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Girls aloud: Much at stake as Sharapova takes on first-timer Azarenka

It will be power and competitive fire against power and competitive fire Saturday when Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka meet in the women's final at the Australian Open.
By New York Times, Melbourne
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2012 01:38 AM IST

It will be power and competitive fire against power and competitive fire Saturday when Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka meet in the women's final at the Australian Open.

It will be expatriate against expatriate, two-handed backhand against two-handed backhand and, just in case you thought we were in danger of neglecting the obvious, it will be shriek against shriek.

"It's going to be a very musical final," said Sam Sumyk, Azarenka's coach.

Musical might sound like a euphemism to those who dislike the sound-and-fury-track that Sharapova and Azarenka provide. They and others of their musical tastes have set off a long-running debate, one that has flared up again in Australia, with the Melbourne crowd sometimes mimicking Azarenka's grunts and the W.T.A. issuing a communiqué about its desire to turn down the volume on the next generation.

But the subject deserves to be background noise in a final where so much, in tennis terms, is at stake. It deserved to be background noise Thursday, too: a fine day for the women's game when both semifinals went the distance and were long on intense, big-hitting rallies full of acrobatics and suspense. It seemed fitting that each match lasted precisely two hours and 12 minutes.

Azarenka, the No. 3 seed from Belarus, went first in Rod Laver Arena, absorbing a second-set surge from the defending champion Kim Clijsters and winning 6-4, 1-6, 6-3. Sharapova, the No. 4 seed from Russia, went next, exacting a measure of revenge for losing the 2011 Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova by defeating the Czech 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 .

Whoever wins under the lights in the final Saturday night will become the new No. 1 player in women's tennis, supplanting Azarenka's friend and Monaco neighbor, Caroline Wozniacki.

But what matters more to both of these driven women is the title. Azarenka, 22, will be playing in her first Grand Slam singles final. Sharapova, still just 24 despite all her years in the public eye, has won three major singles titles, but they all came before she underwent shoulder surgery in October 2008. "For me, it's more about the Grand Slam win than the No. 1 ranking; that's just always been the goal for me," said Sharapova, who was ranked No. 1 before her surgery.

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