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Saturday, January 28, 2012
Sharapova completely outclassed in Aussie finale

By Joanne C. Gerstner
Every tennis player, from a beginner playing her first match to the No. 4 player in the world playing in her hundredth, has had one of those days. You come out, feeling optimistic and ready to go for the win, and things go south in a hurry. No matter what you think, or what strategy or shots you try, the result is the same: failure because your opponent is just that much better. You take the loss, tell everybody you will shrug it off as one of those days, and move on. But what if you're Maria Sharapova, and your match of misery happened in the Australian Open final in front of the world -- can you just shake it off? It took less than 90 minutes for Sharapova to be dismantled, 6-3, 6-0, on Saturday evening by a thoroughly superior No. 3 Victoria Azarenka. Sharapova made no secret before the match that she truly wanted to win badly, as it would be a capstone to her recovery from major right shoulder surgery three years ago. The Australian Open was her last Grand Slam title, in 2008, and winning it four years later would have been sweet. But Azarenka, who now jumps to being the No. 1 player in the world after winning her first Grand Slam, had quite another narrative in mind. She controlled her early nerves, figured out how to push Sharapova around and went for the kill without mercy. It's what every player dreams of, along the lines of winning the World Series with a no-hitter and becoming the hero. And getting bageled anywhere, from your neighborhood tennis court to Rod Laver Arena, always adds much injury to insult. Not only did you lose, you clearly got rolled, and there's no way to rationalize or sugar-coat it. Sharapova admitted as much after the match on ESPN2, as she addressed the crowd while holding her runner-up trophy. "You've earned this title, you've worked so hard over the years," Sharapova said to Azarenka. "… Cherish it for as long as you can. As in any sport, you have good days, bad days, tough days where things don't work out." This is the second time Sharapova has been totally outclassed in an Australian Open final. An unseeded Serena Williams blew her off the court, 6-1, 6-2, in the 2007 final through a show of aggression and power. Azarenka borrowed a bit of the theme from five years ago, also using her power and unrelenting play to flummox Sharapova. And like Williams, Azarenka carried herself with steely confidence, sending the message that she was here to fight and meet Sharapova's noted power game with one of her own. The swagger started before the match, as Azarenka entered Rod Laver Arena looking like a cross between a boxer preparing to fight and a bit of Eminem's character before a rap battle in "8 Mile." She had the hood of her bright yellow warm-up jacket pulled down low past her forehead, ear buds from her MP3 player jammed in to seal out the reality of what awaited her on court. No smiles, no emotion. The hoodie wasn't flipped back until she took her first steps onto the court after she was announced to the arena. Sharapova also was not vying for Miss Congeniality, offering a tight-lipped, Mona Lisa-like smile to acknowledge the crowd and the huge bouquet of flowers while stepping on court. Sharapova played like a three-time Grand Slam champion at the start, and Azarenka looked like this was her first time in a final. Sharapova was controlled, building a 2-0 lead off Azarenka's errors. And shockingly, considering the way the first two games unfolded, that would be it for Sharapova's dominance. Azarenka's prematch swagger returned to trump her nerves, and she started hitting out. Her ground game grew deep, angled and persistent, pushing Sharapova around in long rallies. Azarenka looked like she was everywhere, using her speed and athleticism to turn a defensive get into an offensive winner in a heartbeat. She closed in on points and rarely surrendered the baseline on rallies. Sharapova, who doesn't play to close in, looked slow and plodding, continually a beat behind the brutal pace set by Azarenka. Sharapova was the one being driven behind the baseline and run from corner to corner as Azarenka went for the lines. Normally, Sharapova is the one blasting her opponents off the court with her groundstrokes, but in this case, she was trying to stay in points with her defense. Sharapova's last highlight came in the fifth game of the first set, when she ripped an ace -- the only one of the match from either player -- to level 3-all. After that point, it was lights-out. The shrieks from both players grew louder, the pace picked up and Azarenka shone. She presented more working elements to her game, teasing and driving Sharapova crazy with drop shots, lob winners, volleys, serves and yes, those consistently vicious groundstrokes. The points, then games, started adding up quickly, and Sharapova was powerless to change the result. There would be no Sharapova comeback and no Azarenka rookie collapse. The final stats reveal the levels of Azarenka's domination. Sharapova committed 30 unforced errors, while Azarenka had 12. Sharapova converted on only one of four break points, and Azarenka cashed in on five of seven chances. There was no doubt who deserved to win. But even so, the enormity of the moment got to Azarenka on match point, after another Sharapova backhand dumped into the net. Azarenka dropped to her knees on the baseline, with a totally shocked look on her face and mouthed, "What just happened?" to her box. The fight was over quickly, and perhaps even she was shocked at how well she had played. She ran to her friends and coaches, gave them hugs, and then jumped around the court while she threw her lime-green wristbands and headbands in the stands. Sharapova looked a bit shell-shocked and sad as Azarenka joyfully lived her moments of triumph. She knows how precious these chances are and how much pain in surgery and rehab she has endured to come back. The big losses add up, tearing away little pieces of your soul through heartache and second-guessing. Sharapova's camp probably will console her by saying this clearly wasn't her day, and that there is a whole tennis season filled with three more Grand Slams and the Olympics to look forward to in 2012. And that's all true. But it doesn't make losing like this any easier.