By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Victoria Azarenka's 21st birthday celebration will have to wait until some time Sunday afternoon. The 18th-ranked Belarusian has an appointment with Russian Maria Sharapova on the stadium court at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center for Sunday at noon.
Azarenka reached the final of the Bank of the West Classic, beating top seed Samantha Stosur, 6-2, 6-3, in Saturday's first semifinal.
Sharapova knocked off talented Polish player Agnieszka Radwanska, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2.
The last time Azarenka played at Stanford she was a relative unknown. It's been three years since she lost to Maria Kirilenko, her current doubles partner.
She's literally been around the world between visits to the Bank of the West Classic, and her encore performance has been extraordinary. The eighth seed, Azarenka got into the tournament with a wild card and returned as a world-class player.
She's had a few setbacks with thigh injuries this season but seems poised to regain a spot in the Top 10. Her career-high is No. 6 in April of last year.
"Every player goes through some hard times or injuries," Azarenka said. "I got a little bit unlucky in Marbella . I slipped and turned my hamstring. But it's part of the game. I was just trying to get healthy, which was tough because there were so many tournaments in a row and I had to play a lot of them. I finally got healthy and went back on the court after a lot of hard work and now it is paying off."
Sharapova knows all about dealing with injuries. She missed 10 months following shoulder surgery, returning to action in May of 2009.
"It's been a long road," said Sharapova. "I'm just so happy to come out and not worry about too many things. You're always having doubts whether the shoulder could hold up. I find myself just playing tennis."
Sharapova, who made her debut at Stanford last year, also missed seven weeks this year due to an elbow injury.
If she wins the tournament title, Azarenka projects to be No. 12 in Monday's ranking. Only a Sharapova win would knock her down a notch.
Sharapova is likely to at least match her highest ranking since returning from the surgery.
Azarenka has won 10 of her past 12 matches and is unbeaten in four career meetings against Stosur, who was playing her first tournament since reaching her career-high ranking at No. 5.
"I think I was pretty good on the return," Azarenka said. "I think I just have long arms and that's the key. If I can react fast enough I can usually get there."
The 26-year-old Stosur, who leads the tour with 37 wins, lost to eventual champion Marion Bartoli in last year's semifinal at Stanford. She had 33 unforced errors in the match.
"She played very well," Stosur said. "She hit the ball deep and flat and you had to get on top of the rally from the first shot. She kept me back and I wasn't able to break."
Azarenka took advantage of Stosur's difficulty on first serves and played a solid return game. She kept the Australian on her heels with strong forehands.
"I'm finally injury free and enjoying my time on the court," Azarenka said. "I'm starting to move a little bit better and my defense has improved. That's helped my offense. I've also been working hard on my serve and it's getting consistent."
Stosur, who fell to 3-3 in semifinals, is projected to remain at No. 5 next week.
"There are positives I can take away from this," Stosur said. "I'm sure I'll think of them as the day goes along. Right now it's disappointing."
Sharapova won the first game of the match but then proceeded to lose six straight before pulling it together and simply outshooting Radwanska, who projects to breaking into the Top 10 in next week's rankings.
Sharapova committed 40 unforced errors, including eight double faults, but none in the third set. She recorded four aces with a serve that reached 114 miles per hour.
Sharapova has won 17 of her last 20 matches and hopes to crash Azarenka's celebration.
Bank of the West Classic fan favorite Lindsay Davenport, with her partner Liezel Huber, will play Yung-Jan Chan and Jie Zheng for the doubles title.
Davenport, a former singles champion at Stanford, was one of four former world No.1 singles players to be entered in the tournament with Sharapova, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic. In addition, both Stosur and Huber have been ranked No. 1 in doubles.
Four decades of the tournament
Billie Jean King, one of the founders of the tournament which turned into the Bank of the West Classic, described that first year:
"We struggled to get 16 players at first. You have to remember in 1971, a lot of people weren't really happy with us. It was slim pickings and a lot of players were afraid to join us. We had two tours; there were two circuits. The USTA started one against us, which was very difficult at that time. I wanted everyone to be together because that was the whole intention when we started.
"All we wanted to do was get professional tennis going. We didn't worry about winning majors. In fact, the tour was probably more important to us than the majors at that period of our lives. Because we knew we were taking tennis to the people."
The full draw can be found at the Bank of the West Classic website.
Victoria Azaenka vs. Maria Sharapova, noon
Chan-Zheng vs. Davenport-Huber, following singles
U.S. Open National Playoffs
Alina Jidkova vs. Alexandra Mueller, noon