19 January - 1 February 2015
Put yourself on court with ReturnServe. From analysing returns on the court to measuring social sentiment. Data is a game changer. IBM.
Put yourself on court with ReturnServe. From analysing returns on the court to measuring social sentiment. Data is a game changer. IBM.
Victoria Azarenka

Never let it be said that the competitive fire does not burn bright in Victoria Azarenka.

No sooner had Rennae Stubbs put Vika’s fella on the spot, suggesting to RedFoo that if wanted to buy his beloved a house in Australia then he ought to pop the question and stump up a ring first, than Vika chimed in with: “It’d better be bigger than Caro’s!”

The Caro in question was Caroline Wozniacki who announced her engagement to Rory McIlroy just after New Year and has been sporting a ring the size of a football ever since. Clearly, RedFoo has a lot to live up to.

Then again, anyone who had cast an eye over Azarenka’s fourth round 6-3, 6-2 thumping of Sloane Stephens would have gathered that Miss A does not take prisoners. She has not been beaten at Melbourne Park since 2011 and no one, not even one of America’s rising stars, was going to spoil that record. Not while there was breath in her body and not until RedFoo produced that ring.

But if Azarenka is one of the tour’s feistier characters, Stephens has had her moments. Last year, the young American had the temerity to beat Serena Williams in the quarter-finals. Afterwards, Stephens took umbrage when Williams unfollowed her on Twitter and unfriended her on Facebook (it’s a modern verb: I unfriend, thou unfriendest, he/she/it unfriends). That caused a bit of a stir. Then, at the French Open, she suggested that the only other woman in the world who knew what it felt like to be in her exalted position was Miley Cyrus. That made her look like a bit of a twerk. Sorry, twerp.

But you get the general gist – Azarenka, aiming for her third consecutive Australian Open title, knows her place in the world and Stephens, the world No.13 and rising, knows where she wants to be. And neither woman is ever prepared to give an inch.

The scoreline suggests that it was all one-way traffic for the defending champion but it was anything but. In the 91 minutes it took to settle their differences, Azarenka and Stephens contested 129 points; that is 29 points more than it took Simona Halep to beat Jelena Jankovic in three sets. Stephens was fending off break points for all she was worth and was matching her more experienced rival winner for winner.

One winner caught Azarenka full in the… well, let us just say that it was a good job Vika is not a boy. Welted at full pace, Stephens scored a direct hit and looked ever-so-slightly terrified as she pondered Vika’s revenge. She didn’t have long to wait long as just two points later, and with Stephens standing midcourt, the champion took aim and fired. Had the American not ducked in time, the ball would have taken her head off but Stephens just smiled as she turned back to the baseline: she had taken her punishment and survived.

Alas, it was only in the unforced error department that Stephens won the day – she racked up 32 of them to Azarenka’s 20 and that proved costly. When Azarenka had a chance, she took it and for all that she was not at her absolute best, she found her range when she needed to. Stephens could not match that.

“Every day is happy,” Azarenka beamed after it was all over. “I love playing here. It feels like home, like being in my living room and lying on my couch. I can have the same chips and salsa. That’s how it feels.”

So now the champion will play either Agnieszka Radwanska or Garbine Muguruza from Spain. They were due to play the last match of the evening on the RLA, possibly finishing after a defending champion’s bedtime. So would Vika be watching? Oh yes. She has no choice. So devoted is RedFoo to his tennis that he watches any match and every match, be it on TV or the internet. “It’s like streaming,” Azarenka said. “24/7”

It’s no wonder he hasn’t had time to buy a ring.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015
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