For more than four years, the top two women in tennis never stood across the net from each other in the final. Ending a drought that began in January 2008, the Indian Wells final marked the first of three such meetings between Sharapova and Azarenka this year. Rather than tightly contested battles, the two previous editions unfolded in routine fashion nearly from start to finish. After each woman has reached her third Premier Mandatory final of the season, the best of both careers, one must hope for a more compelling encounter.
At first glance, one hardly would expect the blonde baseliners to reward those hopes. Much superior to Sharapova in each of their hard-court finals, Azarenka surrendered only five games at Stanford in 2010, five games at Miami in 2011, three games at the Australian Open, and five in the #1 vs. #2 pairing at Indian Wells mentioned above. On the other hand, the overall balance of power in their rivalry began to tilt more towards equilibrium in their last two meetings. Undeterred by those routs earlier in the spring, Sharapova demolished Azarenka just as authoritatively in Stuttgart and then extended her deep into the final set of a US Open semifinal. That match proved the Russian’s only setback when winning the first set since 2010 and her only loss this year in a final set, a department where her rival also has accumulating just a single defeat in 2012 (to Serena a round later). In three of her four losses to Vika this year, in fact, Maria roared to an early lead by breaking her rival in her first service game. Uncharacteristically for her, she sustained the advantage on only one of those three occasions, so she will need to capitalize upon another such opportunity should she receive it.
The less athletic and less consistent shot-maker of the two, notwithstanding her improvements in those areas, Sharapova has found scant shelter in a serve against an opponent with a return nearly as vicious as her own. Broken repeatedly in her last several hard-court meetings with the world #1, the world #2 has settled into a smooth service rhythm this week with only two losses of serve in her last four matches. If she can continue that efficiency by varying her placement and maintaining a solid first-serve percentage, she will earn more chances to step inside the baseline after the serve and unleash a penetrating first groundstroke. Against Li, somewhat similar to Azarenka in her depth and steadiness, Sharapova constructed points with discipline and yielded relatively few errors on balls that landed near her feet. Scarring the opposite baseline with her own lasers, she waited for opportune moments to unleash the sharply angled strokes that finish points. The top speed’s sparkling court coverage, built upon a combination of instincts and agility, will require a parallel degree of patience from the Russian, who appeared to pull the trigger too early and often in many of her losses to Azarenka.
Following a pair of overwhelming victories over top-10 foes, Sharapova has accumulated more momentum than—arguably—in any tournament since the clay season. But one still should consider her a clear underdog against a woman who has lost only two matches on this surface all year. Like her opponent, Azarenka has not lost a set throughout the tournament, and she impressed with a straightforward triumph over Miami nemesis Bartoli in a semifinal. Whereas Li crumbled after Sharapova wrested away a 69-minute first set, moreover, this competitor will not flinch if she encounters early adversity, especially when the stakes run so high. The last five women’s finals at majors, Premier Mandatory, and Premier Five tournaments all have reached a third set, and a sixth would test the resilience of both finalists. Three long years ago, Sharapova and Azarenka battled through three long sets and for more than three hours on this court, the only genuine classic of their rivalry to date.
A sequel would conclude the Premier Mandatory season in style.