Dominant Azarenka reigns supreme

Sharapova crushed as maiden Slam leaves Belarusian comeback queen on top of the world


The merry-go-round that is women's tennis continued here, where Victoria Azarenka, who almost quit the sport a year ago, became the latest to take a spin and ended up with a first Grand Slam title after destroying Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0 in 82 minutes to win the Australian Open.

By clinching her debut Slamtitle, Azarenka replaces Caroline Wozniacki as the World No1 in a women's game that has seen four different players in succession claim their debut major crown . First there was China's Li Na at the French Open, followed by Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon. Australia's Sam Stosurcollected the US Open in New York and now in Australia the woman who described herself as a "mental case" going into a first Slam final is the champion.

It was billed as the battle of the "shriekers", and while they did puncture the air with unwelcome noise for most of the match, it wasn't the sustained assault on the senses that many predicted.

Azarenka, 22, has seen herself regularly on YouTube choking in major matches, but it was the three- times Slam champion Sharapova who fluffed her lines, shanked her shots and moved like a milk float.

Having won the Australian Open junior title in 2005, Azarenka is the youngest senior champion since Sharapova, but she was so depressed about her defeats in major events that quitting became an option last year, until her mother and grandmother talked her round.

Azarenka said: "This is a dream come true and I made a pretty smart decision 11 months ago not to walk away from tennis. It was a short moment that I felt like that I should stop, and I found strength in my misery. There are always ups and down in tennis and this is a big up; I feel even better now that I know I am also number one. I am going to have a champagne shower. It is great for women's tennis that so many differentplayers have won Slams now.

"I have no idea what happened out there. It was amazing and pure joy when I won. I couldn't believe the match was over and, while my coaching team is more like family now, it is my grandmother who inspires me as she never stops working.

"I don't think it was perfect today – but it was the perfect ending. I was super-nervous before the match and I couldn't wait to get on to court and I handled the situation well at the start when she caught me off guard.

"Beating Kim Clijsters, the defending champion, in the semis helped my self-belief and now there's no limit for me if I keep working hard."

Given the way that Sharapova was dealing with Azarenka's more accomplished groundstrokes, a quick death was preferable to a long, lingering fall from grace. Sharapova is battling back after various injuries, most notably her shoulder operation, and needs to spend the next month working on her speed, because she was off the pace throughout.

Whenever Azarenka moved her left and right it was only a question of when Sharapova, who had not played match tennis for three months, would lunge desperately to retrieve the ball, putting her hopelessly off balance when she had to try and change direction.

Sharapova, who made 30 unforced errors compared to her opponent's 12, said: "It is an honour to play against Victoria because she has worked so hard for the title and my message is to cherish it as long as you can.

"In sport you have days when things don't work out and she played way better than me and the winner takes it all. This is a tough loss to take but I will be back.

"She was a step quicker than me and I had to be aggressive and overdid it. The switch went off after the opening two games that I won but to reach the final is a good start to the year for me and I have a lot to look forward to."

Sharapova gave up that early lead, being broken in the fourth game, and lost her service again in the eighth, which allowed Azarenka to serve out the set. By breaking Sharapova at the start of the second set and saving a break point on her own serve in the next, Azarenka took total control of the Russian 24-year-old. The Belarus player broke twice more before completing victory with a perfect serve wide to the forehand followed by a groundstroke the other way, which Sharapova could not return.

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