It's a big January for WTA world number one Victoria Azarenka as she prepares to defend her Australian Open title. Guy McCrea discusses the Belarusian's chances over the coming weeks...
Without doubt, 12 months ago in Australia is where things really took off for Victoria Azarenka. True, she had been a WTA top five fixture for some time before then - but the Belarusian had always fallen short when it mattered most.
It seemed like we had been talking for an age about Azarenka's graduation to the big time (she was ITF junior world champion back in 2005) before it finally happened for her last year.
Building off a title in Sydney, Azarenka's Australian Open romp - which culminated in a ruthless demolition job on Maria Sharapova - eventually extended into a stunning 26 match unbeaten streak to start 2012. If not at the awe-inspiring level of Novak Djokovic's 2011 tear, it was still mighty impressive and helped intimidate most opponents.
Azarenka only lost one match to a player ranked outside the top 10 all season. Unlike some recent world number ones, she was accepted as a worthy queen to sit atop the WTA throne.
Along with most of the world's top 10, Azarenka opens her 2013 campaign this week at the Brisbane International: - a venue where she won in 2009. Her past record shows that she commonly starts the year Down Under in red-hot, suffocating style.
By contrast, her main Brisbane rivals Serena Williams and Sharapova have never won a pre-Australian Open event in their careers. Indeed, Sharapova has often chosen to completely forego tournament play before Melbourne. Serena looked good in her opening Brisbane win over Varvara Lepchenko, but I'm backing Azarenka (at around 4.1n/a) to survive a stacked draw this week and again start her season with a trophy.
The same result in Melbourne? (Azarenka is trading around 5.39/2 on Betfair to defend the Australian Open) I'm not so sure.
Historically, it has certainly proven possible to repeat - the likes of Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and Serena have all managed it in the past 20 years alone. But mentally, I suspect it will be extremely tough for Azarenka to constantly try to match her early 2012 achievements. She even admitted as much last month.
On top of that, everyone knows that 15-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena (2.3411/8 favourite to win in Melbourne) generally saves her very best tennis for the majors where her status looms largest over Azarenka and the rest.
Serena won all five of the pair's meetings in 2012 - although Azarenka did serve for the match in the final set of their U.S. Open final clash. Even if Serena isn't quite 100% all through this week in Brisbane, you can be sure the American will be ready to go in Melbourne as she seeks what would be a sixth Australian Open crown.
Azarenka may have dominated Sharapova on outdoor hardcourts last season - but the Russian still fancies her chances in their match-up, as shown by two wins indoors last season. You would give Azarenka the slight edge if they meet again in Melbourne, but it's not exactly a cut-and-dried call.
Add two other erratic, yet dangerous Grand Slam titlists in Li Na - now firmly into her intriguing hook-up with Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez - and former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and the road to a Melbourne repeat could prove rocky for Azarenka.
Of course, it's always tough to make a definitive judgment without the draw having been made. But as it stands, I veer away from an Azarenka title defence. I do like the world number one to win her quarter of the draw, as she has made a habit of crushing opponents from outside the WTA elite.
But from there as the quality of opponent hikes, the pressure will build. So I think it best to prepare a back-to-lay strategy on Azarenka with the likes of Serena, Sharapova and Kvitova also expected to be involved at the business-end of the tournament.
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