© Ella Ling

Vika Azarenka - champion

A great day, an unfortunate day, for women's tennis


Five things about Victoria Azarenka’s victory over Maria Sharapova in the final of the Australian Open.

A great day for the promotion of women’s tennis.
What could be better publicity for the sport than two young (photogenic, telegenic) talents playing for both the Australian Open title and the world number one ranking? So endeth what some would consider to have been the Wozniacki Interregnum, the reign that never really was. Martina Navratilova has been among those who have argued that Caroline Wozniacki was never a ‘true’ world number one because the Dane had not won a grand slam. Before this final began, it was guaranteed that the champion would also gain alpha woman status on the ranking list, so no one could have left the Rod Laver Arena arguing that women’s tennis does not have a fine face and figurehead.

For the marketing department at the women’s tennis tour, the ideal result would have been victory for Maria Sharapova, who is not the world’s highest earning sportswoman because of the quality of her second serves. But they would not have been at all unhappy with the elevation in status for Victoria Azarenka, a 22-year-old from Minsk (and a good friend of Wozniacki’s). Azarenka played some positive, aggressive tennis, cuffing the ball through the court. She did not beat Sharapova, she pulverised the Siberian, for a 6-3, 6-0 victory, a first slam and the number one ranking. There, I almost managed to get to the end of the first item without mentioning the grunting.  

An unfortunate day for the promotion of women’s tennis.
“Bring your earmuffs,” the Australian media had advised, and Azarenka’s coach, Sam Sumyk, had been predicting “a very musical final”. There were a few rows of empty seats at the back of the stadium – did that have anything to do with the soundtrack that everyone had expected? Sitting in the stadium, watching it live, there’s no mute button available. Many of those following this on television would have done so with the sound turned down (or off), as this was a final to be seen and not heard. Anyone who imagined that one or both of these players was going to press the mute button on their own grunting was being unrealistic. They were not suddenly going to pipe down on the second Saturday of a major(Monica Seles made that mistake in a Wimbledon final, and was not the same player she had been in getting there). And, anyway, having a fellow grunter for an opponent in the final provided a kind of cover; if you’re playing against a Trappist monk, the crowd can mock you, and you alone. So the final was musical, just maybe not as “musical” as we had thought it was going to be. It was certainly shorter. Even so, the sound from Vika da Shrieka and the Queen of Scream was a public relations problem for the sport. There was loud applause on the day that Azarenka won her first grand slam title, but there was also occasional laughter from around the stadium. Overall, the good outweighed the bad.

This confirmed the arrival of the next generation.
Petra Kvitova, aged 21, won last summer’s Wimbledon. Now Azarenka, a year older, has her major. At 24, Sharapova is considered a veteran (though that is because she has been on the scene for so long, having won her first slam, the 2004 Wimbledon Championships, when she was 17).

Azarenka’s mastery of her nerves and emotions.
Azarenka has said herself that she used to be seen as a “headcase”. Then she had a chat with her grandmother (“the person who inspires me more than anyone”), and she realised that many of her gripes and theatrics were “stupid”. “It’s just amazing to see how much people work, and we are here playing tennis and sometimes complaining about little things. It was just kind of a little bit stupid for me to worry about, ‘Oh, my god. I lost a tennis match. So what?’ I mean, life goes on and you keep going. It’s just a tennis match. You have to look at the big picture.” Maybe the old Vika would not dealt so easily with her horrendous start – her nerves were fizzing like a bottle of dropped cola, and she was serial double-faulting – but the new one Vika more than recovered. From 0-2 down, she won 12 of the next 13 games. She did not play like someone appearing in her first slam final, she looked as though she was playing in her tenth. Once Azarenka’s nerves went, so did Sharapova’s chances of winning this tournament.

Sharapova out-clubbed again.
At two of the last three slams – also at last summer’s Wimbledon against Kvitova – the Russian has been overpowered, and heavily beaten. There is much to admire about Sharapova. In her own words, she has already has the money to feed her great-grandchildren, yet she is still out there grafting and thrusting, still desperately seeking another grand slam to add to her previous three. To get to last July’s Wimbledon final, and today’s Australian Open title-match, she had to return from a shoulder problem which required an operation, and which could have ended her career. Had she won this match, it would have completed a remarkable return. But, just as happened in the match against Kvitova, she could not deal with her opponent’s power. Sharapova’s last grand slam victory came four years ago, at the 2008 Australian Open. A woman with her wealth and back-catalogue of achievement would be forgiven for sloping off into retirement. That is not how she rolls. Sharapova used her post-match speech to tell everyone that she has every intention of returning next year.