Azarenka's run could face another Williams test
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka had a fairytale year in 2012, opening with a red-hot 26-match win streak and capturing four successive titles, including her first grand slam at the Australian Open.
She finished the year with six tournament victories, clinched the world number one ranking and won the bronze medal in singles and gold in mixed doubles at the London Olympics.
To cap it off, Azarenka was awarded the Order of the Motherland by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Although not as dominant as a resurgent Serena Williams, who claimed the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, she had more wins against top-10 players than any other on the WTA tour.
Yet her dream run could have come to an abrupt halt less than 10 days before she opened the defense of her Melbourne title when a pedicure infected the big toe on her right foot.
Rather than risk aggravating the injury, the 23-year-old withdrew from her Brisbane International semi-final against Williams, just 30 minutes before they were due on court.
Critics suggested the move may have been tactical. Why risk giving too much away against the world number three, who is the biggest threat to her defending the Australian Open title?
Last year, however, the tall right-hander was injury-free before she embarked on her unbeaten run at the start of the year and she said when she withdrew from Brisbane that was her sole focus as she built into the year's first grand slam.
The decision appeared to have paid off, with the world number one and top seed declaring on Friday that she had recovered completely and was ready to go.
"It's much better," she told reporters at the official draw for the Australian Open. "I've been practicing for the last couple of days and it feels good, so I'm really happy that it's all gone and behind me.
"The preparation (has) been pretty good, I had a couple of matches before that (injury) happened but I'm pretty happy where I'm at."
While Azarenka's demolition of Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final last year catapulted her into the grand slam winners' club, the Belarusian had been threatening for several years.
As a 19-year-old four years ago, she threatened to upset Williams in Melbourne, winning a set in their fourth round clash before a once-in-a-century heatwave effected her so badly she had to withdraw in the next set.
Williams went on to win the title.
Azarenka repeated the dose the following year, storming to the first set only for the then world number one to clinch a second-set tie break and win the quarter-final before going on to retain the title.
Those matches set the scene for a series of monumental clashes last year, though Williams proved that when the mood takes over she is unstoppable, winning all five matches.
Most crucially, Williams won at Wimbledon, in the Olympic semi-finals and in the U.S. Open final and the American looms large again in Melbourne.
Azarenka's superiority over the rest of the women's field has boosted her confidence, something she is keen to continue in the first round against Romania's Monica Niculescu.
"It definitely brought a lot more attention for me personally," Azarenka said before she was drawn for a possible semi-final clash with Williams.
"You know, the self-belief, the statement that I did it and it brought me a lot of confidence and knowing that I'd love to repeat this feeling again.
"I've been trying to achieve the same feeling again, and that's what I'm here for."
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)