“Contesting their third final of 2012, the top two players in the world have clashed on two surfaces and three continents over the last four months.” If one had guessed before the season began to which Tour that statement would apply, one surely would have guessed the ATP rather than the WTA. After Stuttgart, though, Azarenka and Sharapova will have met more often this year than have Djokovic and Nadal. But their sequence of meetings thus far has fallen well short of the standard set by the leading men, unfolding in even more predictable fashion than has the ATP rivalry while showcasing far less compelling tennis. In each of their last four completed matches, the Russian has won five or fewer games. Central to the world #1’s dominance is her uncanny ability to break the world #2’s serve, an odd trend considering that most would consider Azarenka the much weaker server of the two and Sharapova the slightly more savage returner. During one particularly notable stretch from Stanford 2010 to early in Indian Wells 2012, Vika won 16 of 19 games on Maria’s serve. As anyone who has lifted a racket knows, nobody can win if they cannot hold serve more than once or twice in a match.
Much more formidable from the service notch in her last several matches, Sharapova saved 10 of 11 break points against the dangerous returns of Kvitova in her semifinal. As she defeated four different top-eight opponents over her last six matches, the Russian has escaped from many a predicament by scarring a line or corner with her volatile delivery. That trend has resulted in matches shaped by service holds, often of the emphatic variety, and extended an 11-set span during which she has lost her serve no more than once in any set. While Azarenka’s last two matches featured 18 breaks in 50 games, Sharapova’s last two matches featured just six breaks in 58 games. (Credit to the outstanding serving of Stosur and Kvitova in contributing to that statistic, of course.) For that reason, this final will hinge in part upon which player imposes her preferred style upon her opponent. If Sharapova continues to open the court immediately with that point-starting shot, she will earn the chances to step inside the baseline essential for her to have any hope against the world #1.
Much more than Kvitova’s raw firepower, Azarenka’s fluid, balanced style will test her opponent’s remaining reserves of energy after playing for five hours in the previous two days. A better mover on clay than Sharapova, she should have settled into a steady baseline rhythm after defeating Radwanska, who has provided a convenient foil for the world #1 this year by spurring her to sharpen her focus. Like Federer against Nadal or Nadal against Djokovic, Azarenka can feel confident that she can win while staying within her comfort zone, while her opponent must create something special to reverse the balance of power between them. Attempting a little too ambitiously to create something special, Sharapova undermined her cause in their two 2012 meetings by committing untimely unforced errors and struggling to identify the ideal moment to finish a point. On the other hand, virtually nobody has identified that moment all season with any consistency, except for Bartoli on a Miami evening when Azarenka lacked her usual mobility.
Tracing a subordinate but still noteworthy narrative is Sharapova’s recent inability to summon her best tennis in finals since winning Rome last year. Outlasting Jankovic in a steely but hardly sparkling Cincinnati title tilt, the three-time major champion has hoisted runner-up trophies at four of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments over the last twelve months: Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami. Perhaps the relatively modest surroundings of Stuttgart will offer her an opportunity to curb this frailty in finals, not a trait familiar from earlier in her career. But looming much larger is the challenge of conquering Azarenka, who has shown no signs of slaking her appetite for trophies.
One would think that the most glamorous sportswoman in the world should grace one of the world’s most glamorous vehicles, but its keys likely will belong after Sunday to the brash ball-striker who has motored relentlessly through 2012 draws and firmly entrenched herself in the WTA driver’s seat.