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Friday, January 27, 2012
Shazza, Vika want this one badly

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australia's Herald Sun newspaper, looking ahead to the women's final at the Australian Open between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, summed it up quite nicely in a headline: "Final two are the squeal deal."

Yes, Saturday's final figures to be loud, loud, loud. Some in the stands at Rod Laver Arena and watching on television are sure to wear earplugs.

And it could be the moment when Azarenka finally delivers on her promise and wins a maiden Grand Slam title in her first major final.

"I really want it bad," Azarenka said.

Sharapova knows it.

"Even though Victoria hasn't really been in that stage of a Grand Slam before, she's certainly won big titles and she has the experience. This is a stage she's wanted to be at for a long time," Sharapova said.

The moment has indeed been coming for Azarenka.

The aggressive baseliner made steady progress in 2011, appearing in the French Open quarterfinals and Wimbledon semifinals. She was, unluckily, pitted against an inspired Serena Williams early at the U.S. Open and exited. No shame there.

Azarenka carried her form into the fall, coming up just short against Petra Kvitova at the year-end championships. No matter. She was crowned the Sydney champion to kick off the 2012 season.

In a sign of her increased maturity, Azarenka bounced back from losing a tiebreaker 7-0 to buddy Agnieszka Radwanska in Melbourne this week and then ousted defending champion and crowd favorite Kim Clijsters in the semis. Here we thought Clijsters was destined to repeat after saving four match points in the fourth round against Li Na.

Azarenka hung tough in the third set and closed it out.

Maria Sharapova
An Aussie title would mean the world to Maria Sharapova, who has fought long and hard to find her way back to the top.

But far from dwelling on a huge win, Azarenka was sticking to the task at hand.

"I'm still in the tournament, so I have my mind still in the tournament," Azarenka said. "Today was not the end. I have one more match to go. I have to stay humble and stay focused."

The pro that she is, Sharapova will be focused.

She upset Kvitova in her semifinal, taking advantage of Kvitova's wastefulness. The Czech, who downed Sharapova in the Wimbledon final, went 3-for-14 on break points and couldn't take advantage of 10 double faults. Sharapova, even with the doubles, wasn't entirely disappointed with her serve, feeling she had more sting on her second serve on the crucial points.

"Maria can handle, say, about three to five double faults per set, especially if, like in the semis, she follows up double faults with quality points," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "The double faults did not begin a spell of poor points."

The Russian's celebration at the end of the affair showed how much it meant to her; despite being seeded fourth, few would have predicted that she'd find her way to the final after sustaining an ankle injury in Asia. A victory Saturday would mark her fourth Grand Slam title and would probably be the most satisfying following a serious shoulder injury suffered in 2008.

"It means a lot to me," Sharapova said. "I played someone that's just had really great results and has beaten me the last couple of times. I just really wanted it today. I fought to the last point. She had so many opportunities in that third set, and I just hung on and just really went for it."

In Azarenka, Sharapova again confronts an opponent who's had good recent success against her. Azarenka has won two of their past three matches, and in the defeat, she retired in Rome in May -- while leading by a set.

"I haven't had great success against her in the last couple of events that we've played against each other," Sharapova said. "I'd really like to change that. Yeah, it will be important to tactically play right. She makes you hit a lot of balls and she's aggressive, as well."

Azarenka said she'll read and watch a few movies to calm any nerves she might have. She was untroubled about the gulf in experience in Grand Slam finals. Sharapova has contested five previous ones.

"It's no concern for me," she said. "I mean, worked hard to be in this situation, so why stress about it?"

Shriver expects a close match.

"I believe Vika [Azarenka] has the heart and head to win because of her maturity in the past nine months," she said. "Maria will start as the slight favorite."

How will it end?

Prediction: Azarenka in three.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.