Azarenka solidifies spot as top player

"Screech for the Stars!" screamed the headline in Saturday’s Herald Sun and Victoria Azarenka did just that, reaching the pinnacle of a Grand Slam title in her first final by outhitting, outplaying and generally demolishing the former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 to win the Australian Open.

By doing so Azarenka becomes No. 1 and there should be no one who says she does not deserve it.

Finally, the WTA rankings will look logical. The No. 1 will actually have won a Slam, which has not been the case for the previous two years. But another quirky statistic has emerged. For the first time ever, the four title holders of the four Slams are players who have just four titles between them. Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur and now Azarenka are all first-time winners.

On this evidence, Azarenka will not remain a one-Slam wonder for long. After a nervous start that saw Sharapova take a 2-0 lead, the Belarussian came storming back, hitting hard and deep into the corners, moving better than her opponent and dictating the rallies. There was no sign of any nerves when she served for the title despite the fact that Sharapova came up with two of her best winners of the match to reach 15-30. Azarenka was in a zone and when the umpire called "Game, set and match," she sank to her knees and looked in wonderment at her box as if to say, "What happened? Have I won?"

She had and deservedly so. Sharapova was not about to quibble with that. After an impressive loser’s speech on court in which she publicly praised her opponent and said how much she had enjoyed her month in Australia, Maria was equally grounded and sensible in press conference.

"She did everything better than I did today," Sharapova said. "I had a good couple of games and that was about it. Then she was the one taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch up all the time."

Sharapova knew she could not let Azarenka, who had beaten her in the final of the Sony Ericsson at Miami last year, dictate the points. "I felt I wasn’t being aggressive enough and I knew I would have to change that," she said. "I think maybe I just kind of overdid it."

Sharapova has always been mature beyond her years and it was clear she could handle this defeat, despite its severity. "It’s frustrating but I have a pretty good head on my shoulders in terms of having a good perspective on sport and life. And as hard as it is, as much as you want to be champion, you know there’s only one. That’s why the feeling is so special when you can achieve it. That’s why the work is so hard and extreme.

"Not having played for three months, to be at this stage is good for me. That’s why I’m looking forward to the rest of the year."

Azarenka, not surprisingly, was radiant. "I couldn’t believe it was over," she said, smiling. "Not one day off this year, it’s been a long road. It wasn’t my aim to be perfect – just better than my opponent. But it was a perfect ending. Just the first two games were a little bit of a disaster. I was super nervous beforehand, thinking, let’s go, let’s go and then she started aggressive and caught me a little off guard. But then I think I handled the situation really well."

Azarenka said that her victory over defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinal was a big learning experience. "It was a huge win for me," she said, "Really helped me a lot to believe."

She also said that her coach, a Frenchman named Sam Sumyk who has been with her a couple of years, had been instrumental in her improvement. "He is a completely different kind of coach to what I had been used to," she said. "He was good at guiding me towards that winning attitude but allowing me to find my own way of doing it. I owe him a lot for educating me."

There is no reason why Azarenka, who is back in Europe now after using Arizona as a training base for many years, cannot build on this and become the preeminent woman player in the coming years. She has the game and she seems to have the right attitude. But, as she points out, there is a lot of competition at the top right now and that can only be good for the women’s game.