Victoria Azarenka next faces Kim Clijsters in the semifinals.
© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Victoria Azarenka lands in Massachusetts next week for Belarus' Fed Cup tie against the United States in Worcester, Mass., Feb. 4-5, she may be the reigning Australian Open champion -- or not.
Whatever the case, the 22-year-old has improved a ton over the past eight months and is no longer a physical and mental question mark when she enters a Slam. In fact, after her hearty 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in the Australian Open quarterfinals, she became the No. 1-ranked player for at least a day.
Her close friend, top seed Caroline Wozniacki, was knocked out of the tournament by defending champion Kim Clijsters, and since No. 2 Petra Kvitova was not scheduled to play until Wednesday, Azarenka's point total was at least temporarily higher than hers.
Azarenka, who has yet to win a major, isn't thinking about hovering for 24 hours or so in the top spot (the WTA rankings won't become official until next week). She also knows that Kvitova and Maria Sharapova could also begin next Monday as the world's top women's player, depending on their results in the coming days.
"I think you can find a really good balance by winning a Grand Slam and becoming No. 1," Azarenka said.
Two years ago in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Azarenka was up a set and 4-0 against Serena before Williams roared back and put the youngster in her place. But the 2010 Azarenka was not nearly as fit as she is now, did not have much of a game plan, save for going for open spots, and frequently got down on herself.
After a shaky first set against the tricky Radwanska, she took a deep breath, went back on court and relentlessly yanked the Pole around.
"Well, it was a completely different match, different situation," Azarenka said of her loss to Williams. "I think I am a different player right now, especially mentally wise. I was approaching this match to try to do the best I can. I was searching for it in the first set; I just couldn't really manage to play my game. Maybe two years ago I would be like, 'OK, it's not working today. I'm going to try, but we'll see how it goes.'
"Today I really tried to forget about the first set and start from zero and really fight hard, take it one at a time and keep going. So I think that was a different mental approach a little bit."
The woman nicknamed "Vika" is a driven and temperamental sort and can be pretty stubborn, hence her unswerving and strident defense as to why she grunts so loud (she was weak as a child and needed a strong exhale to get the ball over the net). She likes things to go her way and has had trouble in the past adjusting to the ups and downs in her profession, let alone her life. While many players say that they can play point by point and move on when things are not going right, the fact of the matter is that many cannot, which is why there are a limited amount of great players. Azarenka seems to be learning that just because you missed a sitter overhead on set point does not mean that you cannot convert four forehand winners in the next game.
"I think that's the toughest thing out there," she said. "Especially, weather is tough. Your mind is sometimes boiling, and it's difficult to think. Plus you have somebody on the opposite side that is making you a little bit crazy, and you have to keep it together. So it is really difficult. But it's a learning process. It's taking a lot of time."
After a lousy tournament in Doha last March, Azarenka went home to Belarus and told her mother and grandmother that she was ready to quit and become a student. Her mother laughed, as she knew it was just a temporary phase, and her 71-year-old grandmother, who just stopped teaching kindergarten, more or less dared her to try it.
"She was telling me those stories, how hard she was working," Azarenka said. "It was like, well, you just have to shut up and stop complaining because you have a pretty damn good life. Just work out there."
That she did and consequently won Miami, Marbella reached the Wimbledon semis, qualified for the WTA Championships and reached the semis, and in 2012 is on a nine-match winning streak that includes her title run in Sydney, where she bested Roland Garros champ Li Na in the final.
She'll have a bigger task ahead in the semis against Clijsters, who scored a remarkable comeback over Li in the fourth round, where she fought off four matches points and then put down a strong second-set effort by the rock-solid Wozniacki in the quarters.
The Belgian will come into the match with a 4-2 record against her, but the two split matches last year. Clijsters knows that the hard-hitting Azarenka will come right at her, but the 29-year-old has a massive amount of experience and is super motivated to win another Aussie crown in her last trip as a player Down Under. While Azarenka can be a sympathetic character at times, she believes she is ready to take the next step and doesn't care who is across the net.
"It's a big challenge," Azarenka said. "She knows how to be in the situation, handle big matches. I just try to stay fresh out there and keep playing my game, and I'll worry about my opponent later."