MELBOURNE, Australia -- The age gap is only two years, but the difference in experience is vast between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
Sharapova will play her sixth Grand Slam final at the Australian Open on Saturday against Azarenka, who is making her debut after beating Kim Clijsters, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3. Also on the line is the No. 1 ranking that will go to the winner.
Four years after winning the last of her three major titles and approaching eight years since she lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17, Sharapova has another chance to add to her Grand Slam haul.
"It means so much to be back in a Grand Slam final," Sharapova said. "It's nice to get that far again after losing quite early in the last couple of years."
Now 24, Sharapova has already been on tour long enough to experience the ups and downs of tennis. After winning the Australian Open in 2008, she underwent shoulder surgery that took her out of the game for nine months.
It took much longer for her to get back to her peak, and she lost at the Australian Open before the quarterfinals on her last two visits. She reached the Wimbledon final last year, but lost to Petra Kvitova -- the player she beat in Thursday's semifinals, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 .
"With the shoulder, I knew some examples of some people that did not quite recover from surgery and that was a little frightening, but I really had no option," she said. "Of course it took a long time and it was a process, but it was just something that was in my steps that I had to go through. And I did."
Azarenka worked on her fitness in the offseason, giving her the confidence to know she can play "as long as I need."
Azarenka may take confidence from wins over Sharapova in hardcourt finals in Stanford and Miami. They have split six matches.
"She's a really, really good player, and I haven't had great success against her in the last couple of events that we've played against each other," Sharapova said. "I'd really like to change that. It will be important to tactically play right. She makes you hit a lot of balls and she's aggressive as well."
For Azarenka, the No. 1 ranking is a goal but that is not the case with Sharapova. "Having been in the position before, [the ranking] doesn't really [add anything] to me," Sharapova said. "I think personally, for me, it's more about the Grand Slam win than the No. 1 ranking. That's just always been the goal for me."