- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Fans of women's tennis may be excused for experiencing a vague sense of dread on the eve of the Australian Open final between Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. Last year went by without a single stirring, spirited match to close out a Grand Slam. Let's review:
Australian Open: Serena Williams thrashes Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2.
French Open: Justin Henin annihilates Ivanovic, 6-1, 6-2.
Wimbledon: Venus Williams quashes Marion Bartoli's mild resistance, 6-4, 6-1.
U.S. Open: Henin handcuffs Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-3.
You have to go all the way back to the 2006 U.S. Open, where Sharapova beat Henin in a brisk 6-4, 6-4 affair, to find a championship match where both women even showed up. The Wimbledon three-setter that summer won by Amelie Mauresmo had some dramatic tension because of the circumstances -- her opponent was Henin, who had controversially withdrawn in the second set of the Australian Open final.
Keep scrolling back through the pages. It's not a pretty picture. The last truly classic women's final was probably the 2005 Wimbledon barn burner between Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport, and it stands isolated. By contrast, you have to rewind several years to find real stinkers on the men's side.
Given the ugly way in which both Aussie semifinals played out -- for entirely different reasons -- we just have to hope there are recessive genes in those matches that combine to make good competitive chemistry when fifth-seeded Sharapova takes on Ivanovic, the fourth seed, Saturday afternoon, Melbourne time (9:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.).
The two biggest bugaboos in the women's game, chronic physical injury and psychological frailty, were on vivid display Thursday.
Jelena Jankovic deserves credit from viewers and ticket holders for gamely hanging in there to finish her match against Sharapova as her banged-up body finally betrayed her for good. But there was no pleasure to be taken in watching Jankovic's usual on-court vivaciousness dissolve into tears, and it doesn't bode well for her season.
Ivanovic also showed backbone in clawing her way back from an 0-6 first set against Daniela Hantuchova that was disturbingly reminiscent of her meltdown at Roland Garros last year, yet it was hard not to wonder about her sleepwalking start. If she does that against Sharapova, who is playing as fiercely and effectively as she has in her career, chances are there will be nothing left on Ivanovic's end of the court afterward but a visor and some shoelaces.
As for Hantuchova, how painful was it to see her break through to reach her first Slam semifinal after five frustrating years, play like a world-beater in the first eight games against Ivanovic, and then come unstrung? Tennis can be a thin-skinned sport, but if squeaky sneakers have become this distracting, the WTA should send its top players for some deprogramming with Pat Summitt or Geno Auriemma.
A resolute Ivanovic, who will be the new world No. 2 when the rankings come out next week, said she knows she has to begin the match full throttle instead of working her way into it.
"Emotions are definitely not a bad thing," Ivanovic said. "It's something that actually got me where I'm here today. It's just important to learn how to make it work for you instead of against you. And that's something I've been working on really hard because, you know, sometimes if I make a few mistakes, in the past, I used to get very upset about it and sort of got on that bad roll. I really hope I can be mentally strong out there tomorrow."
Sharapova and Ivanovic, both 20 years old, are two of the most attractive and compelling athletes in the game. Their personal histories are as made-for-Hollywood as their faces. They've split four matches and played only once in a Slam, last year in Paris, where Sharapova's serve was still on the blink and Ivanovic was clearly the more comfortable player on clay.
Each of these women would rather scrub her last Grand Slam final from the hard drive. But it's almost inevitable for Sharapova to be more at ease when she walks onto the court because of the way she's been competing and the fact that she's won two majors before this.
"I know what tennis I'm capable of producing," Sharapova said Friday. "I've shown it before. I've done it in my career already. I've won two Grand Slams. I've been No. 1 in the world. I didn't do it just by waking up and eating ice cream all day. I've worked for all the things that I have achieved. I know that I'm capable of doing more."
Another lopsided final -- as long as it went the right way -- would be fine with either woman. But it would be a nice change of pace if both of them rose to the occasion, converted emotion into clean energy, and made the championship worthy of its name rather than an anticlimax.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon