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Vika's on a roll

By Scott Riley,
Tennis Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It seems like we've been waiting forever for Victoria Azarenka to really break through on the WTA circuit.

And maybe her time has finally come.

The Minsk native is currently the hottest player on the women's tour, having won back-to-back titles and a personal-best 11 straight matches.

And she's captured 13 of her last 14 outings overall.

Victoria Azarenka nailed down her second Miami title in three years two weeks ago.
Vika perhaps disappointed at the Australian Open back in January when she lost to Chinese slugger Li Na in the fourth round at the year's first major. But Li is certainly no slouch, as she's currently the seventh-ranked player on the planet, reached the Aussie semis a year earlier, and wound up going all the way to the Oz finale 2 1/2 months ago.

So that's probably a setback the former junior world champion Azarenka can deal with.

But since the Aussie, the hot-tempered Belarusian, she of that robust two- handed backhand, has been playing some quality ball. Since retiring from a quarterfinal showdown against reigning world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki at Indian Wells last month, Vika has been on a tear...winning two straight events. And she captured her last eight matches without dropping a set.

That's pretty hot.

FYI: Azarenka has been criticized for the excessive noise that she makes when striking the ball -- a la Maria Sharapova and Monica Seles.

Back to our story.

Two weeks ago in Miami, Azarenka captured the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open, a tournament commonly referred to as the "Fifth Slam," due to its overall size, nearly-two-week length, and prize money.

The 21-year-old Azarenka has won 11 straight and 13 of her last 14 matches.
She enjoyed a stellar run in South Florida, where she tallied six match wins, including big ones over former world No. 1 and reigning Aussie Open and U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals; U.S. Open and Wimbledon runner-up Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals; and the aforementioned former top- ranked three-time Grand Slam titlist Sharapova in the finale -- all without dropping a set.

Impressive.

It marked Azarenka's second Miami championship in three years and produced a $700,000 windfall.

Vika resumed her winning ways in Marbella (Spain) last week, where she ran the table to capture an elusive clay-court title, the first clay-court championship of her career. (Marbella also marked the first European clay- court event of 2011.)

And nobody has lost fewer games en route to a WTA title so far this year, as Azarenka dropped only 19 in Spain...where she used to train (mainly on the plain).

"It was unusual to go from Miami on hardcourts to here on clay and do so well. I'm more than pleased with the experience," Azarenka said. "It was important just to keep my mind fresh and do the same things I did in Miami. I used to practice here [in Spain] when I was 14, so coming here brings me back -- I love it here."

Azarenka beat little-known Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu in the final in Marbella, this after besting oft-injured former world No. 1 Dinara Safina in the quarters. The 20-year-old Begu was playing in only her third career main draw and had never won a WTA-level match prior to last week.

Marbella gave the Belarusian star her seventh career title in her 13th final and sent her off into a well-deserved week off on the grinding circuit.

Azarenka is currently a career-high No. 5 in the WTA rankings and only the second-ever Belarusian woman to reach the top five.
The still-only-21-year-old Azarenka placed herself on the tennis map in 2009, when she won three titles, including the biggie in Miami. But since then, the Minskite had managed only two titles (Stanford and Moscow) before her big run in Miami a couple weeks ago.

She now finds herself at a career-high No. 5 in the WTA rankings and appears to be heading only up, in my estimation. She's only the second ever Belarusian player to reach the top five, joining Natasha Zvereva, who peaked at No. 5 in 1989.

Azarenka, who resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, still needs that breakthrough at the majors, however, as she's yet to get past the quarterfinals at any of the four Slams. The aggressive baseliner landed in the Aussie quarters last year, French Open and Wimbledon quarters in 2009, and has never gotten past the fourth round at the U.S. Open. She's appeared in only one major quarterfinal over the last six Slams, and that's not good enough for a player of her caliber, which is top five, for sure.

She has, however, reached three Grand Slam doubles finals, including one at the Aussie Open back in January. And she owns a pair of Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

So...an accomplished player she is.

FYI: Azarenka's move from Minsk to Scottsdale was aided by NHL goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and his wife, who is a good friend of Azarenka's mother.

Azarenka will return to action at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart next week as she continues to gear up for the second major for the year -- Roland Garros.

Is the No. 1 ranking in Vika's future?

Stay tuned...

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

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