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Azarenka Aussie Open title signals changing of the guard

January 28, 2012 11:22 AM
Azarenka is part of women's tennis next generation of stars.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

MELBOURNE -- Due to the on again, off again careers of the well-known veteran stars such as Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova, the WTA has become extremely wide open: So much so that four new women have won the last four Grand Slams, the first time that has occurred in the Open Era.
 
Add 22-year-old Victoria Azarenka to that list, who crushed three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0  to win 2012 Australian Open. The hyper-aggressive Belarusian joins three other Grand Slam newbies since last June when veteran Li Na won 2011 Roland Garros, 21-year-old Petra Kvitova took Wimbledon, and the hard-hitting 26 year-old Aussie, Sam Stosur, won the U.S. Open.
 
During that time, the 21-year-old Caroline Wozniacki held the No. 1 ranking. Without a doubt, the changing of the WTA guard has begun. It may not occur overnight - and there is no question that Serena, Clijsters and Sharapova will continue to play a huge role in the sport if they are healthy - but there is no doubt that the younger set has finally made its move.
 
"I think it's a great thing for women's tennis," Azarenka said. "We have good rivalry, I would say. With Petra we had amazing matches. Unfortunately I haven't beat her, but I'm really looking forward to that. But with Maria playing really well now, Serena is back, Kim, I think it's great for the women's tennis. With Li Na winning the Grand Slam, Sam Stosur winning Grand Slam, I think it's a great competition, and we can really look forward for women's game. It's at a great level right now."
 
Azarenka became the first woman to become No. 1 for the first time after winning a Slam since Ana Ivanovic in 2008 and her road to the top has been littered with potholes. Her fitness has been called into question, she renowned for having a terrible temper, and at times, an overall bad attitude. 
 
But since she decided to take up with coach Sam Sumyk (who used to work with Vera Zvonareva) at the end of 2009, she began to progress. Half way through 2010, her management team at Lagardère - which includes agent John Tobias, her manager, and the former American player Meilen Tu (who is married to Sumyk - convinced her that it was time to being so mistrustful of outsiders and to let her vibrant off court personality flourish. She was no longer as standoffish, and began to engage the media and other members of the tennis industry. Right around the same time, she began to put the pieces together in her game.
 
"I think with my team, my agent, really helped me to just open up a little," Azarenka said. "Because some people judge you by how you are on the court. Some people judge you by a certain thing you do, which obviously can be a mistake sometimes. I'm a different person when I'm off the court. It just helped me to figure out that it's important to be yourself. That's the most important thing. You don't try to pretend that you are somebody who you're not. I'm always looking to be honest, to know what I feel, because there is no point to really hide that.  If you're open, if you can admit your feelings, you can admit what you've done wrong, what you did right, it's easier to move on."
 
Move on she did and with Sumyk teaching her to be more self reliant on court, her results picked up. She committed more to off court fitness, became quicker and was able to last through long three setters. Last spring, after her grandmother gave her pep talk, she won Miami, Marbella, reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon and finished the year at a career high No. 3 in the world.
 
She worked out super hard in the off season, came to Australia, won Sydney over defending champion Li, and in Melbourne, took out the tricky Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarters and beat back the crowd favorite and defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis.
 
And then in final, she only played nervously for a few games before running over Sharapova. She dominated the baseline, rallied, ate up Sharapova serve, ran down the Russian's hardest blasts and before her foe realized it, Azarenka was on the ground celebrating her maiden Slam.
 
"She did everything better than I did today," Sharapova said. "I had a good first couple of games, and that was about it. Then she was the one that was taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, trying to play catch-up all the time. She was, a step quicker. Her shot was bigger. Just not a good combination, I guess."
 
Azarenka's lead over Kvitova for the top spot is not gigantic at 885 points, but she should be able to hold onto the top spot at least until the tournament in Miami. She now has target on her back and it will be interesting to see how she'll respond to be the hunted one, rather than the hunter.
 
But "Vika" has matured to the point where she has become a well-respected player on tour. She did not back into the spot. She more than earned it.
 
"She's someone that's really been the one that's been working towards that goal and someone that everyone has had a lot of expectations on," Sharapova said. "Everyone expected her to win a Grand Slam. So, yeah, she certainly deserves that spot."
 
U.S. Notes
 
Taylor Townsend, just 15, became the first Amercian in Australian Open history to win the girls singles title as she bested Russian Yulia Putintseva 6-1 3-6 6-3…Bob and Mike Bryan's quest for a record 12 the Grand Slam title ended in a straight set defeat to Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek in the final. Mike Bryan will be on the U.S's Davis Cup team that will face Switzerland in two weeks time along with Mardy Fish, John Isner and Ryan Harrison.
 

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