Sharapova and Azarenka fight for title and right to be crowned princess of wails

 

Play was stopped midway through the semi-final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal here last night as fireworks exploded in the sky as part of the city's Australia Day celebrations. Earlier in the afternoon, players had to cope with the noise of the Roulettes, the Royal Australian Air Force's equivalent of the Red Arrows, speeding back and forth above Melbourne Park.

Another assault on the eardrums can be expected here tomorrow when Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, the two most notorious shriekers and wailers in the women's game, meet in the final of the Australian Open. The 24-year-old Russian and the 22-year-old Belarusian earned their chance of a shot at the title and the world No 1 ranking that will come with it thanks to hard-earned victories in the semi-finals yesterday. Sharapova beat Petra Kvitova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to avenge her defeat in last year's Wimbledon final, while Azarenka beat Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in what could prove to be the Belgian's last appearance here.

If the players' grunting has been a major subject of debate among both spectators and the media over the last 10 days, the focus yesterday was on the excellence of the tennis. Both semi-finals were full of drama and shot-making of the highest quality, while the delight on the two finalists' faces was evident.

 



For Sharapova, getting to the final marks another peak scaled on her quest to reconquer the highest mountains following her comeback from shoulder surgery, the legacy of which is still evident. The Russian, who was forced to remodel her serve, hit 10 double faults against Kvitova.

Victory tomorrow would be particularly significant given that Sharapova claimed the last of her three Grand Slam titles here in 2008, when she won without dropping a set, beating four past, current or future world No 1s along the way.

Grand Slam tournaments have not always been the happiest of occasions for Azarenka, who despite being talked about as a potential champion for several years had just one semi-final appearance to show for her 24 previous appearances.

Azarenka believes that working on her strength and stamina this winter has brought both physical and mental improvements. "It was a huge push for me, definitely one of the biggest things I've done," she said. "It helped me mentally to know that I can handle it. I can play for as long as I need."

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