Friday March 30th, 2012

Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sony Ericsson Open

No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova will take on No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the Sony Ericsson Open final on Saturday. (Getty Images)

The Sony Ericsson Open final between No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska pits two players whose 2012 seasons have been defined by losses to Victoria Azarenka. After the world No. 1 saw her 26-match win streak end at the hands of Marion Bartoli on Wednesday, it just seems right that these get the opportunity to win what would be their biggest titles of the year.

Radwanska has only lost four matches in 2012, but they've all been to the streaking Azarenka. Sharapova suffered two very public beatdowns at Vika’s hands in the finals of the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Sharapova and Radwanska sit at No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the Race to the WTA Championships rankings, a clear indication as to how strong their 2012 campaigns have been.

Historical head-to-heads don't seem particularly useful in this matchup, and that's a credit to how much Radwanska has improved in the last six months. Sharapova leads the series 7-1, with that one loss being Radwanska's very memorable upset in the third round of the U.S. Open in 2007. Radwanska was 18 years old then, but she still showed her intelligence, creativity and most importantly, her lack of intimidation in the presence of the then two-time Grand Slam champion. Those aspects of her game have only improved over the years, and though Sharapova hasn't lost to her since, their matches have been tight. She's a different player today than she was 10 months ago when they last met in the fourth round of the French Open, a match Sharapova won in two tight sets, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

Radwanska's recent improvement has been remarkable, as she's fine-tuned her game to be more sneakily offensive. While Sharapova's firepower can overwhelm a lot of counterpunchers, Radwanska's touch makes a big difference. She intelligently constructs points and won't hesitate to get to the net to finish off points. Her deft ability to draw opponents into the net and either pass or lob them is second to none, and it's a good play against the slow-footed Sharapova. She'll get her on the move and absorb her power from the baseline well. Radwanska has the type of game that can drive you nuts, and Sharapova will have to keep her head and be patient. If Radwanska is able to impose her cat-and-mouse game, Sharapova better bring her running shoes. It could be a long and very frustrating day.

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That's all well and good, but Radwanska's game is still hindered by her serve, and it's one that Sharapova should have no problem feasting on. Radwanska rarely tops out over 100 mph, and unless she consistently places it into Sharapova's body and mixes it up enough to keep her guessing, Sharapova won't have a tough time breaking. Radwanska hasn't come close to dropping a set all tournament, but in her semifinal match against an injured Marion Bartoli, she was broken six times in a 6-4, 6-2 win. Luckily for her, Bartoli didn't hold her serve once. Though Sharapova’s serve is one of the big weaknesses in her game, she won't be so generous to hand over break after break like Bartoli did.

The final will be a fascinating contrast of styles and both women should be ready. Coming into the final, Radwanska has beaten two big hitters with relative ease, taking care of Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-1 in the quarterfinals and Bartoli in the semis. Sharapova got a good workout against Caroline Wozniacki in her semifinal, overcoming a slight blip in the first set to win 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. That match should help prepare Sharapova, as she had to grind for over two and a half hours and had to hit an extra ball (and then some) in almost every rally. She’ll come into Saturday’s final with slightly more rest after having played the first match on Thursday (whereas Radwanska was the last night match), but she just may have to grind it out again to capture her first Miami title. My pick: Sharapova in 3 sets.

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