Thursday February 23rd, 2012

Victoria Azarenka, 17-0 on the year, steamrolled Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final to win her first major and take the No. 1 rank. (EPA)

This is all eerily familiar.

A young, top-five player with an emotionally combustible psyche, a body that bordered on frail and recognizable talent but results that didn't quite match the swagger, finishes one year strong and comes flying out of the gate the next. At the Australian Open, said unnamed player beats a multiple Grand Slam champion in the tightly contested semifinal before steamrolling a top player in the final, all while navigating the public relations minefield with hit-and-miss success.

Victoria Azarenka of 2012, meet 2011 Novak Djokovic. Novak Djokovic, meet Victoria Azarenka. You two should sit down for a chat.

Let's get the on-court similarities out of the way right up front. Yes, Azarenka is undefeated on the season, as Djokovic was for the first five months of 2011. Yes, like Djokovic, she is winning in commanding fashion (though she pulled out of Dubai on Wednesday with a left-ankle injury, she hasn't come close to dropping a set since the Australian Open). Yes, her return game is better than anyone's right now, one of Djokovic's major strengths. Yes, she is stuck answering questions about how she's doing it, what's changed and whether she can keep it up.

And though Azarenka has produced amazing results this season, any talk of Grand Slams, Golden Slams, undefeated streaks and Djokovician dominance is still premature. Let the woman enjoy her moment before we ratchet up the pressure and expectations. We're not even through two months of the season yet. Funny thing is, the comparisons don't stop with results or game styles.

Azarenka has a big personality, one that she doesn't shy away from or try to hide. Djokovic knows a little bit about that. He burst onto the scene making as much noise (if not more) with his personality as with his game. His impressions and penchant for jokes were a breath of fresh air during a time when restraint and professionalism (in the classic sense of the word) reigned. But when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began to take some issue with his behavior and that of his box, the fresh air quickly grew stale.

As the spotlight shone brighter and longer on the Serb, the critics began to highlight his flaws. Players took potshots at what they considered his tendency to overplay injuries and ailments. Fans bristled at his overly enthusiastic family and the shirts they wore. It all culminated at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he was booed off the court after beating Andy Roddick. After that, Djokovic was a man with his tail between his legs. He kept a relatively low profile (it helped that his game was in the pits as well) for almost two years before re-emerging as a more mature player and person in 2011.

When Djokovic took over the top spot, he comported himself with impeccable class and professionalism. The Serb, who is still fighting an uphill battle (unfairly so, in my opinion) to convert fans who for so long have been divided almost exclusively between the Rafa and Roger camps, has said all the right things, handles his media obligations with ease and still makes time to indulge fans with autographs and pictures. By my observation he has yet to take a false step in the public relations arena since he's taken over the top ranking. That's a credit to his maturity, to the example set by Federer and Nadal when they were No. 1 and the pressure Djokovic feels to be an ambassador for Serbia. He knows people are watching and he cares what they think. Entertainers can be like that.

Azarenka's history shares some similarities to Djokovic's. I remember sitting in the stands on an outer court at Indian Wells in 2009 and seeing her get upset at an elderly fan because a ticket badge was reflecting into her eyes. She can be rude to ballkids and umpires, and even as recently as Melbourne last month there were reports that she wasn't treating tournament volunteers with the respect that they've grown accustomed to. (Those reports may have prompted her during her victory speech to curiously mention that she brought the volunteers donuts.)

So how will Azarenka respond to the spotlight and the burden (because yes, it can be a burden) of the top spot? She's lived with it for only a month now so it's obviously hard -- and too soon -- to say. But here's where the paths of the two current No. 1s seem to separate.

While Djokovic may want to entertain, and perhaps be liked by everyone, Azarenka strikes me more as a rebel. She doesn't seem too concerned with what people think, what is proper decorum, what is appropriate behavior. Like a true jock, she's there to play tennis and win her match and the rest is secondary. It's a stark contrast to her good friend Caroline Wozniacki, who, much like Djokovic, made an obvious effort to be liked. She wore frilly dresses, entertained the media and smiled whenever she needed to smile. It was often over the top, but she was a company woman through and through.

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You never know which Azarenka you'll get at any time, whether it will be "Victoria" or "Vika" (I don't know which one is which). Will it be the smiling Azarenka from 2011 Miami, who took her time to talk about her grandmother and newfound perspective, charming a room of skeptical reporters day in and day out? Or will it be the smug and standoffish Azarenka from the 2011 WTA Championships, who often mumbled one word answers and looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there?

She can be loud, brash and in your face, whether with her on-court tongue-wagging celebrations or a defiant defense of her whooping-shriek-grunt in press conferences. There's no deflecting or dodging about Azarenka. She seems more than willing to take on the world and, to be fair, that chip on her shoulder seems to have fueled her and kept her hungry. This is a woman who won her maiden Grand Slam title wearing non-traditional shorts, celebrating with her tongue out like Michael Jordan (like in the photo above from Melbourne), wagging her finger and having to hear her whooping grunt mocked by the crowd. She has a polarizing personality that can manifest itself in negative ways, but so much of that can be chalked up to immaturity, a word that hasn't been used often about Azarenka this year. The positive change in her on-court temperament has garnered more ink and praise than Andy Murray's, and for the most part, she's slipped into that No. 1 spot seamlessly, as though she was destined for it.

While Djokovic seems to have taken to the No. 1 mold that was shaped by Federer and Nadal (with some minor changes to let his personality still shine through), Azarenka comes into the role with no clear expectations as to how a No. 1 has to act or behave. The last five No. 1s -- Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic -- couldn't be more different from each other and none of them set the tone for how a top-ranked player should behave. That gives Azarenka the freedom to carve out her own reign, for however long it may be. What happens when the rebel becomes the queen? I guess we're about to find out.

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