As the No. 3 women's tennis player in the world, expectations are now constantly high for Victoria Azarenka in Grand Slam tournaments. While she is still looking to truly break through at the French Open, the Belarusian star will stumble once again on the red clay at Roland Garros.
Azarenka was once known as a headcase by most tennis fans, but she has largely put that reputation behind her thanks to consecutive Australian Open titles in 2012 and this year. In addition, Vika reached the U.S. Open final last year before losing to Serena Williams.
Azarenka's prowess on hard courts is now unquestioned, but she has yet to make the transition to other surfaces. Azarenka has gotten better on grass, as evidenced by back-to-back semifinal appearances at Wimbledon and a bronze medal at the London Olympics last year; however, clay is a totally different animal.
There are some exceptions to the rule, but bigger power players tend to struggle on clay. Azarenka isn't quite as powerful as the likes of Serena or Maria Sharapova, but the six-footer certainly relies more on blowing her opponents away with heavy hitting than moving with grace.
With the exception of Sharapova last year and Li Na to a certain extent in 2011, most of the female winners at Roland Garros in recent years have been smaller, counterattacking players who utilize angles to beat their opponents. Francesca Schiavone, Svetlana Kuznetsova and the retired Justine Henin all fall into that category.
That doesn't preclude Azarenka from making noise at the French Open this year, but she has an uphill climb ahead of her. With that said, Azarenka got her tournament off to a winning start on Wednesday by taking care of former doubles partner Elena Vesnina in straight sets, according to Sky Sports Tennis.
Azarenka also figures to have a fairly easy road in the coming rounds. She'll face Annika Beck of Germany in the second round and shouldn't have much of an issue there. Azarenka will then draw France's Alize Cornet in the third round. After that, things could potentially get a bit tricky for Vika.
Three potentially tough opponents will be on tap for Azarenka should she reach the fourth round. Marion Bartoli of France, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and Schiavone of Italy could give her some big-time trouble.
Bartoli is the type of player who is capable of hitting pretty much everything back, and she has reached the semis at Roland Garros before. Flipkens hasn't had a ton of success in the French Open, but her game is tailor-made for clay. Schiavone could be the most dangerous opponent of all, as she won the tournament in 2010 and was the runner-up in 2011.
If Azarenka is able to make it through that gauntlet, a date with Li in the quarterfinals is a strong possibility. While Li was never considered to be a great clay-court player in her own right until she won the French Open title in 2011, she is clearly comfortable on the surface now and holds an advantage over Azarenka.
Getting past the quarters is the big hurdle Azarenka must clear at Roland Garros, as she has never been able to do it in the past. Azarenka would have a puncher's chance against Li, but the Chinese star has much better movement on clay and should be able to outlast her younger opponent.
Azarenka has made huge strides as a player over the past few years, but those strides aren't yet evident on clay. Perhaps she will become a strong clay-court player in the future if she continues to improve, but the pieces aren't in place for Vika to make a big run at Roland Garros this year.
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