Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Like all successful sorceresses, the Siberian siren has acquired an apprentice who now aspires to dethrone her.  A reluctant runner-up in 2005 and 2006, Sharapova will contest her third Miami final as an underdog on paper but perhaps not in reality.  Seeking to become the seventh consecutive lower-ranked finalist to win the title, the Russian meets the equally strong-lunged 2009 champion.  Their paths have intersected on just four occasions so far, resulting in percussive groundstrokes, ringing shrieks, and one classic in Beijing.  In that 2009 meeting, Sharapova roared from the brink of defeat to a spectacular comeback after Azarenka twice served for the match.  Emphatically erasing the scars of that loss, the Belarussian soared past the three-time major champion in the Stanford final last year at the climax of her finest week of tennis in 2010.

After an even more dazzling display here, Azarenka already has defused two of the top three players in the world as well as a pair of dangerous dark horses in Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova.  Conquering both Clijsters and Zvonareva in straight sets, the 2009 champion bombarded the baseline with crisp groundstrokes that forced her opponents into unfavorable court positioning.  When she seized the initiative in rallies, moreover, Vika showed no hesitation before surging into the forecourt to dispatch swinging volleys or sharply angled backhands worthy of her opponent in the final.  Like Sharapova, Azarenka can strike flagrant winners from either groundstroke but gains greater consistency from the backhand than the forehand.  Also like Sharapova, she possesses a weapon on her return of serve more impressive as her serve itself, which remains the most unreliable component of their games.  Again like Sharapova, she regularly redirects the ball off both wings and over the high part of the net.  Just as an alert listener can distinguish between their shrieks, though, an alert viewer can distinguish between certain qualities of their styles and strategies.  For example, the apprentice reverses direction along the baseline more swiftly than does the sorceress, a flaw in the Russian’s movement that the Belarussian will aim to exploit.  A more versatile and fluid player, Azarenka does not target the edges of lines and corners as relentlessly as Sharapova.  Admittedly far from patient, the 2009 champion arguably constructs points more thoughtfully than her fellow finalist.  Less confident in her movement and consistency, the three-time major champion prefers to assume one significant risk in a point rather than a series of several smaller risks.

Not a natural, instinctive athlete, Sharapova relies upon her greater first-strike power to terminate exchanges with methodical, almost mechanized precision.   Armed with superior shot-making skills, the Russian does not flinch from pulling the trigger even from unpromising positions, aware that stunning results often reward her.  On the other hand, Maria recognizes that she prospers more frequently when she unleashes her firepower from inside the baseline rather than behind it.  This realization assisted her in reversing the momentum of her previous two victories after losing the first set in each of them.  Initially waiting for the ball to arrive, she steeled herself to step forward into her strokes and lean her full weight behind them.  Sharapova must maintain that mentality against Azarenka while also punishing the Belarussian’s second serves, which she once caustically labeled “creampuffs.”   Since Vika’s high first-serve percentage results in few such eclairs, the Russian also should consider full swings on occasional first serves as well, perhaps instilling some doubt in the Achilles heel of her foe.  Following her shoulder surgery, Sharapova shares that Achilles heel and must brace herself for the prospect of sporadic serving struggles.  If she can collect herself quickly to harness the rest of her game after such stumbles, she can minimize the damage that an opportunistic opponent like Azarenka could inflict.

But the greatest weapon that Sharapova possesses lies less visible than her scorching groundstrokes.  Nearly peerless in her relentlessness, she relies upon a fiery competitive ferocity to surmount erratic stretches.  Among the most compelling recent examples of this trait emerged from the second set of her semifinal against Petkovic.  In all six games, the German held at least one game point.  Like a tiger slowly masticating its prey, Sharapova ultimately tore all six games away from her.  Subjected to constant pressure throughout this most atypical bagel, the German crumbled mentally in the third set.  A pugnacious competitor herself, however, Azarenka exhibited gritty resolve by chipping away at a confident Cibulkova throughout their three-setter.  When Clijsters mounted an eleventh-hour rally late in the quarterfinal, the eighth seed again quelled the threat with conviction.  Fortified by their accelerating momentum, neither Sharapova nor Azarenka will melt easily under the unforgiving Miami sun.  Whose psychological armor will prove more resilient as the sorceress and the apprentice battle for the keys to Biscayne?  The answer to that question probably will determine who casts a more potent spell.