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Beyond the Baseline

Maria Sharapova drops Victoria Azarenka as new rivalry takes hold

Maria Sharapova finally got out from underneath Victoria Azarenka's thumb on Sunday, winning her first title of 2012 with an emphatic 6-1, 6-4 victory over the world No. 1 in the Stuttgart final. Sharapova defeated three of the reigning Grand Slam champions in the tournament, as victories against Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals and Petra Kvitova in the semifinals set up her first complete-match win over Azarenka since Beijing in 2009. Azarenka had routed Sharapova in their two previous meetings this year, dropping only eight games.

Commentating for Tennis Channel, Lindsay Davenport said Sharapova's performance in the final was the best she's seen from her since her shoulder surgery in 2008. I'm inclined to agree. Sharapova's line for the match: 31 winners, 13 unforced errors, eight aces. Her serve was a weapon all week and it seems that Sharapova, who won Rome on clay last year, is finally learning how the clay can help her. Self-described as "a cow on ice" when her feet hit the clay, Sharapova is now taking advantage of the extra time the clay allows her to set up her shots, and her movement has improvedĀ noticeably. She's actually sliding into her backhand comfortably, something she's rarely been keen to do.

But enough of forehands and backhands and what have you. This is the WTA. There has to be some drama, whether real or perceived, right? Right.

After Sharapova snagged the first set Sunday, the two walked to their chairs for the set break and bumped shoulders. No need to get the bootleg Zapruder film for this one. Eurosport caught and slowed it down for us.

After a handshake that Tennis Channel commentator Leif Shiras described as not "exactly bathed in the milk of human kindness," Sharapova seemed to throw one more shovel-full of shade Azarenka's way.Ā "It was so unfortunate that Vika was extremely injured today and just couldn't really perform her game," Sharapova said during her winner's speech, possibly referring to Azarenka's injury timeout to attend to a wrist injury. A cynical person might have read a bit of sarcasm in Sharapova's tone.

Much ado about nothing? Probably. But regardless of whether you like reading into the players' interactions or not, one thing is clear after this weekend: We officially have ourselves a rivalry worth talking about.

*****

Just for fun, here are a couple of other memorable shoulder bumps that have gone down in WTA lore:

Venus Williams vs. Irina Spirlea, 1997 U.S. Open

Who can forget Spirlea's intentionally knocking into Williams during their tense semifinal match? Some players might try to play it off as an accident. Not Spirlea. "I'm not going to move," Spirlea said after her 7-6 (5) 4-6 7-6 (7) loss. "I mean, she's never trying to turn or whatever. She thinks she's the f----- Venus Williams."

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki, Wimbledon 2009

Things have never quite been the same between old friends Wozniacki and Lisicki after the two bumped chests in a fourth-round match three years ago. Wozniacki uncharacteristically let it get under her skin, complaining to the umpire on the change of ends. "I mean, I'm not invisible," she helpfully pointed out. Lisicki went on to win the match and make her first Slam quarterfinal.
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