Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka will contest Saturday's Australian Open final
Russian fourth seed Sharapova beat Czech No. 2 Petra Kvitova 6-2 3-6 6-4
No. 3 Azarenka reached her first grand slam final with win over champion Kim Clijsters
Three-time grand slam Sharapova won their most recent meeting in May 2011
In terms of age, just two years separate Australian Open finalists Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. But in terms of what the two young women have achieved in their tennis careers so far, they are poles apart.
Since bursting onto the scene as a 17-year-old Wimbledon champion in 2004, Sharapova’s model looks and three grand slam triumphs, combined with her rise and fall from the top of the world rankings, have kept her in the public eye.
In contrast, the 22-year-old Azarenka is enjoying her finest run at one of tennis’ four major tournaments. Thursday’s 6-4 1-6 6-3 semifinal win over defending champion Kim Clijsters has put her within touching distance of a first grand slam title.
To add extra spice to Saturday’s Melbourne showdown, both world No. 4 Sharapova and the third-ranked Azarenka can claim top spot with victory in the Rod Laver Arena showdown
“It means so much to be back in a grand slam final,” Sharapova told reporters after beating No. 2 Petra Kvitova. “It’s nice to get this far here at the Australian Open again after losing quite early the last couple of years.”
The 2008 champion secured her place in the title match with a 6-2 3-6 6-4 win over Kvitova, the 21-year-old Czech rising star who defeated Sharapova in the Wimbledon final last July and also had hopes of replacing Caroline Wozniacki at the rankings summit.
For Sharapova, the U.S. Open champion in 2006, becoming world No. 1 again would crown a renaissance which has seen her overcome a recurring shoulder injury which first struck five years ago.
It forced her to miss nearly 10 months of action between May 2008 and March 2009. But despite her struggle, Sharapova insisted that winning a second Australian Open is her sole motivation.
“I don’t regret anything that has happened – obviously it would have been nice not to have a serious injury at 21 years old, but sometimes it’s just the way things go. The good thing is I found a way to come back.
“It’s more about the grand slam win than the ranking. Having been in that position before, it doesn’t really add anything for me.”
While Sharapova is working her way back to the pinnacle of the sport, Azarenka is riding as high as she’s ever been in the world rankings.
Her best run at a grand slam prior to this tournament was a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon last year, where she was beaten by Kvitova.
“I really wanted it bad,” Azarenka said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but in a good way.”
Azarenka dug deep after being pummeled by former world No. 1 and four-time grand slam winner Clijsters in the second set, earning a crucial break in the eighth game of the decider to propel her to success.
“She was coming up with some incredible shots and I was really going for it. It was important to get that 5-3 lead and keep putting pressure on,” Azarenka said.
“It was difficult to get back in the match, to keep fighting and to keep going, but that’s what it’s all about. And I was really, really happy to win the match.”
The victory continued Azarenka’s impressive early-season form – she has now won all 11 matches in 2012.
“There’s a difference between saying it and feeling it,” she said of the effect her form is having on her confidence. “You really have to trust. You really have to feel it.
“You can’t just say you believe you’re going to do it, you have to work your way through it and always try to make that extra during practice, because it’s not coming in one day.”
While Azarenka has no experience of a grand slam final, Sharapova will be playing in her sixth. She has won three and lost two – including a defeat to American Serena Williams in the 2007 Australian Open.
It is impossible to split the pair in the head-to-read statistics, with both players having won three of their six encounters.
Sharapova won their most recent match in Rome in May, on her way to overall victory at the clay-court event, when Azarenka was forced to retire in the second set. However, the Belorussian had the honors when they met in the final of the Miami Masters in April.