Commentary

Can Sharapova master the moment?

Updated: March 17, 2012, 4:54 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- In her semifinal against Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka wasn't great. She had opportunities in the first set to make a quick night for herself but handed them over to her opponent. Fortunately, the combination of Azarenka's ability to regroup -- 6-for-9 on break points -- and Kerber not being quite good enough (five double faults in 10 service games) made for an unglamorous 6-4, 6-3 trip to Sunday's final.

The glamour was left to the second semifinal, with the statuesque Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova trading crushing forehands and fist pumps. This until the glamour gave way to the medics, and Ivanovic (down a set) retired with a left hip injury after losing the first game of the second set.

The Ivanovic run at Indian Wells roused the desert crowd, which seemed far more behind her than Sharapova -- except for the clown who screamed "refund!" and nearly threw a bottle on the court while Ivanovic agonized on the sideline about making the decision to stop playing. Ivanovic carried herself so well during the week, beating consecutive top-10 players for the first time in more than two years, controlling so many points with a revived forehand and deadly forehand return, that a serious injury would be a shame. She played well enough that a run into the top 10 wasn't such a stretch.

The road traveled leaves the women's game where it has wanted to be for some time, with world No. 1 Azarenka facing world No. 2 Sharapova in the final at a time when the imagination of the men's game is being carried by routine top-shelf matchups (Indian Wells promoters must love that Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic or the American John Isner will appear in the final).

Azarenka-Sharapova contains its own level of intrigue, the most of which being the instant reminder of Azarenka's 6-3, 6-0 demolition of Sharapova in the Australian Open. The truth that for all of the power in the Ivanovic-Sharapova duel, it was Sharapova -- whether by dint of injury or her relentless force -- who began to overpower Ivanovic by the end of the first set.

Sharapova trailed 2-0, with Ivanovic serving, to start the match, leaving a few folks groaning in the crowd, wondering whether Sharapova would fold in another big match.

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMaria Sharapova has folded in her biggest matches lately, losing in the finals of Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

Sharapova, however, is nothing if not tough and relentless, and her determination and aggressive follies -- prone to double faults, over-swinging on her forehand -- make her compelling and human on the tennis court. Ivanovic and she offered a terrific contrast on the court. Ivanovic played with a confident elegance, completely aware of which shots in her arsenal were going to save and propel her.

Sharapova's response to the adversity of the match was somewhat similar to that of Nadal: to apply more power (even though Nadal undersells the tactical and precision elements of his game). In the sixth game, serving 2-3, Sharapova blasted a first serve to Ivanovic's forehand that she turned around for a blistering crosscourt winner. Back-to-back crosscourt winners put Ivanovic at 15-40, two break points for a 4-2 lead. Sharapova began serving to Ivanovic's backhand, and the battering ram finally took the door off the hinges, overcoming a third break point and winning the key game by finishing off a short Ivanovic reply with a fierce swinging volley.

For the rest, Ivanovic, hung on gamely, but Sharapova muscled through, breaking Ivanovic in the next game, then holding to lead 5-3. Ivanovic took a medical timeout after losing the set 6-4, was broken in the first game of the second set and then retired.

If Sharapova has any of the relentlessness that she displayed first against Maria Kirilenko and Friday night against Ivanovic -- and there is no reason to believe she won't -- Sunday's final (the first in years between Nos. 1 and 2 at Indian Wells) should be title-worthy.