Category Archives: Features

Wimbledon semis prove strength of WTA

Radwanska Wimbledon  Pete Edgeler, flickr

Wimbledon boasts two stellar semi-final matches in the women’s draw this summer despite the lack of apparent ‘big’ names Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

The big three all fell before the quarters even though they were tipped for major success this July and have been replaced by lesser-known yet by no means less deserving talent. Their absence should not take away the magnificent achievement of these four semi finalists, all of who are big players in the WTA but sadly lack the profile their Grand Slam competitors receive.

Agnieszka Radwanska is up against Sabine Lisicki on Thursday while Marion Bartoli makes the Wimbledon last four for a second time against Kirsten Flipkens, who has impressed the most this fortnight.

It has been voiced on forums and social networks that a lack of the big three has taken away some gloss in the women’s draw. Just like the men’s side, where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer fell early, armchair fans voiced their displeasure of seeing the top seeds crash out so soon.

Unfortunately, this view is never going to leave tennis as fans forget it’s a sport you win on merit and instead expect the players they’ve actually heard of to progress to the finals stages. Often lower seeds are disregarded as underserving opponents and when they win it’s the ranking system to blame.

Not so. The rankings are rarely a true reflection of who is going to beat who as they are taken from results spread over such a long period of time. Different surfaces also produce different champions, which is maybe why Radwanska gets further at Wimbledon than any other slam.

Unknown profiles

Lisicki is a great example of a player who deserves more profile in the women’s game but barely receives it. Her victory over Serena Williams was a shock but we shouldn’t be surprised to see this 23rd-seed in the semis. Lisicki made the Wimbledon quarters last year before falling to Angelique Kerber and the semis in 2011. She is a grass expert and certain to reach a Wimbledon final one day – maybe even this year.

Don’t let Lisicki’s seed, or indeed Bartoli’s or Flipkens’ at that matter, fool you; she is far better than 23rd in the world on this surface. In 2012 she was 15th seed and on the up but slumped after the grass season and suffered disappointing first-round defeats at the US Open, Linz and Luxembourg.

Lisicki should get more recognition Photo:  Carine06, flickr

Lisicki should get more recognition
Photo: Carine06, flickr

The same can be said of Bartoli, who has struggled this season yet always poses a threat on her side of the draw, and Radwanska, who either performs or flops in tournaments.

The lesser talents on the WTA don’t get the credit they deserve and that’s mainly because the broad sporting media – via whom we fans get all our news – focus on the big three. Occasionally they’ll do a feature on Petra Kvitova or interview Caroline Wozniacki but bar Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka the representation of women’s tennis in our newspapers outside a Grand Slam is staggeringly bare.

Granted, the big three deserve as much attention as they can get. Tennis is a short career and you’ve got to make the most of it. Li Na rivals this trio as her 2011 French Open victory saw her become a household name in China overnight, but these sorts of successes are few and far between.

A lot of the big three’s success is down to their off-court presence as well as sporting prowess. Because the lower ranks go about as near unknowns, they’re not signed to huge sponsorship deals and the media don’t pry into their private lives.

The women suffer from bad media representation

On the first Monday of these Championships the British newspapers all led with a women’s tennis story about the relationship between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. One had said something about the other’s boyfriend; the other replied frostily and the media staged their verbal showdown. There were double-page spreads on this chitter chatter and only by the close of each article was tennis actually discussed – “oh, by the way, they’re playing some sport this week.”

The top players – Serena, Sharapova and increasingly Azarenka – court far too much attention that goes way beyond their talent. Is it really in the interests of the sport that we know Sharapova is dating (I hate that word) Grigor Dimitrov from the men’s tour? How disappointing is it that Azarenka is known as much for her Australian Open victories as her relationship with LMFAO’s Redfoo.

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere
Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Yes, these controversial players are great for the profile of the game as they raise the bar and prove just how sporting and commercially successful female athletes can be, yet that attention has come at the sacrifice of the rest.

Most armchair fans would struggle to name 10 players on the WTA circuit without asking “is Kim Clijsters still around?” I’d be one of them two years ago – not because I didn’t choose to follow the women’s game but, when I did and do read something about female players, the media focus on off-court stories instead of what’s happening on it.

