By Steve Tignor, Tennis.com
MELBOURNE -- "Just a few points here or there." We know the phrase well; that's all there is, sometimes, between winning and losing. But rarely has a big-time tennis match turned so quickly and decisively on a point or two as Victoria Azarenka's 6-3, 6-0 win in the Australian Open final over Maria Sharapova did tonight.
I don't mean to say that that was all that separated them; this was an even bigger blowout than the last two major women's finals, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and that's saying something. What I mean is that it only took a loose error or two from Sharapova, in the third game, to spin the match 180 degrees and transform an extremely nervy Azarenka into an extremely imposing one -- as well as the new, Slam-full No. 1 player in the world.
Azarenka was making her Grand Slam final debut, and she came out looking like a rookie. Sharapova won the coin toss and let her serve first; it looked like a canny move when Azarenka double-faulted at 30-all and was broken. When Sharapova tore through her in the second game, and Azarenka stopped running and let a winner go past her at game point, nightmare visions of other debut Slam finalists -- Dinara Safina, for Aussie fans -- began to dance in our heads. After 10 points, Azarenka had made six unforced errors. After double faulting for 0-30 in the third game, she looked certain to go down two breaks.
Sharapova made an error. Azarenka hit a good serve. Sharapova made another error. Then Azarenka, with her first really confident swing of the night, took a high forehand and threaded it up the line for a winner, and her first hold. She fist-pumped and practically leaped to the sidelines. You could see even then, without knowing what would eventually happen-- i.e., that she would lose just one more game -- that Vika had shaken loose.
"I was super nervous," admitted Azarenka, who said she had been ready to get out there hours earlier. "The first games were kind of a disaster."
Then this self-described ex-head case went back to the mantra that has served her so well recently: "I just got back in the moment."
Of course, even if it hadn’t happened then, it was probably going to happen for Azarenka eventually. It was her night, her tournament, and her year so far.
"She did everything better than I did today," a subdued Sharapova said afterward. "She was the one who was taking the first ball and hitting it deep. I was always the one running around like a rabbit."
Asked whether she had noticed Azarenka's nerves at the start, Sharapova said that sooner or later, her opponent was going to get rolling. "I had a lot of matches in my career where I had terrible starts," she said."Sometimes those just don't really matter until you see what happens in the end. From my side, I think the switch went off."
Azarenka went from finding her feet to soaring above her opponent a few games later. She did, as Sharapova said, everything well -- tactically, technically, emotionally, and with variety. At 3-3, 30-30, she surprised Sharapova with a strong serve into her body; then she lofted a soft topspin lob winner to hold. In the next game, in some of the last points of the evening that could be termed crucial, Azarenka was even better.
Sharapova served at 3-4 and the game see-sawed to a third deuce. On that point, Azarenka took a second serve, drilled it deep and up the middle -- a sure-fire play for her the whole tournament -- and knocked off a swing volley. On break point, she again dictated from the baseline, but this time she went the finesse route and ended it by cutting under a backhand drop shot at the last second. Sharapova had no chance.
She wouldn't have another. If the first set was about Azarenka rising to the moment, the second was about Sharapova trying to join her there, and failing. She tried to wrest control of the rallies, and often she worked herself into a winning position. But there was an error waiting around every corner.
"There was no way I was going to win the match if I was going to let her dictate," Sharapova said. "But yeah, I think maybe I overdid it."
In what seemed like no time at all -- the seagulls had barely had time to gather to see their fellow shriekers -- it was 5-0 and the 22-year-old Azarenka was stepping to the line to serve for her first Grand Slam. There was one more hiccup, an errant service toss that betrayed a hint of nerves, but otherwise she closed it out like she'd been doing it all her life. At deuce, Sharapova cracked a low, deep return at Azarenka's formerly more erratic stroke, her forehand. There was nothing erratic about this response: Vika bent down like a hockey goalie and reflexed the ball down the line. She left Sharapova running like a rabbit one more time.
It had to be a disappointing loss for the 24-year-old Maria, who has slaved to find her old form and reach the Top 5 again. In the last year, she's threatened at three separate majors but come up just short at all of them. What must be particularly galling is that she's lost two to Slam-final neophytes -- her experience has, essentially, counted for nothing. At the same time, there can't be any second thoughts or regrets about this one. Sharapova was, as she said, thoroughly beaten. So thoroughly that she appeared shell-shocked in the moments after match point.
Sharapova walked off after the handshake and sat down on her sideline bench. She composed herself there, and didn’t move. The house lights began to dim as Azarenka bounced around, talking to whoever was in sight. Sharapova remained immobile, staring straight ahead. When the lights had gone down all the way, all you could see from across the arena was her bright green visor, still on her head. It didn't move an inch.
Afterward, Azarenka, more effusive with the press than normal, credited her coach of two years, Sam Sumyk, for his patient work with her.
"Sam, I feel like he was not pushing me," she said, "but guiding me toward that winning attitude. He helped me to find my way, not pushing his way. It's important to have that education, that you have to learn to do it yourself, because in the end of the day you're the one who's holding the racquet."
This win, over this opponent, brings Azarenka full circle. The rise that culminated with her first major title, and her ascendancy to No. 1, began last April with another pummeling of Sharapova, in the final in Key Biscayne. She built on that win, with a trip to the Wimbledon semifinals, with a valiant performance in defeat against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, with a hard-fought loss to Petra Kvitova in the final of the WTA Tour championships. The whole time she seemed to be growing -- calmer, more confident, sharper in her technique and tactics. She was the one holding the racquet out there, and this formerly volatile young player was taking responsibility for that fact. She wasn't, for one thing, breaking them anymore.
Azarenka was still learning in Melbourne. Last week, she said she had to make herself angry again to finish a match: she had gotten too calm out there. I speculated at the time that maintaining the balance between anger and ease on court would be precarious. Today, it sounded like she did just that.
When she was asked after the match what she had been feeling, Azarenka expressed what for her is a winning state of mind.
"I looked like I was in the zone," she said. "But I was boiling inside."