The current Azarenka vs Sharapova head to head stands at 7-5, with their last encounter being in the WTA Championships 2012 semi-final, where the Russian prevailed in two sets.
The countries and continents may change, but the participants remain the same. With the absence of Serena Williams, the most likely scenario for the current Tokyo tournament is the resumption of what is turning into the most interesting rivalry that the WTA has seen for several years.
In one corner, the tall blonde Russian with model-like beauty and a career Grand Slam to her name. In the other, the powerful Belarussian whose unbeaten streak of xxx matches at the start of the year saw her rise to world number one.
The rivalry between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka is not only based on their multiple meetings on the court and the high-profile nature of the majority of their matches. Instead, it is the personal enmity between the two powerhouses of the game that makes this a particularly spicy affair.
The two players clearly respect each other’s abilities. That is not in doubt. However, there is certainly no love lost between them. The first real clash came back in 2009 during an intense battle in the heat of Beijing. When Azarenka called a medical timeout, Sharapova was clearly upset, believing that the Belarussian was faking injury to give herself time to recover and disrupt Sharapova’s rhythm. A loud and sarcastic question of “is her last name Jankovic?” to the umpire showed her feelings, referring to the Serbian’s reputation for calling tactical medical timeouts.
The following year, it came out that Azarenka had called her Russian opponent a ‘bitch’ during a match in Rome. While Sharapova has admitted this year that she can be a bitch at times, it showed the bad blood between the two. Later that year, the two sat next to each other on a flight to play a charity exhibition match, but did not speak a word to each other throughout the entire flight.
Things almost came to a head earlier this year in Stuttgart. The two bumped shoulders during the change of ends – neither player wanting to give way as they passed at the net. The post-match handshake was cold to say the least – American commentator Leif Shiras colourfully described it as “not exactly bathed in the milk of human kindness.”
Sharapova would again subtly question Azarenka’s tactics in her victory speech, slightly sarcastically referring to Azarenka’s medical timeout and expressing her sadness that the Belarussian could not really perform to her best.
Neither player is really on the tour to make friends and this animosity simply adds to what is a growing rivalry in the women’s game. However, it is a rivalry that has appeared somewhat one-sided so far this year.
While Sharapova does have a victory to her name on the clay in Stuttgart, there were questions over Azarenka’s fitness that day (whether they were legitimate or not is left to you to decide). Other than that, they have met three times this year on hard courts with the Belarussian winning all three of them.
Azarenka destroyed Sharapova in one of the most one-sided Australian Open finals in memory at the start of the year in what was expected to be a close match, and her victory in Indian Wells was no less comprehensive.
Their US Open meeting was by far the most competitive of the trio, and indeed, Sharapova will be left rueing the mistakes that allowed a set and a break lead to slip away. As the match slipped away from her, she seemed unable to do anything to stem the tide and it would appear that Azarenka may have found a breach in the renowned mental toughness of the Russian.
To beat Azarenka, Sharapova needs to improve her second serve. Too many times, she misses her first serve and allows Azarenka to dominate points on her second. No player has broken as often as Azarenka in the women’s game this year, and at the moment, she seems to be able to break Sharapova almost at will.
It is no surprise that the Stuttgart final was her best serving performance of the lot. Eight aces in ten service games gave her the confidence to allow her groundstrokes to flow, as shown by her statistics of 31 winners and only 13 unforced errors.
However, even this might not be enough – Azarenka has been virtually unbeatable on the hard courts this year. Even in the US Open final that she lost against the in-form Serena Williams, she was the better player for almost two sets, before a choke at the end allowed the American to clinch the title.
Regardless, with Serena’s reduced playing schedule and age, they seem destined to meet many more times over the coming years. The men’s game has benefitted from the fierce rivalries between Nadal and Federer, and more recently Nadal and Djokovic. The women’s game needs a real rivalry and in Azarenka and Sharapova, it may have found one.