In form: Victoria Azarenka of Belarus holding her 2016 Brisbane International trophy. Photo: Matt RobertsPartly by default, and partly through performance, dual n Open champion Victoria Azarenka is the new second favourite behind Serena Williams to win a third singles title at Melbourne Park. She is likely to be the 16th seed, but, almost shockingly given the current state of the women’s top six, is also fit and healthy. That will almost do for now.
Azarenka won her first tournament since August, 2013, by defeating world No.10 Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 in Saturday night’s Brisbane International final. She dropped just 17 games in four matches. Even from a field depleted by three high-profile withdrawals or retirements, to which No.5 Agnieszka Radwanska and No.6 Petra Kvitovia added their names in Sydney, there was plenty to like.
“I just feel really excited and happy that I’m doing the right things,” said Azarenka, who has endured two difficult, injury-stricken years. “Just gives extra motivation to keep working hard and achieve better things. When you’re on the right direction, I think it’s kind of cool.”
Azarenka has reached at least the fourth round of the in n Open for the past six years, winning in both 2012 and 2013, but was loathe to make predictions before flying to Melbourne on Monday.
“I’m going do everything I can next week to prepare and feel the most comfortable to start the tournament. I can’t wait to be in Melbourne. I love the city. Looking forward to that,” she said. “(Feeling) confident with myself for sure. Definitely a lot more comfortable, a lot more calm, a lot more aware. Happy. Very happy.”
Working with a team that now includes Kim Clijsters’ and Simona Halep’s former coach Wim Fissette and Williams’ ex-hitting partner Sascha Bajin, Azarenka played through 2015 with a painful foot injury, reaching the Doha final, but no better than a quarter-final round anywhere else.
“There was not a moment where I felt, I feel good. I have no pain,” she said. “There was a lot of medication last year which made me feel crazy actually at some moments. I don’t respond well to medication.
“So it didn’t feel like this last year. It was a constant battle with pain, with my own fear. Like ‘is it going to hurt again? I don’t want to go through that’. So it was a lot of that. But it took me to a point where I decided, OK, I got to stop and try to figure out and actually change my life around the tennis court.
“I had a lot of changes last year, so it took a little bit of time to regroup, reorganise, mature a little bit, understand how to organise yourself. I’m like a freak right now. Like I’m super-organised. Like my bag has to be a certain way. This has to be a certain way. I’ve never been like this. I was a little bit messy. I just didn’t care. I would throw things around. My mom was getting so pissed off with me. Now I found what works for me, what makes me feel comfortable, calm, at peace. So it’s good.”
But, as positive as all this is for the player who spent 51 weeks at No.1, just don’t call it a comeback, for Azarenka was never entirely gone from the game. “For me, it’s like you’re reading a book and you just turn the page,” she said. “That part of it was over. You just flip the page. I think that’s exciting. I can’t wait the to read the next page.”