Is Victoria Azarenka an underappreciated world No.1? Undoubtedly, yes. During one sleepy afternoon at last year’s US Open, an announcement was made to the media. ‘Would anyone like to talk to Victoria Azarenka?’ There were no takers.
‘She’s only the world No.1,’ someone quipped.
She’s also the defending champion. And, while all eyes in Melbourne may be firmly swivelled towards Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Azarenka is clinging onto her place at the top defiantly. Disregard me at your peril, is her message, a message hammered home by her impressive 7-5 6-1 defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the semifinals.
Kuznetsova, the former US and French Open champion, is such a mercurial talent that she really can go one way or t’other. Jaw-droppingly brilliant or head-bangingly bad. But, with her impressive run through the draw so far, her composed dismissal of Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round one of the highlights, the mutterings in the media centre were that Azarenka’s Australian Open could be up.
Prediction turned to realism as Kuznetsova started confidently, breaking the Azarenka serve after 10 deuces, and building to a 4-1 advantage. The numbers were not in her favour – she and Azarenka were level on 11 winners, and she out-weighed her in unforced errors, but the world No.75 was ahead.
Not for long. Finding her time in the crucial seventh game of the set, Azarenka broke back, finally converting her third break point, and then broke again as Kuznetsova’s error count climbed to 28.
Serving out the first set 7-5 after a whopping 77 minutes, the world No.1 marched to her chair with purpose.
“I think we were both producing good tennis,” Azarenka said. “But I felt like she was a little bit on top of me on the important moments. Then I turned it around and I took control in my hands and it was more up to me. I felt like was a turning point mentally and physically.”
How would Kuznetsova react? Dig her heels in, cut down her errors, and take the net away from the Belarusian? Or get drawn into baseline battling with one of the best in the business.
She tried the former, but it ended up being the latter. Azarenka broke serve to start, and then put her relentless hat on. Breaking serve again just as Kuznetsova thought she might hold, going over on her recently recovered ankle at one point, the top seed then tore through her own service game, leading the set 5-1 after just 27 minutes.
There were just six more points. Serving at 15-40, Kuznetsova punted her forehand long, and Azarenka yelled her delight.
“I think you cannot expect to have your best tennis on every single point, on every single game,” Azarenka said. “But it’s important to know that when you need it, it’s there and you can rely on it. That’s what gives you confidence.”
Unforced errors aside, Kuznetsova will leave Melbourne safe in the knowledge that she can still shuffle with the best, likely to rise back inside the world’s top 50.
“I feel like I have game,” Kuznetsova said. “I can play. But I feel I need to improve my fitness, my consistency, the serve.
“I had to play with a top player, one of the best players at the moment. These matches, you got to play very consistent. This is what for the moment kills me after my break, is my consistency. And I didn’t serve well. That’s why I lost the match.”
Azarenka meanwhile knows she will need to raise her game again for her next encounter. Only she can shed light on how it felt to serve for the US Open title, the glittering trophy sitting on the table in her field of vision, only for Serena Williams to ruthlessly spoil her party.
“It would be silly to say I’m not excited, I’m not nervous,” Azarenka said. “Everybody has emotions. It’s just a matter how well you can control them for you to feel good before you go on court or when you’re on the court.”
If they meet again on Thursday, as seems all too likely, will Azarenka find herself beaten before she’s even started? Or, could the memories of New York be the fire in the belly she needs to finally show Serena who’s on top.
“For me it’s important to just take it match by match. I’m here to win the title.”