Azarenka Wins Australian Open to Extend Sharapova Skid in Slams

Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open to grab her first Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking a year after her grandmother talked her out of quitting tennis.

The 22-year-old from Belarus, the No. 3 seed, beat Maria Sharapova of Russia 6-3, 6-0 at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne last night to become the fourth straight first-time major winner in the women’s game.

“I guess I made a pretty smart decision not walking out,” said Azarenka, who was presented the trophy by five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis. “I’m so glad that I went through everything I had in my career to achieve this goal. There’s always ups and downs.”

Azarenka wanted to retire in February, after she lost in the first round of an event in Doha. She told reporters at Wimbledon, where she made her first major semifinal, that her grandmother had talked her into playing on, pointing out that life as a tennis player was a lot better than trying to hold down three jobs at the same time.

Last night’s victory over the fourth-seeded Sharapova pushes Azarenka into the top spot in women’s tennis, passing Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Azarenka had moved to the final by ousting defending champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium in the semifinals.

The last time that the WTA’s No. 1 ranking was decided by the outcome of a Grand Slam final was at the 2009 Australian Open. Azarenka’s win also marks the first time each of the four majors are held by first-time champions, the WTA said. Li Na of China won the French Open, Kvitova is the Wimbledon champion and Australia’s Samantha Stosur took the U.S. Open.

‘Great Level’

“It’s a great thing for women’s tennis,” Azarenka told reporters. “It’s a great competition, and we can really look forward for the women’s game. It’s at a great level right now.”

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia faces No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal of Spain today in their third straight matchup in a Grand Slam final. Djokovic won the previous two to secure the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and is seeking to become just the fifth man since the Open professional era began in 1968 to win three majors in a row.

Azarenka, who entered Rod Laver Arena wearing a yellow hooded top and listening to music through headphones, overcame a nervous start to her first Grand Slam final. She made two double faults on her way to losing her opening service before going on to make 12 unforced errors to 30 from Sharapova.

‘Like a Rabbit’

“She did everything better than I did,” Sharapova said after slipping to a 3-3 record in Grand Slam finals. “I had a good first couple of games, and that was about it. Then she was the one that was taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, trying to play catch-up all the time.”

After falling behind 2-0, Azarenka won 12 of the last 13 games to extend her winning streak in 2012 to 12 matches after tuning up by taking the Sydney International.

The Belarusian held her second service game with a forehand down the line after trailing love-30. She used the momentum to break Sharapova to even the match at 2-2. Leading 4-3, Azarenka hit three volleyed winners to break and earn the right to serve for the first set, which she took in 46 minutes.

She broke again at the start of the second set with forehand winner after anticipating the direction of an overhead from Sharapova. Azarenka held serve and then, focusing on Sharapova’s second serve, broke for a 3-0 lead. The Russian won just 3 of 17 total points on her second serve.

Sharapova saved one break point, but hit a forehand long on another second serve to trail 5-0. The Russian got a break point with a ball that hit the netcord and dropped over, though she couldn’t convert. A Sharapova backhand into the net ended the match, and Azarenka fell to her knees in celebration.

Breakthrough Year

Azarenka had a breakthrough year in 2011, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon and the final of the season-ending WTA Championships.

After taking the Sydney title by beating Li, Azarenka dropped just two sets in Melbourne to reach the championship match, against Clijsters in the semifinals and Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals.

“It’s been so long, this road since Sydney,” Azarenka said with the trophy by her side. “I didn’t have one day off. So it kind of kept going and right now it still hasn’t hit me that it’s over and I won this.”

Azarenka moved to the U.S. in 2005 to train and lived with the family of Soviet Union-born National Hockey League goalie Nikolai Khabibulin at their home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. She’s now based in Monte Carlo.

Sharapova had been seeking her fourth major title and first in four years. She broke through at Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17 and followed with wins at the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open, making her the world’s highest-paid female athlete. Sharapova was ranked No. 1 in 2008, before a shoulder injury sidelined her for nine months and pushed her out of the top 100.

“I’m proud of the fact that I made it this far,” said Sharapova. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been in the finals of the Australian Open. It’s a good start to the year. I have a lot to look forward to.”

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