Azarenka upstages Sharapova to win Australian Open
MELBOURNE, Australia - The Associated Press
AFP photoMaria Sharapova was once the young upstart, fearlessly upstaging Serena Williams in her first Grand Slam final.
On Saturday at the Australian Open, she ran into the new noise in women's tennis, Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka claimed her first major title with a ruthless 6-3, 6-0 win over Sharapova. With the victory, the 22-year-old also took the No. 1 ranking, becoming the 21st woman and the first from Belarus to rise to the top.
The crowd on Rod Laver Arena was briefly silent when Sharapova netted a backhand on the final point before they stood to applaud the winner.
Azarenka also seemed stunned. She fell to her knees on the baseline and covered her face before looking at her support team, shrugging her shoulders in disbelief after recovering from 2-0 and 30-love down before turning it all around.
"She did everything better than I did today," Sharapova said.
It is now four years since Sharapova won the Australian Open for the last of her three Grand Slam titles, and approaching eight since she overpowered Williams 6-1, 6-4 to win Wimbledon at the age of 17.
In 2004, Sharapova's composure stood out as she closed out the win over then No. 1 Williams. Azarenka was equally bold on Saturday.
Sharapova won the toss and elected to receive, hoping to take advantage of a nervy opponent. It was just about the only thing that went right for Sharapova: she broke immediately and held for a 2-0 lead.
During the second game of a match featuring two of the most talked-about grunts in the women's game, a joker in the crowd yelled: "Turn the volume down." Azarenka turned the heat up, instead, winning 12 of the next 13 games. It was some contrast to the performance of the last Belarusian woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final. Natasha Zvereva, representing Russia, was overwhelmed 6-0, 6-0 by Steffi Graf at the 1988 French Open.
"Surprised? Yes and no." Sharapova meekly if not quietly capitulated. The 24-year-old Russian was outmuscled and outmaneuvered by Azarenka, who exposed her opponent's poor movement with pace, accuracy and sudden changes of direction.
Sharapova ended with 30 unforced errors, more than double her 14 winners. She praised her opponent, but wondered what might have been had a left ankle injury not curtailed her 2011 season and prevented her playing any warmup events before the Australian Open.
"It's pretty unusual to come into the first tournament of the year having it be a Grand Slam," Sharapova said. "Today I faced someone that came out who was too good and my level was not there. I was not competitive enough against her today.
"So everything is still a work in progress, whether I won today or not. It's still a moving train." Sharapova, who hasn't won a Grand Slam title since undergoing shoulder surgery in October, 2008, "absolutely" believes her best days are still ahead of her and that she can hold off a new wave that also includes the No. 2-ranked Kvitova.
Azarenka isn't exactly a new face on tour. She demonstrated her potential as far back as 2009 when she won the Miami title, the so-called "fifth Grand Slam," by beating Williams in straight sets.
It took time, and a change of coach two years ago, for her to become a genuine Grand Slam contender. She had reached only one major semifinal at Wimbledon last year before the Australian Open, but she worked harder than ever on her fitness in the offseason and then won the Sydney International earlier this month to set her up perfectly for a tilt at a first Grand Slam title.
Her victory in Melbourne made her the seventh different female Grand Slam champion in 19 months, dating back to the 2010 French Open. That's quite a contrast to the men's tour. In the same span, only two men have won majors and they're playing again for the Australian title.
Defending champion Novak Djokovic will attempt to become the fifth man in the Open Era to win three Grand Slam titles in a row when he takes on Rafael Nadal in Sunday's men's final.
It will be the third consecutive major final between Nadal and Djokovic. Roger Federer and Andy Murray make up a consistently strong top four in the men's game.
With Sharapova and Serena Williams, beaten in the fourth round here, apparently on the slide, and the younger players still striving for consistency, women's tennis is far more unpredictable, but Azarenka doesn't plan on giving up the top ranking any time soon.
"It's going to be a long year. It's going to be a lot of matches. I just want to keep improving," she said.
"I feel like there is no limit, really."