This Wimbledon has given those players who advance in tournaments but rarely earn the major victories a chance to prove themselves to an otherwise ignorant public and media. It’s not even our fault; few of us would be able to name the England women’s football XI and that’s partially down to a lack of representation.

When the Wimbledon circus leaves us for another year two of this quartet will be forgotten almost instantly. Can anyone remember who played who in the semis last season? It’s all good and well the media focussing on tennis for this two-week period but if the women’s game is ever to earn the profile it deserves we need column inches dedicated to the sport every week.

If you hear anyone moan about the standard of Wimbledon this year just show them a replay of Radwanska v Li from Monday afternoon. Their chess-like quarterfinal was exactly the sort of on-court quality you can expect on the WTA but rarely do we hear of it when the Serena, Azarenka or Sharapova parades march into town.

Photo:  Pete Edgeler, flickr

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Patronising BBC relegates Date-Krumm talent

Date-Krumm,  y.caradec flickr

The BBC did women’s tennis no good at all on Saturday night after match commentators Barry Davies and Sam Smith patronised 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm repeatedly during her third-round clash with Serena Williams.

Date-Krumm was never realistically going to win the clash and fell to a predictable 6-2 6-0 defeat but that didn’t stop the BBC mooning over her with sickening adoration as though surprised she’d made it this far without breaking a hip.

Their main focus was less on her tennis but instead how a professional sportswoman could compete with the might of Serena. There are apparently two types of tennis in the women’s game: one you play against the rest of the field and the other you play against the American – the latter impossible to uphold over three sets. Yet tell that to Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens who have both scalped Serena this year.

Even before the players had entered Centre Court the denigrating parade was marching in full voice and splendour, with a little montage from the BBC about how this ‘veteran’ had seen it all in the women’s game but just refused to give up on her dream.

Steffi Graf was mentioned five or six times because Date-Krumm had once – presumably when television was in black and white – faced the 22-Slam champ in a Wimbledon semi and almost beaten her.

There was never going to be any sort of competition against Serena but for the BBC to so openly admit that by instead focussing on her age, the erroneous fact she once ran a marathon and speculating whether she has a teapot in her kit bag is just appalling – is there anything this woman cannot do?

A delightful tale about how she met her husband and fell romantically in love – getting married at St Mary’s Church in Tokyo, if you’re interested – filled a space between the change of ends. How sweet and charming and absolutely irrelevant to the scenes on court.

After a particularly inspiring rally where the Japanese player earned a point off the world number one, Smith confirmed “it’s not normal to play like this at 42.” Well, clearly it is normal if you’re a professional athlete who has already come through two rounds of a Grand Slam to play tennis to a half respectable level.

Let’s talk about bagels

Yet the worst was saved until last as the BBC commentators picked up on the term ‘bagel’. A bagel is when a player loses without winning a single game, something Date-Krumm avoided. So why did the commentators go on about it? If Petr Cech concedes a goal you don’t mention the possibility of a clean sheet, nor do you express hope of a hat trick when James Anderson takes a wicket.

If the bagel reference wasn’t bad enough then the discussion over whether or not this match would last even an hour was. I assume a 42-year-old cannot play past 60 minutes the way the commentators pointed to the clock and the BBC did itself more damage by focussing in on the scoreboard when the match ticked past an hour – how impressive such a poor woman managed to survive this long!

The TV director will have given that order to show the clock, meaning it wasn’t just the commentators who steered the patronising parade.

You forgot about the first round!

Through all the mock humour over Date-Krumm’s age and fitness, her inability to match the world number one and how great it is just to see her smiling on court, the BBC forgot to mention she’d actually won her first-round match 6-0 6-2 against qualifier Carina Witthoft in 44 minutes.

Clearly Date-Krumm isn’t such a no-hoper after all but let’s forget about that… oh, look at her smile! She’s so happy just to be at Wimbledon for a 12th time in her career… aww.

Lack of analysis

The most frustrating thing of all is that neither commentator particularly discussed Date-Krumm’s tennis and instead just goggled at her when a point was won and consoled her when Serena got the upper hand. Compare this to Laura Robson’s performance earlier in the day where the BBC’s commentators discussed how she must up her game to beat Marina Erakovic, get her feet working at the back of the court and come forward more on serves.

