Azarenka Wins Australian Women’s Title

Azarenka Wins Australian Women’s Title, Claims No. 1 Ranking


MELBOURNE, Australia – For two games and two points, Victoria Azarenka did a fair impression of a first-time Grand Slam singles finalist. She looked edgy, slightly off target and under pressure from her more experienced opponent and sonic soul mate Maria Sharapova.

“I was really nervous before the match, because the expectation was coming, the adrenaline was kicking in,” Azarenka said.

But the nerves would not do her in for long. Down 0-2, 0-30, she won the next four points and hardly stopped winning them from there: transforming what could have been a suspenseful Australian Open final into a one-woman exhibition of power, depth and – yes – poise.

When Azarenka’s 6-3, 6-0 victory was complete after just one hour and 22 minutes, she dropped to her knees on the baseline, covered her face with both hands and looked as surprised as Sharapova looked chastened.

“It’s just this moment you cannot explain, the best feeling for sure,” Azarenka said later in an Australian television interview. “I have no idea what I was doing out there.”

Perhaps not, but it was certainly working beautifully as she countered Sharapova’s increasingly desperate returns and ground strokes with big punches of her own. Sharapova, one of the most fearsome baseliners in the women’s game, could win only 22 of 67 points from the baseline in the match.

“I was always the one running around like a rabbit trying to catch up all the time,” Sharapova said. “She was a step quicker, her shot was bigger.”

As a result, women’s tennis will have a new No. 1 player on Monday, when Azarenka, a 22-year-old from Belarus, will replace her friend and Monaco neighbor Caroline Wozniacki atop the rankings.

Though Wozniacki finished the year No. 1 in 2010 and 2011, she never managed to reach even a Grand Slam final during those seasons. With this victory, Azarenka will restore some symmetry, but not necessarily order. Five different women have now won the last five major singles titles. Seven different have won the last eight.

But Azarenka has the shots and now the stage presence to make a long-range impact. She has won significant titles on hardcourts before: winning the prestigious event in Miami in 2009 and 2011, beating Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in the final there last year. She also reached the final of the season-ending WTA championships last year on an indoor hardcourt.

“She’s won big events before,” Sharapova said. “It’s not that she’s coming in here as an unexperienced player. She’s beaten a lot of top players in her career.”

Sharapova, of all tennis stars, should know that being a neophyte is no impediment to winning a Grand Slam singles title. She won on her first attempt at Wimbledon when she was just 17, stunning Serena Williams in the final. She went on to win more two more major titles, including the 2008 Australian Open.

Shoulder surgery set her back, forcing her to change her service motion, but when she finally returned to a major final last year at Wimbledon, she was beaten convincingly by Petra Kvitova, the left-handed player from the Czech Republic who was playing in her first Grand Slam final.

Sharapova, the 24-year-old Russian who has long been based in the United States, exacted a measure of revenge by defeating Kvitova in the semifinals here on Thursday, but she kept cracking first from the baseline against Azarenka.

“There was no way I was gonna win the match if I was gonna let her dictate and be the one that’s aggressive and you know go for the lines,” Sharapova said. “But I think maybe I just kind of overdid it.”

Azarenka also forced the issue. Though Sharapova limited her double faults to three, her second serve was still a big liability as she lost 14 of the 17 points when she put it in play.

To sum up, it was a humiliating evening for the woman who has long been the world’s highest-earning female athlete. But she handled the defeat with dignity, maintaining her composure and delivering a gracious speech in the awards ceremony in which she congratulated Azarenka for her victory and said she should “cherish it for as long as you can.”

“It’s frustrating, but I have a pretty good head on my shoulders in terms of having a good perspective on sport and life,” Sharapova said later. “And as hard as it is and as much as you want to be the champion, you know, there’s only one. That’s why the feeling is so special when you do achieve that. That’s why the work is so hard and extreme.”

By The New York Times

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