play, won the next four points and held with a roaring ‘come on’. Her nerves were gone, her strut was in place, and she won the next four points, too, to break back.

Azarenka’s is an urgent, busy style around the court that commands attention from herself, from the ball kids and from the ball itself. In contrast, Sharapova channels her intensity inward during a carefully controlled service preparation. The sudden injection of pace and depth from Azarenka broke her rhythm and, now level at 3-3, it finally felt like the start of the match.

Both women upped the pace and the volume to rip into each other’s ground strokes, finding the baselines, sidelines and service Ts in their attempt to out-power their opponent. Tellingly, though, it was Azarenka who first broke the pattern, playing a neat drop-shot and lob combo to hold serve.

It was a tactic she quickly used again in the eighth game, a nine-minute test of the Sharapova serve. Azarenka twice attacked the net and then forced the less-than-perfect forward movement of Sharapova into the limelight. With another break, Azarenka strode to the baseline and served out the set, 6-3. She looked flooded with confidence.

As the sky darkened to indigo, Azarenka began to read and absorb the Sharapova serve with growing ease, and she broke the Russian to 15. But her real test came in the next game: Would her concentration survive a mixed bag of line calls—one serve challenged and out, another not challenged but in?

A couple of second serves came under fire from the Sharapova return and Azarenka went a break point down, but the glint in her eye showed she was neither intimidated nor uncertain. She hit to the lines and held serve with a reactive forehand winner for a 2-0 lead.

The situation demanded desperate measures from Sharapova who, despite serving at 70 percent, found her biggest deliveries returned with interest. Azarenka took the initiative again, stepping into court for an overhead winner, and all Sharapova could offer in return was to hit the ball yet harder. It merely brought more errors, two more break points and a 3-0 lead for her opponent.

Unless Azarenka either backed away from her game plan or was seized by nerves, she began to look unbeatable. Her return game was sharp, her tactics in swinging Sharapova from side to side were astute, and her ball-striking was deep, accurate and powerful. In short, she defused the Sharapova game.

Azarenka nullified a final onslaught from the former champion to complete her exhibition of near-flawless hitting with, for Sharapova, a gut-wrenching 6-0 set.

There are many qualities that make Azarenka such a wonderful prospect for women’s tennis. At 22, she is still evolving as a player. She is intelligent in her tactics and can execute those tactics, whether it is from the baseline or by taking the initiative at the net. She is tall and rangy but has good movement. She is outspoken and determined but also brings a natural, youthful joy to the game—embracing life off-court as well as on.

With the imminent retirement of Clijsters and the seeming ambivalence about her tennis career of Serena Williams, the arrival of Azarenka and Kvitova at the Grand Slam table in the last six months—and from Monday at No1 and two in the rankings—feels like the transition to a new generation of exciting, strong and formidable young women.

Paul Merson
Paul Merson predicts the scoreline of Man United v Arsenal
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts outcome of Everton v Liverpool FC
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts outcome of Man United v Arsenal
Thomas Tuchel
‘I’m a bit worried’: Thomas Tuchel provides injury update ahead of West Ham v Chelsea FC
Jamie Carragher
Jamie Carragher, Gary Lineker react to Mo Salah's display in Liverpool FC's 4-1 win over Everton
Paul Merson
Paul Merson predicts the scoreline of Man United v Arsenal
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts outcome of Everton v Liverpool FC
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts outcome of Man United v Arsenal
Thomas Tuchel
‘I’m a bit worried’: Thomas Tuchel provides injury update ahead of West Ham v Chelsea FC
Jamie Carragher
Jamie Carragher, Gary Lineker react to Mo Salah's display in Liverpool FC's 4-1 win over Everton
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature