Victoria Azarenka rolled by Maria Sharapova to win Indian Wells and stay perfect on the year. (Getty Images)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Roger Federer defeated John Isner 7-6 (7), 6-3 and Victoria Azarenka rolled over Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-3 to capture their third and fourth titles of the year, respectively, at the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday.
Two things we learned over the last two weeks at the BNP Paribas Open: come in on a hot streak and inoculate yourself from illness by getting to the virus first. Federer entered the tournament on a 10-match winning streak and with the flu, suffering from something he called "flying around the world virus." Azarenka, who was riding a 17-match winning streak, got sick with a stomach virus before the tournament while she was in Los Angeles. Both had spotty starts, but by the end of a tournament that saw numerous players fall to upsets and illness, the two hottest players on Tour were still standing on Stadium Court hoisting trophies with their streaks intact.
Azarenka extended her unbeaten start to the 2012 season, capping another stunning two weeks for the WTA No. 1. She overcame an early three-set test from Mona Barthel in her first match, before steamrolling through the draw without dropping a set. How wide is the gap between Azarenka and the rest of the field these days? She lost only two games to Agnieszka Radwanska, who will rise to No. 4 on Monday, and a mere five to No. 2 Sharapova.
Comparisons are inevitable so let's just get right to it. How does Azarenka's 23-0 start compare to Novak Djokovic's 18-0 start at the same point last year? Given the quality of the men's field these days it might be unfair to compare, but when you consider how much parity has ruled the WTA, Azarenka's sudden breakaway run might be just as impressive. Last year, Djokovic finished Indian Wells with three titles, dropping only five sets on the year and notching seven wins over top 10 players, including Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Federer. This year, Azarenka has lost the same number of sets but she's played one more tournament. She has four titles, nine wins over top 10 players, including multiple beatdowns of Radwanska (arguably the second-hottest player of 2012) and Sharapova, and a key win over reigning Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of Melbourne.
While she may not have the offensive power or defensive flash that Djokovic had, Azarenka is doing exactly what he did last year during his run: She's simply not missing. She's controlling rallies even when she's pushed wide on either side and her quick transition from defense to offense has left opponents dumbstruck, wondering how they lost control of the rally. As Sharapova saw on Sunday, the rallies can change on a dime against Azarenka. Leave one ball short and she's quick to get up to it and immediately put you on the defensive. Next thing you know you're being yanked from side to side or you're feeling the pressure and misfiring. Azarenka isn't letting her opponents get away with anything these days. It's absolutely merciless.
"She's extremely solid," a dejected Sharapova said after the match, clearly frustrated by her inability to solve her Vika problem (Sharapova hasn't beaten her on hard courts since 2009). "She makes you work for every point. Ultimately I think maybe she forces you to want to do a little bit more than either you should or would want to."
The extent to which fans and pundits remain unconvinced of Azarenka's rise is because of the glaring hole in her 23-0 résumé. She has yet to face three prominent opponents this year, Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki. Djokovic's streak was more notable because by this time he had beaten everyone he needed to beat in order to firmly establish himself as the most dominant player and hint that we were watching something very special and unprecedented unfold. Those doubts still swirl around Azarenka. She dodged a match against Williams at Fed Cup in February when the U.S. played Belarus in Worcester, Mass., and given Serena's spotty play there, Azarenka might have missed a great opportunity to silence the critics. Meanwhile, Kvitova's post-Australia injury woes and Wozniacki's dip in form have prevented those matchups from happening. But all three of them, and a healthy Clijsters, who was injured when she lost in Melbourne, will be in Miami next week.
"Of course I'd love to play any of them," Azarenka said. "For me, the bigger challenge it is the more exciting it is. That's what I'm looking for."
If they can take care of business in the early rounds, Azarenka has a great chance to put any and all doubts to rest.
Roger Federer hasn't lost since the Australian Open after knocking off John Isner to capture the Indian Wells title on Sunday. (Getty Images)
Speaking of doubts, Federer sure has put to rest any speculation about any decline. Since his gutting loss to Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open, where he failed to convert two match points and lost in five sets, Federer has won seven titles, going 39-2 during that stretch, losing only to Nadal at the Australian Open and John Isner at Davis Cup. He avenged both those losses in a span of 24 hours, beating Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in Saturday's semifinals and then holding his nerve to beat Isner on Sunday. His record-setting fourth win at Indian Wells gives him his 19th Masters title, tying him with Nadal for the record.
Clearly under the weather early, Federer was able to survive the first few rounds before finding his form against Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals. From there, Federer looked unbeatable. He handled the swirling wind better than Nadal in their semifinal, dancing around the ball and cutting it through the air in a way his opponent couldn't. It was only his second career win over Nadal on an outdoor hard court and his first since 2005 in Miami. Federer scoffed at any suggestion that his form had dipped on hard courts recently, and his titles in Dubai and Indian Wells back him up.
"I think I have proven myself on the surfaces for so many years," Federer said. "I used to win basically every tournament there was out there in North America there for a while. Sometimes people think so much in the short term. It's a bit unfortunate."
Against Isner in the final, Federer got a little bit of luck in a first-set tiebreaker that could have gone either way. At 7-7 and with Isner at the net, Federer mishit a backhand that floated high to Isner's backhand side. Instead of going for a high backhand volley, Isner chose to leave it. The ball landed on the back line and Federer finally served out the set. That first set proved decisive. Federer relaxed and lost only one point on his serve in the second set. He broke Isner in the seventh game with a series of passing shots and went on to break a second time for the win.
Federer said his illness actually took the pressure off.
"Maybe mentally because of what happened it was a bit of an easier tournament," he said. "I played with an attitude maybe of, 'Well, I can only win here.' I don't favor myself because I have not felt great. It would be a surprise to come through. That's how it feels now. I was able to come through, and so convincingly at the end is amazing."
As it stands, while Djokovic and Nadal have won the last four Slams, it's Federer and Murray who have dominated the tournaments for the last six months. Since the U.S. Open, Federer has won six titles, Murray four, Djokovic one and Nadal none. All eyes turn to next week's Sony Ericsson Open, where a confident Federer will try to keep the momentum going and complete the Indian Wells/Miami double.