Azarenka back in Open frame after two troubled years

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 14, 2016 1:56 AM

(Reuters) - Eager to make up for two troubled years on and off the court, Victoria Azarenka is once again being talked about as a genuine title threat at the Australian Open after the Belarusian's Brisbane International win on Saturday.

The 26-year-old won her first tournament in 2-1/2 years when she beat world number 10 Angelique Kerber 6-3 6-1 at Brisbane and was then seeded 16th on Thursday for the season-opening grand slam at Melbourne Park.

Kerber was the highest seed left in the tournament after Maria Sharapova and world number two Simona Halep, who Azarenka would have met in the second round, pulled out while Garbine Muguruza retired hurt early on.

While those absences may have smoothed Azarenka's path to the title, there is no doubt her game is returning to levels that helped her reach world number one and win back to back Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013.

She dropped just 17 games over five matches during the tournament to claim her first title since the Cincinnati Masters in August 2013.

Azarenka, who has recently spoken about her battle with depression, said that while the victory would give her the spark to go on and achieve more, she had managed to keep a wider perspective during the tournament.

"I'm not sure I feel relief," she told reporters after the win. "I wanted to win the title, but I didn't feel, if this doesn't happen the world is going to end."

BREAKDOWN, BREAKUP

After sustaining a foot injury that restricted her to just nine tournaments in 2014, Azarenka was forced to face higher seeds early on in tournaments over the last two years, which resulted in frustrating losses and a drop in the rankings.

The slump also coincided with the break-up of her relationship with American musician Redfoo and her constant injury battles led to bouts of depression.

She entered last year's Australian Open ranked 44th in the world and faced three seeds in the first four rounds, exiting at the hands of 2014 finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round.

She managed to play 14 tournaments last year but was again beset by injuries and said after Brisbane she was 'hurt' and 'in pain' for virtually the whole of 2015.

In a bid to get back to her best, Azarenka recognized the need to get proper treatment and rehabilitation. Her move to take on a new coach and hitting partner last year is also paying off, while taking stock of her life away from the court has helped her on it, she has said.

If Azarenka has consigned her problems to the past, she could be a serious threat in Australia and is one of the few players with the power and speed to consistently challenge world number one Serena Williams.

The 34-year-old American has won four of the last five grand slams but has been battling a long-standing knee injury.

They played three times last year, and while Williams won them all each went to a decider with the American having to battle back from a set down to win two of the matches.

Former world number one Chris Evert believes the American's biggest challenger in Melbourne could be the rejuvenated Azarenka.

"I think she's a player we should be talking about and focusing on right now," Evert said.

"She certainly loves Australia. She's won it twice. She definitely last year played really well, but kept bumping into Serena. She challenged her more than any other player.

"She's got to be one of the two or three favorites for winning the Australian Open. I always thought she has a champions' mentality," she added.

The Australian Open begins on Monday.

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)