Where was the advice during this match? It was nowhere, for there’s surely nothing a 42-year-old could do to beat Serena.

Social network response

Twitter had its fair share of disappointed viewers too. Granted, many tweets expressed admiration that Date-Krumm is still playing at this age and, indeed, it is impressive. But appraisal should only go that far and not descend into denigrating the player purely because she’s older than her competitors. Smith took the brunt of the criticism on the social networking site but Davies didn’t escape blame either.

Serena deserved her victory Photo:  left-hand, flickr

Serena deserved her victory
Photo: left-hand, flickr

So what does this say about tennis, and women’s tennis in particular? We know Serena – a player we’ll never see the likes of again – skewers the WTA because of her sheer brilliance on court but that doesn’t mean the rest of the field is second-rate.

It’s bad for the game if a national broadcaster so timidly accepts a televised match is a foregone conclusion and even worse if they then focus on the loser’s other qualities, like being able to stand up and showing she can still enjoy herself after all those years.

At the end there was a standing ovation but for what? Date-Krumm was rubbish and lucky enough to earn those two games during the first set. If you’re good enough to compete then it doesn’t matter how old you are and Date-Krumm lost not because of creaky joints or a lack of green tea (thanks Barry) but because she wasn’t as good as her opponent.

Date-Krumm made the quarters at Wimbledon in 1995 and the semis a year later, retiring from the sport for over a decade. Upon her return at 37 she was a different player yet won the Seoul title in 2009 and was 2010 runner-up in Osaka.

She also made the third round of the Australian Open this year and, to my knowledge, does not own the Zimmer frame Sam Smith could be mistaken for suggesting she does.

Photo:  y.caradec, flickr

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The outer-court Wimbledon experience

Konta Wimbledon 2013

Monday was the second time I’ve ever been to Wimbledon and it turned out to be a far more rewarding experience than the first.

Last year I arrived at 7am to the queue outside the Wimbledon grounds, didn’t bring enough reading material and got badly sunburnt. When finally in at 11:30 I managed to sneak onto one of the side courts and watch a women’s match.

Klara Zakopalova upset 13th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-4 6-1 in my first real-life Wimbledon tennis match. Simply hearing the aggression on court, Cibulkova’s shouting at her own coach (sat just behind me) and the grace of underdog Zakopalova in victory was reward enough for the long queue.

Yet I didn’t really feel connected with the match as I barely knew either player well enough to back them. I was an indifferent admirer and watched simply for the tennis.

This year was different. I managed to secure a seat on number 12 court for Jelana Jankovic against home favourite Johanna Konta. The match was a dead rubber after 16th seed Jankovic pulled away in the first set and although Konta offered resistance in the second there was only going to be one winner.

Jankovic en route to rouns two

Jankovic en route to rouns two

The Serb ran out 6-2 7-5 victor and deserved her passage into the second round. What was interesting, however, was the clear vacant detachment between the fans and the match. I sat there in bewilderment as the crowd sat there watching tennis with no real care who won, despite Konta representing the UK. Of course the crowd cheered louder when Konta won a point but there was never any sense of loss or dejection as Jankovic powered through.

There was as much indifference in the stands as the Cibulkova-Zakopalova clash last year and this is where Wimbledon – and maybe tennis in general – has a problem.

Everyone knows the top players in the WTA and ATP and most fans support one over the rest. The media follow Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic like hawks and their opponents are often discarded as forgettable obstacles in the path of these great players. Even when you’re watching a homegrown talent like Konta it appears no one cares whether she wins or loses.

Maybe that’s why disillusioned fans and pundits criticise the pay rises lower-ranked players now receive to contest the early rounds. It’s not their fault no one watches them – and even when people do there seems to be little care in the stands over the eventual result.

Average fans don’t care about players outside the top ranks, which makes matches on the Wimbledon outer courts such fleeting events so easily forgotten. As it happens, I managed to sneak onto Number One Court and watch Rafael Nadal crash out to Steve Darcis. It was an incredible match and the quality on show far outstretched the previous men’s game I glimpsed on my way round – Matosevic v Rufin.

