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Monday, February 20, 2012
Azarenka, Raonic cap interesting weekend

Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka has yet to lose a match in 2012.

So how about today you slip into my shoes and try to decide which of the five major tournament results of the weekend is the most resonant and makes for the most intriguing story?

In Rotterdam, land of the old masters, Roger Federer demolished Juan Martin del Potro, playing tennis that might have brought a smile to the face of Rembrandt himself. In Bogota, virtually unknown No. 174 Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino (I wonder, does the cup engraver get paid by the letter?), just 19 and playing in only her third WTA main draw, shocked Alexandra Panova. Never mind that the top seed in Bogota was No. 56 Marina Erakovic. There's still a lot of real estate between the rankings of the champ and the frustrated top seed.

On red clay in Sao Paolo, Nicolas Almagro successfully defended his Brasil Open title, while on an indoor climate-controlled court in San Jose, Milos Raonic also went undefeated at the same tournament for the second year running. And in Doha, new WTA no. 1 Mrs. Whooo (aka Victoria Azarenka) ran her undefeated streak for the year to 17 matches and her title count to three, including the Australian Open.

So where do you start? Much as we like Almagro, and wonder just how much of a dampener his countryman Rafael Nadal has put on his career (Almagro has won 11 titles, all on clay), we'll pass it by. Same goes for the win in Bogota by Arruabarrena-Viceno; somebody was going to win that thing, right?

Federer's win is a tempting subject -- he crushed del Potro, adding further credence to the theory that Delpo just hasn't recaptured that 2009 magic. But Delpo remains a work in progress and we already know Federer can win these things until the cows come home. It's the majors where he gets a little sideways.

That leaves Raonic and Azarenka. Unlike that other giant, del Potro, the 6-foot-5 Raonic seems to be not just as good but better than he was before he lost that big chunk of 2011 to injury and surgery. The 21-year-old from Ontario became the first two-time ATP tour winner this year (he also won Chennai), and lost his serve just once while raining down more aces (61) than anyone else in San Jose.

Still shell-shocked after the final, Dennis Istomin remarked: "I won just four points on his serve, which makes it very difficult to win the match."

That Istomin, he didn't just fall off the turnip truck, did he?

You could look at Raonic's win as a set-up for next week, given that he's the No. 4 seed in Memphis and the draw has him on track to meet the top seed in the final, that man being ... John Isner. Could that be interesting?

Still, as great as it is to see Raonic's continued progress, the story of the week in my book was Azarenka. The draw in Doha was loaded; Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova were the only two top-eight players who took a pass, and Azarenka slashed her way through all comers. In the semis, she rolled an ankle and still managed to rout Agnieszka Radwanska (6-2, 6-4), whose simple and effective game plan is, "just get back one more ball."

But the really impressive thing about Azarenka is how eager, fresh and determined she appears to be, how easily she bears the pressure, and how obviously she enjoys demolishing her opponents. Those qualities have been in short supply in recent years, as so many of the WTA's most promising and gifted players opted to turn off the avenue of champions onto easy street. Why slip that target on your back when you could walk the red carpets and rake in the big money so long as you pop up to win something or other, now and then?

Azarenka's results since she won her breakthrough major in Melbourne suggest that she's made from different material, and it seems that she was wonderfully tempered during a 2011 season that might have permanently damaged the confidence of a less able competitor. Although she climbed high in the rankings and proved herself in routine tour events, at the majors she kept running afoul of hot-handed rivals -- Li Na, Kvitova, Serena ...

Now, she's playing like she wants a little payback. She appears to be going all Djokovic on us. And that's a story the WTA certainly could use.