Commentary

Double the pleasure for Azarenka

Updated: January 28, 2012, 10:42 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Today, women's tennis is all about nerve -- and serve. If you can control the first, the second will fall into place.

From the time she was the Australian Open junior champion seven years ago, it was clear that Victoria Azarenka had the game to win a major. But as the fiery 22-year-old from Minsk, Belarus, moved rapidly up the tennis ladder, her head kept getting in the way. Anger issues seeped into important points, becoming concentration issues.

On Saturday in Melbourne, playing in the biggest match of her life -- a first Grand Slam singles final -- Azarenka hit two double faults in the first game and was broken by Maria Sharapova. She lost the second game, and you could just feel the inevitable meltdown coming.

Later, when a let on Sharapova's serve was ignored by the chair umpire, Azarenka asked why, then walked back to the baseline, moving -- bouncing softly in a Zen sort of way -- as if she were listening to a soundtrack only she could hear.

And then she calmly, almost coldly, ripped Sharapova's heart out.

Azarenka won 12 of the13 remaining games, including the last nine straight. She was a resounding 6-3, 6-0 winner and now is a Grand Slam champion.

Her first major title had another, not-so-insignificant benefit, too. The woman they call Vika is now the WTA's No. 1-ranked player for the first time.

"Wow," she told the crowd at Rod Laver Arena. "I can finally raise this trophy."

Sharapova, who is four years removed from her last major title and was attempting to overcome serious shoulder surgery, has never been bageled in a set at the Australian Open. The three-time Grand Slam champion said it would have been her sweetest victory, which means that when she looks back on her career, she might consider it her bitterest defeat.

"You have good days and you have bad days -- and you have days when things don't work out," Sharapova said. "Victoria was better on so many levels. You've earned this title. You've worked so hard over the years.

"Cherish it as long as you can."

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Martin Philbey/Getty ImagesFor Maria Sharapova, this will likely go down as one of the more bitter losses of her career.

It was more refreshing news for women's tennis, for we have now seen four straight first-time major winners. After Kim Clijsters won here a year ago, Li Na won in Paris, Petra Kvitova took Wimbledon and Sam Stosur prevailed in New York. Azarenka and Kvitova are 1-2 in the world, and you get the idea they will be playing for major titles for some time.

Caroline Wozniacki, the "Golden Retriever," spent 67 weeks at No. 1 -- 50 more weeks than Sharapova and Azarenka have together. Wozniacki will now drop to a more appropriate No. 4.

Technically, this was probably the loudest Grand Slam singles final ever. Piercing might be a better word. The shocking thing? That it was all over in 1 hour, 22 minutes.

Although most opponents fear Sharapova's power, Azarenka embraced it, hugging the baseline, taking the ball early and forcing Sharapova to move, something she doesn't do particularly well. According to the match statistics, Sharapova had 30 unforced errors -- more than twice as many as Azarenka -- but make no mistake, the majority were forced by Azarenka in-fighting.

Accepting the trophy, Azarenka thanked almost everyone, including her grandmother, the drivers of the courtesy vans and the ladies in the locker room. One name she did not mention was Nikolai Khabibulin.

Somewhere, probably at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., the old goalie from Belarus must have been smiling. Khabibulin is 39 years old now and playing out his NHL days with the Edmonton Oilers. Eight years ago, his wife -- also named Victoria -- was chatting with another junior tennis mom, Alla Azarenka, at the National Tennis Center in Minsk. They discussed the difficulties of an elite athlete training in that country and sometime later, Victoria mentioned it to her husband, who later that year would win a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Take a look at this girl," she said.

They hit balls one day, and Khabibulin was blown away.

"She was 14, and I'm struggling out there when we start hitting," Khabibulin told ESPN.com three years ago. "I'm not a tennis person, but you could see the fire in her eyes. She was hungry, very hungry, to get better."

He invited her to live with his family in Arizona. She trained with the best coaches at the best facilities. She traveled the world, supported by her new family. Her best friend is Sasha Khabibulin, whom she calls her sister. One year later, as a junior, Vika won her major title Down Under.

But not the last. The fire Khabibulin saw in her eyes is still there. It's just under control now.

"In Russia, not many people have money and the opportunity to be athletes," Azarenka explained three years ago. "Nik understands this and gave me this opportunity. He just wanted to give me that and see what I could do with it.

"Really, it's just the nicest thing you can do."

On Saturday, Azarenka repaid the favor.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.