2013 in Review: Victoria Azarenka
Titles: Australian Open, Doha, Cincinnati
Won her second Australian Open title, defeating Li Na in the final.
Defeated Serena Williams in two finals (Doha, Cincinnati) and pushed Williams to a third set in the U.S. Open final.
Went 9-1 in tiebreakers.
Third straight top 3 season.
Struggled with various injuries—right toe, right foot, right ankle, right knee and back, which plagued her on and off throughout the season, leading to walkovers at Brisbane, Indian Wells and Wimbledon.
Was much maligned for her infamous medical timeout at the Australian Open while playing Sloane Stephens in the semifinals.
Fizzled at the finish, going 1-4 after the U.S. Open.
It started with a bang and ended with a fizzle, but when you look back at Victoria Azarenka's 2013 campaign, one statistic stands out more than any other. No, not the decibel level on her yodel or the amount of injuries she suffered to her right leg, her record against Serena Williams, silly.
Make what you will of Azarenka's injury-prone season and her slightly disappointing win total of 43 (she won 60 in 2011 and 70 in 2012), but there is no denying the fact that Azarenka was the one pugilist who successfully ruffled the feathers of Serena Williams in 2013. This fact and this fact alone suggests that Azarenka had a magnificent season in 2013, and it also portends the potential for a shift of WTA power in the not-too-distant future.
And let's not be remiss and fail to mention the fact that Azarenka won her second Grand Slam title in Australia in 2013, battling through the stifling heat and some heated controversy to establish herself as the preeminent force Down Under. Though most were busy focusing on Azarenka's dubious medical timeout taken against Sloane Stephens in the semis, to her credit Azarenka was blocking out the noise and remaining ruthlessly calm enough to come out with no crowd support and knock off Li Na in the final.
This victory, and the discombobulated manner in which she achieved it, is a testament to Azarenka's grit and determination, but her success against Serena Williams in 2013 is further proof that she could be the WTA's next dominant star in the making.
After a painful run of nine consecutive losses, Azarenka notched a her first victory since 2009 against Williams in the Doha final, and she would come up with a repeat performance in Cincinnati when she Williams in an electrifying match that was decided in a third-set tiebreaker.
While neither victory came in a Grand Slam, the mere fact that Azarenka went 2-2 against Williams in a year in which the 17-time Grand Slam champion dominated all comers so thoroughly should be considered a breakthrough of near epic proportions. Considering that Azarenka's only previous victory over Williams came in the 2009 Miami final against a mummified Serena, whose thigh was so severely taped in that match it was a wonder she could even move, her achievement this year could be a stepping stone to future greatness for Azarenka.
Some are quick to judge her as an attention-seeker, poor sport or injury prone, and they may be right, but at her core, Azarenka is proving to be a fierce fighter who is comfortable bringing her best tennis to the biggest stages in tennis. Consistency and talent are prevalent on the WTA Tour (see Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Sara Errani) but Azarenka's skillset and fiery, pugilistic aura place her alone among challengers to the WTA throne. From the baseline very few can match strokes with her, from the return stripe she is as good as they come, and when she ventures to the net her volleying skills and raw instincts shine.
If there is any part of her game that Azarenka needs to improve it is clearly her serve. She was nowhere near the leaders in service points won or service games won--she won a paltry 67.3 % of her service games; compared with 84.1% from Serena Williams and 78.5% from Maria Sharapova, it's clear that she's putting herself at a major disadvantage by not serving more effectively—and to reach her potential as the next great (dare we say dominant?) player in women's tennis she'll have to find a way to get more out of her serve. At 6'0” and in possession of great leg and core strength there simply is no excuse for Azarenka not to improve from the service stripe.
She's driven to be great, you can see it in her eyes when she's shadowboxing with her headphones on before a big match, but if Azarenka really plans on taking her game to the next level (not just pretending she's Floyd Mayweather), she should have the courage to address what is clearly her weakness. She's a confident woman, and she clearly likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror, but in Azarenka's case, she may like it too much. Two Grand Slams and three straight top three seasons are nothing to scoff at, but in Azarenka there lies the potential to be a true game-changing great.
Whether she wants to look inward and take that giant leap of faith will be what ultimately decides her fate moving forward. She's an elite player, yes, but she's capable of so much more.
Azarenka finished 9-5 against the top ten in 2013. It's a nice record, but if the 24-year-old Belarussian wants to get motivated, she needs only look one spot up the rankings at Williams, who went 23-2 against the top 10.
Is Azarenka capable of this type of dominance someday? Probably not, but she's proven that she has the tools and the makeup to be a dominant player since her breakout in 2011.
Now, it's time for that next step. Many elite players have stood at this precipice and turned back. But in Azarenka, something about that defiant, in-your-face, I-can-do-it-better-than-you-can attitude that she possesses makes us believe that she might be the one to break through and shine.
Maybe 2014 will be the year.