(September 6, 2012)—After her hard-fought victory over Marion Bartoli in the US Open quarterfinals, Maria Sharapova was asked about her next opponent, the current World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
Turns out, Sharapova has more than just the typical motivation to face Azarenka. "I'd love to get my revenge in a Grand Slam," said Sharapova, not willing to mince words.
Sharapova and Azarenka have crossed paths nine times in their careers, including five in finals, and as Azarenka has grown into Grand Slam champion and No. 1 in the world, their contests have only grown in importance.
As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Clearly there is no love lost between the two highest seeds remaining in the draw. That was proven in Stuttgart this spring, when the pair famously crossed paths during a changeover during their last on-court encounter, neither bothering to get out of the other’s way as they bumped shoulders antagonistically.
Do they really revile each other, or do they just hate losing to one another?
Perhaps a bit of both.
Sharapova has taken her fair share of abuse at the hands of Azarenka in recent years, particularly on the hard courts, where she lost four prestigious title matches in straight-sets to Azarenka. For someone as competitive as Sharapova, that surely would be enough to inspire the desire for a taste of revenge.
“Yeah, well, it’s always tough to lose in that final stage of a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova of her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Azarenka in the finals of this year’s Australian Open. “The last time we played I think I was in Stuttgart where I beat her, but before that she got me a couple of times.”
It was more than a couple of times.
Azarenka used Sharapova as her personal proving ground for the better part of two years on the hard courts, notching convincing straight set wins over Sharapova in two confidence-boosting finals (Stanford, 2010, Miami 2011) before her crowning achievement in Australia. Then for good measure, she walloped Sharapova one more time in the final at Indian Wells this spring.
(If that wouldn’t be enough to make Sharapova angry, perhaps the way that Azarenka confidently strutted around the court when they played, shadow boxing before her matches as if she were Floyd Mayweather would do it?)
In total, Azarenka lost only 18 games in those four very impressive drubbings, but when Sharapova took the upper hand on clay in Stuttgart this spring, shoulder-gate occurred. The overblown incident, in retrospect, was probably blown way out of proportion, but when you look at it closely (click here to do so), it says a lot about the competitive fire of Azarenka and Sharapova.
Having played so often--and with so much on the line--in a short period of time, each saw the other as their own personal obstacle to glory. It was only fitting that neither one would want to get out of the way of the other if they happened to be walking in the same path.
Another, perhaps more telling indicator of the pugilistic abilities of Sharapova and Azarenka, is the fact that neither has lost in the third set this year. Sharapova is 12-0 in three-setters and Azarenka is 11-0 in 2012.
“Well, you know, I think everybody prefers to win maybe a little bit easier than this way,” said Azarenka after her three-set win over defending US Open Samantha Stosur on Tuesday. “But it definitely gives a lot of boost, you know, and energy knowing that you go through the fight to win. It's ironic to hear that, I think, but I enjoy the fight. You know, I enjoy that pain that we go through, that incredible moment that you feel relieved after you gave it all in every point you had.”
Sharapova is less melodramatic about her success in deciders. “Honestly, every time I’ve gone to a third set I haven’t’ thought about it,” she said. “Because every single match is different.”
But the Russian does admit that she draws pride from her success during crunch time. “It’s a great statistic,” said Sharapova who owns a career record of 123-37 in three-setters. “It shows that I enjoy the battle no matter what the score is. The third set, it’s the last set out there, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t put everything out there.”
On Friday, when they meet with a spot in the 2012 US Open final on the line, the chance that Sharapova and Azarenka could end up in a third set is a thrilling possibility. Sharapova has won their only two previous third-set encounters, but both came in 2009 when Azarenka wasn’t nearly the pressure player that she is today.
Revenge may be a factor for Sharapova, and the contempt that they share for each other may be mutual, but deep down, each has a healthy respect for their adversary. “You know, we’re competitors and we love to win,” said Sharapova. “I mean, who doesn’t?”
|(Photo Credit: Andy Kentla)