Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

After a discouraging first-round loss to Kirilenko in the 2010 Australian Open, Sharapova eyed her inquisitors with grim resolve as she vowed that she would return to the second Saturday.  A woman of her word and of exemplary efficiency, the 2008 champion required just two years to fulfill her promise.  With a second Australian Open title and the #1 ranking at stake, she now aims to prove herself even better than her word.

Despite Kvitova’s ferocious return and ten double faults, Sharapova protected her serve courageously throughout her semifinal while surrendering only one break in each set.  While Azarenka’s greater consistency on return and weaker serve should result in more breaks for both players, the fourth seed will raise her fortunes significantly if she continues to strike such penetrating serves on crucial points.  Serving out the first set after a massive second serve on break point, Sharapova relied on the shot commonly considered her greatest weakness to escape from multiple break points in the final set.  On the contrary, the long deuce games consistently tilted in her favor, continuing a pattern apparent throughout the fortnight.  Coupled with unblinking focus, her relentless optimism under pressure allowed her to outlast an opponent who had seemed to hold the upper hand for most of the last two sets.  That tenacity could prove a crucial advantage against a first-time major finalist if this match proves as competitive as one would hope.

Among the other patterns from Sharapova’s semifinal and her fortnight more generally is the spurt of momentum with which she has started each match, somewhat uncharacteristic in her career.  Within two or three games from the first ball, she has claimed an early lead and thrust her opponent into a subordinate role.  In five of her six opening sets, she has lost no more than two games, dominance that looms especially large when one remembers that 21 of the last 22 major finals have ended in favor of the woman who won the first set.  Just as repeatedly, however, Sharapova has struggled to maintain her intensity early in the second set and suffered lulls in momentum that an alert foe like Azarenka could exploit.  During points, the 2008 champion also must stay intent and crisp, stretching the fleet-footed Vika along the baseline as soon as possible in the point but not taking anything for granted.  Unlike recent victims Lisicki and Kvitova, Azarenka combines anticipation with keen instincts and will force Sharapova to hit additional shots to finish points.  Since the start of the tournament, the Russian has displayed a crisper sense of shot selection than usual, perhaps aided by the additional time of the medium-speed surface.  Only in her quarterfinal against Makarova did that element of her game waver for substantial stretches.  When she collides with Azarenka, Sharapova must steel herself for the challenge of steadily outmaneuvering her opponent—while remaining ever alert for the first logical opportunity to pull the trigger.

Capitalizing upon the three-time major champion’s struggle to maintain that balance, Azarenka twice has defeated her in hard-court finals during which she lost ten total games and regularly broke serve.  The first-time major finalist demonstrated her vastly improved composure by winning a three-set semifinal against Clijsters after rebounding from a disastrous second set.  While the adverse crowd might have unnerved Vika a year or two ago, she conceded only sporadic flashes of frustration and collected herself without significant damage.  In the final, Azarenka again will need to avoid the emotional rollercoaster that many have grown to associate with her, for Sharapova would pounce on the chance to turn a trickle of momentum into a deluge.  Although lacking her opponent’s ball-striking power, the third seed can muster exceptional depth on her groundstrokes even when thrust out of position, courtesy of her smooth movement and streamlined technique.  If she can pinpoint the baseline as effectively as Sharapova lasers the sidelines, she could catch the Russian off balance to draw either an unforced error or a tentative reply.  As long as Azarenka can stay on neutral terms in rallies past the first several strokes, her superior consistency should wear down an opponent who prefers to terminate points with maximal speed.  Court positioning should play a pivotal role for each woman, each of whom will hope to step inside the baseline as often as possible and plow towards the forecourt to take the ball out of the air.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

When she guards her serve from the WTA’s most savage returner, Azarenka faces intriguing choices.  Occasional body serves probably would reap rewards, while Sharapova’s vast wingspan negates most attempts to create angles and sometimes allows her to create even more acute angles of her own. On the other hand, opening the court would allow her to hit behind the Russian, not adept at reversing direction.  As Kvitova eventually found, pace rather than placement has proved more effective  against Sharapova, so Azarenka may consider trading a modest dip in her normally superb first-serve percentage for a riskier, more powerful delivery more often.  Or she may not, considering that she will not want Maria to feast upon her weak second serve, the most vulnerable area of her game.  The two finalists in fact share many of the same strengths (return, backhand, swing volleys, willpower, lung power) as well as some of the same weaknesses (forehand technique that can falter under pressure, a distaste for conventional volleys, and a chronically unreliable second serve).

Like most major finals, though, tactical decisions and adjustments do not lead directly to outcomes.  Lingering above both players is the question of how they will perform in one of the four most meaningful matches of 2012.  Before her shoulder surgery, few would have hesitated to award Sharapova a clear edge in this category, considering her sparkling record in finals.  In two major semifinals and one final last year, however, she displayed sporadically disheveled tennis as the jagged edges of her massive game jolted into view.  More encouraging was her emotional but poised performance in the semifinal against Kvitova, reminiscent of her vintage efforts.  Meanwhile, Azarenka hopes to acquit herself as creditably as the Czech did when she played her first major final at Wimbledon last year.  Despite her lack of experience in such matches, she has accumulated valuable preparatory experience by winning two Miami finals as well as playing a tight three-set final at the year-end championships, all of those matches against elite opposition.

To judge from their past history, Azarenka could dominate this match from start to finish, as she did their finals in Stanford and Miami.  But a more tightly contested final could swing in the direction of Sharapova, still the superior competitor, as did the three-setters that they played in Los Angeles and Beijing.  When these two blondes battle for the Melbourne crown and the #1 ranking, moreover, the ancien regime of the WTA seeks to withstand the assault of the rising stars.  Will Azarenka score a victory for her generation, or will Sharapova strike a blow for hers?

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