MELBOURNE, Australia — And just like that, the WTA has a new No. 1. Victoria Azarenka steamrolled Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final to win her first career Grand Slam title.
“Today, Victoria played better on so many levels,” Sharapova said at the awards ceremony after the match. Indeed, after falling behind 0-2, Azarenka rolled to win 12 of the next 13 games on the way to the title. In a stark contrast to the top-heavy ATP, Azarenka’s win means all four Grand Slam titles are now held by first-time major winners.
Check out our game-by-game analysis below.
5:07 a.m. ET | Azarenka wins set 6-0, wins match 6-3, 6-0.
Azarenka gets a little nervy serving out and Sharapova steps it up a bit, but it was too little too late. On her first match point, Sharapova hits an unforced error and Azarenka drops to her knees. She keeps looking to her box as if saying “What just happened?”
A rather cold handshake at the net between the two ladies, no hugs, no kisses, and it almost looked like they were going to arm wrestle. Sharapova has to be devastated.
Welcome to the Grand Slam club and the No. 1 ranking, Victora Azarenka. Amazing composure throughout the fortnight and she put her foot on Sharapova’s throat tonight and never let go. She was the better player and is a well-deserving champion.
4:58 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 5-0
Such a disappointing performance from Sharapova. Shocking, really. She’s supposed to be the composed veteran with experience on her side, but in her second straight Slam final she’s come up against a young gun and been completely overwhelmed (Petra Kvitova outgunned her at Wimbledon). For one with such a reputation of being a gritty fighter, this is just shocking.
As Sharapova faces break point, the birds start circling. No really, they are, the seagulls have made their presence known all tournament and you can hear them here tonight. Another unforced error and Maria Sharapova is one game away from getting bageled in a Grand Slam final.
If Azarenka can serve it out it will be the first time in the history of women’s tennis that all four Grand Slams are held by four different first-time winners, according to the local Channel 7 broadcast.
4:52 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-0
Rod Laver Arena is dead silent as Azarenka’s now going on an eight-game shutout. She’s still clenching her fist and she’s still hitting the ball, but unfortunately for her the balls aren’t landing in.
With another forehand error, Sharapova shoots a glare at her box.
4:49 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-0
Azarenka has a double break and is three games from her first career Slam title and the No. 1 ranking. On some level I think she’ll be even more excited that she did it beating Sharapova the way she’s doing it right now.
Sharapova’s feeling the heat. She asks for a cold towel out of the refrigerator during the changeover and she’s chugging some energy gel as well. Will any of it help her turn this around? The stats look horrible:
Sharapova has only won 52 percent of the points on her first serve, 21 percent on her second. She’s serving at a good percentage (66 percent) but it’s not bothering Azarenka at all. The youngster is returning at an 84 percent clip and she’s getting them back deep. Azarenka’s beating Sharapova on the winner count (11 to 9) while Sharapova’s doubled up on her in unforced errors (25 to 12).
How do we translate those numbers? Beat. Down.
4:42 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 2-0
Frustratons starting to show for Sharapova, who gets a look at breaking Azarenka’s serve at love-30 but can’t quite do it.
She just can’t shake Azarenka at all. At 30-30, the Russian finally hits a return winner and let’s loose a huge “Come On” in the general direction of Azarenka. But Azarenka just doesn’t care. She just keeps on keeping on, standing right on the baseline, absorbing each and every stroke and waiting for either a Sharapova error or an opportunity to step in and fire a winner.
If Sharapova can’t find another level she’s toast. She’s getting beat by a player who’s just flat-out better than her tonight.
4:36 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 1-0
At 15-15, Sharapova goes for a swinging volley while standing a mere two feet inside the baseline, and nets it. These unforced errors are making Azarenka’s life much easier and now the three-time Slam champ is just making bad decisions. After missing that swinging volley, Sharapova refuses to take a ball out of the air at the net on game point, instead choosing to let it drop. She hits it directly at Azarenka, who redirects it for a winner.
That’s five straight games for Azarenka now.
4:29 a.m. ET | Azarenka wins set 6-3
Azarenka’s got that swagger. She strides to the line with a look that almost looks…bored?
Easy hold for her at 15 to pocket the first set. She’s playing well within herself and the big difference is the depth of her first strikes. She takes control of the rallies immediately, whereas Sharapova needs 2-3 shots to do it. The Russian needs to return better and hit closer to the lines. Her strokes in the rally aren’t bothering Azarenka at all.
4:23 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 5-3
Sharapova goes tramline to tramline, showing Azarenka that she’s not the only one who can turn defense to offense on a dime. Great anticipation as she hits a great backhand down the line that causes Azarenka’s knees to buckle. Azarenka’s sticking to her patterns though, pulling Sharapova wide on the backhand and trying to finish to her forehand corner. It’s a good tactic and one that Azarenka’s used extensively through her career, so she’s very comfortable with it.
