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Savour tennis' new big rivalry

Greg Garber
February 23, 2013
Victoria Azarenka has made another rapid start to the year © AP

When Victoria Azarenka, a fiery 19-year-old from Belarus, throttled Serena Williams in the 2009 Miami final, it looked like the makings of a new world order.

But Azarenka was sometimes her own worst enemy. She often battled to maintain her composure, reminiscent of a racket-smashing junior named Roger Federer. Williams won their next nine consecutive matches and 18 of 20 sets, six of them in majors and the Olympics. Azarenka led the last of those nine matchups 5-3 in the third set, but couldn't close the deal and Williams was the 2012 US Open winner.

Last Sunday in Doha, even after losing the No. 1 ranking, Azarenka finally found a way to beat her. Nearly four years after that Miami victory, she won the title at Doha over Williams 7-6 (6) 2-6 6-3.

In difficult moments (outside of that questionable injury timeout in Australia when she seemed to panic against the oncoming Sloane Stephens), Azarenka seems to have found a kind of inner calm on the court. She and Serena have split their past six sets and, going forward, this duo should be fun to watch.

They are, certifiably, the two best women in the game. Vika, however, seems to be picking her spots against Serena. They were the top two seeds in this week's Premier 700 event in Dubai, but Azarenka pulled out before her first match, citing a bruised right foot. You may remember her bailing before her semi-final against Serena in Brisbane -- with what she said was an ingrown toenail that resulted from a pedicure gone wrong.

Serena, complaining of back pain, pulled out of her first match in Dubai, against Marion Bartoli.

Maybe that's just clever gamesmanship.

Oldest to be ranked No. 1

  • Serena Williams - 31 years, 4 months, 24 days

    Chris Evert - 30 years, 11 months, 3 days

    Martina Navratilova - 30 years, 9 months, 29 days

    Lindsay Davenport - 29 years, 7 months, 8 days

    Steffi Graf - 27 years, 9 months, 16 days

Azarenka is off to another fast start. In 2009, she won 24 of her first 26 matches, including that terrific defeat of Serena in Miami. Last year, it was a 26-0 run that included titles in Sydney, Melbourne, Doha and Indian Wells -- where she is the defending champion but will not have the pleasure of meeting Serena, who along with sister Venus has skipped the event since 2002.

Azarenka is only 23 and finds herself in her prime; Serena, at 31, is the oldest woman to be ranked No. 1. Sometimes this gets lost in all the drama that is Serena. Going back to her first major win in the 1999 US Open, remarkably, she has been a dominant player, on and off, for 15 years. This is her sixth trip to the top, something she first did at the age of 20.

After the loss in Doha, Serena seemed genuinely impressed with Azarenka.

"I always respect Victoria," she said. "I think she's a really good player. It's nice to always play someone and go home and you're like, 'OK, I didn't do great, but let me work harder.' I think that she inspires a lot of people to work harder, and definitely me."

You can bet on that. The way they are both playing, they are likely to meet a few more times this year, perhaps next in the Sony Open final in Miami.

At an age when most players have retired (see Clijsters, Henin, Dementieva, etc.) or lost a great deal of effectiveness, Serena seems eager -- with perhaps only several productive years left -- to take on more than ever before.

According to WTA statistical whiz Kevin Fischer, the numbers suggest that, barring a serious injury, Serena could have one of her most prolific seasons ever. Over the past decade, she has averaged just fewer than 10 tournaments per year. Last year, she played in 13, tying the second-highest mark of her career. This year, Serena has already played in four events - and it's not even March yet.

Likewise, she played 62 matches last year, equaling her career high, set in 2009. Even before the event in Dubai, she was at 14 matches. On seven previous occasions, Serena failed to play even 10 matches in the first two months of the season.

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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