Azarenka revels in role of Melbourne dark horse

Tue Jan 20, 2015 3:04am EST
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By Greg Stutchbury

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Injury is a cruel mistress for any professional sportsperson, a fact no more evident than on Tuesday when Victoria Azarenka faced Sloane Stephens in the first round of the Australian Open.

Azarenka, after all, was a two-time champion on the Melbourne Park courts, while Stephens was the women she beat in the semi-finals two years ago, after the American had already beaten Serena Williams in the previous round.

Poor form had not forced the pair, undoubtedly two of the stronger players in the women's draw, together in a surreal first round clash on Hisense Arena. It was injury.

The 25-year-old Belarusian entered the season opening grand slam ranked 44th, a major step down for a woman who had held the number one spot in the world for almost a year.

A foot injury that worsened after last year's Australian Open cost her the first half of the season, while a knee injury accounted for much of the second, with both afflictions restricting her to just nine tournaments in 2014.

Ranking points disappeared and she tumbled down to a season-ending 32nd, her lowest position since 2006, while she came into the tournament unranked at a grand slam for the first time since the 2007 U.S. Open.

Azarenka, who lost her only warmup match in Brisbane earlier this month, however, demonstrated in her 6-3 6-2 victory how dangerous a floater she will be in the draw.

"Since I missed so much, I think it's kind of what it is," Azarenka told reporters of her possible tournament path after she set up a second round clash with former world number one Caroline Wozniacki.   Continued...

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates winning a point over Sloane Stephens of the U.S. during their women's singles first round match at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter