19 February, 2012

Step Right Up, Vikarenka


So take pretty much everything I've written about Petra Kvitova since last year's Wimbledon and do me a favor, scratch out that name and pencil in Victoria Azarenka.  I'm not alone there, there are plenty of other bloggers and writers who could say the same thing given how the Bella Belarussian has started her 2012 campaign a sterling 17-0.  I'm also not selling my stock in Kvitova.  The Czech player has remained impressive since claiming her first major last July, but Azarenka has shown us something a notch above what Kvitova has thus far.  It's about time we start paying attention.


Whereas her rival, Petra Kvitova seems to have appeared out of thin air last year, it's as if Victoria Azarenka has been around forever--and comparatively, she has.  When Azarenka won the Australian Open junior girls' title in 2005, she had already been playing pro level events for almost two years.  Kvitova, just a year younger at 21, made her pro debut three years later than Azarenka in 2006.  Azarenka had a more methodical climb to the top of rankings than Kvitova as well.  Where Kvitova rocketed from No. 34 in the world to No. 2 last year, Azarenka first finished in the WTA top twenty back in 2008.  So when Azarenka became the first junior champion to win the Aussie Open since Chris O' Neil in 1978 (and crashed Caroline Wozniacki's (pity) party by grabbing the seemingly cursed No. 1 ranking) there was reason to take immediate notice.

To put it kindly, the WTA has been in flux since Justine Henin's shock first retirement in 2008.  The ATP tour has seen three players at No. 1 since then, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.  That men's triumvirate have captured 16 of the 17 majors played since the beginning of 2008 and they have only briefly even let another player crash the top three (Andy Murray spent a few weeks as high as No. 2).  The women have had nine number one players in that same stretch, those NINE players accounted for only 11 of the 17 major titles won, with ex No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic accounting for um, zero.  Moreover, those three reached just four major finals.


All the while Azarenka has been steadily there, biding her time, learning from the women who've gone before.  This week in Doha, Qatar, Azarenka won her third career WTA premier-level title; that follows tournament wins this year in Sydney (with a stacked draw that featured nine of the top ten players) and her maiden major at the Australian Open.  The new World No. 1 may have picked up an ankle injury in the Doha semifinal, but she still beat back her friend Agnieszka Radwanska in that match and then all but embarrassed US Open holder Samantha Stosur 6-1, 6-2 in the final.

Azarenka has talked of reining her her mental game, staying calm, focusing on the positives.  That incremental shift seems to have been the catalyst for her move from a long list of good players, into the conversation of potentially great players.

It's as if Azarenka gave up her mental gluten.


That's what we're talking about here.  Oh, sure, it's early days yet.  February hasn't even ended.  There are a million roadblocks that could keep Azarenka from having a year like Novak Djokovic's all but flawless 2011.  Let's start with that ankle injury which none of us know the severity of just yet.  How long will she be able to keep her emotions in check?  Will the increased scrutiny start to weigh on her?  Will the game's officials try to muzzle her grunt, as they did with disastrous results to Monica Seles in that 1992 Wimbledon final (Seles lost 6-2, 6-1, leaving her one match shy of both a "Monica slam" and a calendar grand slam) Or simply, what about her presumed great rival, Petra Kvitova rearing up and giving Azarenka a smackdown?

Like Djokovic, Azarenka has had a history of pulling the rip-cord in matches, going into extended funks and underachieving in the spotlight.  We know.  Anyone who's paid attention to the talented Belarussian knows that well.  However, watching her win three big tournaments in a row, watching her fellow players continue to flail wildly in the face of expectations and knowing that Kvitova has posted her best results on fast courts makes you wonder about how the rest of Azarenka's year will play out.

Not to minimize the potential pitfalls, but if we had to predict the rest of Azarenka's year from what we've seen thus far, all things being equal, we would characterize it with one word.  Grand.

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