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Azarenka battles past Kerber in classic

Victoria Azarenka needs one more win to secure the No. 1 ranking for the year. [Julian Finney/Getty Images]

Victoria Azarenka

ISTANBUL -- The WTA Championships have officially kicked off, and we have Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber to thank for it.

With some well-timed serving, gutsy shotmaking, and at times impenetrable defense, Kerber pushed the WTA No. 1 to the limit, earning two match points in the second set before Azarenka raised her level to come back from a set down and to win her first match of the Championships, 6-7(11), 7-6(2), 6-4 in the highest quality WTA match of the year. The first set tiebreak, which saw Kerber climb back from 2-6 down to save five set points to win 13-11, tied the longest tiebreak in WTA Championships history. The win moves Azarenka one win away from clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking and drops Kerber to 0-2 in group play.

Before her post-match press conference, WTA CEO Stacey Allaster was on hand to present Azarenka with the 2012 Diamond Aces award. According to the WTA, "The Diamond ACES Award is given to the player who consistently goes above and beyond in promoting the sport of women's tennis to fans, media, and local communities by performing off-court promotional and charitable activities." It's not necessarily a qualitative award but one based on quantity of media and sponsor activities, with a weighted point system to track which player is doing the most to support the tour. Even Azarenka saw the irony in getting the award.

"A couple of years ago I got fined for missing a press conference," she laughed. "Now I'm getting an award." That turnaround mirrors her on-court maturation as well. Infamous for her temper and propensity for cracking under pressure, Vika's last 18 months have seen a remarkable turnaround. Her ability to harness her emotions while still maintaining her intensity has been the story of her tremendous 2012 season.

"I'm intense as I've always been," she said before the tournament. "Maybe I just manage my bad emotions better, but I'm always intense."

It's seems odd to say that she stayed surprisingly positive during a match that saw her violently slam her racket to the ground more than once, but in the context of this see-saw battle, which saw Kerber repeatedly reel her back in when she looked to be pulling away, it's true. There was no letdown after she dropped the first set after leading 6-2 in the tiebreak. She came out and immediately broke Kerber in the first game of the second set. But there was no quit in Kerber either, the German showing just why she's become one of the toughest outs in tennis this year. Kerber broke back to even the set and found herself with two match points at 5-4 on Azarenka's serve.

Recalling Novak Djokovic's incredible comeback against Andy Murray in the Shanghai final two weeks ago, Azarenka stepped up and played four of the best points of the match, firing two winners on each match point to eventually hold.

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"I just thought I had to go for it," Azarenka said. "She will not miss, so I didn't have to wait for her mistake. I had to go for it. I was so determined to make it happen. I wanted to change the momentum. I wanted to take the kind of destiny into my hands. You know, if I would have missed those shots it will be up to me, not up to my opponent."

While Vika's winners weren't of the grip-and-rip style of Djokovic, it was hard to ignore the parallels. Here was a player who nervously failed to serve out Serena Williams at the U.S. Open final last month showing she had the stones to go for lines when the match depended on it. Azarenka says she doesn't believe in the concept of "confidence", but experience has taught her that age-old cliche: No guts, no glory.

"It comes with being in those situations and being in probably the opposite of those situations when you have match points and you feel somebody goes for it," she explained. "So it's kind of a I feel like a learning experience I went through quite a lot. I had match points I lost; I saved match points I lost. So it definitely helped me to have a better understanding of what you have to do so."

The match continued to hang in the balance, with Kerber responding to every break with a break of her own. She broke Azarenka as she served for the match at 5-3, but after three hours she finally succumbed, getting broken one last time to lose the match. In the end, the crowd of over 10,000 raucous fans gave the women the ovation they deserved. It was, for my money, the best match of the year from first ball to last and one the players said they could appreciate despite the tension.

"I mean, on court and also with the crowd it's unbelievable," Kerber said. "If you win the point everybody is clapping. It's a great feeling out there with the support. Yeah, it's my first time in Istanbul and it's very great tournament here."

Azarenka was blown away by the crowd's enthusiasm as well, joking, "Honestly, you feel like you don't want to leave the court because the atmosphere is so good. I guess that's why I stayed for three hours."

Azarenka has always been one who seems to play better when she feels that chip on her shoulder. In a lot of ways she's a woman without a country, having left Belarus at a young age to train in America and now taking up residence in Monte Carlo. She was a scrawny but scrappy junior player, often overpowered by the stronger girls, relying heavily on her fight to succeed. When you feel like the world is against you, that you have to work harder than everyone else to stay level, dropping into a defensive shell comes naturally. What Azarenka describes as "shyness" can come off as standoff-ish. Her intensity can seem pugilistic. Her exuberance and playful irreverence can come across as immaturity. Azarenka seems to know and understand that but the difference is nowadays she's learned to channel her negative energy towards positive outcomes.

"Trust me, I do read a lot of articles. I like the criticism sometimes. It's refreshing. Kind of helps you to sometimes get angry and perform better."

Negativity can be as good a fuel for the fire as anything, and Vika's willingness to embrace it and use it to prove everyone wrong has given the WTA a resilient No. 1. She'll get the ultimate test on Thursday, where she'll take on Serena Williams in a rematch of their fantastic U.S. Open final. The two have never played indoors, and a win over Serena would clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking.

"I don't know. I think it's always kind of special when I play Serena. We always play on the bigger stages with her, so this is also another big stage."