DUBAI // Victoria Azarenka is pleased with her 17 successive victories so far this season, but the Australian Open champion is not about to compare her winning streak with Novak Djokovic's all-conquering start to last season just yet.
"I am honoured to have the comparison because he is a great champion, but I have a lot of work to do to catch up with him," Azarenka said. Djokovic went 41 matches unbeaten at the start of last season.
The 22-year-old Azarenka is the top-seeded player at the Dubai Tennis Championships, which started yesterday amid a rash of withdrawals. The field also includes Caroline Wozniacki, the defending champion, and the US Open winner Sam Stosur, but Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion, the French Open winner Li Na and Vera Zvonareva all withdrew because of illness and injury.
Last week, Zvonareva retired from the Qatar Open while trailing Monica Niculescu 7-5, 3-2 because of pain in her left hip. Kvitova pulled out of that event with an unspecified injury.
However, Azarenka shook off a lingering ankle injury to win the Qatar Open on Sunday, routing Stosur 6-1, 6-2.
The Belarusian's 17th consecutive victory sealed her first title since replacing Wozniacki at the top of the world rankings after winning in Melbourne. The Doha victory was Azarenka's third title of 2012, having started out by winning the Sydney tournament.
"I am enjoying a moment a lot," Azarenka said, who was yesterday resting her sore ankle.
Like Djokovic, Azarenka could not single out a particular change in her game or training to explain her start to the season - one she might not even have played after almost quitting tennis a year ago, following early defeats in Doha and Dubai.
"It's hard to say it's one thing. Behind that [success] is a lot of hard work, some unfortunate losses last year, and some good losses I learnt from last year," Azarenka said. "I am also a more mature player. I have a better mind, a clearer mind. I know what I am doing."
Rather than quitting, Azarenka took a brief break and returned to tennis to have her best season in 2011, winning 55 of 72 matches to finish the year at No 3.
She returned in 2012, winning the Australian Open and becoming No 1.
Azarenka also credits her transformation to a greater maturity on the court instilled by her coach Sam Sumyk and improved fitness.
Hindered in the past by her emotions, Azarenka no longer has midcourt meltdowns, muttering to herself or even dissolving in tears when she starts losing control of a match.
"I am also a year older and I behave more like a lady than a crazy kid," Azarenka said, adding that despite the transformation she will remain an emotional sort of player. "I will always play with my heart and with my passion."
* Associated Press