Ser­ena the heavy fa­vorite, but Azarenka a threat

Two of the star’s four losses in past 14 months were to Be­larus­sian

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in New York

World No 1 Ser­ena Wil­liams en­ters the US Open as a heavy fa­vorite to de­fend her ti­tle, but sec­ond-ranked Vic­to­ria Azarenka leads a host of ri­vals look­ing to de­throne her.

Wil­liams is seek­ing her 17th Grand Slam sin­gles crown and fifth US Open ti­tle, which would move her one shy of Chris Evert’s Open-era record for most ti­tles at the year’s fi­nal ma­jor event on the Flush­ing Mead­ows hard courts.

“I’m def­i­nitely pre­pared. I’m def­i­nitely ready for New York,” Wil­liams said. “I def­i­nitely had more matches than I could want, but I’m def­i­nitely pre­pared for the US Open.”

The 31-year-old Amer­i­can has been on an amaz­ing run over the past 14 months, go­ing 77-4 and cap­tur­ing last year’s Wim­ble­don, Lon­don Olympic and US Open ti­tles, plus this year’s French Open crown.

But two of those de­feats came at the hands of Azarenka, in Fe­bru­ary’s Doha fi­nal and last Sun­day at the WTA fi­nal in Cincinnati by a score of 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6).

“It’s just al­ways good to play such great play­ers like Vic­to­ria who re­ally plays well and makes me lift my game to a new level,” Wil­liams said.

Dom­i­nat­ing pair

It was only the third vic­tory for the 24-year-old from Be­larus over the Amer­i­can, but with the two hav­ing won five of the past seven Grand Slam ti­tles, it sets the stage for a po­ten­tial re­match of last year’s US Open fi­nal.

Wil­liams beat Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in last year’s US Open fi­nal but the ef­fort in de­feat res­onates with Azarenka to this day.

“It will al­ways be a spe­cial mo­ment, for sure, be­cause I felt like that whole tour­na­ment, that fi­nal match left a big mark on my fu­ture ca­reer,” Azarenka said. “I still feel that way.”

Wil­liams sees no in­flu­ence from prior meet­ings in a po­ten­tial New York fi­nal with Azarenka again this year.

“It would be to­tally dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances,” Wil­liams said. “It’s just a new event. You just got to go in there with a fresh mind.”

Wil­liams will go into the Open with­out a win streak such as she had the past few Grand Slam events.

“It makes me more re­laxed and al­most happy that I lost be­cause now I don’t have to worry about ev­ery day some­one ask­ing me about some silly win­ning streak,” Wil­liams said. “So maybe (los­ing in Cincinnati) was for the best.”

Wil­liams also finds her­self in a cor­dial ri­valry, ap­pre­ci­at­ing Azarenka off the court as a friend and on the court as an ad­ver­sary.

“She’s so com­pet­i­tive on the court, like an an­i­mal, and I’m the same ex­act way, like my dad de­scribed me as a pit bull,” Wil­liams said.

Wil­liams is look­ing for her ninth ti­tle of the year af­ter tri­umphs at Bris­bane, Mi­ami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome, Roland Gar­ros, Bas­tad and Toronto.

Vul­ner­a­ble in slams

But she has proven vul­ner­a­ble in Grand Slams, fall­ing to com­pa­triot Sloane Stephens in the Aus­tralian Open quar­ter­fi­nals and Ger­many’s Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at Wim­ble­don.

With Maria Shara­pova pulling out due to in­jury, Poland’s Ag­nieszka Rad­wan­ska be­came the third seed, fol­lowed in or­der by Italy’s Sara Er­rani, China’s Li Na, Den­mark’s Caro­line Woz­ni­acki and Czech Pe­tra Kvi­tova.

Azarenka, the reign­ing Aus­tralian Open cham­pion, says she has learned from past losses to Wil­liams.

“Ev­ery time we play, I face a big chal­lenge, my big­gest op­po­nent, and that’s what I want to go through,” Azarenka said.

“I had tough losses be­fore against her, but I feel like I learned from those losses, and it helps me im­prove. I feel like I’m play­ing bet­ter and bet­ter. I’m reach­ing for the new level that I want to be at, phys­i­cally, men­tally, ten­nis-wise and that’s the pro­gres­sion that I’m re­ally the most ex­cited about.”

Azarenka took con­fi­dence from ral­ly­ing to beat Wil­liams in the Cincinnati fi­nal, but says the Amer­i­can will be the fa­vorite on home soil.

“I will not be a fa­vorite,” Azarenka said. “She is No 1 in the world. She is a great cham­pion, and she’s de­fend­ing cham­pion, so she’s go­ing to be a fa­vorite.

“About who’s sec­ond fa­vorite, third fa­vorite, I don’t re­ally care about that. But I think it’s a great boost of con­fi­dence.”

Azarenka con­sid­ers her loss to Wil­liams in last year’s US Open a “spe­cial mo­ment”.

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