• What the Deuce

2012 just the start for Azarenka

Jo Carter October 23, 2012
© PA Photos

Since Justine Henin quit tennis in sensational fashion in 2008, the women's game has seen the world No. 1 spot change hands 16 times.

In those four-and-a-half years, eight different women have been classified as the best in the game - and three of those never won a grand slam.

Scrolling down the list of former world No. 1s, virtually every one of them appears to have an Achilles heel. Maria Sharapova, who inherited Henin's crown when she hung up her racket in May 2008, has a career Grand Slam to her name but her service frailties mean she has failed to dominate.

When Ana Ivanovic won the French Open back in 2008, many thought she would be the next big thing in women's tennis, but she and has struggled for form and consistency ever since.

Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina both spent time at the top of the rankings without winning a grand slam, while Caroline Wozniacki also falls into that unwelcome category.

Kim Clijsters enjoyed a brief but glittering 'second career' as she won three majors on her return, and briefly topped the rankings, but her reign was never likely to be long-term, and she hung up her racket for a second time after this year's US Open.

Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams will go head-to-head in Istanbul © Getty Images

That leaves just two - Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, who are head and shoulders above the rest of the field at the WTA Championships this week - although the rankings may suggest otherwise.

Williams may have 15 grand slams and spent 123 weeks at the top of the rankings over the last decade, but Azarenka (with a single slam and 35 weeks as No. 1) looks to be the best thing to happen to women's tennis since Henin.

The sport needs a prominent figure - a female equivalent to Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal - who has global appeal and genuine staying power.

Williams has admittedly been unlucky with a catalogue of injuries and health scares over recent years, but she is a bit-part player in recent times. She is virtually unbeatable on her day, but her days just don't seem to come often enough as she focuses her efforts almost exclusively on grand slams.

Restricted to cameo appearances on the WTA in recent seasons, Williams is not the universal personality women's tennis craves - she has not been seen since her US Open victory at Flushing Meadows six weeks ago, while Azarenka has picked up titles in Beijing and Linz in that time.

Added to that, Williams is a divisive character - while she is loved by her adoring fans, there are just as many tennis aficionados who really don't like her, feeling she is too arrogant.

While as another blonde off the Eastern European production line, Azarenka runs the risk of blending into the crowd, a couple more major victories would certainly go some way to setting her apart from the rest.

Perhaps the one aspect of her game that makes her unpopular is the ear-busting shriek she emits with every shot - if she can learn to turn down the volume a tad, she could become the complete package.

Arguably the best returner in the women's game, Azarenka's superb blend of power and precision has seen her become the most consistent performer on the WTA this season. There were once doubts about her mental toughness, but those have been firmly quashed.

It looks like it will be a two-horse race between Azarenka and Williams for the trophy in Istanbul. As with Novak Djokovic's Davis Cup triumph at the end of 2010 which kickstarted a dominant 2011 season, a confidence-boosting victory for Azarenka at the end of a breakthrough 2012 could be a sign of things to come from the world No. 1 in 2013.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk