One of the developing rivalries in tennis will have its latest chapter on Friday, as Victoria Azarenka takes on Maria Sharapova in the US Open semi-finals. The players’ head-to-head record is almost even, with Azarenka leading 5-4 in career match-ups, but both women will be extremely keen – to say the least – to reach the final in New York. For Azarenka, it would be her first appearance in the Flushing Meadows title match, while Sharapova would be returning to the scene of her 2006 triumph.
Before we take a closer look at the history of these two, we should acknowledge that each of them currently lags behind Serena Williams when it comes to who is “player of the year so far”. The American may be ranked lower than both Azarenka and Sharapova, but she hasn’t lost a match to either in 2012. In fact, Serena is such a hot favourite at the US Open that many pundits think the rest of the field is merely vying for the runner-up trophy.
But ignoring Serena for the moment (however difficult it may be), we should appreciate that the Azarenka-Sharapova rivalry is becoming ever more intriguing. Back in January, Azarenka stormed to her first major title, dispatching the Russian for the loss of only three games. They met a couple of months later in Indian Wells, with Azarenka again winning in straight sets. It was in the final of Stuttgart in April, however, that fans got to see just how much these players want to beat each other. So determined were they not give an inch to their opponent, they even bumped into one another at a change of ends. After Sharapova won that match, she snidely remarked, “It’s just a shame Victoria was extremely injured today and couldn’t play her best tennis.” She was referring to Azarenka’s tendency to pull out of matches citing physical ailments, a comment that will not have gone down too well with the Belarusian.
Friday’s clash will be the first meeting between the two since then. In the interim, they have exchanged the number one ranking, and won Olympic medals, bronze for Azarenka, silver for Sharapova. So how do their games match up? The pair actually have quite similar styles of play, both preferring to engage in wars of baseline attrition rather than venture towards the net. Each has a solid serve, but Sharapova is no stranger to double faults, while Azarenka sometimes sacrifices speed and power in order to maintain a high first serve percentage, as seen in her previous match against Sam Stosur. Notoriously, both love to punctuate their shots with piercing screeches. Friday’s match will not be one for those who like to hear only the soft thwack of ball on racket.
Both players relish the fight in any match, and will stop at nothing to walk away the winner. There is little to choose between them, but Azarenka’s slightly superior movement could be key. Whereas last year she would have attempted to go for brazen winners, her head dropping in despondence when they failed to come off, she has since improved her defence as well as her attitude, chasing down balls and keeping herself in contention during long rallies.
Sharapova’s iron will and positive approach have been in evidence ever since she burst onto the scene at Wimbledon in 2004. While she moves extremely well laterally, and is a better defensive player than she is given credit for, she has a harder time moving up the court, something Azarenka will seek to exploit with sharp angles and changes of pace.
The semi-final clash has the potential to be one of the best matches of the year, especially if both players are at their best. Each has come through a difficult quarter-final, and each is hungry for their second grand slam of 2012. Regardless of the outcome, it should be a fascinating contest, with the added spice of personal animosity to accompany the power tennis.