Kvitova the acid test for Azarenka
Jo CarterMarch 20, 2012
Victoria Azarenka may have emerged as a surprise new world No. 1 after the Australian Open, but on Sunday the Belarusian demolished Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells to prove her new status is no fluke.
With four titles under her belt already this season, Azarenka is threatening to do to the women's game what Novak Djokovic did last season. Her record of 23 matches unbeaten in 2012 is still some way off Martina Hingis' 37-match winning start to the 1997 season, but she has stood firm where so many of her rivals have wilted.
She came within two points of defeat in her opening match against Mona Barthel at Indian Wells but after successfully navigating her way out of trouble, Azarenka has looked virtually invincible in the California desert.
She dropped just nine games in her next three matches as Svetlana Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges and Agnieszka Radwanska were swiftly dispatched. After seeing off the challenge of Angelique Kerber in the semi-finals, it was a chance for Sharapova to avenge her Australian Open defeat.
Confidence is overrated
In a rare match-up between the top two players in the world - the first in a WTA final for more than four years - Azarenka opened the gap between herself and the Russian as she cruised to a 6-2 6-3 victory.
As the cliché goes, you can only beat the person on the other side of the net, and Azarenka has done that in pretty convincing fashion. However, the acid test will come when she comes face to face with world No. 3 Petra Kvitova.
Azarenka has not beaten Kvitova since 2009, when the Czech was ranked at No. 40 in the world. Kvitova has won their last four encounters - on all three surfaces.
But the Azarenka of 2012 is an entirely different beast - just as Djokovic was in 2011 - and she is licking her lips at the prospect of cementing her status as world No. 1.
"Of course I'd love to play any of them," Azarenka said. "For me, the bigger the challenge, the more exciting it is. That's what I'm looking for."
Azarenka's talent has never been in doubt. She has the lot: speed, athleticism and power, but until this year lacked the consistency and belief.
In February last year, Azarenka suffered a complete meltdown as she crashed out at the hands of Daniela Hantuchova in Doha, slumping to a 4-6 6-1 6-2 defeat. After that loss, Azarenka admitted she briefly considered quitting the sport, but a few days back home in her native country got her head straight.
"I went home and spent three days at home just by myself and just realised a few things that I want to do with my life, how to really find that balance and to raise my level," Azarenka said. "For a second, really slight second [I considered quitting], but then my mom just kicked my ass for that."
A little over a month later and Azarenka had won back-to-back titles, in Miami and Marbella. Then came the consistency: reaching the semi-finals or better in eight tournaments last year. Fast forward to 2012 and she is a major winner and on top of the world rankings.
"Confidence is overrated," Azarenka exclaimed recently, which is surprising given how much of a factor Djokovic admitted confidence was last year.
Confidence or not, Azarenka is flying high at the moment. She may have lost her last four matches against Kvitova, but you wouldn't bet against the feisty 22-year-old having the upper hand in future encounters.