Tennis: Azarenka slam dunks comeback

It was supposed to be the biggest comeback since Clijsters and Capriati. But Maria Sharapova saw her comeback clawed back when faced with the precision and power hitting of the new world No1 - Victoria Azarenka of Belarus - last night.

In her first grand slam final, Azarenka overcame early nerves to beat Sharapova convincingly 6-3 6-0 - winning 12 of the last 13 games.

It was the much-heralded Showdown Of The Shriekers - a reference to the high-pitched grunt that both players apply to their strokes.

It wasn't how the script was supposed to go. Melbourne was the scene of Sharapova's last slam title, in 2008, and she was a hot favourite to put years of a hard-fought comeback behind her and return as world No1 - a position vacated by Caroline Wozniacki when she was put out of this tournament earlier.

It was supposed to be the end to years of hard work by Sharapova, battling against a whole new action forced on her by her errant shoulder.

No stranger to adversity, Sharapova once served a mammoth 17 double faults as she struggled to come to grips with her new way to play.

She famously escaped the Chernobyl nuclear accident as a girl in 1986, fleeing to Moscow and being spotted by Martina Navratilova at a tennis clinic there.

With only US$700 to their name, Maria Sharapova and father Yuri made the brave, Navratilova-inspired call to go to US to seek their fame and fortune - and found it, with her dad washing dishes to make ends meet, before the shoulder injury threatened to end it all at the tender age of 21.

For more than three years, Sharapova struggled to regain her former glory as Wimbledon champion, with a US Open crown and Australia Open title. If she had won last night, it would have been a stirring resurgence - but maybe not the most significant comeback in women's tennis history. Probably the defending champion, Kim Clijsters, takes that crown by coming back after two years out to win the 2009 US Open in just her third tournament out of retirement. She then defended that title before winning in Australia last year and becoming world No1 herself for a time.

Or perhaps an even more compelling gutter-to-glory tale is that of Jennifer Capriati who somehow beat her battle with drugs and errant behaviour - including an arrest for shoplifting - to take two Australian Open titles, the French Open and also win the No1 world ranking in 2001-02.

However, Sharapova has always been a fighter and, even though she remains a pin-up girl for many, she has far more steel in the spine than most tennis clothes-horses.

She broke a nervous-looking Azarenka in the first game and won her first service game comfortably with some precision hitting. Azarenka fought back, breaking Sharapova to level 2-2 and gained confidence - bringing some stinging power to her ground strokes and pushing Sharapova into errors.

The key moment in the first set came when Sharapova dropped her serve again - going down 5-3 in the face of some forceful strokes from a relentless Azarenka. In the pivotal rally, Azarenka pulled a drop shot out of her repertoire, bringing surprise value to what had previously been largely a battle of the baseline bashers. She then held her serve comfortably to take the first set.

Azarenka then broke Sharapova again in the first game of the second set and held her own in the face of some spirited resistance from the Russian.

When she again broke Sharapova to lead 3-0, the die seemed cast. Sharapova started to come into the net to break Azarenka's stranglehold but she held serve for 4-0. A disputed point on a challenge could have thrown Azarenka off but she maintained her equilibrium to break Sharapova a third time for 5-0. Sharapova fought hard but the end came quickly, with a vicious crosscourt backhand in the final game.

Azarenka's power and poise must have been heartbreak for Sharapova. This was to complete the circle from her Australian Open victory in 2008, after which she underwent shoulder surgery that took her out of the game for nine months.

It took an age for her to get back to anywhere near her peak. She went out early at the Australian Open on her last two visits. She reached the Wimbledon final last year but lost to Petra Kvitova - the player she beat in Thursday's semifinals.

When Sharapova went under the knife in October 2008, doctors offered hope but no guarantees.

"I knew some examples of some people that did not quite recover from surgery and that was a little frightening," Sharapova said recently. "But I really had no option. So it was either give it a go or not do anything about it."

Physically, it was tough. Mentally, it was even tougher as Sharapova suffered for years trying to overcome the soul-destroying serving yips with her remodelled action - which was when she put down 17 double faults in a Miami tournament.

Sharapova may yet complete her comeback - but it won't be at Melbourne in 2012.

- Herald on Sunday

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