Hare, or Tortoise?

Friday, June 13, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

I can think of at least one person who can’t exactly be thrilled by Victoria Azarenka’s decision to return to competition by taking a wild card into next week’s event at Eastbourne. That would be world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, the tournament’s top seed.

The two have met 16 times, and Azarenka has won 12 times. And until Radwanska managed a rare and unexpected win at the Australian Open earlier this year—6-1, 5-7, 6-0, in the quarterfinals—Azarenka had won seven in a row against her rival.

But looking at the big picture, Radwanska won’t be the only one fretting over Azarenka’s return from a right foot injury, particularly as Wimbledon gets underway in a week-and-a-half. For the 24-year-old has been one of the most dangerous and unpredictable forces in the WTA for some time.

When Azarenka last left the tour (she played just one event after losing to Radwanska in Melbourne, an aborted comeback at Indian Wells), she was still ranked No. 2. It’s a vivid commentary on the degree to which tennis is a game all about the here and now that, by the time the tour finished up on hard courts in Miami, few people were talking about Azarenka and how her lengthy absence might shape events in the WTA. And by the time the tour made it to Paris for the second Grand Slam event of the year, “Azarenka” could just as well have been the name of Balkan folk dance. Nobody even seemed to notice that the former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion was gone.

Of course, this was partly Azarenka’s own doing. Apart from her Twitter account, she ducked out of the public eye. And in truth, there has always been something elusive and almost chameleon-like about the young lady who’s no more afraid of Maria Sharapova’s forehand than of her war cries (Azarenka is best known in some quarters as “Madame Whoo-ooooooo” for the ululation with which she punctuates almost every shot).

It sometimes seems that each time Azarenka has fought hard and put herself into position to either dominate or earn equal billing on the marquee with Serena Williams and Sharapova, something has gone wrong—she’s gotten injured, fallen into a minor slump, decided to take time off, or run into bad luck.

Case in point: In 2011, Azarenka made what many consider her breakthrough to the elite level when she mastered Sharapova in the Miami final. Afterward, Azarenka—then a famous hothead—spoke about how a long conversation with her beloved grandmother convinced her to lighten up, to make an effort to enjoy life and appreciate the positive aspects of her situation, rather than bemoaning the negative ones. She took it to heart and claimed that she’d turned over a new emotional leaf.

That new optimism paid off with Azarenka’s win a few weeks after Miami in Marbella, on the clay surface that has often been difficult for her to navigate. She made the final in Madrid soon thereafter, and was well-positioned as a contender to win the first Grand Slam title of her career in Paris.

But 2011 was a year of surprises, and the woman who knocked Azarenka out of the Australian Open, Li Na, bested her again at Roland Garros. Azarenka could only console herself with the fact that Li went on to win the title. Then, at Wimbledon, Azarenka had a good run spoiled in the semifinals by the seemingly overnight maturation of talented Petra Kvitova. Seeded No. 8, the Czech went on to win the title—and hasn’t been able to do anything even remotely grand since.

Finally, at the U.S. Open, Azarenka drew a third-round meeting with Serena Williams, who was just returning to the tour after a long layoff for injury and illness and absurdly seeded No. 28. Although Williams would be upset by Sam Stosur in the final, she had proved by then that she remained the once and future queen as long as she was motivated to lift a racquet. Azarenka’s mantra through 2011 might have been, “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

Despite the curve balls thrown her way in 2011, Azarenka bounced back strongly in the year of the streak, 2012. Azarenka did not lose a match from January through the end of March, winning 26 straight against opponents including Sharapova, Li, Radwanska, Stosur, Kim Clijsters, Marion Bartoli, and Jelena Jankovic. Azarenka earned the top ranking during that run, but—is it curiously or typically?—once Bartoli ended her run in Miami, she wouldn’t win another title until October.

Sure, Williams was back in the swing of things by then; she beat Azarenka five times that year, starting in Rome and including two Grand Slam events and the London Olympics. But Azarenka was beaten by lesser players in that late stretch as well. Perhaps she was burned out by that remarkable start. Maybe she’s destined to have a career pattern of ebbs and flows, always poised uncertainly between the roles of the hare and the tortoise.

Last year also was a puzzling one. After another quick start, Azarenka took some surprising losses but also began to struggle with injuries. She issued two walkovers, one to Caroline Wozniacki at Indian Wells and the other to Flavia Pennetta at Wimbledon (after a knee injury during a tumble on the wet grass). But she then split memorable three-set matches with Williams in the Cincinnati and U.S. Open finals, and finished the season with a ranking of No. 2.

Azarenka has finished the year ranked no lower than No. 3 for three years running, and given her youth and experience, you have to expect more high marks to come. She has a winning record against almost all her rivals at the top: She’s 6-5 against Li, 2-0 against new No. 3 Simona Halep, an aforementioned 12-4 against Radwanska, and 7-6 against Sharapova. Only Williams appears safe, with her astonishing 14-3 edge. But at age 32, Williams is destined to begin slowing down sooner rather than later.

Assuming that Azarenka’s foot is healed and the rest of her body holds up, she could present formidable challenges starting at Wimbledon. Her prowess on hard courts is well-known, and as her winning record against all but one top player shows, this young lady isn’t afraid of anyone. She’s also had a history of being here own worst enemy, and you never know when that factor might kick in.

Given all this, it’s astonishing how little Azarenka was missed these past few months. Put that down to the nature of the game, but be prepared for a reminder of just how much of an oversight it was to write her out of the championship conversation.

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