Azaenka's season: simply perfect
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Finals are not supposed to lack suspense, especially between the top two players in the world. But as harsh as the truth may sound, the only intrigue in Victoria Azarenka's 6-2, 6-3 demolition of Maria Sharapova in the women's final at Indian Wells on Sunday was whether she would win before it started pouring.
The rain never came, and the match wasn't close. Azarenka, the top women's player in the world, hasn't lost this season, a perfect 23-0. In their first meeting since beating her 6-3, 6-0 at the Australian Open, Azarenka made clear from the opening game that Sharapova, right now, is not the player to challenge her.
Azarenka has won their past four meetings in finals -- all in straight sets -- and her last loss during that stretch came when she retired with an injury in the quarterfinals at Rome last year with Azarenka down a set but up 3-0 in the second. In a sense, though the analogies are not complete, the top two women in the game somewhat mirror the top two men. Rafael Nadal is an underdog when he plays world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, but the gap between Azarenka and Sharapova feels even greater.
Djokovic has beaten Rafael Nadal because he owns a superior backhand, receives more free points off of his serve and has played the key points just slightly tougher than Nadal.
But Azarenka has clearly dominated Sharapova in their past two meetings, to the point that it is unclear if Sharapova's game at the moment is enough to beat Azarenka.
The question now, entering Miami -- where Azarenka beat Sharapova 6-4, 6-1 in last year's final -- is whether anyone can beat Azarenka. She hasn't played Serena Williams, who will be in Miami and who beat her relatively soundly at the U.S. Open, this year or Caroline Wozniacki or Petra Kvitova, the world No. 3.
"Of course, I'd love to play them," Azarenka said about solidifying her top ranking by beating all of the top players. "The bigger the challenge, the more exciting."
The statistics were as telling as the eye test. Sharapova made 75 percent on her first serves, yet won only 46 percent of those points. She served nine service games and was broken in six of them. Sharapova won only 31 percent of her second serves, which is another way of saying she had very little chance Sunday.
Against Azarenka, Sharapova struggled on two fronts: The first was movement. Azarenka absorbed Sharapova's big first serve and moved her laterally around the baseline, exposing Sharapova's lack of mobility and allowing Azarenka to sustain rallies on her terms.
The second was diversity. Sharapova had no Plan B in her game to change the momentum of the point or the game. She did not come to net. She did not change the pace of the point with slices or drop shots. She didn't make Azarenka consider moving toward or away from the net.
That's not Sharapova's game. Her game is power. Sharapova's response to any challenge on the court is to hit with more power, especially her serve and forehand. She was a valiant fighter, and her heart was apparent, as it was in the third game of the first set. Trailing 0-2, Sharapova was in danger of being blown out, down 15-40 in her second service game. She fought back with power, breaking Azarenka twice in the second set. Still, unable to hold serve, unable to rally, her heart only prolonged the inevitable.
Afterward, Sharapova said she was looking to volley and move off the baseline, but she was unable. Azarenka said her plan was to "put as much pressure on her and not let her into the match." Beginning both sets up 2-0 and 3-0, respectively, met that aim.
"Actually, her game, her determination, her fight, brings out the best out of me," Azarenka said of Sharapova. "You have to be at your best to beat her. It is motivation."
Naturally, after a crushing loss, Sharapova wasn't too interested in dissecting her game, suggesting only that she and Azarenka have "many more" meetings upcoming. That is undoubtedly true, but without the implementation of new tactics and more precision, the results will likely be the same.