Twelve months ago, Victoria Azarenka made her way bleary-eyed through the tunnels of Rod Laver Arena, cameras popping around her, the dizzying reality that she had just won her maiden Grand Slam title slowly sinking in.
She made her way through Grand Slam Oval, walking by the outside courts that she wasn’t subjected to for seven matches – her name now stadium secure.
“It hasn’t really sunk in,” Azarenka told the TV host asking her how she felt about winning her fist major. Vika’s eyes darted past the cameras as she spoke, her close-knit team behind them, juggling mobile devices to respond to all her well-wishers.
A year later, Azarenka returns to Melbourne Park as tennis’s top-ranked female, but with a new reality in front of her: Serena Williams has won the last four major tennis competitions – Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open and the season-ending championships – and is the de facto player to beat as 2013 gets under way.
On Saturday it’s another American, the lesser-known Jamie Hampton, that Azarenka will face, looking to move one step closer to the semifinals where she is due to play – you guessed it – Serena Williams.
Asked before the tournament if Vika thought Serena was the favourite this year, the Belarusian didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, I think so,” she said flatly. Next question please?
That next question will be just how can Azarenka beat the woman that no one in post-modern women’s tennis can seem to overpower – or figure out. Four months ago at the US Open, clad in a villain-esque black top in the Gotham City, Azarenka led Williams by 5-3 in the final set, with a chance to serve for her second major of the year at 5-4 in the final set.
But Azarenka couldn’t serve it out, winning just one point in that game and ending the year with a single major to Serena’s two, a number many in tennis look at as more important than their rankings.
“It gave me a lot more self belief,” Azarenka said of her win Down Under in 2012. “I always thought of myself as a really good player. That mental edge to kind of make the difference, you know, it definitely helped to bring a lot of inner confidence in yourself, knowing that you can do it.”
What Azarenka didn’t do was play Serena in a highly anticipated match two weeks ago at the Brisbane International. Like here, the two women had been put on the same side of the draw, meaning they were set to do battle in the semifinals.
A bum toe took Vika out of that one. The cause? A crummy pedicure.
With that, Azarenka came to Melbourne a full week ahead of the Australian Open, determined to heal her toe and get set to defend a Grand Slam title for the first time ever. She tweeted on January 6 confirmation that she was on the mend: “Hey you guys! How is everyone doing? Had a workout and tried a little bit of running today. Toe is feeling much better. Really happy.”
Now nearing the second week of the year’s first major, Azarenka’s toe is the least of her worries. After Hampton, she’s projected to play pesky Roberta Vinci in the fourth round and then has a potential match-up with Caroline Wozniacki or Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final eight. After that? Serena.
“I'm not here to defend, I'm here to win, to play tennis,” Azarenka said after a second-round win. “That's how I look at it.”
What she’s looking at should she face Serena in the semifinals is a dismal 1-11 head-to-head record against the world No.3, which includes three losses at Melbourne Park. In 2009 she infamously led Serena by a set and 4-0 before crumbling, losing a tiebreak and then the third set 6-2.
For Azarenka, there has been vast improvement since 2010 – and most importantly – consistency, something she feels has kept her at the top of tennis.
“I think to maintain the level is probably harder than it is to get there because you have to be consistent,” Azarenka said of being No.1. “It's really difficult to maintain the same form throughout the years. You always going to have some up and downs.”
But an “up” would clearly be appreciated against Williams should she meet her in the semifinals next Thursday, and perhaps one more day of such form – in the final.
“That feeling that I had was incredible,” Azarenka said of winning here a year ago. “This is what motivates me even more every day. It's amazing, when you achieve your dream, your goal, how much more motivated I was after that. That's really something incredible for me … Since then, I want to feel it again.”