The first day of the rest of Victoria Azarenka's life turned out to be a beauty. I say that because, when you win a major title, everything changes. And on Wednesday Azarenka played her first official match as a Grand Slam champion and WTA No. 1. She crushed breakout German Mona Barthel—who was ranked No. 67 at the end of 2011 but is now No. 39—6-1, 6-0, in almost exactly one hour at the Qatar Open.
Afterward, Azarenka reverted to that feisty, cocky mode we've grown to appreciate through her long apprenticeship as a Grand Slam contender, declaring: "Whoever is in the draw is in the draw. I have to play against them. I'm not scared, and I don't run away from my opponents. I go out there and face them."
Whoa, buckarette, it was just your first match at a routine WTA tournament. But maybe you can bottle some of that attitude and slip it into Caroline Wozniacki's racquet bag before she does her next Tennis Channel bag check?
Full disclosure: As irritating as it is to have to listen to that ear-splitting "Whooooo. . ." with which Azarenka puncutates every shot (feathery soft drop shot: Whoooooo. . . ), I just had to smile at the hurricane-force nature of Madame Whoooo's return. Can it be that we finally have deliverance from the collection of divas, part-timers, and one-Slam wonders—heck, add the no-Slam wonders!—who have dominated, if that's the right word, on the WTA side of the game in recent years?
This Azarenka bears watching. She's already talking about a Golden Slam (a calendar year Grand Slam plus the Olympic singles gold medal), and in way that seems less arrogant than pleasantly enthusiatic and hopeful. Achieving that would put her one shoulder-to-shoulder with the only woman who ever achieved such a thing—that other leggy blonde, Steffi Graf. "I definitely am going to have the mentality to try to do that," she said, referring to the Golden Slam, in Doha just the other day.
Okay, so that at this point the odds on that happening are roughly the same as on Azaranka going, say, four or five events without pulling out because of injury. But it's the thought—and attitude—that count. Don't you just feel a little thrill running down your spine when you hear a woman tennis player say, "Sure, Golden Slam, why not?" rather than: I'm not thinking about a Slam, I just want to improve and work on my game and be the best player I can be as opposed to the best player Shahar Pe'er can be and—who knows?—maybe get a back-of-the-book photo spread in Vogue Bratislava?
When you win a Grand Slam, you go through a few stages. First, there's the walking-on-clouds elation, and at that point you wouldn't know a tennis racquet from a beavertail snowshoe. Then, after all the hubbub dies down, you slowly return to your routine, your training. After that, you plan your return. Which is usually the point at which you may think something like: Oh my gosh! What if I draw the No. 38 player in the world. . . and lose!
In other words, you know, in your gut, your heart and your brain, that the expectations put upon you will be very different. That everyone who isn't you is licking her chops and thinking: Why her? Why not me? Suddenly, that racquet can feel like a beavertail snowshoe in your hand as you face the prospect of going out into the world a Grand Slam champion and expected to show how you got there.
Petra Kvitova, a first-time Grand Slam champ last year at Wimbledon, won the first match she played in her next tournament. Then she lost, getting just three games off Andrea Petkovic. Li Na, who won her first major at Roland Garros last year, won her first match at her next tournament, Eastbourne. Then she lost, to Daniela Hantuchova. Sam Stosur broke through as a Grand Slam champ at the U.S. Open last fall. She lost the next match she played.
Kvitova righted herself relatively quickly, which was an excellent omen. Throughout WTA history, the best players got good quick and stayed good (Martina Navratilova was an exception), rarely, if ever, backsliding. Azarenka was a little slow to emerge, but some of that was circumstantial. And it may have had the unanticipated effect of better preparing her for her big moment.
The Golden Slam can wait, for now it would be enough of a statement for Azarenka to roll through the field at Doha.