MELBOURNE, Australia — The age gap only two years, the difference in experience is vast between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
Sharapova will play her sixth Grand Slam final at the Australian Open on Saturday against Azarenka, who is making her debut. And it isn’t just a major title on the line – the winner will claim the No. 1 ranking.
Four years after winning the last of her three major titles and approaching eight years since she lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17, Sharapova has another chance to add to her Grand Slam haul.
“It means so much to be back in a Grand Slam final,” Sharapova said. “It’s nice to get that far again after losing quite early in the last couple of years.”
Now 24, Sharapova has already been on tour long enough to experience the ups and downs of tennis. After winning the Australian Open in 2008, she underwent shoulder surgery that took her out of the game for nine months.
It took much longer for her to get back to her peak, and she lost at the Australian Open before the quarterfinals on her past 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.”
Azarenka worked on her fitness in the off-season, giving her the confidence to know she can play “as long as I need.”
Azarenka might take added confidence from two previous wins over Sharapova in hardcourt finals in Stanford and Miami. They share a 3-3 record overall.
“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.”
The Florida-based Russian often speaks like a veteran of the game – and she showed her experience in dealing with the media in the way she swatted away persistent questions about her grunting when she hits the ball.
“No one important enough has told me to change or do something different,” she said after her quarterfinal win. “I’ve answered it many times before. I’m sure I’ll answer it many more times ahead. I’m OK with that.”
Two of the noisiest players in the women’s game go head-to-head in the final. The WTA says its looking at ways to reduce the practice, which it acknowledges has become “bothersome” for some fans.
Any action is likely to start with younger players. Sharapova and Azarenka say it has been part of their game as youngsters, and neither has any intention of changing.
Azarenka’s high-pitched hooting has been mimicked by the crowd at times during her Australian Open run, but the 22-year-old Belarusian has maintained her composure.
By beating defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinals, the third-seeded Azarenka took her winning streak to 11 matches after claiming the Sydney International title before the Australian Open.
Like Sharapova, Azarenka has dropped two sets in Melbourne, including one against Clijsters in the semis.
It could have been much worse against the Belgian. Leading 4-2 against the four-time Grand Slam champion and crowd favorite, Azarenka was broken back after holding five game points.
She broke right back and after a nervy double-fault on her first match point, closed out the win.
She said her ability to finish off the match against Clijsters is because of hard work and experience.