Darcis v Nadal on Court One

Darcis v Nadal on Court One

I’m sad to admit it but I’ll certainly remember the Nadal clash over Konta’s, and as for Matosevic the only reason I’ll remember him is because he swore at us after netting another forehand.

Tennis needs revamping throughout the hierarchy so that fans genuinely give a damn about the lower seeds in rounds one and two. Only then can the atmosphere of Centre Court and Court One filter into the rest of Wimbledon, which can be a pretty quiet place when ‘big names’ aren’t on show.

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Azarenka injury proves pressure to top the WTA

Azarenka 2011 n.hewson

Victoria Azarenka’s shock withdrawal at the Indian Wells Masters this week proved beyond a doubt that players on the WTA are under severe pressure to play though the pain just to retain ranking points.

Azarenka had a golden chance to win one of the tour’s most prestigious events with world number one Serena Williams absent from the tournament, meaning the Belarusian was all set to claw back vital ranking points atop the women’s game.

Sadly, an ankle strain that has troubled the world number two for some time proved just too much to cope with and on doctor’s orders she rightly pulled out of her quarter-final clash with Caroline Wozniacki.

So where does this leave Azarenka now?

The 23-year-old has a 17-0 record this season, has won two of her three tournaments – including the Australian Open – and defeated Serena in the Doha final last month.

Azarenka with the Aus Open trophy

Azarenka with the Aus Open trophy

Yet she has still slipped down the rankings and come Monday may well be world number three should Maria Sharapova prevail at the BNP Paribas Open.

Losing her world number one status despite claiming the first Grand Slam of the year must feel like a huge slap in the face for Azarenka, who may not play the Miami Masters this coming week if her ankle problem holds up.

She’s suffered a good number of injuries this season already including a bad toe that forced her to withdraw from Brisbane.

Yet she isn’t the only one who has withdrawn late in tournaments when titles have seemed so glitteringly close. Sam Stosur also pulled out at the quarters on Indian Wells, while Serena has had back problems since her Australian Open loss to Sloane Stephens and withdrew from Dubai recently.

Sharapova is also not infallible to the strains of the women’s tour having played just two tournaments before Indian Wells to protect her fitness. It seems to have worked – she’s made the two semis and now a final – but how can this low number of tournaments merit her leapfrogging the Australian Open champion?

It just doesn’t add up – or in fact, given the rankings system, it does add up but is too confusing for one to tackle head on.

Granted, the intensity of which these players compete at is contributing factor to their injuries but so is the intensity of the tour that demands players must put their bodies on the line for ranking points that seem to be of irrelevance even if you win a Slam.

Head photo: n.hewson, flickr

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Melbourne interest to give chasing pack Brisbane chance

Petra Kvitova at BrisbanePhoto: tripletrouble

Petra Kvitova at Brisbane
Photo: tripletrouble

The Brisbane International marks the start of WTA season when it gets underway on 30 December. Many of the world’s top-ranked players are already down to compete in the tournament that acts as the ultimate precursor to the Australian Open, yet one major competitor may not be fit to contribute.

Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and home favourite Sam Stosur will all compete in Brisbane, but one woman the fans will be desperate to see take part is Serena Williams, who recently revealed she’s had surgery to her big toes over the past week.

Williams has pulled out of an exhibition event in Thailand on 29 December and will instead rest her feet before the big clash Down Under. She expects to be “fit and ready” for the event and we all hope she will make the $1,000,000 tournament.

With Williams potentially not fully fit for Brisbane there is a real opportunity for her rivals to claim an early lead in the race for 2013 ranking points. World number one Azarenka will defend her Australian Open title in January and must be hoping for a good result in Brisbane to kick-start her campaign.

Sharapova, meanwhile, could do with an early win. She’s made the quarter-finals or better in each tournament since Wimbledon yet wasn’t able to secure a tour title in the second half of the 2012 season before the winter break last month. Yet we all know of Sharapova’s brilliance and if Williams feels the effect of that minor surgery the Russian could swoop down and claim the top prize.

