ISTANBUL, Turkey - The two best frontrunners of the year - and the Top 2 players in the world - squared off in the second semifinal of the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships - Istanbul 2012 on Saturday afternoon, and it was the underdog who came out on top, if you can call her an underdog.
Coming in, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova had some pretty daunting numbers this year when winning the first set - Azarenka was 62-0, while Sharapova was 50-1, the only loss coming in the semifinals of the US Open to, well, Azarenka, winning the first set but eventually falling, 36 62 64.
Needless to say the first set was critical for both players, and though neither player looked their sharpest during the first set - Azarenka had a -5 winners-to-errors differential, Sharapova was -6 - it was Sharapova who lifted her game on the most important points, getting the decisive break for 3-2 and holding serve the rest of the way to close the opening set out in 47 minutes, 6-4.
The World No.2 started playing like even more of a world beater from there, reeling off the first four games of the second set and never looking back en route to a 64 62 victory. The Russian had a +8 differential in the second set (17 winners, 9 unforced errors) while Azarenka was -5 (8 winners, 13 unforced).
"When you find yourself in a losing position a few times during the year, you want to try to figure out how to change those things around," Sharapova said in her press conference. "I certainly didn't make as many mistakes today as I did in our previous matches this year. I also returned a little bit better this time, although I still feel like I could have returned better than I did today.
"Overall I'm happy with the way I came in and didn't let anything bother me, even losing to her the last couple of times and trying to figure it out."
Sharapova talked about the incredible crowds at the Sinan Erdem Dome. "The atmosphere this whole week has been incredible, from the first round on and even when it's a holiday here in Turkey," she declared. "This is by far one of the best WTA Championships I've ever seen, over the course of my whole career."
This is the third time Sharapova has reached the WTA Championships final. She has won the title once (2004) and finished runner-up once (2007).
Azarenka defined grace in defeat in her post-match press conference.
"I'm not going to say I was the freshest today, but I also don't want to make any excuses because that's not really my type," Azarenka said. "I give Maria all the credit today. She played really well and looks in great form. She deserved to win, 100%. Could I have played better? Yes. But it's done. I have no regrets. I finished a loss with a smile for the first time. It didn't feel as bad today.
"I think Agnieszka felt much worse than me today. I saw her before the match and we looked at each other and we laughed really hard. That says it all."
Azarenka has a lot to be proud about this year though - she began as the World No.3 and, since winning her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, has been World No.1 all but four weeks. She is also year-end No.1.
"I'm really proud of what I've done the whole year," the Belarusian commented. "I started the year with No.3 and I finished with No.1, which in numbers doesn't seem like a huge jump, but we all know in reality it's a pretty big difference.
"I finished the year as a different person - maybe not different, but more mature, a much more mature person. I'm very proud of that too. The whole year was a lot of learning experience, trying new things and taking the whole journey with the good and a few bads - I didn't have many. I cannot complain about this year."