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"Is she for real?"
This has been the never-ending, broken-record question in the women's game for the past three, four, five, maybe even six years. We've asked it of Nicole Vaidisova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and, earlier this year, Caroline Wozniacki. Each made a run up the rankings and appeared poised to remain there. But being "for real" on the women's tour isn't about rankings; those are skewed toward the quantity of a player's wins rather than the quality. Realness is about winning Slams. Only one of the players listed above, Ivanovic, has pulled that off, and she seems to have been an optical illusion.
So we keep searching, sometimes against our better judgment. Fortunately, the topsy-turvy world of the WTA keeps offering. This week, the speculation surrounds Victoria Azarenka, who steamrolled Maria Sharapova in the final in Stanford on Sunday.
This isn't the first time the Belarusian turned Arizonan, who turned 21 Saturday, has done a turn as the tour's "It Girl." Through the first half of 2009, she showed off a fearsome two-handed backhand and an equally fearsome intensity that took her into the top five. Along the way, she nearly upset Serena Williams at the Australian Open, won in Key Biscayne and went deep at the French Open and Wimbledon. If anything, though, her intensity burned a little too hot. It often spilled over into a self-sabotaging anger, and she looked spent by the time she got to the U.S. Open.
Since then, Azarenka's game has been subject to wild swings in quality. In Australia, she nearly upset Williams again. Not only did she hit the ball cleanly and confidently, she did it with the athletic flair of a star. All of which made her performance at Roland Garros, where she couldn't find the broad side of a barn with her forehand in a lopsided first-round loss to Gisela Dulko, harder to understand. On the one hand, Azarenka appeared to be trying too hard; her footwork consisted of overzealous hops that left her out of position on clay. On the other hand, she looked like she was just going through the motions. The intensity had vanished.
It was back in force at Stanford, where Azarenka brought out her first pump from the opening points of each match. More impressive was the way she served and owned the center of the court against Sharapova. She came up with service winners to fend off break points, jammed her long-armed opponent by going at her body and was content to pound her ground strokes right up the middle, forcing Sharapova to go for the lines. As usual, Azarenka's backhand was dialed in; her sweet stroke on that side looks remarkably like Sharapova's. But it was her forehand, which can be hit or miss, that made the difference. Toe to toe, it was too strong for Sharapova's forehand. Though Azarenka showed her fire, she didn't erupt in a counterproductive rage.
This leaves us, naturally, wondering about Azarenka's future. Is she ready to climb higher this time? I'd like to say yes. There's rarely any question about her commitment, and at their best, her determination and athleticism bring a high energy to the court.
But the flaws remain. Even in beating Sharapova, Azarenka overran a few balls -- too much footwork again -- and her flat forehand will always produce its share of shanks.
One title isn't enough to make us forget the deep lows of Paris and much of 2010. At the same time, Azarenka's upside, though short-lived, has been high enough that you could imagine her, if everything breaks right, making a clean run through two weeks at a major. That may be as real as we're going to get in women's tennis at the moment.