Women’s tennis has an unfortunate recent history of No.1s who have withdrawn into their shells when they hit the summit.
Jelena Jankovic arrived in Melbourne as the world No.1 in 2009, bombed in the fourth round, and has since barely been a factor on tour. Dinara Safina came along shortly thereafter, flopped in three Grand Slam finals, and limped away from the game, injured in both body and spirit. Then came Caroline Wozniacki, who ended 2010 and 2011 as the world’s top-ranked player, but now languishes at 10th, having fallen in the opening round of her past two major outings.
Now in the hot seat is Victoria Azarenka. But unlike those who came and went before her, the Belarusian cemented her position atop the tree with a Grand Slam title – Australian Open 2012 – and has continued to thrive as the sport’s leading female.
What’s more, Azarenka believes she’s developed a taste for titles, and is fiercely motivated to recapture that winning feeling.
“It (victory at Australian Open 2012) gave me a lot more self-belief. I always thought of myself as a really good player. That mental edge to kind of make the difference, it definitely helped to bring a lot of inner confidence in myself, knowing that I can do it,” she explained.
“That feeling that I had was incredible. Since then, I want to feel it again. This is what motivates me even more every day. It's amazing, when you achieve your dream, your goal, how much more motivated (you are) after that.
“That's really something incredible for me to feel.”
One thing that’s notable about the 23-year-old is her mental and emotional balance. Once known as being talented but combustible, Azarenka has grown up significantly in the past couple of seasons. Very rarely does a bad loss crop up these days, or a situation on court that upsets her focus.
She’s become something of a machine on court, exceptionally aggressive yet consistent from the baseline and almost Seles-like in her relentlessness.
She attributes her improvement to her positive approach to matches and her tennis career – and from keeping everything in perspective.
“I always keep my mind off the tennis when I'm off court. I don't think about my matches before that. I watch movies, I play music, I do music, I talk about different stuff, do different jokes and stuff … Even when I prepare for my match, I'm in the zone, I'm not thinking about it,” she revealed.
“I always try to look into improving my game, improve myself as a player, too, because results come always first for me, trophies. The ranking is something that follows up that. So that's not my main focus, what the ranking is.”
That top ranking is something that has seen her awarded the No.1 seeding for Australian Open 2013. Yet she’s not the favourite despite being defending champion and world No.1 – the bookies’ choice is third seed Serena Williams. And Azarenka agrees.
The pair were due to face off in a blockbuster Brisbane International semifinal less than a fortnight ago before Azarenka was forced to withdraw after a botched pedicure led to a painfully-infected big toe.
In typical fashion, the Belarusian rationalised that outcome with striking maturity and was intent on looking forward.
“I kind of let go of that situation. There is no point to be disappointed or kind of have really any emotions about it anymore because that what happened. There is nothing I could do possibly to make it happen. I just really let it go,” she said.
“I think I did a very good choice, by the way (to withdraw). I'm feeling good right now.”
There’s good reason for that. She’s playing on her beloved hardcourts – which reaped five of her six titles in 2012 – at the site of her greatest career success. And let’s not forget that she was merely a handful of points away from winning the US Open, which would have garnered her two major titles in 2012 and seen her trump Serena for Player of the Year honours.
If Williams is the hot favourite, Azarenka is a close second.
“I'm not here to defend, I'm here to win, to play tennis. That's how I look at it. It's my position, my mentality going into and starting the tournament,” she said.
“I'm really happy to be back and can't wait to start the tournament, to get everything rolling.”