MELBOURNE, Australia - Playing in her first Grand Slam final and with the No.1 ranking on the line, Victoria Azarenka stepped up in a big way, recording a runaway 63 60 win over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final.
With the winner of the final guaranteed to rise to No.1 next week, her first Grand Slam title wasn't the only thing Azarenka was playing for. And it seemed like maybe it was on her mind as she had a slow start, losing the first two games then falling behind 0-30 in the third - but she came alive from there, holding and then breaking back, then from 3-all going on an absolute tear, winning the next nine games in a row to polish off the one-hour, 22-minute victory.
Azarenka was by far the more solid of the two Saturday night - while they both had 14 winners, Azarenka had just 12 unforced errors to a whopping 30 from Sharapova, including a backhand into the net on Azarenka's first match point.
Sharapova took the podium first: "First congratulations go to Victoria. It was an honor to play against you. You have worked so hard for this over the years and earned this title," she said. "As in any sport, you have your good days and your tough days. Today things didn't work out for me. Victoria was just too good.
"This was a tough loss today, but there's no doubt I'll be back and performing in front of you guys again. Melbourne has been my home away from home over the last month, and I couldn't have asked for a better home than here."
A jubilant Azarenka followed with her champion's speech. "First I want to congratulate Maria. Thank you for such kind words. You had a great two weeks and did really well, and I'm sure there will be many more finals we'll perform in," Azarenka said. "I want to thank my team - you guys have been supporting me for so long, believing in me and making me realize I can believe in myself and can finally raise this trophy. I want to thank my parents, my friends, my boyfriend and my grandmother - the person who inspires me most in my life.
"It was an amazing month in Australia. It's a dream come true."
Azarenka is the first Belarusian to win a Grand Slam title and to rise to No.1 - her country's previous best results came from Natasha Zvereva, who reached one Grand Slam final (the 1988 French Open final) and made it up to No.5.
"Congratulations to Victoria on reaching the pinnacle of her career and becoming the WTA's newest World No.1," said Stacey Allaster, Chairman & CEO of the WTA. "It has been great to watch Vika grow as a player over the last few years and I'm thrilled she has achieved this milestone at such a young age."
It is worth noting that Zvereva was No.1 in doubles for 124 weeks and won 18 Grand Slam women's doubles and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.
Sharapova is now 3-3 in her career in Grand Slam finals, winning titles at Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. She will rise from No.4 to No.3 on the new rankings; Petra Kvitova will stay at No.2, while Caroline Wozniacki will fall from No.1 to No.4.