It appears that Victoria Azarenka will hang on to No. 1 for at least the next five weeks, if not more. She is defending her title in Miami, and quarterfinal finish at Indian Wells, but unless the ill Petra Kvitova gets on a huge roll on U.S. soil at IW and Miami (and she has never played well in America) the chances of the Belarusian losing her grip on the top spot are slim, as No. 2 Maria Sharapova has not shown that her surgically repaired shoulder can totally hold up in back to back hardcore tournaments. So even if Sharapova wins one of the two, taking both and earning 2000 points is improbable.
Azarenka currently holds a 1580-point lead over Sharapova and a 2080-point lead over Kvitova. Last year, Sharapova reached the semis of IW (where she was underwhelming against Caroline Wozniacki) and the final of Miami where Azarenka took it to her. She has 1,150 points to defend through the spring hard-court season, while Azarenka is defending 1,280 at IW and Miami. Really, Sharapova is going to have to go very deep at both locales and hope for an Azarenka collapse.
Azarenka is 17-0 on the season, having won her third title last week in Doha. She is planning on playing Dubai this week and with a bye, her sore ankle should be rested enough. She’s won seven matches against top 10 players this year, which is a super impressive mark. She’s only lost four of 38 sets, and has taken out four Slam winning veterans – Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Samantha Stosur. In the first two and half months of the season she has looked like dominant player, but so did Sharapova when she went 18-0 at the start of 2008 and then wrecked her shoulder at Indian Wells against Alona Bondarenko. If Azarenka wins Dubai she will be sitting at 21-0, which will tie her with Serena Williams, who went 21-0 at the start of 2003, winning the Aussie Open (her fourth straight major over her older sisters, Venus), the Paris Indoors and Miami before losing to Justine Henin in the final of Charleston.
It’s hard to see Azarenka not winning two early round matches at IW in good health. If she can physically hold up – and she never done so through an entire season — she will be favored to win there, as well as in Miami. If she pulls off the double, she’ll be 31-0 and have a chance at Martina Hingis, who posted a 37-0 record at the beginning of 1997 before Iva Majoli stopped her streak in the Roland Garros final. Steffi Graf holds the all-time record for the best start to a year by winning 45 straight matches at the start of 1987 and it’s way to early to talk about Vika going after that mark.
“Definitely, the other players will have more motivation to play against me,” Azarenka said. “And it’s no different for me as I want to beat them too. I am the biggest fan of competition. I am that kind of person who is never satisfied. I want to always try to do better. It’s not only in tennis, but in life as well. I want to be really competitive and I never want to lose.”
Hers what a little crazy too: remember that Kvitova had great shot at No. 1 going into the Aussie Open? Well her pullouts from Paris and Dubai have really slowed her assault on the top spot. She only has 81 points to defend through Miami and then another 1,380 through Roland Garros (recall that she won Madrid), so if she can find away to impose her game on outdoor US hard courts (and she should be able to given that surface wise, IW and Miami are both close to the WTA Championships, which she won outdoors) she could make a significant run at Azarenka, who by the way, lost three times to the Czech in 2011. After Miami, Azarenka has to defend another 1,725 points through RG. Clearly, Kvitova has chances through the spring hard and clay court seasons but if she wants to be No.1, she has to make a move soon, as once the grass court season begins, it will be her points that are hunted.
Here’ what really could be a treat in Dubai this week: an Azarenka vs. Wozniacki semifinal. I don’t care what Caro says publicly, there is no way that she is jumping for joy that Azarenka is a No. 1 with a Slam title in her pocket. I asked her about whether she was happy for Azarenka last week, and she said yes, and at some level she might be because the two are close friends, but there was not a lot of enthusiasm in her voice and she quickly steered the discussion back to her own accomplishments.
Wozniacki plays Azarenka very tough, owns a 4-2 record against her and has won their last three matches. Yes, Vika has taken a big step up in the first two-plus months of the season, but that does not mean when she walks on court against Caro that she will be convinced that she can hit through the WTA’s most successful grinder. And we all know that Wozniacki is looking to reestablish herself and if she upends her friend, it would be a feather in her cap and indication that she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Really, for all the accolades thrown Azarenka’s way this season, if she is going to be a dominant No.1m she has to best the other elite players of her generation. She already has gotten over on Aga Radwanska twice this year, but now must take on Kvitova and Wozniacki and show them how much she’s really improved, physically and mentally.
Now on to Serena, who pulled out of Monterey last weekend and now won’t take the court again until Miami. Anyone who thinks that she will play enough this year to take back No. 1 has got to be kidding themselves. She has to play the US Fed Cup tie vs. Ukraine in April and will also likely choose to play Charleston on green clay, but its easy to see her not showing up at Madrid or Rome, and unless she’s doing something that I’m not aware of, it would actually be a surprise at this point in the 30 year old’s career if she won Roland Garros. Wimbledon and the US Open — of course she can win them again and no one would blink an eye if she did, but she only won the French once, in 2002, and hasn’t looked very comfortable on dirt since then.
Some notable results in Dubai were:
Agnieszka Radwanska d. Aleksandra Wozniak 6-1 6-7(6) 7-5 (a good sign that the Canadian is returning to form)
Peng Shuai d. Marion Bartoli 6-4 6-3?(the Frenchwoman is tired after 2 tourneys in a row)
Ana Ivanovic d Francesca Schiavone 6-1 7-5 (the Serbian teases with a good result once again)
Simona Halep d. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4 6-2 (the Romanian is rising while the Russian is seriously slumping)