Published April 02, 2011
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Swapping shrieks along with their shots, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka made rallies sound like a car alarm.
Sharapova was the soprano, Azarenka the alto, and their alternating arias could be heard on the beach across the street from the Sony Ericsson Open.
But Sharapova was flat and her opponent sharp. Azarenka swept nine consecutive games to take charge Saturday and won the tournament for the second time, beating Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4.
The final matched two of the most notorious grunters in tennis, and while both were noisy, Azarenka's shots had more bang. Sharapova committed 43 unforced errors, held serve only once and came up short with a late comeback bid.
"I played real well the first set," the No. 8-seeded Azarenka said. "Maria is such a great fighter, I knew she was going to fight to the end. She came up with great tennis at the end, and I had to hang in there. That's what paid off."
And who had the better shriek?
"I think mine is quieter," Azarenka said.
Sharapova committed eight errors in the first game alone. She lined one especially unsightly serve into the concrete in front of the net. By the time she found her range, Azarenka led 4-love in the second set.
"It's a little bit too late to pick up the pace when you're down a set and 4-love," Sharapova said. "I wish I picked it up earlier, obviously. She did many things better than I did today."
While the women's tournament was full of surprises, the men's draw is down to the game's top-ranked players. No. 1 Rafael Nadal will play for the championship Sunday against No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who is 23-0 this year.
Sharapova lost in a final for the fourth time since her most recent title, at Strasbourg in May 2010. She's 0-3 in finals at Key Biscayne, where she was also the runner-up in 2005 and 2006.
But the three-time Grand Slam champion is healthy again after battling a series of injuries, as the results are starting to show. She's projected to climb next week to No. 9, the highest she has been ranked since early 2009.
"It means that I'm winning matches, and winning more of them," she said. "It has been a long road to get here. It's not over yet."
Azarenka's also on the rise, and projected to be ranked No. 6 next week, matching a career-best.
Alas, the 21-year-old Belarussian can't play Key Biscayne every week. She also won the tournament in 2009, stopping Serena Williams in the final. The two titles are the biggest of her career, and she joked she's planning to move to Miami from Minsk.
Serena and Venus Williams, who between them have won eight Key Biscayne titles, missed the tournament for health reasons. But Azarenka still faced a tough path to the final, beating No. 2 Kim Clijsters and No. 3 Vera Zvonareva in straight sets.
Through six rounds, Azarenka avoided the sort of emotional outbursts that derailed her in the past. She said that after losing in the third round at Dubai in February, she went home and reflected on the state of her game.
"I changed my mentality a little bit," she said. "I'm enjoying myself so much on the court that there's no room for me for frustration. I just don't care if I lose — what I mean is not to create such a big drama out of it. If you lose the match, it's not the end of the world."
Before facing Sharapova, Azarenka suggested fans wear earplugs, and the two finalists went at it like a couple of "Aida" rejects. The screeching on one early exchange had spectators giggling before the point ended, but a grim Sharapova pretended not to notice the strident soundtrack.
"I don't really think about it when I play," she said. "It's about thinking what I have to do."
She had trouble there, with Azarenka hitting aggressively from the baseline to prevent Sharapova from finding her rhythm.
Sharapova broke serve to reach 1-all, but it was an hour before she won another game. She failed to convert 11 game points on her serve before holding for the only time to trail 4-2, and briefly steadied her strokes.
Pounding winners, she overcame two match points to break for 5-4.
"I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong," Azarenka said. "She was just playing really good."
But Sharapova was too erratic to sustain her rally — or the rallies. When she dumped a forehand into the net on the final point, Azarenka dropped her racket in disbelief and celebrated by spinning and dancing across the court.
And then the only noise came from the cheering crowd.