MELBOURNE, Australia – After 25 Grand Slam tournaments, Victoria Azarenka is through to her first final. Maria Sharapova, her opponent in Saturday’s Australian Open title decider, has been there five times before, and won three.
That’s all history from Azarenka’s perspective.
“It’s no concern for me. I mean, I worked hard to be in this situation, so why stress about it?” Azarenka said Friday of the match that has a Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking on the line. “I want it and that’s what I’m looking for.”
Azarenka and Sharapova are two of the loudest “grunters” in women’s tennis. Others refer to it as shrieking, and Azarenka’s is more in alto, while Sharapova’s is a tad higher on the musical scale.
When the pair last played at Key Biscayne, Fla., last year, Azarenka said she felt her grunt was quieter than Sharapova’s.
At Rod Laver Arena this year, fans have started to mimic Azarenka during her matches. Stay tuned for more of the same when the fans hear it from both sides of the court Saturday.
The 22-year-old Azarenka and 24-year-old Sharapova are 3-3 in head-to-head meetings. But Azarenka holds the edge in two finals, having beaten Sharapova in straight sets at Stanford in 2010 and in Florida last year.
Instead of thinking dominance, Azarenka thinks Sharapova might be out for revenge.
“It’s very different, you cannot really look back,” Azarenka said. “It’s always difficult to play somebody you’ve beaten before. They have extra motivation to beat you.”
If Azarenka wins the final, she would be only the third player to rise to the top ranking after her first Grand Slam win. Martina Navratilova rose to No. 1 for the first time after winning Wimbledon in 1978, while Ana Ivanovic did the same after winning the 2008 French Open.
A win by Sharapova would mark the fourth time in the Russian’s career that she’s held the top ranking, the most recent in June 2008. Overall, she’s been No. 1 for 17 nonconsecutive weeks.
Sharapova dismisses any thoughts of playing for the top ranking.
“Having been in the position before … I think, for me, it’s more about the Grand Slam win than the No. 1 ranking,” she said. “That’s just always been the goal for me.”
It’s been four years since Sharapova won the last of her three major titles — here in 2008, and nearly eight years since she lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17. In between, she won the U.S. Open in 2006.
“It means so much to be back in a Grand Slam final,” Sharapova said. “It’s nice to get that far again (here) after losing quite early in the last couple of years.”
Sharapova has already been on tour long enough to experience the ups and downs of tennis. After winning the 2008 Australian Open, she had shoulder surgery that sidelined her for nine months.
It took much longer for her to get back to anywhere near her peak, and she lost at the Australian Open before the quarterfinals on her last two visits. She reached the Wimbledon final last year, but lost to Petra Kvitova — the player she beat in Thursday’s semifinals.
“With the shoulder, I knew some examples of some people that did not quite recover from surgery and that was a little frightening, but I really had no option,” she said. “Of course it took a long time and it was a process, but it was just something that was in my steps that I had to go through. And I did.”
A handful of women came into the tournament with a chance to hold the No. 1 ranking at the end of it. Caroline Wozniacki ensured she’d vacate the top spot when she lost to defending champion Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals.
Azarenka, by beating Clijsters in the semifinals, took her winning streak to 11 matches after claiming the Sydney International title ahead of the Australian Open.
Like Sharapova, Azarenka has dropped just two sets in Melbourne, including one against Clijsters in the semifinals.
“She’s a really, really good player, and I haven’t had great success against her in the last couple of events that we’ve played against each other,” Sharapova said. “I’d really like to change that. It will be important to tactically play right. She makes you hit a lot of balls and she’s aggressive as well.”
Azarenka agreed strategy will be involved.
“It’s a battle for giving really your all and how well you can manage it,” the Belarusian said. “I know Maria’s game; she knows my game. So of course it’s going to be a little bit of a similarity there.”