However, we must be careful not to ‘over talk’ the top three in the world. Their sole mission this winter is the win the Australian Open and as nice as the Brisbane trophy would be, they won’t risk their bodies and energy levels with a Grand Slam just around the corner.

The books are therefore slightly more balanced and we could see another face lift the Brisbane title this season. Petra Kvitova has now fully recovered from her illness problems that blighted the back-end of the 2012 season while Sara Errani looks set to kick on after last year’s impressive season.

Wozniacki also has a chancePhoto: Haruneskar

Wozniacki also has a chance
Photo: Haruneskar

Sam Stosur has the home crowd for support yet one player who really could turn up trumps is Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane finished 2011 as world number one yet slumped down the ranks this year after a number of disappointing outings. The old adage that form is temporary and class permanent should be applied here, however, for 2012 is over and done with and the 22-year-old can start her tennis afresh after a decent winter break.

The draw hasn’t been made yet but if Wozniacki can avoid one of the top three until the quarters she could provide an upset in the Pat Rafter Arena. Not that a Wozniacki title would be an upset – she’s 10th in the world for goodness sake – but the eyes of Brisbane will be on Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka, meaning this Dane could slip through and thrive without the pressure of last year.

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Past and Present – Clijsters retires

Clisters in the 2010 US OpenPhoto: Edwin Martinez1, flickr

Clisters in the 2010 US Open
Photo: Edwin Martinez1, flickr

Introducing our new ‘Past and Present’ series, where we take a look at some of the greats of our game – from the present day and the past. What more fitting player could there be to start the ball rolling than legend Kim Clijsters, who retired this week for a second time at the age of 29.

Clijsters was always going to be a special player. In 1998, just months after turning pro, she won two singles titles and three doubles tittles on the ITF circuit. This success was quickly followed the next year when, at 16, she broke into the world’s top 50 after winning Luxembourg: her first WTA title.

1999 also saw Clijsters make her name on the Grand Slam circuit. She lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to tennis legend Steffi Graf and in the third round of the US Open to future adversary Serena Williams.

Yet it was in 2001 that Clijsters’ career really kicked on. She finished the year fifth in the rankings, won her fourth to sixth singles title and reached her first major final – Roland Garros – where she fell to the impervious Jenifer Cipriati.

A year later she won her 10th WTA title yet still couldn’t pin down a major. That would come in 2005, however, where the Belgian finally lived up to her potential and took the US Open 6-3 6-1 over Mary Pierce.

On clayPhoto: Destination Europe, flickr

On clay
Photo: Destination Europe, flickr

From then on her life changed, yet her tennis failed to improve as she again found major victories hard to come by. By the end of 2006 she had won her 33rd WTA title, in Warsaw, yet fell in the semi-finals at Melbourne, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. Things just weren’t going quite right for the Belgian.

Retirement

Despite her consistent yet not emphatic trophy haul, Clijsters still shocked the tennis world when she decided to retire to start a family. Naturally she got the support of the tennis world and fans were happy, if not disappointed she was leaving, that Clijsters had gone out on her own terms.

Swift comeback

Yet one pregnancy later and the right-hander just couldn’t stay away. She announced her comeback to tennis in 2009 – more determined than ever. It was clear there was business still left to complete on the court and Clijsters headed into her first major tournament since retirement as a wildcard in the US Open.

Round after round she faced tough opponents yet breezed past them as though she’d been playing all season. Against world number three Venus Williams, she needed three sets to progress to the quarters 6-0 0-6 6-4 in one of the most unpredictable matches in the modern age.

Digging out a shot in New YorkPhoto: Edwin Martinez1, flickr

Digging out a shot in New York
Photo: Edwin Martinez1, flickr

She scalped Serena Williams in the semi final after two close sets and suddenly found herself in a position almost alien to her: a Grand Slam final. Yet Clijsters showed little fear and dispatched a young Caroline Wozniacki with consummate ease, taking the match 7-5 6-3 to become the first ever wildcard to win the US Open.

Out of nowhere she was back at the pinnacle of the women’s game and her popularity grew still further when she successfully defended her New York title just 12 months later. That period of her career is hailed as one of the greatest by any Belgian player and Clijsters went on to win the 2010 WTA Championships before the Australian Open in January the next year.

