MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka started celebrating, then suddenly did a double-take to ask her coach, “What happened?”
The answer: She had just produced one of the most lopsided Australian Open final victories to capture a Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
Azarenka routed three-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in 1 hour, 22 minutes on Saturday night, winning 12 of the last 13 games after dropping her first service game and falling behind 2-0.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I have been dreaming and working so hard to win the Grand Slam, and being No. 1 is pretty good bonus. Just the perfect ending and the perfect position to be in.”
Azarenka had won 11 straight matches, including a run to the Sydney International title, and reached her first Grand Slam final. Her previous best performance at a major was a semifinal loss to Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon last year. Sharapova had all the experience, being in her sixth major final and having won three — dating to her 2004 Wimbledon title.
But it didn’t unnerve the 22-year-old Azarenka, the first woman from Belarus to win a singles major. She’s also the seventh different woman to win a Grand Slam since Francesca Schiavone won the 2010 French Open, and the fifth different winner in as many majors.
Azarenka became only the third woman to earn the No. 1 spot after winning her first major title. She moved from No. 3 to No. 1 in the rankings, helped by Caroline Wozniacki’s loss in the quarterfinals.
The third-seeded Azarenka set up championship point with a stunning forehand, her 14th clean winner, and sealed it when Sharapova netted a backhand.
She dropped to her knees at the baseline with her hands over her face. She got up, held her hands up and jogged over to her coach, Sam Sumyk, in the stands to celebrate.
“The best feeling, for sure,” Azarenka said. “I don’t know about the game. I don’t know what I was doing out there. It’s just pure joy what happened. I can’t believe it’s over.”
And she paid special credit to her grandmother, “the person who inspires me the most in my life.”
Azarenka has been a distinctive presence at Melbourne Park as much for her shrieks and hoots with each shot and seemingly boundless energy as for her white shorts, blue singlet and lime green head and wrist bands.
Against Sharapova, she maintained the frenetic movement that has been the hallmark of her performance in Australia, her 25th consecutive major. She won the Sydney International title last weekend and is on a 12-match winning streak — the first player since 2004 to win a WTA tour event the week before winning a major.
“She did everything better than I did today. I had a good first couple of games, and that was about it,” Sharapova said. “Then she was the one that was taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch-up all the time.”
Sharapova also won only three games in a 2007 final loss to Serena Williams, who also conceded only three games in the 2009 final against Dinara Safina.
When Sharapova won the first two games, there was no indication of how lopsided the match would be. Azarenka took control after holding for the first time, breaking Sharapova at love and then holding again on a three-game roll.
Sharapova held, finishing off with an ace, to level the score at 3-3 in the first set but then didn’t win another game.
Azarenka started dictating the points, coming to the net at times, hitting winners from the baseline and forcing the 24-year-old Russian to the extremes on both sides of the court. Sharapova seemed barely able to move by comparison, and had 30 unforced errors in the match.
The second set was completely lopsided and lasted only 36 minutes, with Sharapova winning only 12 points.
“As in any sport, you have your good days, you have your tough days and you have days where things just don’t work out,” said Sharapova, who has now been on the losing end of two of the most lopsided scorelines in a final at Melbourne Park.
In the men’s doubles final, Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek denied Bob and Mike Bryan their record 12th Grand Slam title, beating the American twins 7-6 (1), 6-2.
The 33-year-old Bryans were attempting to secure their place as the most decorated doubles team since the Open Era began in 1968. They remain tied at 11 major titles with Australian duo Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge.
On Sunday, defending champion Novak Djokovic takes on Rafael Nadal in a men’s singles final featuring the top two players in the rankings. Djokovic won three of the four majors last year and beat Nadal in six finals in 2011 among his 70 match wins for the season.
Azarenka had her best season in 2011, winning 55 of 72 matches to finish the year at No. 3.
There was a time when she’d momentarily flirted with the idea of quitting the sport during a quick trip home to Minsk after a loss at Doha. But she was quickly set straight by her family, including her grandmother, who had reportedly worked three jobs until the age of 71.
She couldn’t get through to her family immediately “because my phone is freaking out right now,” but she texted them from the court.
“I made a pretty smart decision, not walking out, right? That was pretty special,” she said. “There’s always ups and downs, now I’m up.”
Source: Associated Press