Australian Open 2012: Maria Sharapova's Experience Key Against Victoria Azarenka

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IJanuary 27, 2012

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates match point in her semifinal match against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during day eleven of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Victoria Azarenka has already made some major statements in the Australian Open, knocking off defending champion and Grand Slam fixture Kim Clijsters in the semis. If she wants her first major title, though, she’s still got a major obstacle to overcome.

Azarenka’s finals opponent in Melbourne will be another former world No. 1, Maria Sharapova. Sharapova hasn’t exactly had an easy road to the championship match herself, taking down second-seeded Petra Kvitova in a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 match that proceeded very similarly to the Clijsters-Azarenka contest.

As similar as their performances in Melbourne have been, there’s one crucial difference between Azarenka and Sharapova that will make all the difference in the tournament outcome: Sharapova, a pro since 2003, will be playing in her sixth Grand Slam final. Azarenka, with three years fewer of experience overall, is appearing in her first.

As well as Azarenka has played on big stages before—she made the semifinals at Wimbledon last year, falling to Kvitova—a major final brings a new level of pressure. The fact that Sharapova has overcome that pressure and won on three occasions, most recently in 2008 on this court, will give her an appreciable mental edge in a contest that looks to be quite evenly matched in terms of on-court performance.

A win for Azarenka would secure a place for her among the elite of women’s tennis. The likelihood, though, is that it will be Sharapova who proves that she still belongs in that company after battling back from a 2008 shoulder injury that knocked her from the top ranks.