(October 12, 2012) -- Victoria Azarenka started 2012 on fire, racing out to a 26-0 record and capturing her maiden Grand Slam at the Australian Open. As we head toward the WTA Championships in Istanbul, the 23-year-old, in the midst of what has truly been a breakout season, is finishing strong too. Azarenka is fresh off becoming the first player in history to win two Premier Mandatory titles in the same season, and she trounced the field (albeit, a Serena-less field) in Beijing with relative, daunting ease just two weeks ago.
In between those formidable runs, Azarenka ran into a buzz saw known as Serena Williams (it happens to the best of ‘em), losing to the 15-time Grand Slam champion at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open final. Had it not been for Williams, Azarenka could be holding three of the four Grand Slams as we speak.
But can Serena keep Azarenka under her thumb forever? And if she can't, might we see Azarenka become the dominant force that WTA fans and pundits have been calling for throughout these last several turbulent years?
Azarenka, 23, is clearly coming into her own both physically and mentally. At 65-8 on the season, she's proven that she can manage the long, arduous WTA calendar relatively injury and drama free, and while playing very inspired tennis.
Now, however, comes the tricky part: overtaking Serena. Is Azarenka's game big and bold enough to reverse the course of her paltry 1-10 head-to-head record against Williams? One thing to consider before answering is the fact that Serena, at 31, can't keep defying gravity forever. She will try, of course, just as Azarenka will try to defy her dominance in the upcoming year.
It promises to make for some highly compelling tennis. Just as Rafael Nadal honed his game with his eyes on the great Roger Federer until finally overcoming him in their epic 2008 Wimbledon final, Serena's past dominance promises only to push the strong-willed Azarenka to higher highs.
The Belarusian is already a lock to finish the season at No. 1, but thanks to Serena’s continued dominance over her, she is far from being satisfied. “I would like to beat her again, and until I do, I want to play her every week,” Azarenka said in Beijing upon hearing of Williams’s withdrawal due to flu-like symptoms.
Those words may have sounded arrogant or ostentatious to some, but to fans who crave a true heavyweight battle for power on the WTA Tour, Azarenka’s words reverberated sweetly. The woman has a healthy respect for Serena, but she’s not going to let it get in the way of her desire to surpass her.
It bodes well for women’s tennis. If Serena plans to inch closer to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s total of 18 Grand Slams in 2013, her road will likely have to go through Azarenka again. In that same vein, if Azarenka wants to avoid being labeled a one-Slam wonder as early as next year, she’ll likely have to climb the Serena mountain.
As lopsided as their head-to-head is, the pair of world-beaters are a lot closer in reality. With each passing year, they are getting closer. 2013 could be the perfect storm, where they become evenly matched, each inspired to claim their dominion, and each driven to stave the other off. If Serena is the best server to ever grace the women's game, then it is not far-fetched to think that someday Azarenka might be considered the best returner in WTA history. Strong returning and superior baseline play was enough to perch Azarenka on the precipice of an landmark victory in this year’s U.S. Open final. Ultimately defeated in New York, Azarenka remains on that precipice.
But a two-horse race this is not. Maria Sharapova will look to spoil Azarenka’s best-laid plans, while a deep field of top ten stalwarts rife with talent will look to break through. Keep in mind, last year pundits were predicting the beginning of Petra Kvitova’s dominance. Legends aren’t made on pape, and Serena’s serve seems to get better every year.
Azarenka will have her work cut out for her, but something about her pugilistic nature portends that she’ll be up for the challenge.