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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Potential Greatness: An Analysis of Victoria Azarenka

The Tennis Channel recently released a “tennisography” on Victoria Azarenka, showing us how the current world no. 3 rose to fame from the small country of Belarus. What it didn’t cover, however, is the question that is on many WTA fans’ minds: Does she have the talent to become world no.1 and win her maiden slam? To me, the answer to that question is an obvious yes. But then that raises questions that are even tougher to answer: Why hasn’t she been able to win on one of tennis’ greatest stages yet? Will she use her natural talent to one day hoist a slam trophy?

Women’s tennis is such an interesting sport in its perception of age. In some cases, a 21-years-old can seem so young, whereas other times rather old. Why are we already wondering why Azarenka has yet to win a slam when she just recently left her teenage years? The answer is mainly due to the fact that players such as Serena, Hingis, and Sharapova won at such young ages, and because Sharapova and Hingis haven’t won a slam past the age of 21. Secondly, Azarenka showed a lot of potential so early in her career that fans started to push her and set expectations so high from the beginning.  

Azarenka first burst onto the scene after this performance against Serena Williams at the 2009 Australian Open.

Azarenka had Serena on the ropes, getting up a set before eventually having to withdraw from the match due to injury. Unfortunately, that has been one of the major reasons Azarenka struggles to stay at the very top of the rankings. Since 2010, she has pulled out of over 10 singles tournaments and several doubles matches due to a variety of ailments. Although she is a tough-as-nails fighter on the court, she can never seem to stay healthy long enough to reach her potential. 

After her '09 performance, Azarenka immediately became a "player to watch". She impressed fans as she had no problem imposing her game on Serena on center court at a slam, and she later went on to beat her easily in the final of the Miami Sony Ericson Open (winning her first Premier Mandatory Event). Azarenka, poised to make another run at a slam, met up with then world no.1 Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals of the French Open.  She scorched her way to an easy first set, taking it 6-1, but lost the last two sets 4-6, 1-6. 

Here lies Azarenka’s second issue of why she has yet to win a slam: her mental game. Azarenka has come very close in several quarterfinal appearances at slams, twice she was up a set against Serena at the Australian Open before losing tight second sets and then falling apart in the third. Most of this could be due to the fact that she was young and inexperienced—however, if Azarenka is going to finally take a slam, this is one of the areas she needs to improve the most.

Now, one of the real issues at hand is Azarenka’s style of play. Azarenka is currently one of the most balanced players on tour. Unfortunately, that seems to be what can hurt her the most at times, as she often seems to be lost in a world in between defense and offense. That wasn’t always the case, though, as can be witnessed by her matches against Serena in '09, or in this final against Maria Sharapova. Again, however, Azarenka tightened up at the end of a match, not going for her shots as much as she is capable of, and ultimately Sharapova was able to storm back.  

Now, Azarenka plays a much more balanced game, which has led to more consistency in the rankings but hasn’t gotten her much farther at a slam. She did manage to make her first major semifinal in Wimbledon 2011, but again she lost due to being the more passive player. Of course, no one may have been able to stop Petra Kvitova her Wimbledon run, but if Azarenka had gone for the lines a little more, it is interesting to think about what could have happened.

Ultimately, if Azarenka wants a shot at a slam, she needs to start imposing her game more. She has gotten extremely fit, and her game can certainly wear players down and she can win plenty of matches that way. And of course, she could continue to use this strategy that has no doubt allowed her to rise in the rankings and get some of her best results this year. However, as she could learn from first time slam champions Li Na and Petra Kvitova (both of whom she lost to while they made their slam runs), in order to win a slam you have to be going for your shots when the points matter. That is what allowed Safina to get back into the match at the French Open in 2009, Serena to battle back at the Aussie Open in 2010, and Kvitova to fight off break points at the end of the 3rd set of their Wimbledon semifinal. She has the ability to do it, but the question is whether or not she has the mentality and willpower to do so when most players usually get tight.  

Azarenka is definitely great for the game. She plays with such passion and energy, pumps herself up as she cleans the lines with winners or forces an error after some impeccable defense, and clearly loves winning. She has the game to be a mainstay in the WTA top 5 and lift at least a few slam trophies, and I’m sure plenty of fans would love to see her do so. Now, I’ll leave you with a clip of her most recent big title, where her passion for the game, her ability, and her will to win are all more than evident.

 -Joe Barkus, Contributing Writer


Chris said...

Nice article guys.

I like your suggestions for Azarenka to focus on aggressively finishing her matches, but if there's anyone who needs to do that, it's Wozniacki. She plays way too defensively throughout the entire match and always lets her opponent get back in it (personally, I think she kind of sucks and doesn't deserve to be no. 1 because all of her ranking points come from shitty tournaments a la New Haven, but that's a different story).

simon said...
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