Why Sharapova needs to win Miami

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Caroline Wozniacki, furious, shook her head as she walked past chair umpire Kader Nouni -- but not his hand.

Maria Sharapova is into the women's final here at the Sony Ericsson Open, but that doesn't mean Wozniacki is convinced Thursday's 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory was legitimate.

Here's how it ended in a flash of controversy:

Sharapova, serving at match point, 5-4 in the third set, missed her first serve for the fourth time in a row. The second serve was called out -- which would have been a double fault and deuce reprieve for Wozniacki. But Nouni saw the ball good and overruled the call; television replays confirmed his vision. But because Wozniacki was out of replay challenges, she couldn't do anything about it. Nouni called for a do-over, and Sharapova won the final point.

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Maria Sharapova has not fared well in finals this season, but this time she won't have Victoria Azarenka to contend with.

Later, Wozniacki was asked if she felt better after seeing the replay.

"No, it doesn't," she said pointedly. "Because I think when the ball is so close that I think he should give her a chance to challenge at least when I don't have any challenges. She was going to challenge it, anyways. So if it shows it's good, it's good. If it shows it's out, it's out.

"The ball was so close that it might as well have been out."

There always has been a perception that Sharapova is generally a good player in moments of adversity. Now we have proof. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, she has played 18 three-set matches -- and won 17 of them.

"I'm really pleased after losing that first [set]," Sharapova said. "I could easily have just gone down in that second set. I stepped it up. I didn't stop."

With the departure of the previously undefeated world No. 1, Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals -- not to mention aging former Grand Slam champions Kim Clijsters and Venus and Serena Williams -- Miami is guaranteed a first-time champion.

This semi-surprising opening is a good thing for the players in and around the top 10 who are desperately seeking some momentum that will carry them into the Euro Slams. But who needs it the most? Here's the short list, presented in order by their increasing sense of urgency for a big title in the coming weeks:

1. Maria Sharapova: There have been no titles for Sharapova yet this year, but she has a nice opportunity here. She'll play the winner of the Agnieszka Radwanska-Marion Bartoli semifinal match.

In the three years since her career-threatening shoulder surgery, Sharapova has won five tournaments, but Tokyo, Rome and Cincinnati aren't the trophies she's interested in. She'd probably trade two or three of them for a win here.

The problem, as always, is her serve.

She had a chance to serve out the match at 5-2 and failed. At 5-4, she struggled again and was bailed out by Nouni's overrule. This is the area she needs to clean up if she's going to win a meaningful title.

2. Caroline Wozniacki: She was the No. 1 player for 67 weeks without the benefit of winning a major title.

"If people talk about me or not, to be honest, as long as I win, I'm happy," Wozniacki said. "I think especially media -- sorry, no offense -- [says] 'She doesn't make many winners; how can she win when -- blah, blah, blah -- [opponents] always make mistakes.' But, you know, I don't mind. I play to win, that's all."

You might infer from that quote that she does mind, but now that she's fallen out of the top spot, she seems to have relaxed a bit. That certainly wasn't the case in her postmatch interview, which was, in a word, terse.

She said she was going to skip the event in Charleston next week. Conveniently, her boyfriend, Rory McIlroy, is playing in The Masters. Wozniacki did not rule out making an appearance in Augusta.

3. Ana Ivanovic: It's been nearly four years since she won her one Grand Slam in Paris and rose, for a brief reign of 12 weeks, to No. 1.

Since then, she has won three minor titles (Linz, twice, and Bali) and floated around No. 20 in the rankings. Recently, though, her confidence has been on the rise. Ivanovic reached the fourth round at the Australian Open, losing to Petra Kvitova, and played her best tournament in years at Indian Wells. The 24-year-old Serb -- yes, she's still only 24 -- beat Wozniacki in the fourth round and Marion Bartoli in the quarters. With Sharapova up 6-4, 1-0, she retired from her semifinal match with a hip injury.

She won two matches here before losing to Venus Williams in three sets. Ivanovic has a game that should travel well into the clay season.

4. Agnieszka Radwanska: The return of Venus Williams was the story of this tournament, but it was Radwanska who sent her home. She was particularly excited about reaching the semifinals because Azarenka wasn't waiting there for her.

They already had met four times this year.

"Playing the same player almost every week is not that fun, right?" Radwanska said.

Not when you lose them all in the late stages of big events. At the Australian Open, Radwanska beat Azarenka in a first-set tiebreaker, but swooned 6-0, 6-2. She's a consistent player but has yet to develop the offensive weapon that can carry her against the bigger hitters.

5. Marion Bartoli: The Frenchwoman has come close on a few occasions. She reached the final at Wimbledon in 2007 (losing to Venus Williams), and last year she was a finalist at Indian Wells, losing to Wozniacki.

Bartoli ended Azarenka's perfect start to 2012 in the quarterfinals here, marking the 12th time she has beaten a top-five player. She has proven she can do it once a tournament, but can she string together two or three high-level matches?

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