A force to reckon with

A force to reckon with

Azarenka’s consistency at the highest level has been the biggest change in women’s game recently.

QUEEN ON COURT: Belarusian Victoria Azarenka has assured the year-end world no 1 ranking. AFP

Victoria Azarenka has yet to take another look at the women’s tennis match of the year: The one in which she and Serena Williams imposed their volume and baseline power on each other deep into a third set; the one Azarenka lost despite serving for her first United States Open title.

 ''It will take me a bit of time to go back and watch it, because the truth is, it still hurts,'' Azarenka said in an interview this week. ''But it definitely is something I would like to watch as a spectator someday and go through those emotions and those feelings once again.''

 Such a defeat might have dimmed the year-end zeal of a less-driven woman, but Azarenka still has bright and shiny goals to chase in the twilight of her finest season.

Since that closing-night disappointment in New York, she has bounced way back by winning 13 straight matches without dropping a set and by strengthening her grip on the top ranking, which she has now held for 34 weeks.

All that remains is the WTA Championships, the elite eight-woman grand finale in Istanbul, and all Azarenka needs to assure herself of being No 1 at season’s end are two victories in the round-robin phase of the competition.

 ''Well, you don’t have a lot of options; either you go shoot yourself or you bounce back,'' said Sam Sumyk, Azarenka’s coach, of the defeat in New York. ''I don’t see a lot of gray area there. It hurts, no question about it. It did hurt. It still hurts, but it’s your choice if you want those experiences to make you better or not and, well, she decided that it would make her better.''

 In Azarenka’s current frame of mind and game, only Williams would be a favourite against her at the championships. But other threats lurk, including Petra Kvitova, who thrived on the quick indoor surface used last year in Istanbul, defeating Azarenka in the final.

Many tennis observers thought Kvitova, an imposing Czech left-hander, would use that momentum and continue gathering speed in 2012. But it was Azarenka who caught the wave instead and her emergence as a consistent force at the highest level has been the biggest change in the women’s game.

 Williams, who swept all before her this summer, had won Grand Slam singles titles and dominated rivals in the past. Maria Sharapova, who won the French Open and briefly returned to No 1 in June, had done the same. But Azarenka - combustible, cacophonous and unpredictable - only proved herself in earnest this year.

 She did it by her managing her emotions and winning a big one: the Australian Open in January. She did it by managing the rigors of a draining Olympic season, winning five other tournaments and more prize money – nearly $7 million and counting – than any woman has won in a single campaign.

Now it’s time to find out whether she has the staying power that some recent No 1s – like Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina – have lacked in what remains, after all, the Williams era. 

''Azarenka surprised me,'' said Lindsay Davenport, the former world No 1 who is now an analyst for Tennis Channel.

''I was prematurely losing hope in her. It was kind of like Andy Murray. I kept expecting her to break through. 'She’s a great athlete, and she truly believes she should be No 1,'' Davenport added. ''And as much as the other ones tried to give that attitude off, it just wasn’t very natural.''

Azarenka is defined by her ferocious low-to-the-court groundstrokes, her fast-twitch returns and, of course, her shrieks, which might be old news but still have fans of all ages imitating her in the stands and in front of the screen during matches. 

''She is sort of labeled with the noises,'' said Nick Bollettieri, the 81-year-old American tennis coach. ''However when you get down to it, if you can put that aside, the girl has improved her mentality and her temperament and that to me has been the big difference.''

Intimidating pace

 At 23, Azarenka still has the time and ambition to make other improvements: in transition in the forecourt and, above all, with her serve.

At 6 feet, or about 182 centimeters, tall and with her elastic ability to generate intimidating pace with other strokes, it would appear she could do more with it. That would seem a fine idea if she is to improve on her 1-11 career record against Serena Williams.

''I don’t think she gets enough racket-head speed,'' Bollettieri said. ''She almost muscles the serve.''

 Davenport believes Azarenka has sacrificed pace in favour of consistency in the last two years, perhaps to avoid being vulnerable off her second serve. ''I don’t mind her motion,'' Davenport said. ''You can have kind of a funky motion, and you can still have a live arm.

Andy Roddick taught everyone that, and for whatever reason, she doesn’t quite snap her wrist, doesn’t quite go for it. I’d love to see her in practice try and hit the 110- or 115-mile-an-hour serve because I think she could do it.''

Neither Azarenka nor Sumyk, a California-based Frenchman, appear reticent about embracing change or outside influences.

They brought in former French star Amelie Mauresmo briefly this year before Mauresmo was named Fed Cup captain and took on a bigger role with the French tennis federation. Sumyk has also sought inspiration and counsel from sources as diverse as the former Olympic sprint champion Maurice Greene and most recently, Olivier de Kersauson, the leading French sailor.

 ''You can learn from everywhere but I really believe there are special people on the planet, and if I can meet a couple of them, a few of them or more than a few, well, it’s a privilege. If they accept, why miss that opportunity?''

 For Sumyk, the good news is that Azarenka has much room to improve and she is already No 1 and a Grand Slam singles champion. That sounds like a logical combination until you remember that her friend and Monaco neighbour Caroline Wozniacki finished No 1 in 2010 and 2011 without winning a major title.

 Wozniacki, who has dropped out of the top 10, is a reminder of the fragility of tennis success. Has Azarenka given her encouragement?

''It’s hard to do that, because maybe she doesn’t want to hear it from me,'' Azarenka said, adding that, ''I always have only positive things for her, and I wish her all the best.''
 Azarenka sacrificed more than most to become a tennis star: leaving her family and her home in Minsk, Belarus, to train first in Spain and then in the United States. She recognises now that the self-imposed pressures generated by those sacrifices were a big part of what once held her back.

 ''I kind of made the transition really quick and success came fast to me, and maybe I was not sure how to handle it too well,'' she said. ''I feel like these days I do it much better, and I adapt to situations. I still go through a lot of things that I never have before, but I feel like I handle them with a cold mind.''

 She was, however, not quite cool enough in New York to collect her second Grand Slam singles title, but she did push Williams in a new and more convincing fashion. Perhaps she’ll get another chance in Istanbul.

 ''I always like to let my racket talk and not really talk myself and to show who’s the best player or who deserves to be the best player in our game,'' Azarenka said. ''It’s not by discussing it in the interviews. I think it’s important to show it on the court, and that’s what I will try to do.''

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