Twelve months ago there were tears of despair as Maria Sharapova suffered the heaviest defeat of her Grand Slam career when she took only three games off Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open. They flowed again here today in the Rod Laver Arena, but this time they were tears of joy as Sharapova claimed her third Grand Slam title with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Ana Ivanovic.
The result crowned a fine comeback by the 20-year-old world No 5, who won only one title last year after a shoulder injury seriously disrupted her campaign. Over the last fortnight Sharapova has rediscovered the form that took her to victory at Wimbledon in 2004 and the US Open in 2006 and her big-match experience proved decisive here.
Although Ivanovic did not suffer from a repeat of the nerves that saw her fold against Justine Henin in the final at Roland Garros last summer, her game eventually fell apart in the face of Sharapova's excellence. The 20-year-old Serb made 33 unforced errors to Sharapova's 15 as her game melted under the fierce Melbourne sun, with the temperature nudging 34C. Her ground strokes, particularly on the backhand flank, grew increasingly clumsy.
Sharapova put only 54 per cent of her first serves in court, but when she did find the target the effect was devastating, with Ivanovic winning just 11 per cent of the points on her opponent's first serve. Despite hitting only two more winners than Ivanovic – 16 to the Serb's 14 – Sharapova's consistency was decisive.
Ivanovic had made a shocking start in her semi-final against Daniela Hantuchova, losing the first eight games, but she began in confident style here as two service winners were followed by a second serve ace. In the fifth game, however, Sharapova turned on the power and made the first break as Ivanovic, under pressure, put a backhand out.
Sharapova was leading 4-3 when she dropped the first point on her own serve, hitting a forehand long. Ivanovic drew encouragement and after scorning one break point when she put a backhand in the net did not have to do anything to convert the second as Sharapova served two double faults in a row. The Russian had served another earlier in the same game, but they were her only double faults in the whole match.
The first set beckoned for Ivanovic when Sharapova went behind 4-5 and 0-30 on her serve, but the Serb could not force home her advantage. "It was definitely a tough moment," Sharapova admitted later. "I just kept going and didn't get frustrated. I just tried to be steady and I managed to serve my way out of trouble."
In the following game four errors – two on the backhand and two on the forehand - presented Sharapova with a second break and she served out to love to take the first set in 49 minutes.
Ivanovic clung on at the start of the second set, holding serve after five deuces in the opening game, but Sharapova broke when the Serb played a poor game at 3-3, double-faulting and netting a limp forehand from 30-30. At 3-5 Ivanovic went 0-40 down. Poor Sharapova returns saved the first two match points, but on the third Ivanovic hit a forehand out to give the Russian victory after 91 minutes.
Sharapova, who did not drop a set in the entire fortnight, sank to her knees in relief and there were tears in her eyes as she went to shake hands with Ivanovic. The Russian, who said later that she had been inspired that morning by a text from Billie Jean King, ran over to celebrate with her entourage.
In her victory speech Sharapova dedicated her win to the memory of the mother of her hitting partner, Michael Joyce, who died last year. She added: "This is just incredible. If someone had told me in the middle of last year that I would be standing here in front of you with the big one I would have said: 'Forget it'."
Ivanovic was in tears as she thanked the crowd for her support. Melbourne, where there is a sizeable Serbian community, has happily embraced the new world No 2, who has an uncle here. There were banners of support in the crowd, including one that read "Australia loves Ana".
"You were the best crowd here and I enjoyed it so much," Ivanovic said. "I'm very emotional and you guys have made it a really special experience for me."