Originally Published: February 12, 2013

Victoria Azarenka slowly figuring out Serena

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

When Victoria Azarenka, a fiery 19-year-old from Belarus, throttled Serena Williams in the 2009 Miami final, it looked like the makings of a new world order.

But Azarenka was sometimes her own worst enemy. She often battled to maintain her composure, reminiscent of a racket-smashing junior named Roger Federer. Williams won their next nine consecutive matches and 18 of 20 sets, six of them in majors and the Olympics. Azarenka led the last of those nine matchups 5-3 in the third set, but couldn't close the deal and Williams was the 2012 U.S. Open winner.

Last Sunday in Doha, even after losing the No. 1 ranking, Azarenka finally found a way to beat her. Nearly four years after that Miami victory, she won the title at Doha over Williams 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3.

In difficult moments (outside of that questionable injury timeout in Australia when she seemed to panic against the oncoming Sloane Stephens), Azarenka seems to have found a kind of inner calm on the court. She and Serena have split their past six sets and, going forward, this duo should be fun to watch.

They are, certifiably, the two best women in the game. Vika, however, seems to be picking her spots against Serena. They were the top two seeds in this week's Premier 700 event in Dubai, but Azarenka pulled out before her first match, citing a bruised right foot. You may remember her bailing before her semifinal against Serena in Brisbane -- with what she said was an ingrown toenail that resulted from a pedicure gone wrong.

Serena, complaining of back pain, pulled out of her first match in Dubai, against Marion Bartoli.

Maybe that's just clever gamesmanship.

Azarenka is off to another fast start. In 2009, she won 24 of her first 26 matches, including that terrific defeat of Serena in Miami. Last year, it was a 26-0 run that included titles in Sydney, Melbourne, Doha and Indian Wells -- where she is the defending champion but will not have the pleasure of meeting Serena, who along with sister Venus has skipped the event since 2002.

Azarenka is only 23 and finds herself in her prime; Serena, at 31, is the oldest woman ever to be ranked No. 1. Sometimes this gets lost in all the drama that is Serena. Going back to her first major win in the 1999 U.S. Open, remarkably, she has been a dominant player, on and off, for 15 years. This is her sixth trip to the top, something she first did at the age of 20.

After the loss in Doha, Serena seemed genuinely impressed with Azarenka.

"I always respect Victoria," she said. "I think she's a really good player. It's nice to always play someone and go home and you're like, 'OK, I didn't do great, but let me work harder.' I think that she inspires a lot of people to work harder, and definitely me."

You can bet on that. The way they are both playing, they are likely to meet a few more times this year, perhaps next in the Sony Open final in Miami.

At an age when most players have retired (see Clijsters, Henin, Dementieva, etc.) or lost a great deal of effectiveness, Serena seems eager -- with perhaps only several productive years left -- to take on more than ever before.

According to WTA statistical whiz Kevin Fischer, the numbers suggest that, barring a serious injury, Serena could have one of her most prolific seasons ever. Over the past decade, she has averaged just fewer than 10 tournaments per year. Last year, she played in 13, tying the second-highest mark of her career. This year, Serena has already played in four events -- and it's not even March yet.

Likewise, she played 62 matches last year, equaling her career high, set in 2009. Even before the event in Dubai, she was at 14 matches. On seven previous occasions, Serena failed to play even 10 matches in the first two months of the season.

5 questions with Wozniacki

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

It is not so awful, really, to be Caroline Wozniacki these days.

She's no longer No. 1 among WTA players -- something that seems, more often than not, to be held against her. Going back to the fall of 2010, the 22-year-old Dane was No. 1 for 67 weeks, longer than Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams combined for the top spot in their careers.

Wozniacki is No. 10 at the moment and, happy and healthy again, she says, loving life. She checked in earlier this week via cell phone from Doha at the Qatar Total Open. It was sunny and 70 and she had just won her first match 6-1, 6-2 over Mervana Jugic-Salkic in an hour.

The only white stuff on the ground in Doha, which sits on the eastern side of Qatar, kissed by the Persian Gulf, is sand.

Told that her ESPN.com correspondent was sitting not far from her favorite court in the world -- New Haven, where four of her 20 career titles have come -- she laughed. That it was under nearly three feet of snow didn't seem to faze her.

"Oh, I'm so jealous," she said. "That's perfect for snowball fights."

ESPN.com: You struggled in the majors last year, losing in the first round at Wimbledon and again at the U.S. Open. What are the specific areas of your game that you need to improve?

Caroline Wozniacki: Definitely, the serve. The return. And the net game as well. Those are the three main points. I definitely think all those three have improved. For me, it's about having consistency in those areas, that's where I need to focus the most.

ESPN.com: How do you compensate for the power we are seeing from Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, who have combined to win the last five majors?

Wozniacki: Yeah, you need to play smart to compensate for that power. You need to make the right shot on the court at the right time -- not go for shots when you are completely out of position. You try to mix things up, try and put them out of their comfort zone.

ESPN.com: You suffered a wrist injury before last year's Australian open, then a knee injury before the U.S. Open, which was clearly a factor in your first-round loss. How healthy are you right now?

Wozniacki: I am happy to say I am 100 percent healthy. If you're not enjoying yourself on the court, it's not worth being out there. There were times last year when I had a few small injuries, and that brings the enjoyment down. If you can't play and practice at 100 percent, well, that's not the nicest mindset to go in with. I had some good training in the offseason and I've been feeling good for a while.

ESPN.com: You had a nice win at the Australian Open over Sabine Lisicki, but lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova (for the second time this year) in the fourth round. What are your goals this year with respect to the majors and the rankings?

Wozniacki: Goals? To be honest with you, I'm just happy going out and playing my best. The rankings aren't that important to me. It was a bit disappointing last year in the majors, but this is a new year and I'm looking forward to playing the same game I'm practicing. If my opponent beats me, then that's just too good.

ESPN.com: Some people wonder if your game is affected by your ongoing relationship with golfer Rory McIlroy. When you wore a diamond ring in Australia, there were reports (later denied) that you had been engaged. In terms of your tennis, has all the attention been a distraction?

Wozniacki: No. I just think it's really important to have a life outside the tennis court. There are a lot of players who forget that. For me, I love what I do. It's great to make a living from your hobby. Off the court, everything is going well, too. My personal life … it's great. The attention is not a disturbance. It's important for me to have that balance.