Tennis: Sharapova in a final to scream about

By Caroline Cheese

The age gap is only two years, the difference in experience is vast.

Maria Sharapova will play her sixth Grand Slam final at the Australian Open today against Victoria Azarenka, who is through to her first. And it isn't just a major title on the line. The winner will also claim the No 1 ranking.

Three years after winning the last of her three major titles and approaching eight years since she lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17, Sharapova has another chance to add to her Grand Slam haul.

"It means so much to be back in a Grand Slam final," Sharapova said. "It's nice to get that far again [here] after losing quite early in the last couple of years."

Now 24, Sharapova has already been on tour long enough to experience the ups and downs of tennis. After winning the Australian Open in 2008, she underwent shoulder surgery that took her out of the game for nine months.

It took much longer for her to get back to anywhere near her peak, and she lost at the Australian Open before the quarter-finals 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.

"With the shoulder, I knew some examples of some people that did not quite recover from surgery and that was a little frightening, but I really had no option," she said. "Of course it took a long time but it was just something that was in my steps that I had to go through. And I did."

The Florida-based Russian often speaks like a veteran of the game and she showed her experience in dealing with the media in the way she swatted away persistent questions about her grunting following her quarter-final victory.

"No one important enough has told me to change or do something different," she said. "I've answered it many times before. I'm sure I'll answer it many more times ahead. I'm okay with that."

But the high-pitched grunting is certain to be high on the agenda when two of the noisiest players in the women's game go head-to-head in the final. The WTA, which runs the women's game, says it is looking at ways to reduce the practice, which it accepts has become "bothersome" for fans.

Any action is likely to start with young players though. Both Sharapova and Azarenka say it has been part of their game since they were growing up, and neither has any intention of changing.

Azarenka's high-pitched hooting has been mimicked by the crowd in Melbourne, but the 22-year-old Belarusian has maintained her composure throughout.

Like Sharapova, Azarenka has dropped two sets in Melbourne, including one against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. It could have been much worse against the Belgian. Leading 4-2 against the four-time Grand Slam champion and crowd favourite, Azarenka was broken back after holding five game points. No problem.

She broke right back and after a nervy double-fault on her first match point, closed out the win. She said her ability to finish off matches like the one against Clijsters is down to hard work and experience.

"Even if you believe 1 million per cent, it's not going to happen," Azarenka said. "It's a lot of hard work. Those details, that confidence that you get from the tennis match makes you believe."

Azarenka also worked on her fitness in the offseason, which she said gives her the confidence to know she can play "as long as I need".

She may take added confidence from two previous wins over Sharapova in hardcourt finals in Stanford and Miami. They share a 3-3 record overall.

The meeting of Azarenka and Sharapova in the final means there will no longer be a No 1 without a Grand Slam title to her name as was the case with Caroline Wozniacki, who lost the top ranking with her quarter-final loss to Clijsters.

For Azarenka, the ranking is still a target. She said after her fourth-round win she would be "lying" if she said it wasn't on her mind. Sharapova, the weary veteran of three previous spells at No 1, isn't that concerned and only wants to add to her trophy collection.

"Having been in the position before, doesn't really [add anything to the final] to me," Sharapova said. "I think personally, for me, it's more about the Grand Slam win than the No 1 ranking."

"That's just always been the goal for me."

The road to the title

2-Victoria Azarenka (right) v 4-Maria Sharapova

Azarenka

* First round bt Heather Watson, 6-1, 6-0.
* Second round bt Casey Dellacqua, 6-1, 6-0.
* Third round bt Mona Barthel, 6-2, 6-4.
* Fourth round bt Iveta Benesova, 6-2, 6-2.
* Quarter-final bt Agnieszka Radwanska (8), 6-7 (0), 6-0, 6-2.
* Semifinal bt Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.

Sharapova

* First round bt Gisela Dulko, 6-0, 6-1.
* Second round bt Jamie Hampton, 6-0, 6-1.
* Third round bt Angelique Kerber (30), 6-2, 6-1.
* Fourth round bt Sabine Lisicki (14), 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
* Quarter-final bt Ekaterina Makarova, 6-2, 6-3.
* Semifinal bt Petra Kvitova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

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