Originally Published: February 22, 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 Rhyne Williams

This was a good month to be the guy they call "Rhyno."

Just 21, Rhyne Williams started the month with a surprising win in the Dallas Challenger, good for nearly $15,000 and 100 points in the rankings. He followed that up this past Monday with his first ATP-level victory, over former two-time NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson. It happened in Memphis, not far to the west from his birthplace, residence and scene of many college triumphs at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"It's definitely been a goal of mine playing on tour," Williams said Tuesday. "This is just one more step. I'm getting closer. My body's breaking down a bit here, but maybe I can run on momentum for a few more days."

Williams comes from a tennis-playing family. His mother, Michelle, was an All-American at UT and father Bob was All-ACC at Duke. Sisters Jennifer and Caitlyn both played junior tennis; Caitlyn is on the UT roster. He is coached by his cousin, Christopher Williams. His idol growing up was Roger Federer, and believe it or not, his favorite surface is clay.

Williams was 0-3 in previous ATP matches, having qualified into the 2012 events at Indian Wells and the U.S. Open and received a wild card into this year's Australian Open. On Thursday in Memphis, he was to play the winner of the Bjorn Phau-Alexandr Dolgopolov match in the second round.

Williams is currently ranked No. 159, but is expected to rise to around No. 134 when next week's ATP World Tour rankings are released. Based on last year's performance, he's hoping for a wild card in Indian Wells and will try to qualify in Miami. ESPN.com caught up with Williams after an off-day hit after his breakthrough victory.

ESPN.com: You had to qualify just to get into the Dallas Challenger earlier this month. How did it feel to win your first professional tournament?

Rhyne Williams: That was an incredible tournament for me. I was not expecting to win. I've been working hard on my physical conditioning, but I played some incredible tennis that week. I beat some veterans, Rajeev Ram, Frank Dancevic, Robby Ginepri in the final. Couldn't be happier with my performance.

ESPN.com: You got to the NCAA singles final for the University of Tennessee in 2011, then turned pro. What made you think you were ready?

Williams: I went to school knowing that one day I wanted to play professional tennis. I pretty much had accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish in college. I was ranked No. 1 and No. 2. I wanted a team victory and we lost in the finals. I figured it was just time. I felt like I was mature enough and physically ready to make the next step. To be honest, I had a ton of fun off the court and needed to focus on my tennis goals.

ESPN.com: You won the USTA qualifier into the main draw at the 2013 Australian Open, then took the first two sets against No. 28-ranked Florian Mayer, but lost 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 6-7 (12), 1-6. What happened in the last three sets of that match?

Rhyne Williams: [Sigh]. I started off on fire, serving incredibly. Maybe he underestimated me a little bit -- then he woke up, just in time. In the fourth set, I had a few match points on his serve. I couldn't quite decide what I wanted to do on those match points. The tiebreaker was a dogfight and it was 100 degrees out there. It was just a heartbreaker. I couldn't close it out. Credit to him. He came up with the goods.

ESPN.com: What did that match teach you about what the specific areas are in which you need to improve?

Williams: I learned that on the big points, the top guys don't go away. They don't give you the loose errors some other guys do. You have to go after them with no fear. To be honest, I was afraid I was going to miss. I went too far back in the court. I didn't miss, but it was enough to give him the advantage. He was the aggressor on big points -- that's why he won.

ESPN.com: You've already had the biggest rankings jump -- from No. 192 to a projected No. 134 -- of any American in the top 200 over the first seven weeks of the season. What are your goals for 2013 and beyond?

Williams: I need to improve my net game, close off points more quickly. I need to come in behind my serve and forehand. My coach, Christopher Williams, and I are going to work on that in the coming weeks. I think I can do it; I have the hands and the touch. I feel like it's something I can implement in my game. Short term, I want to push for the top 100. Long term, I want to be in the main draw of the Grand Slams -- that's where the damage is done. I have a long way to go, but I feel like it's doable.

Speed bumps for Stephens, Isner

Isner
Isner

The most recent tweet (as of this writing) from Sloane Stephens: "… if you fall, stand tall and comeback for more."

The second-ranked American woman is still a teenager, for another month anyway, but her spectacular results have created similarly farfetched expectations. After beating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, it was understandable that she cooled off a bit -- and not just because of an aggravated abdominal muscle pull.

Stephens lost to then-world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals at Melbourne. That one made sense, but in her three matches since the No. 16-ranked player beat No. 57-ranked Anna Tatishvili and then lost to Klara Zakopalova (No. 24) after whiffing on two match points and to Sorana Cirstea (No. 30) in Doha and Dubai.

After losing to Zakopalova, Stephens wrecked her racket. She was warned for racket abuse in Tuesday's defeat in Dubai. Afterward, she sounded philosophical.

"Every match isn't going to go the way you want it, and obviously I got a little frustrated," she said. "Things happen, but, I mean, no need to dwell on it."

John Isner, the top-ranked U.S. man at No. 16, has struggled, too.

He's 3-4 for the year after falling to Denis Istomin 6-4, 6-3 in the first round in Memphis.

Isner, who missed the Australian Open with a knee injury, lost a tough five-setter to Thomaz Bellucci in Davis Cup play. Last week, he fell to Tommy Haas in the semifinals at San Jose.