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WTA big three one step away from a major rivalry

Jo Carter October 9, 2012
© Getty Images
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Andy Roddick famously said of his rivalry with Roger Federer, "I'm gonna have to start winning some of the matches to call it a rivalry" and the same could be said of Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

Azarenka justified her billing as top seed in Beijing as she hammered Sharapova in straight sets on Sunday to become the first woman to win two Premier Mandatory events in a single season.

The World No. 1 well and truly has the measure of her Russian rival - winning four of the five matches they have played this season - and all four on hard courts.

"I was doing the right things to not let Maria play her game that she likes, to always be in control," Azarenka said after her 6-3 6-1 victory. "For the most part I was trying to keep up with her rhythm and, when I had a chance, to step it up."

In what could yet be her most consistent season to date, Sharapova, who completed a career Grand Slam at this year's French Open, is yet to crack the Vika-code.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic's rivalry has captured fans' imagination © Getty Images
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The so-called rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova this season smacks of the dominance Novak Djokovic held over Rafael Nadal last season. The Spaniard has an overall winning record against his rival and has won his last three matches against Djokovic, but drew a blank last year as he suffered six consecutive defeats.

What began with back-to-back final defeats in Indian Wells and Miami escalated into a more serious issue for Nadal when he was beaten in his own back yard on the clay in Madrid, before Djokovic won back-to-back grand slams for the first time, sinking Nadal in the Wimbledon and US Open finals.

The dominance Djokovic held over Nadal is similar to Azarenka's stranglehold over Sharapova, and like the Serb last year she also had an unbeaten start to the season, although her 26-match streak fell some way short of Djokovic's 41.

Azarenka is some way ahead of Sharapova, but despite sitting atop the rankings, some would argue the Belarusian is not the best player in the world - for many that honour is reserved for Serena Williams - winner of two grand slams and Olympic gold in 2012.

As Sharapova does with her, Azarenka seems to have a mental block when it comes to Williams - the American leads the head-to-head 10-1 and has won their last eight meetings. When asked about her position with the 15-time grand slam champion recently, Azarenka insisted

"There's no rivalry!"

Federer v Nadal, Nadal v Djokovic, Djokovic v Murray... for a rivalry to capture fans' imagination it needs to be a two-way process. Azarenka, Williams and Sharapova have seemingly created a 'big three' to rival the ATP Tour's 'big four'.

Now we just need Sharapova to crack the Vika puzzle, while Azarenka will always face questions over the validity of her No. 1 status if she cannot beat Williams.

The trio will come head-to-head in Istanbul later this month at the WTA Championships, setting the scene for an intriguing end-of-season showdown.

But if Sharapova can topple the world No. 1 in Turkey, or Azarenka can turn the tables on Williams, we might just have a genuine antagonism at the top of the rankings that the women's game has been crying out for.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk