Venus Williams, absent since last year’s US Open with viral illness—and for most of the year before that—was a three-time Miami winner. Her sister Serena, missing for all but three months of 2011—and for the second half of 2010—had won five times.
Kim Clijsters, twice a winner in the Florida Keys, had been able to complete only four matches in 2011 after reaching the quarters in Miami last year. Svetlana Kuznetsova won in 2006 but had since struggled to find the form that took her to two Slams in years past.
The remaining Miami titlist was the defending champion and the newest member of the Grand Slam roll of honour, Victoria Azarenka. With two Sony Ericsson Open crowns already, she was the one to beat, defending not just the title but a 26-match unbeaten streak.
None of them made it past the quarter-finals. A new pair of hands would lift the trophy and they would belong, whichever of the two finalists triumphed, to one of the most popular women in tennis.
The first contender was three-time Grand Slam winner, the tall, elegant and formidably determined Maria Sharapova. She is the most followed female athlete on Facebook, the highest paid female tennis player and the sport’s enduring pin-up after 11 years on the pro tour—though she only turns 25 next month.
Three times Sharapova had been a finalist in Miami and three times a runner-up, including last year to Azarenka. And in both tournaments played this year, she had lost to Azarenka.
The other finalist had neither a Grand Slam to her name, nor was a previous No1, nor even a semi-finalist in Miami before, but 23-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska had one of the best win-loss records of recent months and reached a career-high No4 last week. She, too, had been beaten by only one woman this year: Azarenka—four times.
The slight, nimble and smart Radwanska, six inches shorter than her Miami opponent, was voted the Fans’ Favourite last season, and her varied, occasionally unorthodox, game of guile and touch is one of the reasons why.
The two of them, therefore—with Azarenka’s absence their common denominator—were aiming for a first Miami title.
Sharapova won the toss for her third match in a row and, for the third time, handed the serve to her opponent. On the previous two occasions, Sharapova broke straight away: This time she didn’t.
It was a canny choice, though. Much would come down to how each woman served: Radwanska’s second serve can be vulnerable, Sharapova’s serve in the past has veered between match-winning and match-losing but has of late become a bigger and more dependable weapon.
And much, too, would depend on the return of serve. Both, by nature, step in to take an early return—aggressive players despite their very different styles.
The Sharapova serve performed the better in the early stages: She held to love in the fourth and sixth games while Radwanska came under pressure in the fifth and the seventh to face a break point in each. However, the Pole withstood the bombardment, as she would for the entire match.
Come the ninth game and Radwanska took her first love service game, placing her serve with great accuracy—now wide, now to the body—and following up with ground strokes of varied spin and direction. Sharapova continued to take full-blooded swipes at them, but a few began to fire long.
Having put Radwanska in to serve first, it was Sharapova who had to serve to save the set at 5-6, and she failed to handle a string of returns fired back to her feet. She saved two of three break points but netted the third to concede the first set, 7-5.
But Sharapova is not a player to hold back. She had scored 16 winners and 25 unforced errors against a tactical Radwanska game that yielded few outright winners but few errors either.
The second set began rather as the first, with Radwanska serving and Sharapova in all-out attack. Radwanska withstood deuce to hold, but now there was a subtle shift in momentum as the Pole continued to hold her serve more comfortably—she held to love three times in the set—while Sharapova, though serving well, could not out-pace Radwanska.
The Russian’s frustration started to show—a sharp bang of the court with her racket as she fired one more in a growing tally of errors—but her solution was to hit the ball even harder. Sometimes it worked, but often it did not.
Sharapova earned a break chance in the seventh game but Radwanska, her serve performing just as reliably as Sharpova’s, made three perfectly-placed deliveries to hold. Indeed she lost only four points on her first serve in the set.
Sharapova’s first waver came as she served at 3-4, her first double fault taking her to 0-30, but she hurtled to the net to put away two winners and went on to hold. However, the stats showed who was in the ascendancy—who was channelling their focus the better: Radwanska had 70 points, the Russian 59.
The Pole stayed cool, returned everything Sharapova could throw at her, now with more slice than at any time in the match, and earned two break—and match—points. Another sliced return did the job and Radwanska took the biggest title of her career, 6-4. She had not dropped a set throughout the tournament, and looked the calmest person in Miami.
So Sharapova’s tilt at a 25th title will have to wait until her 41st final—but now she will hope to avoid not just Azarenka but the class act of Radwanska, too.
The Pole has brought a fresh way of winning to women’s tennis, and it will surely only add to her popularity.
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford