- Sandra Harwitt
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When the tennis community cleared out of the recent Australian Open, everything seemed right with the world of women's tennis.
A new WTA No. 1 had been crowned in Victoria Azarenka, and there could be no whispers questioning the legitimacy of her ascendency to the throne. Azarenka topped the charts with a show-stopping run to the Australian Open title, most notably taking Maria Sharapova out of contention in the final with an impenetrable game plan that led to a 6-3, 6-0 victory.
Now a first-time Grand Slam champ, Azarenka could be seen as an accredited No. 1.
No disrespect meant to Caroline Wozniacki -- Azarenka's No. 1 predecessor -- but the talented Dane's rule at the top was viewed as dubious by many. She moved into the No. 1 slot on Oct. 11, 2010, and held the position, except for one week in February 2011, through the 2012 Australian Open. Wozniacki can be admired for her talent, for supporting the tour by playing frequently and for consistently reaching the final stages of tournaments, but among her 18 career singles titles, there's no hardware from the Grand Slams, which many pundits consider the gold standard necessity to being a certifiable No. 1.
With there being no talking point as to whether Azarenka is worthy of occupying No. 1, the topic of conversation naturally is turning to how the Belarusian will handle her new role.
The recent Fed Cup World Group II outing between the United States and Belarus was going to be our first post-Australian Open look at Azarenka as a Grand Slam champion, but it turned out not to be. Initially considered a potential barn-burner of a Fed Cup tie with an anticipated battle between Azarenka and former No. 1 Serena Williams, the thriller became just a filler in the Fed Cup draw. Azarenka benched herself with a bad lower back, and the U.S. scored a 5-0 win on the weekend.
Azarenka didn't arrive in Worcester, Mass., until Thursday, having stopped off in Los Angeles for a first sense of the world as No. 1. She spent a few days doing stuff befitting a celebrity, such as appearing on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and going to a Lakers game with her mother.
Although she had a couple of practice sessions in Worcester, Azarenka determined she wasn't in shape to pick up her racket Saturday morning, leaving 65th-ranked Anastasiya Yakimova to attempt to fill her lofty shoes.
Before she sat down, however, Azarenka had a couple of interview sessions with the media, offering a glimpse as to how she views her new position as the world's current best women's tennis player.
"It's definitely going to be more challenging," Azarenka said. "A lot of people are going to have more motivation [against me]. But I feel like being No. 1, I want to work as No. 2."
She did insist she's still the same old Vika who wasn't No. 1, even joking about her bedtime as evidence of the claim.
"I go to sleep exactly the same way," Azarenka said, laughing. "I sleep on my stomach as I was before. That's pretty much it. Of course, I'm really proud. It's a great feeling to have. But I just want to work hard and try to keep the same motivation as I have now."
The Williams sisters -- Serena and Venus -- both have been where Azarenka is today. They've been new to No. 1 and new to being a Grand Slam champion. So they could offer thoughts on how hard it's going to be in the next few months for Azarenka to stay focused and handle the pressure of other players gunning for her.
Venus Williams said: "Every player's a little different. Even to get to No. 1 shows you can handle pressure and play well. So it shows that she has the fortitude to do that. For me, I didn't care what I had done the year before. I had no problems defending points. That was not pressure for me. But for other players, they take it differently."
Serena Williams was more succinct, saying: "It's a lot of pressure defending points. Sometimes the pressure can get to you."
Azarenka is now testing her chops as No. 1 for the first time this week at the Qatar Ladies Open, a WTA Premier 5-level event.
The real challenge ahead in keeping the top ranking will be how well Azarenka defends upcoming tournament points from last year in the next few months. Her first major task will be as defending champion at the Sony Ericsson Open, which as a Premier Mandatory-level tournament comes with 1,000 points to defend. There's also the 700 points she earned as a finalist on clay at Madrid last spring and 900 points for being a 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist. Down the road, Azarenka will have 1,440 finalist points to defend at the year-end WTA Championships.
Defending those points as best as she can is essential, as there's a very slim differential between Azarenka's current points (8,585) and her three closest threats -- No. 2 Petra Kvitova (7,690), No. 3 Maria Sharapova (7,560) and No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki (7,085) -- according the Feb. 6 rankings.
Tatiana Poutchek, the Belarus Fed Cup captain who played through last year and won eight career doubles titles, believes Azarenka can capably handle the pressure she faces ahead.
"I think she has the game to be No. 1," Poutchek said. "She is No. 1 now. So, of course, it's really tough to maintain as No. 1. But she has everything to be there and to still be there by the end of the year."
In Worcester, at least temporarily, the 22-year-old wasn't thinking about what it will be like as she navigates being No. 1. She insists she's just living in the moment and hoping to keep things simple.
"I always think and say that you always have to have fun," Azarenka said. "When you do something you love, that you enjoy doing, even though it's hard.
"It's the feeling every time you step on the court, it's like you're in this bubble that people are focusing on you, and you try to produce the best as you can. But you have another person who's trying to do the same. So it's this battle. As funny as it sound, you enjoy that battle. When it's hard, when it's pain, when it's hot outside, you enjoy it."