KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—“If you’ve just joined us, you might be asking yourself, ‘Why is Victoria Azarenka in such a grumpy mood?’”

The TV commentator calling Wednesday's quarterfinal between Azarenka and Johanna Konta here had a point. Vika was up 6-4, 4-1, she had won four straight games and she had led the whole way; but while victory looked assured, Vika herself never did.

When the net strap dared to let a Konta ground stroke dribble over for a winner, Azarenka punished it with swift smack from her racquet. When Vika won a point with an excellent crosscourt forehand, she berated herself for not hitting it down the line instead. When she sat down on a changeover and a ball boy tried to hold an umbrella over her, she shook her head, took the handle from him and showed him exactly where she wanted it positioned.

Vika's Chance

Vika's Chance

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Azarenka was booed for her racquet smack, but anyone even vaguely familiar with her game knows it’s all part of The Vika Show. When it comes to winning tennis matches, the cool, calm and collected method has never been for her. Like Andy Murray, Azarenka needs to push herself to an emotional edge to get the most from her game. Like Novak Djokovic, she can’t let her frustrations or desires simmer for long; whether they please the crowd or not, those feelings have to come out. Azarenka isn’t flashy or theatrical in the way of her friend, Gael Monfils; but in her ceaselessly boiling intensity, she puts on an athletic performance from the moment she steps on court, bobbing and weaving like a boxer under a hoodie and headphones.

Despite the seemingly routine 6-4, 6-2 final score, this was a frustrating match for Azarenka. It was a blustery, cloudy, threatening afternoon—just another day in Florida, the locals might say—and Azarenka struggled to find her timing. For much of the first set, it was Konta who had a better feel for her shots. Where Azarenka was tentative, Konta was decisive. Where Azarenka guided the ball, Konta slapped her backhands crosscourt and her running forehands down the line for winners.

More than once, the match appeared destined to get away from Azarenka. There was a Konta backhand at break point that was called in by the line judge, but reversed on a challenge. There was an Azarenka second-serve toss on another break point that danced in the wind and looked certain to land in the net, but crawled over instead. There were the half-dozen makeable shots that Konta somehow found a way not to make. Azarenka finished the first set with fewer winners and more errors, but she still walked away with it 6-4. This was a day when she needed every fist pump and every “Come on!” in her arsenal. The Miami fans mimicked Azarenka's extended grunts, as fans do in many places, but she needed all the oomph she could get, sonic or otherwise, on Wednesday.

Vika's Chance

Vika's Chance

“I mean, sometimes I cuss,” Azarenka said afterward, “and that’s OK. I got code violation, but that’s fine. Whatever is going to make me play better I’m going to do. It’s not the best thing to do, but whatever keeps me in the game, keeps me focused. I don’t think I was annoyed [on Wednesday]. I was just trying to push myself.”

Is Azarenka feeling a little more pressure this week than she’s grown accustomed to in recent years? Two weeks ago in Indian Wells, she beat Serena Williams and won her most important title since 2013, back when she was a Grand Slam champion and a world No. 1. Now, after a long trip through the injury wilderness, Azarenka is back in the Top 10, and this week has only brought more promising news. On Monday, Serena was knocked out in the fourth round here, while Azarenka squeaked past Garbiñe Muguruza—the woman who may be her biggest rival to Serena’s throne—in two tiebreakers. After that win, Azarenka said this was a time for excitement rather than anxiety, and that she feels like a superior player at 26 to the one she was when she was No. 1 at 23.

“I think I’m a better player right now, just the way I handle myself on court,” Vika said. “I improved my serve a lot and [I’m] just stronger in the tougher moments ... I think my game is developing with pretty big progress right now, and that’s what I’m most happy about.”

Even after all of her ups and downs, Azarenka remains the most likely woman to take advantage of any slip from Serena, and the most likely to give Serena something she hasn’t had since Justine Henin’s retirement five years ago: a full-fledged rival. This week in Miami, Vika hasn’t backed away from that radical idea.

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Vika's Chance

Vika's Chance

Asked what she considers a rivalry, Azarenka said, “Somebody, when you watch them play, are pushing each other to the limit. I can say I have a rivalry; I think me and Serena [have] done that. In maybe [the] 10, 12 last matches, [it] has always been high competition, high quality of tennis and really testing each other. I consider that a rivalry.”

In other words, while Serena may not see Vika as a true challenger—she leads their head to head 17-4, after all—Vika sees herself as someone who is in Serena’s league. If Azarenka wants to keep challenging her, she can't believe anything else.

For now, Vika will start by trying to do something that few players on either tour have pulled off: the Indian Wells-Miami double. Azarenka is two matches away, and has to be considered the favorite. It has been a long, bumpy and—as the TV commentator in Miami noticed on Wednesday—often grumpy road back to the top for Vika, and there’s a long way left to go. But sweeping the spring hard-court season would be two big steps in the right direction.

Images from Anita Aguilar/TENNIS.com