The finals are set down in Melbourne, and despite upsets on both sides of the draw throughout the past two weeks, it sure seems like the best players have survived. And it's a good thing, too -- for some reason this year it seems like there's a lot more at stake than just a trophy or two.
For the women one thing's clear -- the winner of Saturday's final will rise to #1 in the sport, and people will finally stop complaining the top-ranked player doesn't hold a Grand Slam title.
Maria Sharapova's been there before, of course, first rising to the top spot back in mid-2005, but it's been a while since she's really seemed on her game. The last of her three Major titles came exactly four years ago when she was just twenty-years old, and after shoulder surgery sidelined her for the back half of that season, she fell out of the top hundred. She's clearly had a good twelve months, though, winning premier titles in Rome and Cincinnati and getting back to the final last year at Wimbledon. But a trophy here would truly cement her comeback, and the way she's been playing -- dropping sets only to up-and-comer Sabine Lisicki and her All England Club vanquisher Petra Kvitova -- it's certainly in her sights.
She'll first have to get through first-time Slam finalist Victoria Azarenka though, and my pick at the start of the year to bring home this trophy has had her own career-making run the last few months. After returning to the winner's circle in Miami -- by beating MaSha, by the way -- she picked up another two titles in 2011, came in second at the year-end finals, and kicked off this season with a trophy in Sydney. Hopefully after dominating her early round opponents and dismissing defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis, she won't suffer a letdown Saturday -- she has the chops to beat Sharapova, as long as she doesn't let her nerves get in the way.
One thing worth noting, though -- if Vika wins the title and breaks the Grand Slam seal, she'll earn enough points to keep her far ahead of next week's #2 Kvitova. If MaSha gets the win, however, she'll have less than two hundred points more than Azarenka. That means it may only take a few tournaments more for the Belorussian to eclipse her -- and with the French Open still four months away, Vika could very well surpass her before she gets another chance to win that maiden Major. So that little respite we get from hearing about the Slam-less #1 may be pretty short-lived, and could soon have another target.
The top spot on the men's side won't be up for grabs this weekend, but there's something just as important at stake in their final -- pride.
Defending champion Novak Djokovic comes back to Melbourne after a whirlwind year brought him ten titles and three Grand Slams along with the #1 ranking. After coming back on Friday from a one-to-two set deficit against Andy Murray, my reluctant pick to win the trophy, he's gone a long way to show that last year was no fluke -- and that he's not quite yet in danger of burning out. He'll have a little less time to recover from his semi, but something tells me he'll put up just as big a fight on Sunday.
His opponent will have something to say about that, of course. The champion here in 2009, Rafael Nadal has lost his last six meetings with Nole -- all in finals, the last two at Slams -- and will want to prove his contemporary doesn't, in fact, have his number. It's another ironic situation, considering how Rafa has dominated his biggest rival Roger Federer over the last eight years, yet continues to regard him as the "Greatest of all Time". It won't be an easy win for the Spaniard -- this is his first trip past the quarters Down Under since that title run -- and Nole seems to be much more comfortable on this particular court. But if he can pull off a win over his newest adversary this time around, it could set the stage for quite the interesting year.
They might not be the match-ups we expected to see come championship weekend in Melbourne, but any of these four players have spent the last fortnight proving they deserve to be here. And after their struggles, their breakthroughs and their triumphs, they should each be proud of what they've accomplished.
Still, getting that one more win will certainly be icing on their 2012 Aussie Open cake.