Victoria Azarenka's ascent proves she belongs
For Victoria Azarenka, winning the Australian Open last year meant she had officially arrived. It gave the heavily touted 23-year-old from Belarus her first Grand Slam title, installed her at No. 1 and made her the new face of the up-and-coming generation.
Now, her return Down Under is expected to say a lot about whether she's here to stay. Can she defend her title, hold on to No. 1 and take the next step by winning a second major?
Thanks partly to the revolving door at the top of the women's game the past few years, Azarenka has been facing those questions since she hoisted the trophy. In response, she has largely let her racket do the talking, and though unable to respond with a second Slam victory last season, her sustained performance has kept her on an upward trajectory.
I'm here to win the tournament, not to defend really anything. There are 128 girls, and I'm really looking forward to that challenge and that competition. The feeling I had last year, I would love to repeat that.Victoria Azarenka, defending champion on playing in the Australian Open
Now she is tasked with backing up last year's gains, even though Azarenka would prefer to see 2013 as a new start.
"I'm here to win the tournament, not to defend really anything," she said.
"There are 128 girls, and I'm really looking forward to that challenge and that competition. The feeling I had last year, I would love to repeat that."
Azarenka's ready embrace of the situation helps set her apart from many other breakout players who crumbled under the weight of expectation.
In avoiding a similar path, Azarenka has had three advantages. First, her ascent to the top was slower. Her breakthrough victory came in 2009 when she took the title in Miami, scoring a surprising win over a hampered Serena Williams in the final. But progress was intermittent over the next couple of years, partly because of injuries, illnesses and her combustible temperament. She resumed her climb in 2011, growing increasingly mature and continuing to develop her game under new coach Sam Sumyk, ending the year at No. 3. Coming after this long road, her Australian Open win in 2012 felt, if anything, overdue rather than premature. Mentally and game-wise, she was ready -- even impatient.
Just how much became clear in the next few weeks, as Azarenka continued her run with big titles in Doha and Indian Wells, extending her winning start to 26 straight matches -- the most successful start to a season since Williams in 2002.
Azarenka's second advantage was the instant credibility of the Grand Slam victory.
By the time her streak ended in the quarterfinals of Miami in March, she was clearly emotionally and physically spent. She looked decidedly wobbly at her next major, the French Open, barely surviving the first round and exiting in her fourth match. She did not win any titles during the spring and summer. But those early-season wins helped shield her from constant interrogation about the legitimacy of her No. 1 ranking or lack of a subsequent Grand Slam title, the kind that eventually wore down Slamless No. 1s like Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki. Even new Grand Slam champions like Ana Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova have struggled with feeling like they had to try to win everything in the wake of their big victories.
That's why Azarenka's third advantage is self-reliance and ability to maintain perspective. She left her home and family in Belarus in her early teens to pursue her tennis ambitions and had to begin making her own decisions at a young age. But there was also growing up to do -- during her first years on tour, she struggled with her temper and frustration, which repeatedly cost her matches.
The fiery competitiveness remains -- there are occasional displays of petulance and a habit of withdrawing or retiring from matches -- but now it is usually tempered with a layer of philosophical calm.
"I'm going to kill myself," she replied sarcastically when asked how she would deal with her French Open loss. She then added more seriously, "This tournament is over for me. What's to recover from? It's to really look forward and improve. That's it."
That's also how Azarenka has dealt with Williams and her utter domination of the tour since Wimbledon. She hasn't managed to contain Williams' resurgence -- who has? -- but has at least kept up her own level and not given up the chase.
In some ways, both the upper and lower limits of Azarenka's potential are neatly captured by two recent matchups against Williams. Before playing the U.S. Open final, Azarenka shrugged off her status as the top seed and readily acknowledged her poor record against Williams, saying she wouldn't be reviewing tape of their past matches to get ready. "I don't want to be depressed," she joked.
But she proceeded to take the match to three tough sets, showing that her hard-hitting baseline game could challenge Williams.
Last week, the two were scheduled to meet again in a semifinal in Brisbane.
"It's really obvious that she is one of the toughest competitors for me. I don't have a great record," Azarenka said. "But this is a new year, and there are new opportunities to have. So the U.S. Open was a great match. I had great things that I could take out of there. It's always a learning experience."
Before the match, however, Azarenka pulled out with a toe injury from a pedicure (yes, really). It's a reminder that a history of injuries, usually a little more conventional than this latest one, could continue to interrupt her career. But the problem has been reduced over the last couple of years by smarter scheduling, including forfeiting at Brisbane.
"It's just something that I had to do to make sure that I can be fully recovered and ready for Australian Open. It's [the] kind of compromise I had to make," she said.
The prospect of facing Williams while less than fully fit probably also wasn't very appealing. But the decision gave Azarenka a couple of extra days to recover from the minor procedure on her toe and prepare for the Australian Open.
In addition to defending her crown, Azarenka will also be defending her No. 1 ranking, which will be under serious challenge from Williams and Maria Sharapova. She'll have to show something special to pull it all off. But one thing she won't have to show is that she belongs. The past year has done that.