>> Thursday, January 26, 2012
After winning three-set semifinal matches against recent Grand Slam winners, world #3 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and world #4 Maria Sharapova of Russia set-up a promising Australian Open final that will determine who will be the next world #1 in women's tennis. Azarenka beat defending champion Kim Clijsters to reach her first ever grand slam final while Sharapova avenged a Wimbledon final loss to Petra Kvitova to reach her second grand slam final in the past 7 months. The two have met six times before, and they have split their past matches winning three matches each. Though Azarenka beat Sharapova in Moscow in 2007 for their first match, it was Sharapova who won their last meeting in Rome last spring after Azarenka retired in the second set after winning the first set. Azarenka however must fancy her chances heading into the championship match as she has beaten Sharapova handily in their past two matches in hardcourt - in the 2010 Stanford final, and also, in the 2011 Miami final.
As an added bonus, the champion of this year's Australian Open will ascend to the #1 ranking replacing Caroline Wozniacki. If current world #3 Azarenka wins the title, she will become the first player in rankings history to become #1 without having previously ever been #2 (not counting Chris Evert, who was No.1 when the rankings debuted on November 3, 1975). She would be the first Belarusian to hold the top spot and the 21st player to become #1 since 1975. Sharapova was the first Russian #1 when she ascended to the position on August 22, 2005. She has spent a total of 17 weeks in the top spot, having gained the top ranking four times previously. The last time Sharapova was #1 was in June 2008.
Sharapova is two years older than Azarenka and undoubtedly had more achievements over her next opponent. She has won 24 titles and earned $16.6 million for a career that started in 2002. Amongst those 24 titles are grand slam titles she won in Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006, and Australian Open 2008. Azarenka has won 9 titles so far and earned $9 million since she started playing professionally in 2004. While Azarenka may not compare well against Sharapova in terms of career achievements so far, she has definitely been the more consistent player in the past 3 years ranking ahead of the Russian in the year end rankings of 2009, 2010, and 2011. She has won all her 9 titles since 2009 while Sharapova earned 5 titles within that period.
In their paths to the finals, both women played two straight setters. Sharapova triumphed over Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round despite losing the first set, and she lost the second set in her semifinal win over Kvitova. Azarenka has played consecutive two-hour matches in her past 2 wins. She lost the first set against Radwanska in the quarterfinals and lost the second set against Clijsters in the semifinals. Both players will be battle ready when they take to the court on Saturday.
Sharapova has an edge in experience but Azarenka will fulfill her potential and will win her first major and reach the #1 ranking for the first time in her career. Below is the head to head match-up between Sharapova and Azarenka:
Match #1: 2007 MOSCOW CARPETR
V.Azarenka won 7-6(9) 6-2
Match #2: 2009 LOS ANGELES HARD
M. Sharapova won 6-7(4) 6-4 6-2
Match #3: 2009 BEIJING HARD
M. Sharapova won 6-3 6-7(5) 7-5
Match #4: 2010 STANFORD HARD
V.Azarenka won 6-4 6-1
Match #5: 2011 MIAMI HARD
V.Azarenka won 6-1 6-4
Match #6: 2011 ROME CLAY
M. Sharapova won 4-6 3-0 RETIRED
Road to the Final – Victoria Azarenka
First Round: d. Heather Watson, 61 60 (0:59)
Second Round: d. Casey Dellacqua, 61 60 (0:57)
Third Round: d. Mona Bathel, 62 64 (1:28)
Fourth Round: d. Iveta Benesova, 62 62 (1:17)
Quarterfinals: d. Agnieszka Radwanska, 67 60 62 (2:01)
Semifinals: d. Kim Clijsters, 64 16 63 (2:12)
Road to the Final – Maria Sharapova
First Round: d. Gisela Dulko, 60 61 (0:58)
Second Round: d. Jamie Hampton, 60 61 (1:04)
Third Round: d. Angelique Kerber, 61 62 (1:27)
Fourth Round: d. Sabine Lisicki, 36 62 63 (2:15)
Quarterfinals: d. Ekaterina Makarova, 62 63 (1:27)
Semifinals: d. Petra Kvitova, 62 36 64 (2:12)