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Azarenka, Djokovic ruled in the land of Oz

By Scott Riley,
Tennis Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Victoria Azarenka finally got a monkey off her back, while Novak Djokovic proved once again that he's the best tennis player in the universe at the latest Grand Slam event.

It seems like we've been waiting for years (and that's because we have) for that breakthrough from the 2005 world junior champion Azarenka. But that wait is finally over, as the 22-year-old Belarusian star not only reached her first major final at the 2012 Australian Open, she won it in emphatic fashion and became the new No. 1 women's player in the world in the process.

That's two or three birds with one stone.

Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka became a first-time major champion and the No. 1 player in the world.
Prior to this year's Australian Open, Vika had only ever reached just one major semifinal, which came at Wimbledon last year. She'd played in 24 Grand Slam events through 2011 and had appeared in only one semi.

Pretty disappointing for a projected world No. 1.

And after reaching that first-ever major semi last summer, she followed it up with a disappointing third-round exit at the U.S. Open (where unfortunately, she ran into American stalwart Serena Williams in Week 1).

But Azarenka simply would not be denied this time around, as she beat three of the top women in the world in Melbourne, including defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis and Maria Sharapova in the championship round. The Minsk native also handled current world No. 6 Aggie Radwanska in the quarters.

Vika needed all three sets to sneak past the former No. 1 Clijsters in the semis, but then flat-out throttled the former top-ranked superstar Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the finale, recording wins in nine straight games to seal the deal.

Sharapova was seeking a second Aussie title in five years...but it just wasn't meant to be.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic has won three straight and four of the last five Grand Slam titles.
Danish star Caroline Wozniacki headed to Melbourne with the No. 1 ranking, but gave way to the four-time major champion Clijsters in the quarterfinals, which paved the way for Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Azarenka or Sharapova to assume the lofty perch.

As it turns out, it was Azarenka on top when all the smoke cleared, and the now fourth-ranked Wozniacki is still left seeking that elusive first-ever Grand Slam championship.

FYI: The 5-foot-10 Azarenka is already 12-0 this year, having also titled at the Aussie Open tune-up in Sydney. She beat French Open champ Li Na in the final, Radwanska in the semis, former Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli in the quarters and former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in the second round of that event.

Back to Djokovic.

The amazing Serb became only the fifth man in the Open Era (since 1968) to win three straight majors and only the fourth male player to secure four Grand Slam titles in a five-major stretch with his latest success.

Rod Laver (L) & Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal was joined by Aussie legend Rod Laver for the on-court trophy presentations.
The No. 1 star made some more history by playing in the longest-ever Grand Slam final on Sunday, when he survived a 5-hour, 53-minute epic five-setter against world No. 2 and former top-ranked great Rafael Nadal, who reached his fourth straight major final (1-3) and second career Aussie final (1-1) by overcoming his longtime rival Roger Federer in four sets in a semifinal on Australia Day last week.

Djokovic has now beaten Nadal seven times in a row, all in finals, which included a perfect 6-0 mark last year. The two have met in the last three Grand Slam championship matches, with the Serb taking all three.

The now three-time Aussie Open champion Djokovic improved to a stellar 39-2 in his last 41 Grand Slam matches in becoming a repeat champ in Melbourne. The 24-year-old Serb topped British star Andy Murray in last year's Aussie finale and also staved off Murray in a five-set semifinal battle last week in Melbourne.

Djokovic was also the big winner Down Under in 2008.

The five-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic is firmly entrenched at No. 1 on the men's side, while Azarenka is followed closely in the women's rankings by the left-handed Kvitova, the three-time Grand Slam winner Sharapova and the former U.S. Open runner-up Wozniacki. Djokovic is followed in the men's rankings by the 10-time major champion Nadal, the 16-time Grand Slam titlist Federer, and the three-time major runner-up Murray, who like Wozniacki, is still looking for that first-ever Grand Slam championship.

Martina Hingis (L) & Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova received the runner-up trophy from fellow former world No. 1 Martina Hingis.
The 30-year-old four-time Aussie Open champion Federer, by the way, has now failed to title in his last eight majors, with his last Grand Slam title coming at the 2010 Aussie Open. Djokovic (4) and Nadal (4) have combined to win the last eight.

The probable future No. 1 Kvitova was surprised in straight sets by a determined Sharapova in the semis last week. The Czech slugger seemed like the logical choice to prevail in Melbourne, as she is the reigning Wimbledon and WTA Championships champ and was playing some fine tennis in the Aussie heat for nearly two weeks. But the veteran Sharapova simply outplayed her on Day 11 of the fortnight.

The next major on the docket is the French Open in late-May/early-June, where Nadal and the aforementioned Li will be your defending champs. Nadal will probably be the favorite over the high-flying Djokovic in Paris, considering the Spaniard has won two straight and six of the last seven titles on the red clay at Roland Garros and Djokovic has yet to even reach a final there. And there's no clear-cut favorite on the women's side in Paris at this particular time...that's for sure.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer hasn't captured a major title since the 2010 Aussie Open.
Djokovic is trying to become the first man in 43 years (Rod Laver in 1969) to win all four majors in a calendar year, while the last woman to capture all four Slams in one season was German legend Steffi Graf, who accomplished the feat back in 1988.

Speaking of Li, the reigning French Open champ and 2011 Aussie runner-up succumbed to Clijsters in last week's fourth-round action in Melbourne. It marked a rematch of last year's Aussie finale, which just like this time around, the Belgian star also won in three sets after dropping the opening stanza.

As for Clijsters, she likely played in her final Australian Open, as she has stated that she will retire from the WTA (for a second time) following this summer's Olympic Games in London.

And what happened to the five-time Aussie champ Serena Down Under? The 13-time Grand Slam winner was shocked by Russian Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets (6-2, 6-3) in only the fourth round at Melbourne Park. The former No. 1 great had won her previous 17 matches in Melbourne, having titled there back-to-back in 2009 and 2010 before missing the event last year because of health issues.

Kim Clijsters
Last year's champion Kim Clijsters probably played in her last Australian Open.
Note: Serena was also spanked, 6-2, 6-3, by Sam Stosur in last year's U.S. Open finale.

Is the end near for the oft-injured 30-year-old?

And what happened to last year's U.S. Open champ Stosur in Melbourne? The Aussie crowd favorite entered the '12 Oz Open as the most-recent Grand Slam winner, but the sixth seed flamed out in the opening round against Romanian Sorana Cirstea to fall to a dismal 1-3 in the early part of this season.

I have to mention that an Aussie man hasn't titled at the "Grand Slam of the Pacific" since Mark Edmonson in 1976, while an Aussie woman hasn't run the table there since 1978 (Chris O'Neil).

FYI: Both Djokovic and Azarenka pocketed more than $2.4 million apiece for capturing those Aussie titles.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.

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