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By Chris Oddo

Sara Errani French Open (October 6, 2012) --  When you think about it, it makes sense. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, have 117 wins and seven titles between them in 2012 and compete for games, sets and matches the way a mother bear protects her cubs (think snarl, think teeth showing, think growl). Why shouldn't they meet in another final (their sixth since July of 2010) in Beijing?

With the dust barely settled from their last and perhaps most epic encounter, a three-set 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory for Azarenka in the US Open semifinals, the pair of title-craving, return-smashing phenoms are set for their eleventh encounter in Sunday's China Open final (Azarenka holds a 6-4 career edge).

Sharapova moved into her 45th career final on Saturday, dashing the hopes of local hero Li Na with a convincing 6-4, 6-0 triumph. After falling behind 3-1, and serving three double faults in one game, the four-time Grand Slam champion recovered nicely to quiet the home crowd and cruise to her eighth career victory against four losses to Li.

(Results: China Open results)

Sharapova saved five of six break points in the first set, and in the lopsided second set, she didn't face another. The 6'2" Russian also ratcheted up her return, winning 12 of 16 points against the seventh seed in the final set.

"I was happy to be in the semis of the China Open," said Li afterwards, "because last year I didn't do so well. I really wanted to show the Chinese how good I can play," she added. "Today I tried my best on court but Maria was just better than me."

Not surprisingly Azarenka was better than her opponent in yesterday's semifinal, Marion Bartoli, too. The Belarusian improved her career record to 9-3 against the Feisty Frenchwoman with a decidedly dazzling performance of her own.

Bartoli, who ended Azarenka's 26-match winning streak in the pair's last encounter in Miami, simply had no answer for the world-class return game of the 23-year-old. Azarenka hit on 6 of 7 break point opportunities, increasing her total for the tournament to 21 breaks of serve in only four matches and 34 return games.

True to form, ninth-seeded Bartoli -- always brimming with her signature pugilistic spirit -- made Azarenka work. But once the World No. 1 broke her in the final game of the first set, she was off to the races, closing the 6-4, 6-2 victory in one hour and thirty-four minutes.

With the win Azarenka surpassed Angelique Kerber's tour-best total of 60, nudging her record in this her career year to 61-8.

Tomorrow's final with familiar foe Sharapova will also be played on a familiar surface.

While Azarenka has had remarkable success against Sharapova on hard courts, winning their last five meetings on the cement, dont' think for a second that she's a lock to win. Sharapova made great strides at this year's U.S. Open semifinal when she pushed Azarenka to a third set for the first time in those five encounters.

While Azarenka and Sharapova's matches have not always been close on the court, the back-and-forth between the two stars has made their matches more compelling to say the least. The pair famously bumped shoulders (with nary an apology) between games during the Stuttgart final this year, and oftentimes the press has goaded on or the other into taking indirect shots at the other.

All of this has added to the intensity of their rivalry. But more than any outside factor, the real pulse of the rivalry centers around each woman's quest to be the best in the game, to gobble titles like they are sumptuous desserts and to keep the other from encroaching on their territory at the top of women's tennis.

Sunday's final promises to be another hot-blooded affair -- expect plenty of high-decibel shrieks and plenty of blistering ground strokes -- between two players who have done anything and everything to earn their spot at the top of tennis in 2012.

Get your popcorn ready, and if you're anti grunt, bring your earplugs too.

(Photo Credit: Andy Wong/ AP)

 

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