Back in January of this year, what now seems like ages ago, Victoria Azarenka craved competition and looked forward to her encounters on court against Serena Williams with both aplomb and a steely resolve. (Witness this quote.) That proved for good reason: Of all the players in women's tennis in 2013, Azarenka turned out to be the only one to defeat Williams twice—and very nearly three times, having taken the American to three sets in the U.S. Open final. But "nearly" isn't good enough when one is up against a wall in battle with a giantess who is rapidly solidifying her case for the title above all others: Greatest woman to ever play tennis.
Defiant and brash at times, vulnerable and all smiles at others, The Backhand Artist Known as Vika rocked her trademark headphones as she took to the tennis court each match in 2013. She won the year's first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, with a flourish and a round of controversy (Sloane-gate), and a little help from a balance-deprived Li Na, who fell twice during the final, including one tumble that saw her hit her head on the court's hard surface.
But Azarenka stomached a shabby showing in the WTA Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, over the past week. She defeated Sara Errani before falling to Jelena Jankovic and Li in round-robin play, bowing out of the event without reaching the straight-bracket semifinals. The WTA's No. 2 star complained of burnout and fatigue, and her lackluster performance belied a physical problem as well. A back injury was ultimately complicit in her demise in the tournament, as evidenced by her inefficient or completely lacking movement at stages of the match against Li, seen here:
But what was Azarenka to do? Quit? She was obviously hobbled. Even so, she feared ridicule akin to that she suffered after taking a panic-induced medical timeout against Sloane Stephens in a contentious Aussie Open semifinal bout. "Because there is no-win situation here retiring, and it being all discussed ..." Azarenka explained to members of the press after acquiescing, 6-2, 6-1, to Li in Istanbul.
I say, here's to 2014. Here's to a reignited Azarenka, to a healthy Maria Sharapova, and to a buoyed Li. Serena's dominance has all been told: 11 titles this year, including two Grand Slam singles crowns, as well as nearly $12.4 million in prize money and a 78-4 record. Her willpower against the sport's best remains just plain staggering: 22-2 against the Top 20, and 14-2 against the Top 5.
That pair of losses? Two words: Vika Azarenka.
Dominance gets dull. Supremacy turns sigh inducing. Someone needs to rise up to subvert Serena's all-too-willing stranglehold on the WTA's penthouse keys. If not, the predictability—indeed, the inevitability—of the end result of every tournament Serena enters will hurt the product. It will kill the credibility of her peers or, at the least, further cement Serena's place on the oft-spoken yet invisible, all-women Mount Rushmore in tennis: Graf. Evert. Navratilova. Serena.
Serena is quickly becoming the all-time queen, and the tennis world cannot wait for another Virginie Razzano. Serena took too much experience from that messy loss. And there won't be another Ekaterina Makarova to send Serena in a tail spin. As it is, Azarenka is the sole assailant who seems equipped at present to unlock the code; to truly make a match of it against Serena each time out. (Well, Vika and maybe also Sabine Lisicki—if solely on grass.)
So here's to the future. Because the only one who could wish at all to look at this season in the rear-view is Serena, and every other WTA star knows it.
Got a thought, a tip, or a point to make? Hit me on Twitter @jonscott9.