Friday, January 27, 2012

AUS OPEN 2012: Women's Final Preview

Maria Sharapova RUS (4) vs. Victoria Azarenka BLR (3). 
Here is my prediction for the 2012 Australian Open women's final. I previously correctly predicted 4 of 4 women's quarterfinals and 2 of 2 women's semifinals this year. On the men's side I correctly predicted 4 of 4 men's quarterfinals and 1 of 2 men's semifinals this year.

How Did They Get Here?
M. Sharapova RUS d. P. Kvitova CZE 6-2 3-6 6-4. This was a repeat of the 2011 Wimbledon final where Kvitova won her first major title over Sharapova, in the venue where Sharapova had won her first over Serena Williams in 2004. Sharapova knew that she had been outhit and outserved in that match so in Australia rematch she was prepared and determined to not let that happen. Despite serving no aces and 10 double faults, the Russian was able to stay aggressive in her service games and ended up winning a fair number that she really should have lost. Kvitova still has streaks where she is very very good and hits winners from (and to) every corner of the court but also streaks where she riddles the court with errors (reminiscent of a Serena Williams circa 2000). What eventually decided the match was not hitting the ball between the lines but what was between the ears. Sharapova was just mentally tougher; at 4-all in the 3rd set she gutted out another difficult service hold and when Kvitova's turn to hold her serve to stay in the match she dissolved into a puddle of unforced errors and lost.

V. Azarenka BLR d.  K. Clijsters BEL, 6-4 1-6 6-3. Despite the score, this was actually quite a tight match, with the result in doubt until the last two games or so. After losing the first set, Clijsters raced out to a huge 5-0 lead in the second set, breaking Azarenka twice in succession and holding her own service games relatively easily. Faced with the indignity of losing a bagel set, Azarenka calmed down and started making first serves eventually winning a service game, and forcing Clijstersto serve out the set. More importantly, this allowed Azarenka to serve first in the deciding set and again she held serve and was able to break Clijsters first. However, what followed then was a series of breaks and nervy player from both sides of the net until finally at 5-3 Azarenka was able to hold her service game thanks to consecutive errors from Clijsters, and the match ended with Azarenka watching an errant backhand  from the Australian Open defending champion sailing out of the court with relief and joy.

Who Will Win?
This final will surely be the loudest women's final ever played, with both players known for the sounds they make during play (also known as "grunts" or "shrieks"). Azarenka's is a pretty uniform low pitched, two-tone wail which she makes almost every time she hits the ball while Sharapova's can vary from a loud grunt to a truly earsplitting shriek as the point gets longer or more important. Anyway, the two have played 6 times before and have split their matches 3-all, 2-all on hard courts. Interestingly, Azarenka leads 2-0 in finals (both on outdoor hard courts); she beat Sharapova last year in Miami and the year before in Stanford in straight sets. The two have never met in a major final despite being on tour for a half-dozen years simultaneously.

Their games are somewhat similar: they both play what is known as "Big babe" tennis. They want to win the point as early as possible, with the first strike of the ball, and have the power to hit winners from any point in the court. Azarenka is better at the net, while Sharapova has a better se rve (in theory) but will be hard-pressed in a major final to serve well. Azarenka is the better mover on the court, but hard court is the surface on which Sharapova moves the best and she has extremely powerful defensive skills.

As usual in the women's game, the final result will almost certainly be won by the more mentally tough player. The fact that it has taken Azarenka 25 majors to reach her first major final despite being a legitimate Top 5 player for the last 2-3 years shows a degree of mental weakness that is not exhibited by her opponent. Sharapova is in her 5th major final, only losing the 2007 Australian Open and 2011 Wimbledon final to players who completely blew her off the court (Serena and Kvitova, respectively). In a hard-fought battle I would go with the more mentally tough, experienced player, which in this case is Sharapova. Azarenka has under performed in majors so far in her career (two semifinals and 1 final) while her opponent has been in 13 semifinal and 5 finals. It takes a rare player (who is not going to be a one-slam wonder, e.g. Schiavone, Majoli) to win their first major final (Sharapova, Serena, Kvitova) and I don't think Azarenka is either a one-slam wonder or a player mentally tough enough to win their first major slam final. Sharapova, of course, already holds three major titles (Wimbledon 2004, U.S. Open 2006, Australian Open 2008). Numerology would say that an even year like 2012 bodes well for her chances tonight.

The winner of this match will also claim the World #1 ranking, dethroning Caroline Wozniacki. Sharapova has been #1 before, for 17 weeks,and I fully expect Azarenka will get there eventually (perhaps even this year). The Belarussian is on a winning streak, having not yet lost in 2012 (she won the Sydney warm-up tournament in a tough 3-setter over Li Na). There's a chance her streak will continue, but I think it is more likely that it will end in Melbourne tonight.

MadProfessah's pick: Sharapova.

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