Sharapova-Azarenka the best rivalry
It is, at this late date, unclear whether there is anything more futile in women's tennis than trying to create a rivalry between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. The repetition of statistics never seem to dull the sharpness of Williams' scalpel piercing the fading aura of Sharapova. Against Serena, Sharapova has lost 14 of 16 career matches, including 13 in a row. Since 2005, Williams and Sharapova have played 29 sets. Serena has won 26 of them. With Wimbledon less than a week away, the last time the two met on grass was at the All England Club. No, not at Wimbledon but in the gold-medal final at last year's London Olympics. Serena demolished Sharapova 6-0, 6-1.
Sharapova has a 2-14 record against Serena, yet a tone-deaf hype machine nevertheless continues to try to sell a rivalry between two players in which one has traditionally been the hammer and the other the nail. Williams is so obviously peerless that the real rivalry in the women's game isn't a battle for No. 1 but rather is between No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Sharapova.
A year ago, before Williams made her summer charge and restored order at the top of the rankings, Sharapova and Azarenka traded time as the top-ranked woman in the world. Sharapova has the career Grand Slam, winning each major once. Azarenka has two Australian Open titles. They've met 13 times, and Azarenka leads 7-6, including a solid 5-1 record in finals. There is actual tension of not knowing the outcome.
Eighteen months ago, when Azarenka destroyed Sharapova in the 2012 Australian Open final and two months later at Indian Wells, it appeared Sharapova was unable to stay not only with Williams but also with Azarenka.
Then the two turned in a real tennis rivalry, two fighters whose slight advantages shift based on surface. Sharapova has since beaten Azarenka on clay (2-0, including a tough three-set win in the semis at Roland Garros) and once in the year-end championships on the indoor hard court at Istanbul last year. Azarenka has proved to be better on hard courts, winning in three at the US Open semis and in Beijing. Since being crushed 6-3, 6-0 and 6-2, 6-3 in the Aussie and Indian Wells finals, respectively, Sharapova has won three of their past five meetings, showing the kind of fight and results that so far are wishful thinking against Serena.
Curiously, the two never have met on grass, but they very well could this year at Wimbledon, in the semis or in the final, depending on how the draw shapes up, and both should be heavily motivated. Azarenka lost to Williams in the semifinals at Wimbledon last year 6-3, 7-6 (3), a match in which Williams blasted 24 aces. Sharapova beat Serena for the title eons ago in 2004, but the Russian was crushed by Petra Kvitova in the 2011 final and lost in the fourth round to Sabine Lisicki last year.
The entire personality of the WTA is often encapsulated in the Sharapova-Azarenka matchups. First, Azarenka is clearly the second-best player on tour. Her movement and consistency of shots and defense explain why she is generally a favorite versus anyone but Serena (or Sharapova on clay). Secondly, Sharapova's ability to refocus and fight through her disadvantages and prevent Azarenka from dominating their rivalry speaks to her considerable fighting mentality, and it explains why she buzzes through tournaments generally unchallenged until the later rounds. Excluding the year-end championships, only once in the past year has Sharapova lost even a set before the quarterfinals of a tournament. It was in Stuttgart earlier this year. Before that, she lost the first set to Heather Watson in Tokyo in 2012.
And third, the Azarenka-Sharapova rivalry underscores just how good Serena Williams is.
Sharapova just might be easily the least complete player to win the career Grand Slam. She cannot beat Serena, and she does not volley. She does not slice. She uses no variety that would keep Williams off balance. Her game is to approach all problems by hitting hard.
Worse, she cannot serve efficiently. Sharapova has recorded 165 aces this year against a woeful 193 double faults. Williams leads the tour with 268 aces against only 93 double faults.
Although Sharapova wilts under the inflexibility of her own game, Azarenka is not that far from beating Serena. She is athletic enough to move laterally. She is a terrific defender and hits with enough angle and variety to make Williams think. Azarenka is the best returner in the women's game, winning a ridiculous 57.1 percent of her return games. Like Sharapova, she cannot dominate a match against Williams with her serve, serving only 45 aces to 115 double faults. And, before Sharapova fell in the gold-medal match, Williams crushed Azarenka 6-2, 6-1 in the London semifinals. Being able to return is good enough to win against every player but Williams.
As Williams lives in the stratosphere -- enjoying a nearly 4,000-point lead in the rankings over Azarenka -- Sharapova and Azarenka circle one another, evenly matched, the best matchup on tour, a worthy undercard that will have to do until one steps up and challenges the queen.