INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Two former champions (and former No. 1s) will vie for the BNP Paribas Open title when Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki face off in the final on Sunday.
Wozniacki, the 2011 champion and No. 8 seed, upended No. 4 Angelique Kerber 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 to make her third Indian Wells final. No. 2 seed Sharapova, a winner here in 2006, took care of No. 13 Maria Kirilenko 6-4, 6-3 to maker her second straight Indian Wells final. With the win, Sharapova will displace Victoria Azarenka as the No. 2 player on the WTA Tour on Monday.
It’s hard to say who has more to lose here. For Sharapova, she’s into her first final of the year and continues to prove her reliability deep into tournaments. But she’s still susceptible to a bad loss, like her 6-2, 6-2 defeat to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals after cruising through her first five matches in Melbourne.
Wozniacki is playing with house money after getting a quarterfinal walkover when Azarenka withdrew because of an ankle injury.
Sharapova leads the head-to-head 4-2 over Wozniacki, their last matching coming in the semifinals of the Sony Open in Miami last year, where Sharapova won 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. It’ll be a battle of offense vs. defense, though Wozniacki has shown renewed aggression this week. She’s hitting her forehand cleaner and coming to net to finish off points with more regularity, two needed improvements.
That said, she’s into the final thanks to one key tactical change she made after getting crushed by Kerber in the first set of their semifinal: She started hitting moonballs. Kerber, who likes pace, was thrown off by the tactic, and she let Wozniacki back in. The two exchanged moonballs for rallies that lasted minutes and had the crowd bursting into laughter mid-rally.
“Usually when your opponent has time to hit higher balls or a little bit of spin, you’re giving them a bit more time to do that,” Sharapova said.
Sharapova watched part of the Wozniacki’s match and couldn’t help but look bemused when she was asked about the the tactic.
“It’s going to be a long day if you’re doing that for a long period of time,” she said. “I mean, it’s not a good mentality to have, when you’re a junior especially. You’re kind of waiting for your opponents to make mistakes. You’re not the one that’s forcing the play and making it.”
The slower hard courts at Indian Wells have been good for Wozniacki’s game over the years.
“I think the court suits me very well,” the Dane said. “I like that it goes fast through the air, but it’s a pretty slow court. So I feel like I get out of the ball what I want. But at the same time, I feel like I get to a lot of balls. To have that mix is good.”
That mix served her well when the two played here in 2011. Wozniacki rolled 6-1, 6-2 on her way to the title. Sharapova has won their two meetings since.
As comfortable as Wozniacki is on these courts, the match is entirely on Sharapova’s racket. It’s up to the Russian to simply execute her game. With her flat pace, she can hit through the court and just needs to be prepared to hit that second and third extra ball that Wozniacki’s defense will send back. She’ll also need to control the ball early, as her last two matches have been at night and the ball can fly for the big hitters during the day. She can’t give too many cheap points away with early errors.
“She’s dangerous when she has the opportunities to open up court and she wants you running side to side,” Sharapova said.
Luckily for Sharapova, she’s had good practice with these types of opponents through the tournament. Going into the final she hasn’t dropped a set against a series of talented retrievers, most notably her last two opponents, 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani and the speedy and powerful Kirilenko.
She played with good patience and controlled aggression against both players and showed off some scrambling defense of her own. She’s moving well and if she has a good serving day, Wozniacki will be in trouble.
Prediction: Sharapova in two sets.