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Friday, March 23, 2012
Audacious Azarenka set for new challenges


Victoria Azarenka, gently placing her feet into the prints left in the sands of Miami last year by Novak Djokovic, is undefeated through the first major hard-court segment of the year.

The Belarussian bomber is 23-0 as she begins her title defense at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, which is just one W shy of the number Djokovic had when he left Miami with the trophy in 2011 -- and widespread acceptance of his dominion over the ATP.

But one more win won't earn Azarenka comparable acclaim. She'll have to win the whole shooting match. The non-numerical impediment to the overall acknowledgment of Azarenka's superiority is that during this unexpected, eye-popping run, the WTA No. 1 has yet to square up with formidable Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova (the hottest player at the end of 2011) or the vengeance-minded woman Azarenka displaced atop the tour, Caroline Wozniacki.

Azarenka is an anemic 4-13 against that trio, all of whom are playing in Miami.

To which Azarenka has basically said, "Bring it on."

"Of course I'd love to play any of them," Azarenka told the press after she won at Indian Wells. "For me, the bigger challenge it is the more exciting it is. That's what I'm looking for. And the players who I played this year wasn't easy, as well. But, of course, I would love to take that challenge."

One thing you can't fault Azarenka on these days is attitude. Listen to her and you'd almost think she's bummed out that No. 4 seed Wozniacki and No. 10 Williams are in the bottom half of the draw, ensuring that only one of them might be lucky enough to meet Azarenka, who's in the top half, in the final.

Azarenka has only one win over Serena in seven tries, but that triumph was in the same Miami tournament in 2009. (Azarenka is a two-time Miami champ, having also won last year.) It was a 6-3, 6-1 title-match blowout, but Serena's thigh was heavily wrapped and she appeared impaired.

Still, Serena is three critical years older (she's 30 now) and hasn't played since the Australian Open, where she lost in the fourth round.

Wozniacki has struggled this year since losing the No. 1 ranking, and she left last week's tournament at Indian Wells holding back tears following a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic -- a defeat ensuring that Wozniacki would drop to her current ranking of No. 6.

And lest we forget, Kim Clijsters is in the same quarter with Serena and Wozniacki, and she's into the third round via an impressive win Thursday over hard-hitting Julia Goerges of Germany. Azarenka has a losing record against Clijsters, too (3-4). Makes you wonder, just who has Azarenka beaten?

Then there is Kvitova, the woman most often seen as the likely rival to Azarenka in the years to come. The 22-year-old from the Czech Republic won Wimbledon last year and ended the season in high style, with a 13-match winning streak that included a win at the WTA season-ending Championships -- where she held off Azarenka in three sets.

But Kvitova was unable to fire out of the blocks this year with anything like the desire and determination of Azarenka. With the No. 1 ranking up for grabs after Wozniacki lost to Clijsters in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova (another contender for the top ranking at the time) stopped Kvitova in her tracks in the semifinals. But Sharapova came up with no solutions to Azarenka's game in the final and -- bingo -- Azarenka was the last woman standing, and the new No. 1.

Kvitova has been more or less silent since then, but that's her way. She goes through bad patches and pulls out of them pretty well with her big hit-or-miss game.

But she also seems to have a moth-to-flame relationship with the top ranking and the demands and pressures that come with it. That's not unusual in one who's young, shy and perhaps a tad less secure than her ranking might suggest.

Azarenka has no such problems. She's embraced her status with both arms and knows what Djokovic's big win in Miami in 2011 did for him. There are a few more footsteps into which to slide her Nikes, and lately they've appeared to fit in there quite nicely.