BRISBANE, Australia, Jan 9, (Agencies): A polished victory at the Brisbane International finally ended a prolonged, disorganized and painful wait between titles for Victoria Azarenka, extending back to August 2013 when she beat Serena Williams in Cincinnati.
She won the Australian Open that year, too, successfully defending her 2012 title, and in a period when she was at the peak of her game.
Coming to Brisbane, the season-opening event she won in its inaugural year in 2009, Azarenka was unseeded after slipping in the rankings to No. 22 at the end of 2015 following two injury-interrupted seasons.
With a renewed determination, sense of order and maturity and fewer distractions, she broke the drought with a 6-3, 6-1 win over fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber on Saturday night for her 18th career title.
“It feels like an accomplishment … I’m not sure I feel relief,” she said. “I wanted to win the title, but I didn’t feel, ‘If this doesn’t happen the world is going to end.’ I think that’s when you get like relief.”
Azarenka said she was in pain all year in 2015, and realized she needed to time out to heal her mind, body and soul.
“It was a constant battle with pain, with my own fear, like ‘is it going to hurt again? I don’t want to go through that,’” she said. “But it took me to a point where I decided, OK, I got to stop and try to figure out and actually change my life around the tennis court.
“Now I found what works for me, what makes me feel comfortable, calm, at peace. So it’s good.”
While many of the highly-ranked women have struggled with injuries at the start of the season, Azarenka has shown glimpses of the kind of form that helped her hold the No. 1 ranking for almost a year. She said she wouldn’t describe Saturday’s victory as a career comeback, more just a turning of the page.
She dropped 17 games in five matches – equaling Serena Williams’ record for fewest games conceded by a winner at the tournament.
Top-ranked Williams was on the injured list this week, restricted to one set at the Hopman Cup in Perth because of inflammation in her left knee, while No. 2 Simona Halep and 2015 champion Maria Sharapova withdrew and No. 3 Garbine Muguruza retired in her first match at Brisbane because of injuries.
Kerber, who won four titles in 2015, is adding some extra aggression to her serve and expects it will take some time to adjust. She has lost all six head-to-heads against Azarenka.
“For the beginning, it’s not bad – I reached the final for the first time in Brisbane and for the first tournament of the year,” Kerber said. “I’m really proud actually about that.”
Swiss maestro Roger Federer reached his third successive Brisbane International final Saturday when he crushed Dominic Thiem in a lopsided semi-final.
Federer took just 60 minutes to down the eighth-seeded Austrian 6-1, 6-4 and said afterwards it was the best he had played all week.
“I’m getting used to conditions, which is usually the case after a couple of matches,” he said.
“You understand the speeds more and you’re more comfortable. Plus I’m definitely also feeling a bit better now.
“I was very pleased with how I played. I think it was the best match of the week so far, or most consistent maybe.”
The first set lasted just 22 minutes as a shell-shocked Thiem struggled to match the 17-time Grand Slam champion on Pat Rafter Arena.
Thiem, 22, settled into the match in the second set and took the fight to his 34-year-old opponent, but a lapse in the seventh game saw him drop his serve and Federer easily held on to book a place in the final.
Federer lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the 2014 title-decider and beat Canadian Milos Raonic to win the title last year.
Sunday’s final will be a rematch of 2015 after the huge-serving Raonic edged local hero Bernard Tomic in two close sets.
“I played some tough matches (against him) in the last, I don’t know, I guess 16 months or so,” Federer said of Raonic.
“I thought he played really well against me here and Indian Wells last year.
“So he’s been looking good, you know. Clearly with a serve like that things are always complicated.”
The big-serving Raonic hit 13 aces on his way to a 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/5) win in one hour, 47 minutes.
Tomic had his chances against Raonic, and had four break points in the fifth game of the first set.
But Raonic served his way out of danger and neither man was troubled on his own serve thereafter.
With such a huge serve Raonic was always favoured in the tie-breaks and he opened a 5-1 lead on both occasions.
Tomic fought back to 5-5 twice but in the end Raonic closed out the match with a lunging backhand volley.
Raonic pushed Federer in three close sets in 2015 and although he said he was playing better now than 12 months ago, he conceded facing the Swiss great was always difficult.
“He can do a lot of things differently,” Raonic said.
“You know what you want to do against him and what you should do (but) he can just make this part difficult for you.
“Each time he can come out playing in different ways and he’s able to do a lot of different things.
“But what I need to do is very clear for myself,” he added.
“So that’s what I’m going to strive for and try to play it on my terms as much as possible, rather than his.”