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Who can stop Azarenka's march?

by Mark Hodgkinson
Thursday 15 March 2012

So Victoria Azarenka's unbeaten start to the season, which has so far brought her 23 match victories, four titles, and an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, rolls into Miami. What's going to come first this year, the Easter Bunny or Azarenka's first defeat?

On the women's tour, there has not been a start to a year like this since Martina Hingis began 1997 with 37 wins, and it's not unreasonable to start imagining whether the new world No.1 can surpass the Swiss.

When she walked around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden last week, wearing a T-shirt which announced 'Unstoppable', it was just a bit of fun; she has not committed the athlete's crime of starting to believe your own hype – of thinking you can do no wrong.

Starting in Sydney, and then continuing at Melbourne Park (where she won her first Grand Slam singles title), in Doha and in the Californian desert, Azarenka has been riding the best run of her tennis life.

Clearly, Azarenka's unbeaten sequence is not going to last forever - she has to lose sometime, and it could even be in Miami over the next fortnight - so perhaps the most interesting debate to be had is not predicting the identity of the player who will inflict the first defeat, but discussing whether there is anyone who can consistently hurt her over the course of the year.

Based on what happened in the finals of the Australian Open and Indian Wells, it's hard to see Maria Sharapova regularly troubling Azarenka in 2012. Sharapova won just three games in Melbourne, after losing the second set 6-0, and in California did better, but gathered only five games.

What about Agnieszka Radwanska, who has been playing some of her best tennis, and is fourth in the world? Well, it's still March and she has played and lost four times to Azarenka this year, with the most lop-sided of those encounters being the last one, in the quarter-finals in the desert, where she managed just a couple of games. Both Sharapova and Radwanska will have to do something radically different if they are to be a persistent problem for Vika.

Perhaps Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion, has the game to force Azarenka into putting that 'Unstoppable' T-shirt to the back of the wardrobe. Kvitova has won their past four matches, it's just that the two of them have been kept apart this year. It will be fascinating to see how Azarenka deals with Kvitova when they meet for the first time this year. While Azarenka is plainly a different player now - the glow of winning a first Slam and becoming the world No.1 can turn into a force-field of self-belief - thus that run of four defeats will be of some relevance.

And then there is Serena Williams. The tennis public believe that the American is the player most likely to get in Azarenka's way. A recent poll asked, 'Who is going to stop Azarenka?', and 40 per cent of respondents at the time of writing suggested Serena.

Just like Kvitova, Williams has won her past four matches against Azarenka. Serena has something that Kvitova does - the way she goes about her business can still unsettle opponents. Even those who are hitting almost every shot from the sweet-spot, even those who are having the best start to a women's season for 15 years.

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