Australian Open Final Preview
Published January 27, 2012 01:15
Rod Laver Arena
 Victoria Azarenka (BLR #3) vs.  Maria Sharapova (RUS #4)
Head-to-head: tied 3-3
When Victoria Azarenka arrived in Australia at the start of January she was just another talented twentysomething waiting to make the transition from Top 10 player to Grand Slam contender. Eleven wins later - five in her Sydney title run and six at Melbourne Park - she stands on the verge of capturing both the Australian Open and the No.1 ranking.
This coming of age will be complete with victory over Maria Sharapova in Saturday's final. However, to do this she has to overcome not only the nerves that accompany a maiden major final but also one of tennis' ultimate competitors.
Sharapova's big-match temperament came to the fore in the last round, as she edged out Petra Kvitova over three error-strewn and nerve-fraying sets. While the final set against Kvitova showcased all of the Russian's fighting qualities and will to win, it also saw the re-emergence of the double faults which have blighted her game since returning from shoulder surgery in 2009. This fallibility will have encouraged Azarenka, who knows, despite her own reputation as one of the WTA's big hitters, it is Sharapova that holds the power advantage.
Sharapova's return game, or more precisely the quality of it, may well decide the match. Going into the final, the 2008 champion has broken serve on a staggering 32 occasions and should her blistering returns start to find their mark on Rod Laver, Azarenka will face an uphill battle. Nevertheless, the Belarusian is World No.3 for a reason; she has superb court coverage and recently started intertwining greater court craft into her formidable baseline game.
Added maturity on and off the court has propelled Azarenka to four titles - including a straight set victory over Sharapova in Miami - in the past 12 months and, judging by her career-best win over defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinal, she looks more than ready to make the next step into the Grand Slam winners circle. Whether Sharapova lets her take that step at Melbourne Park, though, is another question entirely.
Road To The Final
First Round: d. Heather Watson, 61 60 (0:59)
Second Round: d. Casey Dellacqua, 61 60 (0:57)
Third Round: d. Mona Barthel, 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)
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)