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Tennis | WTA

Victoria Azarenka © Gallo Images

Azarenka seeks recovery from rough ride



World No 1 Victoria Azarenka's tennis-playing stock has never been higher, but further repairs to her image may be appropriate during her title defence at the Qatar Open, which has nine of the world's top ten, starting on Monday.

By winning her second Grand Slam title in Melbourne last month, Azarenka displayed a new resilience and clung on to the world No 1 ranking ahead of Serena Williams.

It evidenced a capacity for focus in the 23-year-old which is significantly improved since her younger days when spectacular emotional explosions happened all too often.

Azarenka's equanimity was admirable considering the negative energy which was zapping towards her both on and off court after an ill-timed time out she took during her semi-final with Sloane Stephens.

Rather than attempting to retrieve the situation with defensive comments, coach Sam Suryk persuaded Azarenka to do all she could "to let her racket talk" in the final against Li Na.

That will probably be Azarenka's attitude here too during her first appearance since the fuss.

"You have to go through rough patches to achieve things in life," she commented in Australia. " I can only learn from this and move forward and try to improve as a player and as a person."

There are however memories to be set aside in Doha too. Last year Agnieszka Radwanska , the world No 4 from Poland, claimed she had "lost a lot of respect" for Azarenka after losing to the Belarussian in the Qatar Open semi-final.

This was a reference to Azarenka's allegedly distracting conduct between rallies, with hobbling and wincing, whilst moving well enough during rallies to complete a solid straight sets win.

Azarenka will though take heart from having won a second Australian Open without often being at her best, and from improvements which could stand her in good stead for another title defence over the coming week.

She maintains a greater intensity for longer periods, strikes the ball more frequently from positions closer to or inside the court, and has raised the quality of her service return to intimidating levels.

Azarenka may also be helped by the absence over the next seven days of the in-form Li, whom she beat only narrowly in the Melbourne final. Although Li was hampered by hitting her head during a third set fall, her withdrawal in Doha is said to have been caused by an ankle problem.

Another Chinese player, Peng Shuai, has also withdrawn because of injury, but Zheng Jie, the former Wimbledon semi-finalist who should meet Radwanska in the second round, is reportedly fit.

How true that is of Serena Williams, who exacerbated back and ankle problems in Melbourne, may influence not only the destination of the Qatar Open title but whether Azarenka can hang on to the world No 1 position.

Williams is very close behind Azarenka in the rankings and has fewer points to defend here. The Wimbledon, Olympic, and US Open champion will therefore only need to reach the semi-finals to be sure of regaining the pinnacle after an interval of two and a half years.

If Williams loses before that Azarenka would remain No 1 if she were to reach the final. If neither Williams nor Azarenka achieve those targets Maria Sharapova could become No 1 again by regaining the title she won here in 2008.

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