x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Victoria Azarenka has had year to remember since poor show in Gulf

The Belarusian considered quitting; 12 months later, she returns as world No 1 and in control of her emotions.

Victoria Azarenka wanted to quit but carried on after advice from her mother and grandmother.
Victoria Azarenka wanted to quit but carried on after advice from her mother and grandmother.

Only a year ago, Victoria Azarenka considered quitting tennis after a hugely disappointing 10 days in the Gulf. Defeats in her second match at Dubai and first at Doha left her in an emotional crisis that required the intervention of her mother and grandmother.

Azarenka returns to Dubai this week as the No 1 player in the world and riding a surge that includes the championship of the Australian Open. She is top-seeded for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which begin tomorrow at the Aviation Club.

"My mum told me to come home and rest, and not be crazy about it," Azarenka said. "And my gran pointed out there are things so much harder in life than tennis matches."

She took most of two weeks off before travelling to California, where she reached the quarter-finals at Indian Wells. A fortnight later, she won at Miami, beginning her surge to No 1.

Now a more confident Azarenka will follow her good run in Doha - where she reached the final last night with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Agnieszka Radwanska - with an attempt to win the title in Dubai, the US$2 million (Dh73,46m) tournament which often has been voted the players' favourite.

"Last year, I was in a bit of a mess. I couldn't control any of my emotions," the 22-year-old Belarusian said. "I had to change my mentality.

"So now I don't try to, you know, think, 'Why is this happening to me?' Instead I just try to accept and deal with it."

Azarenka may find herself renewing a rivalry with Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion who has beaten her four consecutive times, most recently in the final of the WTA Championships in Istanbul in November.

A repeat encounter between two such contrasting styles is an enticing prospect, but may depend on whether the flat-hitting Czech left-hander has recovered from the "unspecified" injury she cited upon withdrawing from the Qatar Open.

What is certain is that Azarenka, with heavy top-spin drives struck from further up the court than before, is now a more formidable opponent - physically and tactically, as well as psychologically.

"It's a great feeling to have, but also a lot of responsibility and pressure comes with it," she said of her rise to No 1.

"I worked really hard to achieve this and I enjoy this position, but I have to remember to still work hard, because there are a lot of girls behind me who want to chase me and be at my spot." Stacey Allaster, the WTA president, welcomes Azarenka's ascension to the top.

"It has been great to watch Vika over the last few years develop both as a player and as a person," Allaster said.

"It's terrific to see her put all of the elements together needed to get to the very top of our sport and it's really her immense talent, perseverance and determination that have gotten her to this point. It's great to have her as one of the ambassadors of our sport."

Azarenka deposed Caroline Wozniacki as No 1 after the Australian Open last month. Wozniacki was knocked out in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, and went out to Lucie Safarova in her first match in Doha.

Wozniacki may get a lift from happy memories in Dubai, for she is defending champion. She also appeared to receive words of support from Azarenka, her friend and neighbour in Monte Carlo.

"Whatever people say, I appreciate if I'm a legit No 1, but I think they shouldn't be too hard on the other girls, as well," Azarenka said, apparently referring to criticisms of Wozniacki's status as No 1 for most of 2011 without having won a grand slam.