Finally fulfilling her potential, Azarenka swept from her first major title at the Australian Open to win six tournaments and finish the season at #1, a ranking that she held nearly from start to finish and in which she shone much more brightly than most recent WTA top dogs.
When it grew clear late in 2011 that Wozniacki soon would vacate her throne at the top of the WTA, most identified Petra Kvitova as her likely successor. Overlooked by comparison was the woman whom Kvitova had defeated in three marquee matches this year and stood just behind them in the rankings. Despite her manifold talents and an impressive 2011 campaign of her own, Azarenka still faced significant questions in two key areas. First came her habitual underachievement at majors, where she had cracked the semifinal phase only once and the final not at all. Perhaps more important, though, was her ongoing struggle to control the emotions that had hindered throughout her career.
While many fans will remember Azarenka’s dominance in the Australian Open final more than the rest of her fortnight, the two matches before her comprehensive victory over Sharapova held the keys to her breakthrough. After losing a long first set against Radwanska, an opponent who had frustrated her at times before, she might well have allowed her frustration to unhinge her. But in that match and in the tight-three setter that followed against Clijsters, Azarenka channeled her emotions to advantage rather than allowing them to sweep her away. Playing with greater discipline on the former occasion, she stayed focused on the latter occasion under the pressure of seeking her first major final and the tension of facing a crowd favorite, a situation that often had troubled her. Those victories, one over a peer and one over a veteran, set the stage for the spectacular 26-match, four-title winning streak that carried her to the Miami quarterfinals undefeated in 2012.
Just as remarkable as her undiminished competitive appetite during that period was the emphatic nature of her wins over elite competition such as Sharapova, Radwanska, and the rising Kerber. Like Djokovic the previous year, Azarenka appeared to occupy a stratosphere above any of her challengers. Also like Djokovic the previous year, she bore the world #1 ranking with pride and poise despite reaching it for the first time, a contrast to many of the women who fecklessly fumbled it away soon after gaining it in recent years. Finally, her rise to glory resembled his in the reactions that it provoked from many fans fonder of the familiar figures whom they had supplanted and unsure—at best—of how to respond to the ferocity that pulsated from them unchecked. Unlike Djokovic in 2011, however, Azarenka returned to reality well before the first half ended. A disappointing clay season featured the recurrence of her chronic injury woes, a rout by Sharapova, and a surprising early loss to Cibulkova at Roland Garros that transferred the #1 ranking to the Russian.
Although Azarenka would not win another title until October, her response to the first adversity that confronted her during late spring suggested her greater maturity. As soon as tennis returned to faster surfaces, she not only reconquered the #1 ranking but plowed deep into draws before losing to just one particular rival. Here emerged the other key contrast between her season and Djokovic’s staggering feats in 2011. Whereas the Serb had throttled both Federer and Nadal for most of that year, Azarenka never could solve Serena throughout her breakthrough campaign. Meeting her only once in the first half, on the blue clay of Madrid, she fell victim to her again and again in the second half at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships. But the world #1 did not lose hope from one setback after another against her American nemesis, who ultimately dominated 2012 more than any player on either Tour. When they met in New York, Azarenka delivered another authoritative statement by reaching a second straight final at a hard-court major and then rallying from a dismal first set to charge within two points of turning the tables on Serena. Other than retirements, in fact, Azarenka did not lose a match to anyone other than this single rival between Roland Garros and the year-end championships, where Sharapova ended her season in a semifinal. And she did reassert her mastery over everyone not named Serena with a second Premier Mandatory title of the season in Beijing, punctuated with comprehensive victories over Sharapova and Bartoli, the woman who ended her season-starting winning streak.
Having won the battle for supremacy on the court against all rivals but one whom she will outlast, Azarenka still must win the battle for the hearts and minds of tennis fans. As she settles into her role as a perennially elite contender, she may learn how to cultivate a persona defined by more than her shriek and brash mannerisms. Meanwhile, the explosion of her long-simmering talent during this brilliant season should offer cause for celebration on its own. After years of waiting for a worthy champion to spearhead the WTA’s young stars, we should welcome Azarenka’s emergence into that role, feel relieved that she has accepted it with confidence, and hope that her rise will spawn engaging rivalries with peers emboldened by her success.
Number to note:
2: The number of matches that Azarenka lost to opponents other than Serena at non-clay tournaments this year, retirements aside. (Bartoli defeated her in Miami and Sharapova in Istanbul.) Combined with her six titles, four at majors or Premier Mandatory/Five tournaments, that number captures her ability to combine clutch tennis in marquee matches with the consistency required for a #1.
Breakdown of the Year (ATP)