• Australian Open, Day 13

Azarenka tames her inner beast for major glory

Greg Garber
January 28, 2012
Victoria Azarenka held her nerve to win the Australian Open © PA Photos

Today, women's tennis is all about nerve - and serve. If you can control the first, the second will fall into place.

From the time she was the Australian Open junior champion seven years ago, it was clear Victoria Azarenka had the game to win a major. But as the fiery 22-year-old from Minsk, Belarus, moved rapidly up the tennis ladder, her head kept getting in the way. Anger issues seeped into important points, becoming concentration issues.

On Saturday in Mebourne, playing the biggest match of her life -- a first grand slam singles final - Azarenka hit two double faults in the first game and was broken by Maria Sharapova. She lost the second game and you could just feel the inevitable meltdown coming.

Later, when a let on Sharapova's serve was ignored by the chair umpire, Azarenka asked why, then walked back to the baseline, moving - bouncing softly in a Zen sort of way - as if she was listening to a soundtrack only she could hear.

And then she calmly, almost coldly, ripped Sharapova's heart out. Azarenka won 12 of the13 remaining games, including the last nine straight. She was a resounding 6-3, 6-0 winner and now is a grand slam champion.

Her first major title had another, not so insignificant benefit, too. The woman they call Vika is now the WTA's No. 1-ranked player for the first time.

"Wow," she told the crowd at Rod Laver Arena. "I can finally raise this trophy."

Sharapova, who is four years removed from her last major title and was attempting to overcome serious shoulder surgery, has never been bageled in a set at the Australian Open. The three-time grand slam champion said it would have been her sweetest victory, which means when she looks back on her career, she might consider it her bitterest defeat.

"You have good days and you have bad days -- and you have days when things don't work out," Sharapova said. "Victoria was better on so many levels. You've earned this title. You've worked so hard over the years. Cherish it as long as you can."

It was more refreshing news for women's tennis, for we have now seen four straight first-time major winners. After Kim Clijsters won here a year ago, Li Na won in Paris, Petra Kvitova took Wimbledon and Sam Stosur prevailed in New York. Azarenka and Kvitova are 1-2 in the world, and you get the idea they will be playing for major titles for some time.

Caroline Wozniacki, the Golden Retriever, spent 67 weeks at No. 1 - 50 more weeks than Sharapova and Azarenka have together. Wozniacki will now drop to a more appropriate No. 4.

Technically, this was probably the loudest grand slam singles final ever. Piercing might be a better word. It was a Down Under version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The shocking thing? That it was all over in 1 hour, 22 minutes.

Nikolai Khabibulin was Azarenka's benefactor early in her career © Getty Images

Although most opponents fear Sharapova's power, Azarenka embraced it, hugging the baseline, taking the ball early and forcing Sharapova to move, something she doesn't do particularly well. According to the match statistics, Sharapova had 30 unforced errors -- more than twice as many as Azarenka -- but, make no mistake, the majority were forced by Azarenka in-fighting.

Accepting the trophy, Azarenka thanked almost everyone, including her grandmother, the drivers of the courtesy vans and the ladies in the locker room. One name she did not mention was Nikolai Khabibulin.

Somewhere, probably at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, the old goalie from Belarus must have been smiling. Khabibulin is 39 years old now and playing out his NHL days with the Edmonton Oilers. Eight years ago, his wife - also named Victoria - was chatting with another junior tennis mum, Alla Azarenka, at the National Tennis Center in Minsk. They discussed the difficulties of an elite athlete training in that country and sometime later, Victoria mentioned it to her husband, who later that year would win a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Take a look at this girl," she said. They hit balls one day, and Khabibulin was blown away.

"She was 14, and I'm struggling out there when we start hitting," Khabibulin told ESPN.com three years ago. "I'm not a tennis person, but you could see the fire in her eyes. She was hungry, very hungry, to get better."

He invited her to live with his family in Arizona. She trained with the best coaches at the best facilities. She traveled the world, supported by her new family. Her best friend is Sasha Khabibulin, whom she calls her sister. One year later, as a junior, Vika won her major title Down Under. But not the last. The fire Khabibulin saw in her eyes is still there. It's just under control now.

"In Russia, not many people have money and the opportunity to be athletes," Azarenka explained three years ago. "Nik understands this and gave me this opportunity. He just wanted to give me that and see what I could do with it. Really, it's just the nicest thing you can do."

On Saturday, Azarenka repaid the favour.

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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