ISTANBUL -- Let's go ahead and throw Maria Sharapova's reputation of being unflappable on court out the window. As the cliche goes, you can never tell if she's winning or losing when you look at her. That's changed in recent years as she's mounted her comeback from shoulder surgery, battled a serve she couldn't rely on, and tried to beat back a younger generation of players who love nothing less than to take down the WTA's co-Queen Bee. Nowadays you can see every worry and concern on Sharapova's face, her determination in her permanently clenched left fist, her desperation in every swipe of the racket.
After she fired down her seventh ace of the match to seal a 6-4, 6-2 win over Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals of the WTA Championships, Sharapova barely reacted. She threw in a quiet fistpump before a slow stroll to the net, a perfunctory no eye-contact handshake with Azarenka and the umpire, and that was it. Until it wasn't. Returning to the court to salute the record crowd of 15,498 fans, Sharapova threw her head back and screamed "Come ooooooooooonnnnn!" as she pumped her fists.
So yeah. This win kinda meant something.
"That's what you play for and practice for," Sharapova said when asked about it. "And especially when you find yourself in a losing position a few times during this year you want to try to figure out how to change those things around. Again, you're giving yourself opportunities to go out there and try to do that. I did today, so obviously it means a lot to me."
It was clear from the beginning that Azarenka wasn't at her best. While Sharapova looked fresh right out of the gate, Azarenka looked a step slow. Her movement and ability to retain control of the rallies even when being pulled wide has been a huge factor in her hardcourt domination over Sharapova and she simply didn't have that today. Part of the blame has to go to the brutal scheduling of the Championships. Both players have spent comparable time on court but Azarenka has had to play four matches in four days, one of which being a three-hour grind against Angelique Kerber on Wednesday. Her last round robin match ended past midnight yesterday.
"Yeah, I was a little bit slow today. My agent offered me her legs today, and I should have taken her up on that," Azarenka joked. "Of course it is difficult to finish a match at 2:00am and come back and do the whole routine. It's difficult."
Sharapova wasn't having any of it. Asked about the importance of fitness in a grueling tournament like this and she seemed to take a shot at Azarenka, whose movement was clearly hampered in the second set when she appeared to suffer a muscle pull.
"Everybody is hurting at this time," Sharapova said. "Some show it more than others." The comment reminded me of their Stuttgart final, where Azarenka called the trainer for a bum wrist before losing to Sharapova for the first time this year. After that match Sharapova made a seemingly sarcastic reference to Azarenka being "extremely injured". It seems Sharapova just won't let that go, which shows how much Azarenka gets under her skin and again, why she wanted this win so badly.
Sharapova has been asked about this matchup all week, constantly reminded of her embarrassing losses time and time again. Azarenka has been her foil through much of this year, laying down beatdowns in the finals of the Australian Open and Indian Wells and winning at the U.S. Open and Beijing. It's never been a pretty matchup for Sharapova and her inability to overcome Vika on hardcourts has left her visibly frustrated. Asked earlier in the week if she's looked at tape of their past matches in hopes of finding the solution, Sharapova said yes but refused to give details as to what she saw that could help in a rematch. The only thing she would give away was that she said she had to be consistently aggressive to beat Vika. If that was gameplan Saturday, she executed it perfectly.
Sharapova's serve came though for her this time, as she served at 72 percent, hit seven aces, and kept Azarenka off balance. She also benefitted from Vika's returns being off, which allowed her to dominate her service games in a way she hasn't in the past. There were fewer instances of the ball landing right at her feet on the baseline after her serve, a hallmark of Azarenka's return game, and once they got into the rally Sharapova was simply hitting a cleaner ball. Historically, Vika has done well to get Maria on the run with corner-to-corner hitting. That didn't happen today.
"I felt like some of my shots maybe didn't work as well as they did on some faster courts," Azarenka said.
Given how their head-to-head record has played out in 2012, you can't ignore the importance of court speed in their matches. On quick outdoor hardcourts Azarenka was 4-0 this year. Sharapova was only able to turn the tables on the slow indoor courts of Stuttgart's clay and here in Istanbul, where the gritty Rebound Ace might as well be purple clay. Sharapova had a lot of time to get her feet in place Saturday and stay in rallies longer.
Despite the loss, Azarenka will finish this year as the 11th WTA year-end No. 1 and she was undeniably upbeat in her post-match press conference. She's looking forward to three weeks of vacation that will involve a whole lot of sleeping and good bit of dancing if her leg allows.
"Could I play better," Azarenka asked. "Yeah, I could have moved better for sure. But it's done today. I have no regrets. I finished the first time a loss with a smile. And I don't know, it didn't feel as bad today."
Sharapova's win sets up a redux of the Olympic gold medal match against Serena Williams in Sunday's final. Serena cruised past a fatigued Agnieszka Radwanska earlier in the day, in a 6-2, 6-1 bout of batting practice. She's the heavy favorite no matter how you slice it. Sharapova hasn't beaten her in eight years, though her last win was indoors at the WTA Championships in 2004. It's been eight straight wins for the American since then, with Sharapova failing to win a set since 2008. Their two matches this year? Serena won 6-1, 6-3 on Madrid's blue clay before a clean 6-0, 6-1 romp at the Olympics. So while I'd love to hype this match, I'm just going to let this do the talking.
"Look, it's also a match that I'm looking forward to," Sharapova said. "I haven't beaten her in a long time. She's certainly the one to beat this year, especially the second part of the year with the way she's played.