Azarenka ignoring favourite tag


Azarenka ignoring favourite tag

Serena Williams is very much regarded as the woman to beat at the Australian Open but it is Victoria Azarenka who is bidding for a third successive title at Melbourne Park.

The last of Williams' five titles at the year's opening grand slam came four years ago, with ankle problems contributing to shock exits in both 2012 and 2013.

But the 32-year-old's quarter-final defeat by Sloane Stephens was one of only four she suffered in the whole of last season.

Williams began this year by beating Azarenka to win another title in Brisbane and heads into the Australian Open on a 22-match winning streak.

It is no wonder she is the clear favourite, and Azarenka has no complaints.

The Belarusian said: "I don't really care about it, honestly. I never cared about it. For us, it's a matter of playing tennis and giving your best on the court.

"Comparing to her last season, of course, everybody will be motivated to beat her."

Fifty per cent of Williams' defeats last year came against Azarenka and the rivalry is the closest the women's game has got to the competition at the top of the men's game.

But Azarenka has managed only three victories against Williams from 17 matches, while third seed Maria Sharapova has lost 14 straight times against the world number one dating back to 2004.

Despite her final defeat, Azarenka was happy with the way things went in Brisbane.

She said: "I think it was a great preparation, the whole week in Brisbane, to play actually so many different types of players.

"That's what you want to get at the beginning of the season and in preparation for an event like this. It was a great week for me."

Azarenka's final opponent last year was Li Na, who is the fourth seed this time around after the most consistent season of her career in 2013.

Li's main ambition is simply to stay on her feet after twice taking medical time-outs during the final 12 months ago, once for a twisted ankle and then when she fell and hit her head.

The Chinese star also made the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the semi-finals at the US Open, and she had no doubt what her target is for 2014

"I really wish I can win another grand slam," said the 2011 French Open champion. "This is the goal for me. I will keep going for that."

Home hopes will once again fall on the shoulders of 2011 US Open winner Sam Stosur, who is seeded only 17th this year.

The 29-year-old has always struggled under the glare of home pressure and has never been past the fourth round in Melbourne.

Asked if there was still a great weight of expectation on her shoulders, Stosur said: "I guess there is because I'm the top female player from this country. We've got a huge grand slam tournament.

"But I don't think that's really bothered me this time around so far. At the end of the day it's always been a really positive thing. Anyone that has ever come up to me just wants me to do well.

"I want to try to play well and play my best tennis here in Australia and give them all something to cheer about."

Stosur is now coached by former British Davis Cup player Miles Maclagan, who has previously worked with Andy Murray and Laura Robson.

She said: "I'm really pleased with the way it's gone so far with Miles. I feel like we're on the same wavelength. I'm looking forward to hopefully spending a lot of time with him in the future."

Stosur opens her campaign on Monday on Rod Laver Arena against Czech Klara Zakopalova.

Bizarrely, it is the third time they have met in the opening round here, with Stosur winning both times, but Zakopalova was an easy winner when they met in Hobart on Friday.

The stand-out match sees Williams take on 17-year-old Australian wild card Ashleigh Barty in the night session on Laver while Li meets 16-year-old Ana Konjuh.

The Croatian, who won the junior title here last year, is considered one of the game's brightest talents and breezed through qualifying.

Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova are also in action.

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