Sharapova throws in her second and third double faults of the match to give Azarenka a look at a deuce, and a forehand error gives Azarenka a break point. Concussive hitting from both as they battle for control over the rallies. Both are on the baseline and neither wants to back off. But Azarenka’s getting a better first strike on the ball, getting her first hits deep and into the corners.
She gets Sharapova on a string and finishes two points at the net to get the break. Azarenka serving for the set.
4:16 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-3
Azarenka’s defense keeps her in a 17-shot rally that she wins on a tough backhand she pulls crosscourt with pace.
At love-30, Sharapova hits a swinging forehand volley, a shot that she’s used masterfully in the past, but not as often this year in Melbourne. Definitely a sign of confidence for her. She puts some pressure on Azarenka, getting the game to 30-30, but Azarenka gets the hold on a beautiful drop shot/lob combination. She liked that one. Threw an animated fist pump to her box.
Pretty even stuff so far. Not great quality, but good quality.
4:10 a.m. ET | Set tied 3-3
Azarenka can hit her returns for winners, but the most impressive thing about her return game is her ability to send the ball back within inches of the baseline. It’s quite similar to what David Ferrer is able to do. He doesn’t hit a lot of winners off the return, but it gets so deep that it sets up the winner he hits two shots later. That’s exactly what Azarenka can do.
Azarenka gets the game to deuce, but as Sharapova showed in her semifinal, she can serve her way out of trouble. Nails an ace wide and one down the tee to hold.
4:03 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-2
I’m all for color commentary, but Chris Evert insists on quipping all the way through the points. Is she trying to drown out the grunting? It’s not helping.
Strong hold from Azarenka and she’s slowing tugged back momentum from the Russian. Let’s see what Sharapova can do on her service game. Azarenka is already nine for nine on service returns.
3:59 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
How long did it take for Chris Evert to bring up Caroline Wozniacki? 10 minutes.
That dig out of love-30 to hold seems to have settled Azarenka. Much better play from her, hugging the baseline and getting her return deep, which doesn’t give Sharapova any time to step in on the ball. Sharapova leaves those balls short and Azarenka attacks. She breaks at love as Maria sends a ball long. We’re back to even.
3:56 a.m. ET | Sharapova leads 2-1
Sharapova has her forehand to Azarenka’s backhand corner dialed in. Yet another double-fault for Azarenka and that relaxed look has been replaced with a confused kangaroo in the headlights. She falls behind love-30, but after a couple of return misses from Sharapova, Azarenka punctuates the hold with a forehand down-the-line winner. Important hold for the youngster there. It was looking like Sharapova was going to run away with this set.
3:51 a.m. ET | Sharapova leads 2-0
First long rally of the match and Sharapova wins it with a deep forehand to Azarenka’s backhand corner. So far Sharapova looks contained, though she’s not hitting through the ball as we know she can, but Azarenka’s footwork already looks heavy, a true sign of nerves. Sharapova is getting her on the run.
At 40-love, Sharapova double faults. Well, if there’s any time to throw one in it’s when you’re up 40-0. “Come on!” Sharapova shouts as she holds comfortably.
3:45 a.m. ET | Sharapova leads 1-0
First double fault of the match comes off Azarenka’s racket and two points later she throws in another one. Who’d have thunk it. Sharapova’s been the one on Serve-Watch. Then again, Azarenka’s nerves in her first Grand Slam final will definitely be a factor.
So far Sharapova’s decision to defer her serve has paid off. It was a nervy game by both, with Azarenka double faulting and Sharapova sending forehands long, but the Russian breaks. To hold or not to hold, that is the question.
Azarenka wearing shorts and a hoodie, Sharapova looking as steely as ever. The players are on court and the women’s championship final is set to begin.
Azarenka is Rafa-like in making Sharapova wait at the net as she calmly puts her iPod away. These two aren’t friends and they’ve barely made any eye contact as during the coin toss, as Sharapova wins the toss and chooses to receive. A break out of the gate would be huge for her.
Everyone is looking at the serve tonight. Sharapova has to nail hers and Azarenka has to be able to attack it. Once the rallies get to neutral it’s a bit of a toss-up, though Sharapova’s the more offensive player.
For Azarenka she has her eyes on both No. 1 and her first Slam title. Asked which one means more to her, she laughed. “I think you can find a really good balance by winning a Grand Slam and becoming No. 1.”
As for Sharapova, she’s been here before, and as every Grand Slam champion will tell you, it’s about the title. The ranking is secondary.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in that position before,” Sharpova’s said about the top ranking. “I think the girls that are trying to get that position haven’t been in that position before. You can’t compare the two. I try to improve in order to win Grand Slams. That’s my goal.”
Here we go. Let’s keep the grunting quips to the minimum. I’m excited for the tennis.