In a highly-anticipated match-up between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka produced an impressive display to defeat Maria Sharapova and win the China Open on Sunday. The world number one picked up her fifth title of the year, and first since March, with a dominant performance that often left the Russian floundering.
Both players had been in imperious form all week, with neither dropping a set. In fact, Azarenka had lost only 21 games en route the final, and Sharapova a mere 20. Little hype was needed prior to today’s final, as the pair’s fierce rivalry has been well-documented. At the Australian Open in January, Azarenka beat Sharapova in straight sets to win her first Grand Slam title, and followed up that victory with another crushing performance in the Indian Wells final. Sharapova earned a measure of revenge by beating Azarenka on clay in Stuttgart, but the Belarusian won their most recent high-profile clash, a brutal tussle in the semi-finals of the US Open.
Sharapova is one of the steeliest competitors in tennis, but showed signs of nerves early on in the match. A couple of unforced errors and a double fault gifted Azarenka a break in the very first game, which she immediately consolidated. A further flurry of unforced errors from Sharapova allowed her younger opponent to secure a double break, and by the time the score reached 4-0, Sharapova had won a paltry five points.
The pressure of playing Azarenka was telling on the Russian; she had faced no one in her previous matches this week who could defend so well, hit so hard and yet remain consistent. But the French Open champion is nothing if not determined. She began to step in on Azarenka’s serves, and found her range with her forehand to mount a comeback to 5-3. Serving to stay in the set, Sharapova had a game point at 40-30, but she failed to assert herself and Azarenka broke for a third time to take the opening set 6-3.
While Sharapova had been spraying the ball, committing an ugly 20 unforced errors in the first set alone, Azarenka was giving a masterclass in controlled aggression. The second set began in the same vein, with the world number one retrieving well and frustrating Sharapova into going for too much. At 4-0, Azarenka was within sight of the title.
Although the match wasn’t close, the tension inside the National Tennis Stadium was palpable. Unperturbed by the scoreline, Sharapova had two break points to close the gap to 4-1, but some wayward groundstrokes saw these chances slip away. Long rallies had been few and far between thus far, but both players were now hitting with incredibly intensity, soundtracked by their notorious shrieks. Sharapova held for 5-1, leaving Azarenka to serve for the title.
The final game was the best of the match, an eight-minute battle that saw four deuces and three break point chances for Sharapova. Each player’s resolve was evident, but it was the Belarusian who finally prevailed after sending a serve down the middle which Sharapova was unable to return.
With the 6-3, 6-1 victory, Azarenka becomes the first ever player to win two Premier Mandatory tournaments in the same year. She will extend her lead at the top of the rankings, and although most fans and pundits label Serena Williams as the best player in the world right now, Azarenka has boosted her credentials as the American’s closest challenger.