Victoria Azarenka made some headlines earlier this season when she opened her 2016 campaign with a title during the South Pacific swing. But following a loss in the quarters of Melbourne Park, it wasn’t totally clear where her game was at. Things compounded a bit more when Azarenka pulled out of the Acapulco draw with a bit of a wrist problem in February. So heading into Indian Wells 2016 earlier this month, who knew what to expect from her?
Azarenka certainly didn’t have the toughest draw to the final in California over the last week and a bit. Ahead of the final, she never faced anyone ranked higher than No. 19 Karolina Pliskova. Heading into Sunday’s championship against Serena Williams, it still wasn’t clear if Azarenka was really back or not for one simple reason: despite the title in Brisbane, the quarters in Melbourne, and a final in Indian Wells who had Vika beaten lately?
But now that Vika has handed Serena a straight-sets loss with no tiebreakers in a prime-time match it’s pretty clear that Azarenka is back. Indian Wells, with more than five times the prize money for the champion, trumps Brisbane as a professional tennis tournament in every way. If Azarenka is beating Serena Williams and winning Indian Wells, then that’s cause for major alarm bells.
With the title, Azarenka is back into the Top 10 as of March 21st and truthfully I have her supplanting Serena Williams for the World No. 1 position….eventually. It certainly can’t happen overnight, but when I look at the players in the Top 20, I don’t see any – that are similarly aged – who clearly have more talent than Vika. I do see one with similar talent, and I’ll mention her shortly, but first let’s look at the elder players.
Serena will be 35 this season, and that has to spell the beginning of the end. Maria Sharapova is still just 28, but who knows how her situation is going to work out with the drug admission. Even if she plays in the majors, she won’t be using a substance that she has used for several years now, and you have to wonder how that will affect her.
World No. 7 Petra Kvitova is both similarly aged and talented when compared to Azarenka, but I find Kvitova intermittent. She might be good for Wimbledon as she was in 2011 and 2014, but then she might go out early too.
Caroline Wozniacki isn’t in the Top 20, but she probably has a little more raw ability than Vika. That said, raw ability doesn’t matter much in the face of apathy, so I don’t see Vika challenged by the Dane going forward.
Belinda Bencic might actually be more talented than Azarenka, but the Swiss player is more down the line as there’s an 8-year age gap between the two. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the 2016 US Open featured Azarenka vs. Bencic in a late-round match, but I still have more confidence in the former than the latter this season.
Azarenka beat Williams to improve her heads up record against the American to 4-17. The Indian Wells final wasn’t just the same-old-same-old like Sharapova vs. Williams in the Aussie quarters.
The conditions are certainly right for Azarenka to regain top spot, something I think she will do for sure by this time next year. However, I think she might even do it this season with a title at the 2016 US Open her’s for the taking.