KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—“I never doubted my abilities,” Victoria Azarenka said after running roughshod over Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-3, 6-2, in just 77 minutes in the Miami Open final on Sunday.

Judging by where her 2016 stands right now, it’s easy to see why Azarenka always believed, even as the injuries and painful defeats mounted over the last two years.

With this title, Azarenka became the first woman since Kim Clijsters in 2005 to win Indian Wells and Key Biscayne back to back. She improved her season record to 23-1. She propelled herself back into the Top 5 for the first time since 2014 (that’s already 17 spots higher than where she was on January 1 of this year). Over the last two weeks, Azarenka has knocked off three of the world’s best—Serena Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza and Angelique Kerber—in straight sets. Against Kuznetsova, she didn’t even have to play especially well, or appear especially confident, for the first set-and-a-half to end up winning easily.

“I don’t think we played a great game, both of us,” Kuznetsova admitted afterward.

Few would disagree, especially about the opening set. Each player struggled to put a serve in the court or generate any electricity from the baseline. It was a hot day at the end of a hot week, and both women, as Kuznetsova said, looked a a bit “worked out.” As bad as Azarenka was on her serve to start, Kuznetsova was worse. She failed to hold at all in the first set, and was broken seven times in total.

She Was Who We Thought She Was

She Was Who We Thought She Was

Advertising

Much of the credit for that, though, can go to Azarenka’s tactics and returns. She took the ball inside the baseline and suffocated Kuznetsova from the start of the rallies.

She’s hitting so deep,” Kuznetsova complained to her coach on one changeover.

By the second set, the pressure had begun to pay off, and Azarenka took command as Kuznetsova wilted. Vika blew the match open with two huge swinging volleys, and finished with a respectable 23 winners and nine of 11 points won at net.

“I really took a lot of time away from her and her shots,” said Azarenka, who was understandably pleased with the fact that the match was only nominally competitive. “I didn’t see the statistics, but I think I had a pretty high number of winners today.”

Many of us, as Azarenka roamed the rankings wilderness over the last 24 months, kept repeating the mantra that it was “just a matter of time” before she resumed her place at the top of the tour, one step (or maybe two) behind Serena Williams. During Vika’s time away, other challengers had come forward—Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Muruguza, Kerber—and had just as quickly receded. None had Azarenka’s mix of size, speed, power and intensity. Most of all, none relished the battle with Serena the way Vika does, and none seemed to believe, as Vika does, that they were in Serena’s league. Azarenka may have been ranked No. 22, but she was still the tour’s de facto No. 2.

It wasn’t always easy to keep repeating that mantra. Yes, Vika was dealt a series of tough draws in 2015, and yes, she lost three of the best matches of the year to Serena. But when she also lost, for the first time, to Halep at last year’s U.S. Open, and Kerber at this year’s Australian Open, I began to wonder if the injuries had taken a toll, or whether the close losses to Serena had left a scar on her confidence against everyone else. Or maybe her new coaching team, which she had hired at the start of 2015, was never going to click.

She Was Who We Thought She Was

She Was Who We Thought She Was

Azarenka kept talking a good self-help game about her “open mind,” about how “teamwork makes the dream work,” about her self-belief, her focus on “the process,” her ability to “accept” her imperfections. But she wasn’t playing the same game that she was talking. At the end of 2015, Azarenka finished her second straight season without a title; at the same time, Muguruza—with Sam Sumyk, Vika’s old coach, by her side—finished on a tear that took her to No. 3 in the world. Had Garbine taken Vika’s place as the most likely to succeed Serena?

“The most difficult thing holding me back,” Azarenka said on Saturday of her low moments last year, “was [that] my body wasn’t responding well to training, to matches, and I was unhealthy. I wasn’t fit enough ... I definitely had some difficulties, mentally, to get back with my motivation.”

In Miami, Vika talked the talk and walked it, too. She recorded two important wins: First, she beat Muguruza (and Sumyk) in two tiebreakers; then she avenged her only defeat of the season by beating Kerber in straights. By the end of the week, when her work was done and her IW-Miami double was complete, Azarenka had put herself back in the conversation for Grand Slam titles and even the No. 1 ranking—she's currently at the top of the race to Singapore. Over the last four weeks, Azarenka has breathed new life into the upper reaches of the WTA, and brought a little more order to the women’s court.

Advertising

She Was Who We Thought She Was

She Was Who We Thought She Was

She was, to paraphrase former NFL coach Dennis Green, who we thought she was.

For Vika, after all of her ups and downs, it was her steady success over the course of the month that was most satisfying.

“The work is paying off,” she said. “The results are just great, and it was great to play the whole month so consistent and still improve.”

While the match on Saturday wasn’t a memorable one, Vika’s rise bodes well for the rest of the WTA season. In a post-match interview with ESPN, Brad Gilbert delicately suggested to Azarenka that the clay season, which begins next week in Charleston, hasn’t always been her favorite. By the time she walked into the interview room an hour or so later, Vika seemed a little miffed by the notion.

“Going into the clay season,” she said, “people say it’s not my favorite surface, and whatever. I’m going to work pretty hard to make sure it’s going to be my favorite surface. I’m going to put in the work that’s needed and the adjustments that’s needed.”

There’s no reason to doubt her now.

Images from Anita Aguilar/TENNIS.com