Friday January 27th, 2012

Victoria Azarenka (left) has defeated Maria Sharapova in their two matchups in finals, including one in Key Biscayne, Fla., last April. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The caterwauling about the caterwauling will be left to others. Yes, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka make a lot of noise when they play tennis. And yes, it's recommended that you watch the Australian Open women's final with the volume down and the windows closed.

But enough about the grunting. Let’s get to the tennis, because there is plenty at stake.

The WTA's No. 1 ranking is on the line in a Grand Slam final for the first time since the 2009 Australian Open, when Serena Williams routed Dinara Safina to reclaim the top spot. If the fourth-seeded Sharapova wins Saturday's match (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2), she would become No. 1 for the first time since June 2008. If the third-seeded Azarenka wins, she would improve to 12-0 this year and become No. 1 for the first time, replacing good friend Caroline Wozniacki.

In fact, this is all new territory for the 22-year-old Azarenka, who is in her first major final. She has reached this point by riding a wave of maturity that signals a new Azarenka, one who doesn't melt down when things don't go her way. ("For sure you can see some on YouTube," Azarenka joked of past blowups.) Line calls going against her, the crowd mocking her grating shriek, losing a one-set lead to four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinals -- Azarenka has shrugged off all of it. She's relaxed, focused and hellbent on proving people wrong. That's a dangerous combination.

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"I worked hard to be in this situation, so why stress about it?" Azarenka said of playing her first Slam final while Sharapova contests her sixth.  "I want it and that's what I'm looking for, so I'm just going to go out there and try to do my best."

Azarenka added: "I'm proud of what I'm doing.  I just want to keep going and keep raising that level."

Sharapova has played at a high level here as she seeks to cap her workmanlike comeback from 2008 shoulder surgery, which sidelined her for nearly a year and left many doubting her ability to get back among the elite. The 24-year-old Russian had that surgery only nine months after a jaw-dropping run at the Australian Open, where she didn't lose a set en route to winning the last of her three major titles. That version of Sharapova could rely on her serve, which allowed her to hold with authority and freed her up to attack her opponent's service games.

The post-surgery Sharapova is a different story, with her serving woes well documented. But in this tournament she's been able to defend her serve in the face of relentless attack. Sharapova, relying on her trademark grit (and the occasional big serve, too), has saved 31 of 40 break points, including 11 of 14 in a semifinal victory against Petra Kvitova in which she had 10 double faults and no aces.

Sharapova will need to call on all of her resourcefulness in the final. Azarenka is one of the best returners in the game, and she will bring the toughest balance of firepower and defense that Sharapova has seen these last two weeks. She feasted on Sharapova's second serve in their most recent hard-court meeting, the Sony Ericsson Open final in Key Biscayne, Fla., last April, when Azarenka broke Sharapova in every service game except one in a 6-1, 6-4 victory. The other time the two met in a final, Azarenka also won handily, 6-4, 6-1 at the 2010 Bank of the West Classic on a hardcourt in Stanford, Calif.

"She's a really, really good player, and I haven't had great success against her in the last couple of events," said Sharapova, who has split six meetings overall with Azarenka. "I'd really like to change that. It will be important to tactically play right. She makes you hit a lot of balls and she's aggressive as well."

Both players have been moving well, though Azarenka's defense has been particularly impressive. Azarenka not only retrieves shots that would be winners against most players but she also gets those balls back with interest. Sharapova will have to be prepared to hit an extra shot or two to win a point and show some patience in trying to break down Azarenka.

Facing a first-time major finalist is nothing new for Sharapova, who lost to Kvitova in last year's Wimbledon final. Unlike Kvitova in that match, Azarenka has the added pressure of playing for the top ranking. Azarenka laughed when asked whether she'd rather win a major title or ascend to No. 1.

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"I think you can find a really good balance by winning a Grand Slam and becoming No. 1," she said.

For Sharapova, who has spent 17 weeks at No. 1, there's no question which accomplishment means more to her.

"For me, it's more about the Grand Slam win than the No. 1 ranking," Sharapova said. "That's just always been the goal for me."

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