Azarenka back, ready to roll
Confident: Victoria Azarenka. Photo: AP
WORLD No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has returned to Australia illuminated by the added spotlight that comes with being the reigning Australian Open champion, but also with an approach she insists will be no different.
''I'm here to win the tournament, not to defend really anything,'' said Azarenka, who crushed Maria Sharapova in the 2012 final at Melbourne Park. ''There are 128 girls, and I'm really looking forward to that challenge and that competition. The feeling I had last year, I would love to repeat that.''
First, there is the Brisbane International, where the top seed has ceded favouritism to Serena Williams. Pat Rafter Arena was the scene of the 23-year-old's debut WTA title in 2009 and, after a first-round bye, Azarenka's campaign will begin against German Sabine Lisicki, a 6-2, 6-4 winner on Monday against Lucie Safarova.
After clinching the year-end top spot at the WTA Championships in Istanbul in late October, Azarenka's travels took her to her first home (in Minsk, Belarus), her second (in Monte Carlo), then to Brazil for an exhibition against Williams, before an extended stay in Doha and Thailand for an exhibition against Li Na. Training all the while.
Ready to resume, then? Absolutely.
''I feel good. I can't wait to play,'' she said ahead of Tuesday's opener. ''My off-season was great. It actually went by really quick. Normally it's a little bit more tough mentally when you have to start all over. But it was really quick and it was very enjoyable for me.''
Azarenka said her preparation, generally, had not altered in the wake of her career-best season, which included six titles from nine finals, ''because I don't see the point to really change something because I've done well''.
But if the younger Williams, her conqueror in an epic three-set US Open decider, remains the benchmark, then the feisty Belarussian does not necessarily consider herself the next great rival for the winner of 15 grand slam titles, as perhaps the one capable of stemming the American's dominance.
''I don't really look at it that way. I try to look at what can I do to win those titles, not to see who I can stop from winning those titles. So it's not a question,'' said Azarenka, who trailled Williams 11-1 in career meetings and lost all five in 2012.
''It's really obvious that she is one of the toughest competitors for me. I don't have a great record. But this is a new year, and there are new opportunities to have.
''So the US Open was a great match. I had great things that I could take out of there. It's always a learning experience. But answering your question, I look towards myself more than trying to stop somebody.''
Sharapova, meanwhile, savoured her first real chance to reflect on a year in which she completed her career grand slam at the French Open and returned briefly to No. 1, her choice as flag-bearer for the Russian Olympic team and her first big win since major shoulder surgery.
''Certainly reflecting on this gives me a lot of motivation going into this year,'' said Sharapova, who makes her Brisbane International debut on Tuesday against Australia's Jarmila Gajdosova after two previous no-shows.
''I don't like to say that you have to start from nothing, but you go back to the drawing board and … obviously continue what you're doing because you've achieved that success, but also work on a few things that you believe will help you get to the next level.''
For Serena Williams, the other member of the women's Big Three, that might mean becoming the first player since Steffi Graf to win a grand slam.