French Open 2013: Don't Forget About Victoria Azarenka

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2013

ROME, ITALY - MAY 19:  Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in action during the womens final against Serena Williams of the USA on day eight of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 19, 2013 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

You may not have heard a lot about her lately, but the first two months of 2013 definitely belonged to Victoria Azarenka.

Every WTA headline, triumphant or controversial, involved the blonde Belarusian. She withdrew before a much-anticipated semifinal against Serena Williams in Brisbane due to a botched pedicure. She took the medical timeout heard around the world during her Australian Open semifinal match against America’s newest sweetheart, Sloane Stephens. She beat Li Na in a dramatic Australian Open final to defend her title and retain her No. 1 ranking.

She even publicly paraded around with her stand-out-from-the-crowd boyfriend RedFoo. And she managed to (finally) beat Serena Williams in the Doha final, just one match after the legend had taken away Azarenka’s No. 1 ranking.

Then the withdrawals began to pile up. After beating Serena, she withdrew from Dubai due to a bone bruise on her right foot. Though obviously hobbled, she played Indian Wells, but withdrew before her quarterfinal match with Caroline Wozniacki due to pain in her right foot and ankle. She missed Miami and Stuttgart as well. All in all, she was off the tour for nearly seven weeks. 

While she was gone, Maria Sharapova won Indian Wells and Stuttgart and made the finals of Miami and Madrid, while Serena won Miami, Charleston, Madrid and Rome. In short, her competition wasn’t resting. They were surging. The WTA went full speed ahead without its Australian Open champion, and honestly the media didn’t seem to miss her.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Azarenka’s relationship with the media has always been a complicated one, to put it mildly. According to many, she’s too loud on the court and too quiet off it. She’s not very open in press conferences, doesn’t offer great sound bites and she certainly isn’t a brand. Her withdrawals before—and particularly during—tournaments have caused many to publicly question her mental and physical durability.

Plus, as she proved after her semifinal in Australia, she’s filtered and unfiltered at all the wrong moments.

But behind the questionable judgments and social awkwardness lies a shy, sweet and well-meaning girl, whose fiercely competitive nature, immense talent and enviable consistency lifted the WTA from the slamless No. 1 years in style, and brought out the best in her competitors in the process.

Azarenka might not have the polish or the celebrity of some of her peers, but day-in and day-out the WTA is a drastically more competitive and interesting tour when she is around.

Two weeks ago, Azarenka re-emerged in Madrid. Her fitness and form had certainly taken a hit during her lay-off. She lost in her second match to the selectively-dangerous Ekaterina Makarova, losing her temper and getting a point-penalty along the way.

But Rome was a different story. She absolutely throttled Julia Goerges in the first round, dropping only two games. On her way to the final she impressed with wins over two recent Roland Garros finalists, Samantha Stosur and Sara Errani. Even when Serena Williams beat her soundly in the final, 6-1, 6-3, Azarenka held her head high.

Though she’s been in seven finals and has one title on the surface, clay never has been—and probably never will be—Azarenka’s greatest surface. The French Open, where she’s only twice seen the quarterfinals, is by far her worst slam. On red clay she seems to always be a step behind, leaving her constantly susceptible to being knocked out by any aggressive hitter having a great day.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to keep an eye on Azarenka heading into the French Open this year.

We’ve seen recently how players such as Li Na and Sharapova have turned around their clay-court fortunes later in their careers. There is nothing to say that Azarenka can’t do the same. Beating Stosur and Errani on clay in only her second tournament back from injury is certainly nothing to scoff at, and seems to prove that she’s finally finding her footing on the surface, both literally and figuratively. 

Azarenka has a proven and well-tested champion’s instinct that, not unlike Serena Williams, will allow her to play herself into form and get more comfortable during the course of the tournament. That will help her as she tries to regain her fitness after her layoff.

But most importantly, Azarenka has made the finals of the last two majors, thrived under the pressure of the No. 1 ranking and successfully defended her Australian Open title under media scrutiny that would have crumbled a lesser will. For someone who Bruce Jenkins of accused of looking like she wished she was “invisible,” Azarenka seems to have no problem shining when all eyes, ears, and judgments are upon her. 

Simply put, she knows how to win.

I think Azarenka will win the French Open someday. If she stays healthy and focused, and a few things break her way, someday could come in a few weeks.

Serena Williams is the clear-cut favorite to win the French Open this year. Maria Sharapova is the defending champion. But forget about Victoria Azarenka at your own peril.