Azarenka’s win over Williams a shot in the arm for women’s tennis following Sharapova scandal

Their head-to-head meets is still a lopsided 17-4 in favour of the 21-time grand slam winner Serena Williams, but still, Victoria Azarenka is the only player who has challenged Williams consistently over the past few years.

Serena Williams, left, jokes behind Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, after Azarenka defeated her in a final at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in Indian Wells, Calif. Azarenka won 6-4, 6-4. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Victoria Azarenka's Indian Wells triumph could not have come at a better time.

Women's tennis needed it, especially with Maria Sharapova facing a ban following a positive drugs test.

Azarenka comes closest to rivalling Serena Williams and women’s tennis desperately needs a rivalry.

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Their head-to-head meets is still a lopsided 17-4 in favour of the 21-time grand slam winner Williams, but still, Azarenka is the only player who has challenged Williams consistently over the past few years.

Last year, they met three times, all gruelling three-set affairs, all won by the American.

Williams beat her in Madrid, but Azarenka had three match points in the 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 loss. Williams beat her again in a fiery match at the French Open after which Azarenka reportedly broke a chair in the locker room.

“I will do anything I can, anything, to be able to not just beat Serena but to win Wimbledon,” Azarenka said ahead of their third clash of 2016, in the Wimbledon quarter-final.

She failed at the time, but on Sunday in Indian Wells, Azarenka was in control as she held off an impressive fightback by Williams in the second set to win 6-4, 6-4 and become the first woman to defeat the American in four finals.

This was their ninth duel in finals but the first since Brisbane, 2014. Williams now has a slight 5-4 edge over Azarenka in championship deciders.

Contrast that with her 18-match winning streak, stretching back to 2005, against Sharapova and you can understand why Azarenka’s return to the top table is so important.

Fans had really missed her exuberance over the past two seasons, when a combination of injuries and issues in her private life had seen Azarenka slip down the rankings to No 50.

Williams was the undisputed queen of women’s tennis during that period and her dominance served as motivation for Azarenka.

“You are an amazing competitor who changed the game,” said Azarenka as she addressed Williams at the Indian Wells post-match presentation.

“If it wasn’t for you and how hard you work and seeing you play so well, I wouldn’t be as motivated to come back and work so hard. Thank you on behalf of the sport.”

Azarenka, 26, had another reason to work hard as well: her love of the sport.

Back in 2011, Azarenka, ranked No 5 at the time, was on the verge of quitting tennis when a chat with her grandmother made her realise how privileged she was to be playing at the top level.

“I said I didn’t want to do something that I’m not enjoying,” Azarenka revealed in the summer of 2011. “She [her grandmother] said: ‘Then don’t do it. You have to be happy’.

“She was telling me these stories, about how hard she was working. She was actually working in a kindergarten with kids. She’s been doing a lot of work, having two, three jobs at one time. It was like: ‘Well, you just have to shut up and stop complaining because you have a pretty damn good life. Just work out there’.”

Now Azarenka is back in the WTA top 10 for the first time since August, 2014, feeling, as she said at the Australian Open, “in the best shape body-wise, spirit-wise, everything-wise”.

“I think where I am in my life is very different,” she said. “I’m just so happy to be here. I try to play every point like it’s my last.”

Williams will have to do the same too, especially against a rejuvenated Azarenka. The world No 1 has lost two consecutive finals in 2016 – the only other time she lost two on the trot was in 2004, when she was upstaged by Sharapova at Wimbledon and then by veteran Lindsay Davenport in Los Angeles.

So Williams will need to step it up a notch and she has not really been asked to do that many times recently.

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