New mentality works for Azarenka
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The first game of the Sony Ericsson Open women's final was a Russian novel in and of itself.
It consumed 10 minutes and featured two double faults by Maria Sharapova, plus seven unforced errors and three winners. Victoria Azarenka finally secured the break when a Sharapova forehand was stung decidedly long. And a pattern had been established:
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Sharapova, as always, seriously swinging for the fences, with Azarenka just trying to hang around in points long enough for Sharapova to miss.
The thing that made Sharapova a three-time Grand Slam singles champion -- much like Serena Williams -- is her faith in her powerful groundstrokes. It can also be her undoing, as it was Saturday afternoon.
The 21-year-old Azarenka, playing an intelligent, counterpunching match, prevailed 6-1, 6-4 in this matchup of players from the former Soviet Union. It was the second-biggest victory of her career, going back to her breakthrough win here two years ago over Serena Williams.
Since then, Azarenka said, she has learned to relax.
"I just don't care if I lose," she said. "I'm just there to do the best I can."
"You always care to win," Azarenka explained later. "What I meant by not caring about losing a tennis match is to not create such a big drama out of it. If you just lose a tennis match, it's not the end of the world. You can see so many things happen in the world -- I know it sounds a little bit out there, but look what happened in Japan, for example. And we're here playing tennis.
"So, I mean, why make a big deal out of it?"
The match -- less than an artistic success in terms of pure tennis -- was also marred by the shrill grunting of both players; Sharapova, whose outbursts seemed driven more by frustration, was the general consensus winner in this dubious battle, a modest consolation prize.
"Yeah, she did many things better than me today," a subdued Sharapova said afterward. "Against a player like her you have to have that level from the beginning. It was an off day on many parts of the game."
Sharapova's serve -- perhaps a product of her lack of confidence in her surgically repaired shoulder -- was atrocious. She was broken all four times in the first set alone and didn't hold her first service game until (a frankly amazing) 80 minutes into the match, after going 0-for-6. She finished with one hold in nine tries.
Not holding serve, Sharapova said, "takes away all the pressure from her, gives her all the confidence in the world. Just made too many errors. When you have 15-30, 30-all, you've got to go for it, but you've got to make your opponent play."
Serving at 0-3 in the second set, Sharapova actually had several looks at holding serve for the first time. But at the end of the five-deuce game, Azarenka got not just one but two netcord breaks. It was that kind of day for Sharapova. Double faults -- which have dogged her since her shoulder injury two years ago -- hurt her badly. She finished with seven.
Serving at 0-1 in the second set, Sharapova saved two break points and seemed to have discovered a few ounces of confidence. But a swinging volley, aimed at a wide-open court, found the net, and then another double fault left her with slumping shoulders.
But Sharapova, as is her modus operandi, fought to the end. She saved two match points and made Azarenka visibly queasy late in the second set. In the end, she finished with 43 unforced errors (that's more than two per game), against only 24 winners. Azarenka, whose emotions used to get the better of her, had a steady bottom line of 19 winners and 18 errors.
"I think I had the right tactics," Azarenka said. "She likes to swing big, and when she has time it's really heavy. I tried to take time away."
This was an important setback for the 23-year-old Sharapova. It would have been her biggest win since the 2008 Australian Open. With three of her biggest rivals out of the picture -- Serena and Venus Williams are recovering from injuries, and Justine Henin has retired -- this is a good time for Sharapova to rediscover the game that produced those three major titles. After reaching the semifinals two weeks ago at Indian Wells, she'll return to the top 10 next week, but there is clearly more work to do.
After winning here two years ago, Azarenka never caught fire the way that result suggested she might. She won only two relatively minor titles (Stanford and Moscow) and sometimes struggled to beat players ranked below her.
Now she's coming off straight-set wins over No. 2 Kim Clijsters, No. 3 Vera Zvonareva and soon-to-be No. 9 Sharapova -- all in four days. When the WTA rankings come out Monday, she'll match her career high of No. 6.
A few weeks ago, Azarenka was forced to retire with a left hip injury, trailing Caroline Wozniacki 0-3 in a quarterfinal match at Indian Wells. Now she's the winner of the biggest event outside of the Grand Slams.
"I changed my mentality a little bit," Azarenka said. "I am enjoying myself so much on the court."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.