Now 29, Clijsters has made her point and is determined to retire. She played her final exhibition match in Belgium this week, defeating old adversary Venus Williams 6-3 6-3 in front of 13,000 people on the Antwerp court. On the WTA tour, she boasts a 7-6 record over Williams, of which very few others can claim the same, and throughout her career dazzled fans with her spectacular shot selection and personable approach to the game.

Singles tour titles: 41

Doubles tour titles: 11

Grand Slams:

Australia – W 2011

France – F 2001 & 2003

Wimbledon – SF 2003 & 2006

US – W 2005, 2009 & 2010

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Brisbane will prove Azarenka level for 2013

Is that a sweatband I see Victoria?

Is that a sweatband I see Victoria?

Has anyone seen Victoria Azarenka’s new television advert for a well-known timepiece company? Numerous shots of the 23-year-old gliding across the Melbourne court en route to her first ever Grand Slam victory last year provide intense watching as a smooth voiceover explains just how perfect she is.

Apparently a watch that ‘never runs out’ makes all the difference to her game – its so good that its actually invisible on her wrist during the match. the comparison between an ‘unstoppable’ timepiece and Azarenka is justifiable when considering her 2012 Australian Open triumph. For Azarenka was unstoppable that fortnight in Melbourne and the world number one’s performance rightly suggested she ‘shows no sign of slowing down’.

Yet Azarenka has not been completely infallible this season, despite what her expensive wristwatch suggests. For the Belarusian has suffered somewhat since that Australian triumph and failed to capitalise on her early-season form that saw her win the first four tournaments of the year.

2012 season, (almost) all downhill since Melbourne

Azarenka played to watch-like precision between January and early March. She claimed the Sydney title in emphatic fashion – dropping just two sets all week – before powerhousing to the final in Melbourne where she consummately outplayed Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0.

Shorty after came Doha, where she didn’t drop a single set despite playing Agnieszka Radwanska and Sam Stosur in the semis and final; before Indian Wells, where the Belarusian conquered Sharapova yet again to pick up four WTA titles in two months.

Yet since then Azarenka’s season has not gone to plan and as we enter the winter offseason she must be wondering how that momentum from Melbourne did not conspire domination on the WTA circuit. Two final losses came before a disastrous Rome, where she withdrew in the third round because of a shoulder injury.

Serving at Roland GarrosPhoto: Création CARAVEO

Serving at Roland Garros
Photo: Création CARAVEO

This problem persisted and she made just the fourth round of Roland Garros, skipping all competition before Wimbledon where she gracefully fell in the semis to a new adversary: Serena Williams.

Unfortunately for Azarenka, her 2012 summer decline began at the same time Williams’ rose. She lost to the American 6-1 6-2 in the semis at the Olympics and over three sets at the final of the US Open. Those two major defeats effectively cut 2012 short and Azarenka, although winning a couple more tour titles, went into the end-of-season comforted only by her world number one ranking.

Building for Australia and beyond

So what now for Azarenka as she heads into 2013? She must have learnt a lot from this major breakthrough season yet her early schedule for 2013 suggests preparations for Australia will be a lot different from last year. For instead of Sydney she is down to play Brisbane, a tournament that finishes closer to Melbourne but is played with greater intensity, with eight of the world top 10 in the event.

Her decision to play Brisbane expresses a new stance in Azarenka’s game. She could just play Sydney again, pick up a lower-ranked title and go into Melbourne on a high. However, in opting to face her fellow title rivals Azarenka is testing the water before the first major of the year.

Australia Open 2011Photo: n.hewson

Australia Open 2011
Photo: n.hewson

This is a good move on her part. The WTA tour success of last year has made her a good player but to become great she must claim Slams this campaign.

As the world number one she must show her face, her mettle and her confidence at Brisbane. Playing Sydney would have been seen as boycotting her competitors and mean heading into the Australian Open without being fully tested.

Azarenka will witness at Brisbane what she must do to maintain her status across 2013, with four or five serious competitors chasing that coveted crown. Can she achieve that watch-like perfection and keep on going over the early season? Brisbane should give us a good idea.

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