Azarenka aiming to regain top spot
Victoria Azarenka revels in her rivalry with Serena Williams which could see her recapture the world No 1 ranking from the 15-times Grand Slam winner at the Dubai WTA Open this week.
The Belarussian scored a rare victory on Monday over the American, who nevertheless took away her world No 1 ranking 24 hours later, a rather contradictory setback for Azarenka which has not prevented her celebrating their relationship on and off court.
"Any tournament I'm happy to play against Serena," said Azarenka, who is still the only leading player to remain unbeaten this year after her 7-6 (8/6), 2-6, 6-3 win over Williams in the Qatar Open final.
"I feel like we're pushing each other to go to the limit every time, to step up, to improve, and that's tremendous motivation to have."
Azarenka has further motivation that she can regain the top spot if she wins the title here. She can even do so if she only reaches the final, provided Williams does not.
"You know (with Serena) you always know that somebody's out there wants to push you," Azarenka added.
"For me, it's an incredible privilege to be in that position."
The two are seeded to meet again in Saturday's final, with the likelihood of a very different psychology from last week's if they do.
Azarenka now knows that, after nine successive losses to Williams, she is good enough to win, thanks to improvements to her forecourt game, her tactical variety, and her mental stability.
Williams on the other hand knows that she is now physically stronger after the back and ankle injuries which were exacerbated at the Australian Open last month, and the heavy cold she suffered last week.
"In the first round I couldn't breathe," Williams said.
"After one point I was so sick, I was like, I can't breathe. I remember talking to Patrick (Mouratoglou, her coach). I'm like, I'm just not able to breathe after two points.
"Each match that went on, I got better, and in the end I was fine. I felt like I could run and I was completely fine. So that was one good positive out of it," Williams added, referring to the disappointment of losing to Azarenka.
That positive may bring another, a reduction in Williams' high ratio of unforced errors.
There were 42 against Azarenka, a total she described as "weird", adding: "I'm having too many of those days - I've got to cut them out".
Azarenka meanwhile claims she is also friends with the player she would most like to beat, and that the two of them appreciate their off court exchanges from time to time.
"I mean, we chat about something that had nothing to do with tennis," she said of her most recent dialogues with Williams.
Asked what that was, Azarenka replied: "Oscar parties," adding "and that's it - I mean, we always had a good relationship off court.
"So, you know, at the US Open final we did not have the same conversations but we had the same chemistry there. (And yet) I feel like we are big competitors on the court."
Later Williams learned that her opening match will be against Marion Bartoli, the world number 11 whom she played in the 2007 Wimbledon final, and who is potentially the hardest start she could have.
The French No 1 failed to make her entry on time but reached the draw via a wild card into the draw, winning a first round 3-1, 6-4, 6-1 against Klara Zakopalova, the world number 22 from the Czech Republic.
"I just like to coach myself," said Bartoli, referring both to her indifferent start, sprinkled with double faults, and to the absence of her father Walter, with whom she this month parted as coach.
"And I shall try to enjoy myself," she said of her forthcoming meeting with the world No 1. "And I shall fight."