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10 December 2023

Azarenka claims maiden Grand Slam

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus poses with her trophy after defeating Maria Sharapova of Russia in their women's singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. (REUTERS)

By Reuters

Victoria Azarenka sank to her knees in disbelieving triumph after winning her first grand slam singles title with a one-sided victory over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final on Saturday. 

The 22-year-old simply bullied Sharapova into submission in a 6-3 6-0 victory lasting 82 minutes.  

Her dominance in Melbourne will be reflected in the world rankings on Monday when she takes top spot from Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki. 

The final had been billed as a battle of ear-splitting screamers but Sharapova went out with barely a whimper, unable to find a way through Azarenka's blue-collar grunt work. 

After the Russian dumped yet another backhand into the net to surrender the match, Azarenka fell to her knees, turned to the crowd and asked: "What happened? I don't know what's going on." 

Reality sinking in, she climbed up to the player's box to give her coach Sam Sumyk a hug. 

"This is your time," he told her. 

Azarenka had been given a rough ride by the Melbourne Park crowds throughout the tournament due to her grunting, but they warmed to her quickly. 

Sashaying up to the podium, she beamed as she accepted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from former winner Martina Hingis. 

"I've had an amazing month in Australia and it's a dream come true," she told fans at Rod Laver Arena, thanking everyone from her coach to the cleaners. 

"And to the drivers, I hope you enjoyed my doughnuts, I've been feeding you forever. I know you've all gained weight." 

The first player from Belarus to win a grand slam singles title, Azarenka had emerged from the players tunnel cocooned in her hooded sweatshirt and bouncing to the beat on her headphones. 

Trying to stay warm on a cool night in Melbourne, she started the match cold and was 2-0 down immediately. 
However, Azarenka settled into a solid-if-unspectacular game while Sharapova fell apart, the Russian losing 12 of the next 13 games with a slew of errant groundstrokes and shaky serves. 

Azarenka, who won the Sydney International warm-up earlier this month, had issues with a combustible temper earlier in her career, and a tendency to press the self-destruct button which resulted in several spectacular on-court meltdowns. 

However, hard work in the off-season coupled with a more mature mental outlook has solidified her game. 

The few testing moments in Saturday's final that might have  previously pushed her buttons were brushed off with an ironic smile and shrug of the shoulders. 

"Right after the win I couldn't understand what was happening and I couldn't believe the tournament is over because it's been so long, this road since Sydney," she told reporters. 

"I have been dreaming and working so hard to win a grand slam, and being number one is a pretty good bonus." 
While Sharapova will still rise to number three in the rankings, she would have returned to the top spot for the first time since 2008 had she beaten Azarenka. 

"Obviously to get to the final is a good achievement but to end up being the one that loses is always tough, no matter what sport you're in," Sharapova said. 

"It's frustrating but I have a pretty good head on my shoulders in terms of having a good perspective on sport and life." 


Rafa Nadal put some perspective on Novak Djokovic's position ahead of their mouthwatering title clash on Sunday. 

The Serb had a huge target on his back coming into the year's first grand slam after a year in which he won three majors and compiled a 70-6 record. 

"It's a fantastic situation to be in," Nadal told reporters on Saturday. "It's really not a tough one. When you are coming with that confidence everything is a little bit easier."  

Nadal came into Melbourne Park under an injury cloud with shoulder and knee problems but has looked stronger as the tournament has gone on.  

Djokovic, meanwhile, has complained of allergy issues and his breathing looked laboured in recent matches, particularly in the early stages of his five-set semi-final win over Britain's Andy Murray on Friday. 

"It's funny, I saw the match yesterday on TV ... and they showed images from two hours, 50 (minutes) before and it seems like he was destroyed," said Nadal. 

"Two hours, 50 later he was in perfect condition. So it's difficult to imagine he has these problems." 

Bob and Mike Bryan were not expected to encounter much difficulty in claiming a record 12th men's doubles grand slam title but the American twin brothers were beaten 7-6 6-2 by Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek. 

Bob Bryan's wife Michelle is set to give birth any day back in the United States and he was pleased not to have missed the happy arrival. 

"Thanks baby, thanks for holding it in for me," he said.