INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- No. 2 Maria Sharapova snapped her six-match losing streak to Victoria Azarenka on outdoor hardcourts, besting the former No. 1 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open. Sharapova had not beaten Azarenka on outdoor hardcourts since 2009 and the win leveled her head-to-head against Azarenka to 7-7. Sharapova, a two-time champion at Indian Wells, will play defending champion Flavia Pennetta on Tuesday.
Three thoughts on Sharapova's win:
1. This was a must-win match for Sharapova
It's been a good year so far for Sharapova. She's 17-1 with a title in Brisbane. The sole loss came to Serena Williams in the Australian Open final. Against Azarenka, she was up against a rival who has owned her on this surface for years. When the two played the Indian Wells final in 2012, Sharapova lost 6-2, 6-3. When they played the Australian Open final a few months earlier it was pure destruction, with Azarenka winning 6-3, 6-0. Azarenka's depth-of-shot and consistency has left Sharapova confounded on this court and another win for Azarenka would signal her triumphant return from injury and put her back into the upper echelons of the game.
No top player wants to give that confidence to Azarenka right now. Asked after the match about the level of play tonight, Azarenka said it was high. Sharapova said it wasn't high quality at all. She made too many mistakes and had to rely on her competitive instincts to get her over the finish line. Sharapova's serve deserted her for much of the match. At one point she served four double-faults in a game to give Azarenka the break in the first set. But she earned the win with grit and by playing the big points better. And after an hour and 51 minutes, she closed out the match with a sensational running backhand pass that served as a signal to one of her fiercest rivals that her game has vastly improved since their hardcourt meeting in 2012. That was a message she needed to send.
2. Azarenka is rounding back into form
Azarenka was visibly disappointed after the loss, at one point apologizing to reporters for sounding so curt. But that bitter disappointment is a good thing. Azarenka has been telling everyone all year that this is a new and improved Vika. She said she has a new perspective on her career after being sidelined with injury, and that she's just trying to enjoy herself more. But that ruthless competitive fire was back against Sharapova. There were balls smacked in frustration and angry slaps of the racket onto her shoes after a bad miss. Despite all the zen talk of a more chilled-out personality, the fierce competitor bubbled to the surface.
"I think having quite a bit of chance against No. 2 player in the world is not a bad place to be at, but I cannot be sitting here and saying, 'Oh, that's great,'" Azarenka said. "I lost a match today. I'm not going to be happy about it."
Azarenka went 2 for 7 on break points and had opportunities to close out games but faltered. She also served nine double-faults to zero aces. That's to be expected from a player who played just nine tournaments in 2014. "Obviously she's No. 2 in the world for a reason. That's what she showed, just being more consistent in important moments. I created too many opportunities not to take them. You cannot afford it against a player like Maria. So to me, that's very disappointing. I've got to step it up, really, with finishing those games and really taking my chances."
"I didn't play for a year, and I really need those matches," she said. "I haven't played against somebody so high ranked before. But, still, you know, I felt like I had the opportunities."
3. Sharapova's draw opened up
Sharapova's draw got a little bit softer on Monday after the losses of No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 6 Ana Ivanovic. Madison Keys also lost. If Sharapova beats Pennetta on Tuesday, she'll play either Caroline Garcia or Sabine Lisicki in the quarterfinals. Looming in the semifinals is No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard, who took care of CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets. Could we have a possible Serena-Maria final?