January 28, 2012

"What Happened?"

Those were the words we saw Victoria Azarenka say after she fell to her knees Saturday night in Melbourne. What had happened was that she had just become the 2012 Australian Open champion and the brand new #1 female tennis player in the world.

But despite her disbelief -- "I don't know what's going on," and "I don't understand," were her other reactions -- this was not something that just "happened", but rather something that's been in the works for quite some time. Making her seventh appearance in the main draw here -- the first a year after she won the Juniors' title in 2005 -- Vika has always done well Down Under. For three straight years she lost to Serena Williams, twice after winning the first set. She was my early pick to take this title two years in a row, but some tough draws at the Majors, a few emotional meltdowns, and a couple problems enduring long matches in extreme heat kept her from ever making a real push at the Slams. Despite all her strengths she her first semi came just last June at the All England Club, but she lost a tough three-setter to eventual Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova.

She's finally had her breakthrough, though. Coming to Melbourne only days after winning the title in Sydney, she was in danger of suffering from fatigue, as she has in the past. But a more fit, mentally stable Azarenka seemed no worse for the wear from the get-go. She lost just twelve games in her first four rounds, holding serve straight through the quarters. She dropped a tiebreak to Aggie Radwanska and struggled a bit, but eventually closed out, against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis. In her first Slam final she was the on-paper favorite against three-time Major champion Maria Sharapova, but pundits all wondered if the once-volatile Azarenka would succumb to nerves on the big court.

At first it sure looked like that would be the case. Sharapova opened by breaking the upstart's serve and consolidated for a two-game lead. But the tables turned quickly once Vika finally got on the board. She broke Maria at love in the fourth game and came back from game points down in the eighth to finally get ahead. She faced a couple break points in the second set, but some powerful groundstrokes and a nearly immaculate game never allowed the Russian to get back in the match. From three-all in the opener, Azarenka rattled off nine straight games, delivering the first bagel set in a Major final since Serena Williams did it to Dinara Safina here three years ago. With it came her maiden Grand Slam, the top ranking, and possibly a new era in the women's sport.

It's taken some time for the new guard in tennis to really assert themselves. But now with Azarenka and Wimbledon's Kvitova breaking through, even while the previous generation's stars are still out and fighting, it could very well be their time to shine. For now, though, the spotlight has shifted its focus squarely on the twenty-two year old from Belarus, and something tells me, the way she's playing, it might stay there awhile.

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