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Wednesday, February 1, 2012
New and vastly improved Azarenka

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For the fourth straight Grand Slam tournament, a first-timer won the women's event.

And when Victoria Azarenka crushed Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open on Saturday night, she also earned the No. 1 ranking.

No questions for her, then, about holding the top spot without a major.

With the women done in Melbourne, here's what we learned about the top pre-tourney contenders.

Victoria Azarenka: The transformation is complete

Azarenka had plenty of opportunity to lose her temper in the past two weeks. She was blown out in a tiebreaker by Agnieszka Radwanska; she wasn't the crowd favorite against Kim Clijsters; and the fans memorably mimicked her shrieking.

But Azarenka didn't get bothered -- at least outwardly -- one bit. As a result, she's a Grand Slam winner.

Azarenka, unlike Li Na and Samantha Stosur, two players who broke through in 2011, will likely go on to win more Grand Slam titles.

Maria Sharapova: Lack of variety costs her

There's a lot to admire about Sharapova: She works extremely hard, and she's a consummate pro who competes better than most.

In her past two Grand Slams finals, though, her lack of variety has shined through. Azarenka more than matched her firepower off the ground, and was able to change the pace against Sharapova. Further, Azarenka came to the net with success and is a better mover. Petra Kvitova, who downed Sharapova last summer at Wimbledon, also has more game.

When Sharapova looks back on the tournament, though, she'll be pleased. An ankle injury last fall meant she had no prep.

Serena Williams: She has to be healthy

There was a time when Serena Williams could walk into a Grand Slam injured and still win it.

Those times are gone.

Now 30 and nursing a bum ankle in Melbourne, she was ousted in the fourth round in straight sets. Her conqueror wasn't a top-10 player or Grand Slam winner; rather unseeded Russian Ekaterina Makarova inflicted the damage.

With a big summer ahead, it's all about getting healthy.

Caroline Wozniacki: Progress was made

She lost in the quarterfinals and out went the No. 1 ranking, so it'd be easy to knock Caroline Wozniacki. But that wouldn't be fair.

Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki not only lost early in Oz, but she also conceded her No. 1 ranking.

The Dane made progress in Melbourne.

Toward the end of her quarterfinal encounter against Clijsters, she stepped it up from the baseline. Instead of pushing balls back and simply retrieving, she was -- while not striking outright winners -- pressuring the Belgian into errors. However, she left it too late.

Losing the No. 1 ranking will take a little of the spotlight off her, which won't be a bad thing. She can fully concentrate on improving her game.

Kim Clijsters: She's a battler

Clijsters a fighter? That always hasn't been the case.

But after retiring in Brisbane, Clijsters wasn't about to bail again mid-match in her final Australian Open. Despite rolling her ankle, Clijsters dug deep and kept things competitive against Li in the fourth round -- which allowed Li to get tight.

The aftereffects of the ankle injury might have hindered her against Azarenka in the semifinals.

Petra Kvitova: The focus needs to improve

It was all going so well for Kvitova. She won the year-end championships, led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup title, sparkled at the Hopman Cup and went deep in Sydney.

The focus in Grand Slam matches, though, needs to be elevated.

As dogged as Sharapova is, Kvitova has only herself to blame for losing in the semis (going 3-for-14 on break points).

She'll get there.

Li Na: The fragility remains

Li had a fruitful offseason in Germany and came out firing in January, advancing to the final in Sydney. But just when you thought she'd show the kind of mental toughness displayed at last year's French Open, she cracked against Clijsters.

The instability in her game, which manifested itself post Roland Garros, returned to haunt her.

Blowing those four match points could send her into another funk. Perhaps it's time she recalls coach Michael Mortensen.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.